Reflections 2015
Series 14
August 11
Central Andes I: Ecuador I: French Geodesic Mission–Rail History-Elevations


As with other recent trips (Rideau Canal/Nova Scotia, Texas/Mississippi River), we're considering this trip as two separate entities. The Galápagos were one unit (but whose discussion included Guayaquil as its gateway) and mainland Ecuador the other. But when planning this trip, I felt mainland Ecuador is only part of a larger story, a geographic one about the Andes, and specifically about the Central Andes, with their cultural connection to the Incas.


Andes   The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, running for about 7,000 km (4,300 mi). It has a width of 200-700 km (120-430 mi). The average height of its mountains is about 4,000 m (13,000 ft), with many well above that. That makes it the second highest mountain range outside Asia.

 After visiting Tibet in the Himalayas, in absolutely no way was it my plan to follow that trip by moving shortly thereafter to the next-highest mountain range. It was the Galápagos that were on my bucket list, and now the Andes are following along with that choice. So it goes. But the two trips now invite comparisons as to formation and height of the mountains, to say nothing about high-altitude trains, highest rail stations, and highest overnights in hotels, so here we go again!

Let's start with where it all begins, the tectonic plates. In 2014/8 we talked how the Indian Plate moved up from southern Africa and rammed into—actually, under—Eurasia, raising up the Tibetan Plateau. India is still pushing north at 6.7 cm (2.6 in) a year. But actually, we last looked at this map in the Galápagos, when we noted that the islands, while at the Galápagos Triple Junction, are actually located on the Nazca Plate, named after the Nazca region of southern Peru, and which is moving ESE and is pushing under the South American Plate at the rate of about 6.4 cm (2.5 in) per year, or just about the same rate (part of the Antarctic Plate is doing the same—see map). As the Indian Plate forms the Himalayas, the Nazca Plate forms the Andes.

 Here are two not-totally-scientific comments from a lay traveler. Based on India's pudgy shape, the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas are also pudgy, or roundish at the very least. But the Nazca Plate (Map by Alataristarion) is long, with eastward pressure all along its length. Thus, the Andes have a long, slender shape along the west coast and do not penetrate too very far into the continent.

As the Nazca Plate slides under South America, it would seem that, in millions of years, the Galápagos will slide right underneath the Andes and disappear, right? I don't know if it'll ever come to that, but it makes an interesting mental image of an evolving earth.

Since we are being forced by circumstance to continue to compare the highest with the second-highest mountain ranges, rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll again quote myself, this time from 2014/8, on the comparison between the Himalayas and the Andes:

 All 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 m (26,247 ft) are in the Himalayas. As a matter of fact, all the mountains in the world over 7,000 m (22,966 ft) are located in the center of Asia near the Tibetan Plateau, most of them in the Himalayas, with the Himalayas having well over 100 of these. This of course includes the tallest on earth, Mount Everest, at 8,848 m (29,029 ft). Only when you exclude Asia entirely, which means this central area of Asia around the Tibetan Plateau, do you find that the highest mountain in the world—outside Asia—is Aconcagua in the Andes at 6,962 m (22,841 ft). It lies in Argentina near the border with Chile, and I saw it in the distance from the plane when I landed in Santiago de Chile on the Antarctica trip (2006/14).

If I should get to Peru and Bolivia next year, I'll be able to report on several amazing parallels between the two mountain ranges. The Tibetan Plateau corresponds to the Altiplano, also known as the Bolivian Plateau. Qinghai Lake (2014/9) corresponds to Lake Titicaca and both are endorheic (water flowing inward) with minimal to no outward flow of water. But that's later, for now, let's discuss mountains, and start with the highest mountains in each range, Everest and Aconcagua. We mentioned Everest in the Tibet writeup, and showed pictures. While it's possible to travel across Tibet to see Everest, that was not part of the trip. It is also likely that someone flying in or out of Lhasa might get to see Everest from above. While I took the train in and out of Lhasa, the others in the group did leave by plane. But that departure day was overcast, so I'd sincerely doubt they saw Everest from above, either. In any case, I've never seen Everest, even from above.


On the other hand, I did see Aconcagua from above. Sort of. In addition, I have a very personal, lifelong connection with Aconcagua, kind of "Aconcagua et moi". It was the first mountain anywhere I ever learned the name of, well before Everest, the Matterhorn, the Jungfrau, Pike's Peak, Kilimanjaro, or any others. And I learned the name at what I've just calculated to have been age three, when the name scared its way into my consciousness. If there ever was a situation in which "therein lies a tale", this must be it. I'll tell it first as a childhood memory, then expand and flesh out the story as I've just researched it.


