Ecuador’s Tren Crucero: Magic Carpet Ride in a Beautiful Land

14 Jul
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IRT’s Owen Hardy snaps a photo from the Tren Crucero’s rear observation car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

In my next life, I want to return as an Ecuadoran railway worker. Or maybe a wedding planner.

Eleanor and I met both types during our recent trip on Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero,”

From the brakeman, to the general manager, to the young man who tailed our train on a motorcycle, making sure the crossings were clear, the railway personnel couldn’t have been more engaged and professional.

“The railway is the symbol of the country,” said General Manager Ana Garcia Pando. “When the railway came, the country became one.” Their pride shows throughout.

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Tren Crucero staff give the thumbs up. From left, David Balarezo, Ana Valeria Barragan and Diego Vera.  TC staff is professional, cheerful and enthusiastic.  IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Indeed, the train workers seemed delighted with and proud of their mission — to show off, via the railway and local vendors, their beautiful country and people, and their amazing rail system, with all its varied landscapes — from the mountains and volcanoes to the sea.

And the wedding planners? More about them later.

Ecuador’s Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) was one of two South American beauties that recently won the IRT Society’s “World’s Top 25 Train” status (the other was Peru’s Belmond Andean Explorer).

 

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“Someday, maybe I can work on the Tren Crucero,” this young Ecuadoran boy might be thinking. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and I sampled both several months ago on a whirlwind, 21-day inspection tour.

Unlike most of our “World’s Top 25 Trains,” whose guests sleep aboard in comfy quarters, the Tren Crucero is a day train.

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Tren Ecuador Marketing Manager Alex Ortiz smiles from the Tren Crucero rear outdoor observation platform. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Travelers sleep at comfortable hotels or haciendas at night. (And if you opt for the new Tren Crucero Gold class, the hotels are palatial.)

Sleeping off the train did cause one downside — early-morning wake-up calls. To see and do all we did, and given the typical afternoon rain showers, I understood the need. Still, I grumbled at sunrise reveilles.

But once on board, I was happy I got up early to see the magnificent scenery — under bright-blue skies.

Conclusion: The bright-red Tren Crucero is worth the occasional bleary eye.

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Gorgeous roses grace each passenger’s window on the Tren Crucero. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Meanwhile, the Tren Crucero’s rear-car outdoor viewing platform is gigantic. It boasts two other observation cars with double rows of windows, plus more in the roof for viewing Ecuador’s dizzying heights. It has a well-stocked dining car. And two cars boast comfortable seating at tables for two.

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A woman in traditional dress at a local market greets a friend. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Plus, to compensate for the lack of personal sleeping quarters, guests have private lockers where they can stash their valuables. That especially helps promote peace of mind when they’re sightseeing off-train.

 

In short, the entire train is gorgeous.

And off the train, the tours are varied and fabulous.

Our favorites?

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A Tren Crucero employee shows off the one of the railway’s 23 track-side coffee shops at Chimbacalle Station., where you can buy locally made snacks and crafts. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Gardeners that we are, Eleanor and I loved our visit to Hacienda La Compania de Jesus, in the same family for six generations, and its rose plantation,  Rosadex, in the lush volcanic valley of Cayambe, north of Quito.

The stunning crops were gigantic, long-stemmed roses that are shipped all over the world. (And being near the equator, they stretch for the sun, growing ramrod-straight.) They produce 21 million roses a year.

Our lunch at the 300-year-old hacienda–with giant bouquets of roses everywhere–was delicious, and the tour led by Juan Martin Perujo, one of the owners, fascinating.

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Tren Crucero passengers encircle a quishuar tree, which the Incas regarded as sacred. IRT Photo

We took a short hike through El Boliche national park, altitude 11,637 feet, and joined a “group tree hug.” (At 11,637 feet, however, some of us were huffing like steam engines.)

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IRT president Eleanor Hardy at Guamote traditional market. The Tren Crucero passengers had just finished a fascinating walk through the market.  IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We tromped through a traditional market, obviously away from well-trodden tourist venues, and rubbed shoulders with locals dressed in their colorful native costume.

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Owen and Eleanor Hardy with the “Last Ice Merchant” and his daughter at the Urbina Station, 11,841 feet altitude.  He is believed to be the last practitioner of the fine art of hacking huge chunks of glacial ice and carting them to local markets. IRT Photo

Especially memorable — we met the last Ice Merchant, Baltazar Ushca, 72 years old and still working. We were thrilled to see a great movie about him – and then to get to meet him and his daughter.

He is the last of his generation to trudge up Mount Chimborazo — at 20,548 feet, Ecuador’s tallest mountain — to hack out huge blocks of ice, by hand, to sell in the valley’s local market.

