The excitement of pulling out of a foreign train station, with the station bell ringing and the steam engine puffing/blowing its black smoke song, is like no other. A train fan from a young age, I am thrilled to be on the “Train to the Clouds”, a four-day/four-night luxury adventure in Ecuador from the coastal city of Guayaquil to the Andean capital of Quito, from sea level to 9300 feet. The train is run by the Ferrocarriles del Ecuador, a government enterprise, which has received awards not only from tourist organizations but recently for its impact on poverty reduction in its country.
The red and black 1908 engine waits on its narrow-gauge tracks at the newly constructed Tren Ecuador station in Guayaquil with its four cars and a group of 20 tourists, mainly from Ecuador, with two Australians, a German, a Thai and 3 US passengers. What makes this specific journey unique is that we have on board a Canadian TV crew who will be shooting a Discovery Channel episode of “Mighty Trains” for next years season — so it appears I and the rest of the train will be living reality TV during our journey.
Pulling out on tracks at street level of the town of Duran, we pass quickly into rice fields dotted with white egrets, once migratory but now permanent flocks in this part of Ecuador, as well as a a blue sky. We see wooden houses on stilts, which we are told have been built this way for 800 years, and we pass by young boys on horseback herding the cattle. Everyone waves to us along the way.
We are riding in a cocoon of luxury. All of the 4 cars the make up this special train are warm and inviting. The narrow gauge of the train allows for two comfortable chairs across a table on either side, one in a modern and one in colonial decorative style, a bar car with plush couches facing the window and two cars with wicker and leather furniture, one inside and air conditioned and one outside with windows open, and finally a filagree decorated open air observation car. I set myself on a wicker couch in the car with open windows, my preferred place, warmer than with air conditioning and allowing me to feel the outside air and hearing the train whistle as well as the birds and animals as we pass by and, above all, the soothing rhythmic clack of the rails.
And everywhere there is food: fruit piled in pyramids in every car, many of which I have never encountered before despite my world-wide excursions, tea infusions, fruit drinks, fried bananas, dried cassavas, potato chips, snacks of strawberry and fruit mousse, small cakes and this first mid-morning, a snack of corn paste wrapped in banana leaves, with chicken and fish for others and vegetables just for me. Eating will not be a problem for the next 4 days. And I was unsure enough to ask when checking in at the Tren Cruceros welcome table in Guayaquil whether there were toilets on board the train — where there are 4 of the nicest small lavatories I have seen on a traveling vehicle.
Our first stop was in the small town of Yaguachi to switch engines from the steam engine to a diesel as we begin the climb onto higher ground. The rich agriculture of this country appears in the fields of pineapple, bananas, papayas, mangos (not presently in season) and golden globes of passion fruit, hanging from low vines. We arrive at at train stop on the roadside for Hacienda Danesa, a large plantation of cacao, one of the main exports of Ecuador, and we are treated to not only a demonstration about this important plant but more important a taste of the fresh ground form, 100% cacao, and then small squares of lesser intensity produced for sale. On the grounds of the hacienda, under an open air portico, we are served fresh lemonade and treated in elegant style to a glorious 3-course lunch. Afterwards, a local indigenous group shows us their customs through dance with humor and grace. Free time to walk around the grounds of this estate founded by a Danish immigrant and whose grandson is now involved in the business.
Back on our magic carriage, we move through more lush fields to arrive at Bucay and our hacienda for the night. It is already dark — in equatorial areas there is almost exactly 12 hours of sunlight throughout the year — so now from 6 am to 6 pm we have light. After another filling and excellent meal, the bed feels very good — and we must wake up at 6 am for breakfast and our departure.
This first day on Tren Crucero has been beyond my expectations, in terms of the service, the amenities provided and the quality of the experience from morning until evening. There are several guides who provide education about Ecuador and the land we are passing through in both Spanish and English so this becomes not only a sensory experience but a learning one as well.
The TV crew has been working non-stop all day, from one end of the train to the other, creating some interesting pauses as we wait to descend stairs or over to our next activity. One member of the crew is using a drone to get overhead shots and we watch this 21st century piece of equipment swoop overhead and around the air above us while at the same time our 120 year old steam engine manages quite well to do what needs to be done.
I love trains, as you must all know by now, and feel incredibly content and fortunate to be able to enjoy these moments of internal and external travel. I quietly watch the beautiful scenery go by and experience the differences in a culture very different from and in some way similar to my own and try to understand what that means.