I apparently was three. My parents took me to the movies to see a Disney feature. What harm, they must have thought, can there be in Donald Duck and Goofy? But one of the segments in the movie involved a little plane that had to carry the airmail over the Andes. Worse, there was a horrible storm. And what should rise up straight ahead to intimidate the little plane? A mountain, depicted in the film with an ogre's face. Right after that image, the narrator boomed the name of the mountain: ACONCAGUA!!!! Forget Donald Duck and Goofy. I was scared silly. I clearly remember my parents carrying me to the back of the theater to calm me down. Beyond that, I do not remember if we stayed in the back for a while then returned to our seats, or went home. I suspect we went home. Aconcagua had done me in. And over the decades, Aconcagua has remained with me. When I first flew to Santiago, no one had to tell me I was near a storied mountain. I knew it already.


So now I've checked it all out. Early in WWII, Disney was approached to make films that would bind Latin America with the US, especially since Disney characters were already well-liked there. He made Saludos Amigos ("Hello, Friends") in 1942 with both animation and live action. It had four segments, each a short film in its own. In the first, Donald Duck visits Lake Titicaca with a llama and the third is about Goofy as a gaucho. The fourth is perhaps culturally most significant. Called in Portuguese Aquarela do Brasil ("Watercolor of Brazil") it again features Donald Duck, but introduces to audiences outside Brazil the samba song of the same name as the segment, but whose name was shortened in the English-speaking world to the last word, "Brazil". It had been written three years earlier, in 1939, and has become the most famous of Brazilian songs.


But it's the second segment, called "Pedro", about a small airplane leaving from near Santiago de Chile on his first mission to pick up mail across the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina, adjacent to the mountain. In a terrible storm, he's confronted with a menacing Aconcagua, yet still makes it safely back. The film premiered in Rio on 24 August 1942 and was released in the US on 6 February 1943. At that point I would have been three years old, and after seeing it, Aconcagua has remained with me ever since.


Would you imagine I've found a copy of Pedro's confrontation with Aconcagua? Of course I have, although the narration is in Spanish. The entire film of Saludos Amigos runs 34:69. Watch what you like, but listen to the narrator solemnly introduce ACONCAGUA at 13:58. Right after that, the storm really gets going, and that's when I was carried out of the theater. Finally, go back and look at the curious map of the Andes and of Pedro's air route at 11:05—but don't get scared! After that, you might want to go to 28:16 and enjoy the samba music.


That was then, but now, back to Aconcagua et moi in 2006. I was in Santiago airport at that point six times: arriving from New York; to Rapa Nui/Easter Island, then back; the flight via Punta Arenas to Ushuaia (for Antarctica) and then back; the flight back to New York. I flew above the Andes on the New York and Ushuaia connections, and had a good view downward in many places. However, I do particularly remember the very first of those flights where I arrived early in the morning from New York and saw mountains adjacent to Santiago. Copy and paste this map:


The lower map shows the standard route between Santiago and Mendoza (Pedro's route), with Aconcagua a bit to the north. The upper map is more precise. But how did I see Aconcagua? First of all, it was NOT like this view from the entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial Park (Photo by Daniel Peppes Gauer), but this picture will serve for the record. Nor was it as good as this aerial view (Photo by Beatriz Moisset), surrounded by other mountains. Copy and paste these two links:


The first one shows pretty much what I saw, also out of the left side of the plane arriving in Santiago that morning: Aconcagua, other mountains, and clouds. So which one is Aconcagua? Well, I don't know. It's there somewhere, but which one?


The second link is to a website I found, in Spanish. It's called ¿Desde dónde se ve el Aconcagua? (From Where can you see Aconcagua?), so I'm not the first one to wonder. If you scroll down the website, there are numerous sites in both countries from which you can see it. But important to me is this sentence in the opening paragraph, referring to Aconcagua: Cualquiera que haya volado a Santiago de Chile lo ha visto ("Anyone who has flown to Santiago de Chile has seen it.") With this confirmation, I rest my (slightly shaky) case. I've seen Aconcagua, albeit from above. And this experience was better than when I saw it with Pedro.


And then there's Chimborazo, the mountain that teaches us the lesson of not taking things too seriously at face value. Its altitude is 6,268 m (20,564 ft), making it the tallest mountain in Ecuador, and also the tallest near the equator. With Everest at 8,848 m (29,029 ft), Chimborazo still has a "tallest" claim. How can that be?


It depends on how you measure. If two people stand near each other in a room, you can measure each one to see which is taller. That's easy, because you have a "level playing field". But suppose one of them stands on a stepstool. Well, you can still get accurate measurements of the two for comparison, as long as you subtract the height of the stepstool. But wait—which one has the better view out the window? In other words, absolute height is one thing, but total height is another.


The Earth is not round, but has an equatorial bulge caused by the centripetal force of its rotation. Picture it as a chubby person with a "spare tire" around his waist. This bulge causes the diameter of the Earth at the equator to be 42.72 km (26.54 mi) longer than the diameter between the poles. Cut those figures in half, and you'll find that someone standing at sea level at the North Pole is 21.36 km (13.27 mi) closer to the center of the earth than if he were standing at sea level at the equator. You can't reach down to sea level at the South Pole, but theoretically, it's the same.