And — train-lovers that we are — we loved our rides behind two restored Baldwin steam engines.

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Tren Ecuador’s plucky steam engine number 11, built by Baldwin. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Still, Our favorite activity was simply gazing at Ecuador’s gorgeous scenery from Tren Crucero‘s outdoor rear platform .

We saw volcanoes, glaciers, towering mountains, rushing rivers, multi-colored quinoa fields, bustling cities and towns, and, everywhere, waving locals, smiling with obvious pride in “their” railway.

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One of our wedding planner friends, Sophie Paz Barlovento, shows off her lunch, served in artfully decorated baskets.  The lunches and the baskets were all created in the nearby community. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

They have every right to be proud.

In 2008, following years of decline, the Ecuadorian railway system was declared a “national cultural patrimony” by President Rafael Correa.

Rather than condemn his country’s trains to the scrap heap, Correa vowed to restore the railway as a public corporation. Ecuador Railways (Tren Ecuador) is the result.

And while the 2013-built Tren Crucero might get most of the publicity, it’s just the most obvious in a continuing, nationwide effort: to harness the railway for the cultural, economic, social and touristic benefit of the entire country.

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Gorgeous roses adorn a table at the Hacienda La Compania de Jesus and rose plantation Rosadex, where we had lunch and were treated to rose farm tour by one of the owners. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Indeed, Ecuador has spent $450 million on improvements. It’s restored more than 300 miles of track and 25 stations. It boasts 11 diesel-electric locomotives and has a variety of rolling stock for use with its out-and-back day trains (which it calls “Expedition Trains”).

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Typical Ecuadoran skyline, as seen from the rear of the Tren Crucero. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

They include six running in the Northern, Central and Southern Andes and three on the Pacific coast (two of which — the Chocolate and Sweets trains — sound particularly tasty, given Ecuador’s reputation for producing world-class chocolate).

Finally, in addition to the Tren Crucero, the railroad’s pride and joy are its seven, lovingly restored steam engines, which it runs at every opportunity.

“In the small towns, when they hear the steam engine, they flock around. They never get tired of it,” says general manager Pando.

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Tren Crucero station poster. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Tren Ecuador has been so vigorous in pursuit of its mission, in fact, that it was a joint recipient in winning last year’s “World Responsible Tourism Award” in London.

Meanwhile, back on the Tren Crucero, we had problems. Bad weather forced a change in plans.

Because of heavy rains and accompanying track washouts, we sometimes had to ride buses between railway stations. But as a result, that gave us the opportunity to experience a variety of Tren Ecuador rolling stock. It also allowed us to see how they manage issues — and we have to say: they did it brilliantly and with aplomb.

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Tren Ecuador train trundles along the switchback-laden route of the famous “Devil’s Nose” railway. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Our experience will prove helpful when we advise clients bound for Ecuador – because we highly recommend including the highlands — and Tren Ecuador and its many possibilities — on its own, or as an add-on to the Galapagos Islands.

Even if you don’t have time for the full Tren Crucero experience, we’ll recommend you stop over in Quito and/or Guayaquil and ride a day train or two.

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At Ambato Station, we loved a spirited dance by a local family, decked out in fantastical masks and costumes — and serving a potent local liquor.  The family has made these costumes and performed for generations. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

(Indeed, there’s much more to see and do in Ecuador. Some other time, I’ll tell you about an incredible “eco-resort” tucked into a cloud forest— Mashpi Lodge. Or about Quito’s fabulous Hotel Casa Gangotena, and the tour it arranged for us at a nearby cathedral bell tower, given by one of the jolliest Franciscan monks I’ve ever met.)

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Tren Crucero machinist Javier Dominguez pauses for a quick publicity shot. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Oh, and one more thing: as I said earlier: if you can swing it, try to book your Tren Crucero ride with a bunch of Ecuadoran wedding planners (in our case, we were just lucky.).

These people rock.

One afternoon, I wandered back to the Tren Crucero’s rear platform.

I was quickly joined by a dozen or so young Ecuadoran men and women. They were checking out the train as a wedding venue (great idea, incidentally).

“Oh, no,” I thought. “These folks are half my age. Time to join the oldsters inside.”

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These wedding planners – and several singers – provided nonstop fun on our Tren Crucero trip. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

But then they began singing, dancing — and insisting that I join them.

What could I do? I did join them — and had a blast. For a moment, I was 25 again.

My conclusion?

That’s Ecuador  — and Tren Crucero— in a nutshell. They truly live up to the country’s motto: “ama la vida” (love life), on the train and off.

Videos: To view the Tren Crucero behind a steam locomotive, click here. To see it cross a high bridge from the rear platform, click here. IRT videos by Eleanor Hardy.

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