Not everyone looks impressed. An old lady with a broom in her hand looks on incredulously as our carriage clatters past just yards from her garden — clearly she’s still adjusting to the new service. To be fair most locals are, which is why trains are escorted through the city by motorcyclists, who ride ahead to warn people of the approaching locomotive. “Residents aren’t used to it yet and we don’t have level crossings,” explains my guide, Cecelia, as we leave Quito behind and climb into the misty countryside.
Inaugurated last December this line is part of a £183m project to restore the country’s historic railways, which suffered a quiet demise at the hands of the weather after being rendered obsolete by the Pan Americana Highway. Broom-wielding pensioners aside, the railway revival has been largely well received. “The trains are opening up parts of the country that had been cut off to tourists before,” says Cecelia. “This is good news for local communities.”
It’s also good news for tourists because rail travel is one of the most rewarding and inexpensive ways of seeing Ecuador, which is why so many domestic tourists are using the train to discover more about their country.
Cajoled by our cheeky carriage attendant, the passengers in our carriage — a motley crew of senior citizens, young couples and school children — instigate a mysterious game that involves passing a bottle. The rules evade me but I gather the unlucky person left holding said bottle is required to sing and dance in front of everyone, a forfeit that produces some cringe-worthy performances. They ask if I’d like to get involved but I busy myself with my camera and politely decline.
In my defence, the scenery is unremittingly photogenic; after all this is the Avenue of Volcanoes, a dramatic valley which sits in the shadows of some of Ecuador’s most active peaks. For the farmers who call this region home, living here is a double-edged sword; while the volcanoes have endowed them with a fertile soil for their crops, the same volcanoes represent a constant threat to their existence. “A big eruption is due here,” says my guide, ominously, as we look up at Ecuador’s highest active volcano, the snow-capped Cotopaxi.
In spite of this looming danger, the locals remain sanguine, interrupting their labours in the fields to wave and flash smiles at us. These indigenous agriculturalists are hardworking and immaculately turned out; men wear smart blazers over their hand-woven alpaca jumpers, while women provide the colour with vibrant dresses and felt hats adorned with peacock feathers.
Behind their smiles, weathered faces wear the hardships of a tough, rural existence — lives framed so exquisitely by the window of our train.