High in the Andes Mountains, at the point where the Guasuntos and Chanchán Rivers meet, a gigantic rock known as El Nido del Condor (Nest of the Condor) soars more than 6,200 feet. I sat atop this massif, safely ensconced in a leather seat on board what has been dubbed “the most difficult railroad in the world,” acutely aware that I owed my comfort to those who had perished in its construction. As the vintage diesel locomotive chugged slowly down the steep slope, belching black smoke and causing my wooden carraige to rock to and fro in time with the clickety-clack wheels, my thoughts turned to the reasons this famous ride is named “La Nariz del Diablo,” the Nose of the Devil.
Construction of the line between the southern coast and Quito began in 1871 in the lowlands near Guayaquil but three years later, only 7.6 miles had been completed. Plagued with theft of construction materials, lack of funding, political bickering, debilitating tropical diseases, floods and landslides, efforts were finally abandoned in 1888 with only 65 miles completed. Ten years later, Ecuador turned to the United States for help. Brothers John and Archer Harman were hired and work resumed. Mile after backbreaking mile was slowly completed until the line reached El Nido del Condor. In two miles, the train would need to ascend more than 5,700 feet but unlike the majestic birds for which the monolithic rock is named, trains could not sprout wings and fly down its face.
The solution was a unique zig-zag track design that allows trains to climb the steep grade as far as possible to a terminus, reverse direction and back up a subsequent section of track to a second terminus, then move forward again on a final section of ascending tracks. Hundreds of Jamaican slaves who were brought in to dynamite the hard rock lost their lives in the process; they, along with scores who succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, and poisonous snakes remain entombed in the rubble along the route, earning it the nickname La Nariz del Diablo by the time it finally opened between the coast and Alausi in 1901. Continue reading