Entering 'The Devil's Nose' Through Century-Old Tracks

Steep drops excite adventurous passengers on a perilous Ecuadorean train ride.

Dec. 3, 2008— -- Just after sunrise on a cold morning in the southern spring, hundreds of tourists from around the world clamber eagerly aboard for a ride on what might be the most famous train in South America -- and the scariest.

The fear factor comes from the unnerving combination of steep cliffs, rickety tracks and the seating: Passengers squat on the roofs of ancient boxcars as they rumble along the old tracks. This is not Amtrak. This is not a ride for the faint of heart.

The train is named after its destination: Nariz Del Diablo, which literally means "The Devil's Nose."

The trip begins in the city of Riobamba, about 9,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.

The trains leave three times a week. And they are always jammed. The bone-rattling journey costs $11 for foreigners. For an extra dollar, you get a pillow -- money well spent.

"No, it's not very comfortable," tourist Iris Koeiman of Holland says. "But you can see a lot -- it's fun."

Her friend Jaqueline Van Ndeuwkerk insists she's not nervous being on top of the train (there are safety rails welded onto the sides to stop passengers from sliding off). But she says the key to survival seems to be the cushion. "It's worth more than a dollar," she says with a smile.

This is clearly a journey that appeals to the adventurous. Passengers get a front-row seat to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet: Ecuador's Central Valley, known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Century-Old Tracks and Perilous Drops

As children wave at the passing train and tourists wave back, the train snakes its way from the cool highlands through cloud forests to its destination in the steamy coastal jungle. It stops a few times along the way for bathroom breaks and a little shopping.

When the narrow-gauge Trans-Andean Railway opened exactly 100 years ago, it was considered an engineering marvel, connecting Ecuador's Pacific Coast with its capital, Quito, high in the mountains. Only a fraction of the route still operates, at very low speeds. One look at the rotting wooden railway ties, and you can see why.

"The train tracks are 100 years old," says Sergio Luna, an engineer who has been driving the train for 14 years. "They need to be reconstructed. All these tracks have to be replaced. We have a lot of tourists on the train, and for Ecuador, tourism is the future of our country."

Luna says that because the train travels at a mere 15 miles an hour, the trip is not dangerous.

But it soon becomes clear that the train moves so slowly for good reason: About four hours into the trip, passengers are rattled by a loud jolt. The train grinds to a hold. Word quickly travels along the cars that there's a derailment.

Climbing down the side of the boxcar and peering underneath, passengers can see the problem: the rotting railway ties have cracked like matchsticks.

In what is clearly a well-orchestrated ritual, the rail crew scrambles to get the train back on the track. Far from being perturbed, the adventurous tourists are enthralled.

Derailments 'Part of the Adventure'

"We didn't even notice," U.S. college student Emily Grey says, "and someone was like, 'why did we just stop?' We're like, 'oh, the train's off the track.'"

Grey and her friends attend Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and are studying in Ecuador for the semester

"I think I kind of expected this," says student Victoria Yunez, who had heard about the legendary ride from friends. "You come to South America and weird things happen -- bus tires pop, trains derail, you know, you've got to go with the flow. I get a sense it's kind of part of the adventure."

With a little wheezing and little lurching, the train is ready to roll again. But not for long. Moments later, there's another derailment. Yet again the train crew scramble to get it back on track.

There are a total of three derailments on the journey. By the time the last one happens, the frustration on the faces of the train crew is obvious.

"We derailed because the wood is very deteriorated," the conductor says. "It's old and it needs changing."

40 Miles and a 4,500-Foot Drop

This is clearly not a trip for travelers who are easily upset by delays and discomfort. "I'd say in any other part of the world [the train would] be condemned," Bob Graham of Vancouver, Canada, says as he squats on the roof next to his wife, Lisa. "I've ridden on buses in Egypt that are just about as bad as this train. If you're scared about what's going to happen to you, you'd never leave your house."

After six hours, the train has traveled a mere 40 miles. But surrounded by the spectacular mountain scenery, the passengers are in no hurry.

Finally, the train approaches the famed Devil's Nose.

It is an area of the Andes so steep that builders in the 1890s had to design a switch-back system so the train could zigzag its way backward and forward down the sheer mountain face -- a steep 4,500 feet down.

Fortunately, the train doesn't derail on this part of the trip. At the bottom of the valley, the tracks end, and so does the journey. A little sunburned and a little stiff, the adventurous tourists have an unforgettable story to share with the folks back home.