QUITO, Ecuador — As the four-car train rolls through the clouds and begins its descent of the Andes, Bette Bleeker has a practical concern.
"I hope someone checked the brakes," the Chicago resident asks.
It's a fair question, given the 1,755-foot descent we're about to make on the Devil's Nose, one of the steepest sections of railroad in the world. The historic route requires several switchbacks, including one length where the train reverses direction and heads backward as it gingerly stair-steps down the highlands.
But the train engineers aren't about to tempt fate. They had stopped for a safety inspection while passengers aboard Ecuador's new Tren Crucero, or Cruise Train, relax after a lunch of quinoa salad, pumpkin soup and braised llama.
Our zig-zaggy adventure down the mountain safely unfolds just as envisioned a century ago. Instead of cutting-edge transportation, the route offers a slow-speed panorama of Ecuador from Quito, the capital, at nearly 10,000 feet, to the sea-level port city of Guayaquil (or in reverse). I had come to soak up the Andean scenery, stopping frequently to explore the villages, colonial churches, plantations and volcanoes along the way.
Although I'm not a "foamer" — a railroad fanatic — I am impressed by the Devil's Nose experience because it's a chance to experience a transportation marvel of another age.
On some runs, the train's brakemen must remove animals that have been tied to the track. With the train service suspended for years, farmers were in the habit of securing livestock to the steel rails.
There are other complications too. The four-day, three-night train trip requires intricate, behind-the-scenes coordination. Tour buses carrying our luggage follow the train; security officers on motorcycles race along the track in order to guard unmarked road crossings.
The train, which restarted service in June, is still a national novelty. Along the 283-mile trip, we're greeted by waving kids and adults excited that life has returned to the historic line. When the bright-red cars crawl through the middle of towns, automobiles pull over to honk in celebration.
Our journey passes through the Avenue of Volcanoes, a line of more than a dozen towering peaks named by 19th century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. It also chugs through industrial and historic towns, climbing to the nation's highest train station, Urbania, at 11,840 feet. That's where we meet Baltazar Ushca, who climbs to a glacier three days a week to cut 40-pound blocks of ice. The 69-year-old sells his harvest to a local market, where it's used to make a fresh-juice slush.
The train begins to descend through hidden emerald valleys, past patchwork fields of potatoes, broccoli and quinoa. Then it clings to cliffs dotted with bromeliads. The ride ends (or begins) on the coast, where we chug through sugar cane and banana plantations.
The 37 mostly European and North American passengers read, chat and wander among the cars, which will hold 54 passengers. With complimentary cappuccino, soft drinks and juices, most everyone seems to have a drink, and in the afternoon we're offered passion-fruit custard, cheese tamales or other snacks at our seats. The only extra charges are for alcohol and souvenirs, including miniature eye-poppingly graphic statues that look as though they could be from the South American Kama Sutra.
Our progress is deliberately slow, stopping for tours that leave from newly restored train stations. Any remnant of packaged tourism ends in Guamote, where we, the only non-indigenous visitors, step off the train directly into a crowded village market.
Wandering the streets, I find a group of native women dressed in bright pink, turquoise and royal blue ponchos and brightly embroidered skirts. I watch them haggle over the prices of disturbingly cuddly guinea pigs, pulling the furry creatures out of plastic sacks for inspection. The Andean delicacy known as cuy will be dinner that night.
We dine, instead, on a catered lunch of llama in the train station. It tastes like tough lamb, but chicken is available too.
One day we visit a cacao plantation, where we're shown football-size pods that will be processed into chocolate. Another stop is at a native village where tribesmen don traditional costumes for a dance show and serve cups of fermented sugar cane juice.
The most colorful visit comes at Nevado Roses, 185-acre flower farm where a guide leads us through a fantasyland of millions of roses growing in mammoth greenhouses. Our tour is a week before Valentine's Day, and the shipping area bustles with workers packaging the organically grown flowers, which in a few days will be presented to sweethearts on the other side of the planet. The Ecuadorean floral industry, which provides most of the roses to the U.S. and Russia, has blossomed in the last few decades with a boom in international air trade.
Ironically, it's that growth that nearly killed the railroad. The line fell into disrepair after the 1960s when the newly constructed Pan-American Highway made truck traffic practical. Over time, the train provided transportation on the South American "hippie trail," as passengers crowded into converted box cars or sat on the roofs.
"It was a great way to see the country. We went through the sun, the rain, the cold. The four seasons, practically," says Katharina Baitschiger Ott, a Swiss native living in Ecuador.
After a series of floods wiped out tracks in 1998, the service seemed likely to go the way of the Incas.