Let's put that in more practical, less abstract terms, using Spitzbergen to represent the North Pole (it's not THAT far away) and the Galápagos to represent the Equator. When I stepped off the Santa Fe III in Puerto Ayora, I was roughly 21 km (13 mi) higher (away from the center of the earth) than when I stepped off the Deutschland when it docked in Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitzbergen—and both towns were at sea level. For this type of calculation, sea level is not an accurate basis for measurement. My height never changed, but it's as though I were "standing on a stepstool" in Puerto Ayora that had the above height.


Now if you're measuring Everest or Aconcagua, the altitude is above mean sea level. But because of the spinning of the earth, and the equatorial bulge, sea level is higher at the equator, since the ocean bulges along with the land masses. Both equatorial sea level and Chimborazo are "standing on a stool", which is why we get the standard altitude of Chimborazo that we do, not quite as impressive as it should be. It's only when you measure Chimborazo's altitude from the center of the Earth to you find that the top of Chimborazo is the highest point on Earth. Put it this way. Everest is higher above sea level than Chimborazo, but Chimborazo is otherwise higher than Everest in absolute terms. But that important distinction is obscured, since we customarily measure altitude above mean sea level.

 And while we're doing this type of offbeat calculation, consider this advance information. When I later saw Chimborazo, I had a beautiful "front-row seat" view from Urbina rail station, the highest on the line, and the highest in Ecuador, at 3,609 m (11,841 ft). It is not the highest rail station I've ever been at, which is in Tibet, but using these offbeat calculations, it is not only the highest ever, but, facing Chimborazo, I was also higher than Everest at the time because of the equatorial bulge. Now forget all this in favor of the realities of altitude, since these are just calculations for fun.

As we discuss the geography of the Andes, we should get a decent map of South America:


Click for details. Note in particular how the width of the Andes thickens in the area of the Central Andes, around Peru and Bolivia, where you find the Altiplano and Lake Titicaca. Near Santiago find Aconcagua and near Quito find Chimborazo.


I want to give a summary of trips to South America, particularly the point where I first (barely) set foot in Ecuador. In 2004 we took the Caronia out of Fort Lauderdale for seven weeks around South America. After the stop in Panama (I recently discussed the Panama railroad), our next stop, on 29 January, was Manta, Ecuador (on our SA map, located near Portoviejo, NW of Guayaquil). It's located at 00°57"S, in other words, about one degree south of the equator, so that was the first time ever that we crossed the equator. I find now that Manta is the 5th most populous city and is a major seaport in Ecuador. On 1 February we stopped in Callao (ka.YOW), the port of Lima, Peru, and on 3 February, we stopped in Arica, Chile, once part of Bolivia, and still contended. We then continued around Chile to the east coast of South America, with notable stops in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. However, while we visited those two cities extensively, most stops were just in the local ports, partially because this was primarily a coastal trip (although there were inland tours offered), but also because of the difficulty of trying anything too complicated with Beverly's wheelchair. Thus, the harbor area of Manta was as much of Ecuador as we saw.


In November 2006 there was the just-mentioned trip to Antarctica connecting in Santiago de Chile, which I did visit for a couple of days. In March 2011, there was the cruise on the Regatta to the Amazon up to Manaus and back, again crossing the equator at the mouth of the river (see map). Thus, the Galápagos and mainland Ecuador in 2015 is the fourth trip to South America.


We opened by mentioning the cultural relationship between the Central Andes and the Incas, and it's not surprising that the name comes from the Incas. The Inca Empire (Map by EuroHistoryTeacher) was divided into four regions, called suyus, as shown on the map. Note the green suyu running through parts of Peru and Bolivia, called the Antisuyu, or Eastern Region. The majority consensus is that this name was eventually altered to "Andes".


Now there are two explanations as to the use of antiAnti, and so Antisuyu means "Region of the Anti". Do you see common ground here?


I'll make a Solomonic decision here, and see if you think it may have validity. I think it all does come down to "east". It would seem that the Incas called the people Anti because they were calling them "Easterners", and so, Antisuyu simultaneously means Eastern Region and Region of the Easterners. What do you think?


Take one more look at the map to confirm why the Andes, being so long, are usually divided into three sections: the Northern Andes in Venezuela and Colombia, the Central Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and the Southern Andes in Argentina and Chile. Now, despite the fact that Aconcagua is in the Southern Andes, we are going to concentrate on the Central Andes. We'll start now with Ecuador, and if the trip next year comes to fruition, we'll continue with Peru and Bolivia. Even though the Incas did inhabit what is today Ecuador (see the red suyu on the suyu map), they were centered in Peru, in Cusco, and we'll leave discussion of them to a (possible) future time.


Ecuador Basics    Let's start with some basic geography, and so we should bring back this map that we first used with Guayaquil:


First let's definitively find Manta on the coast, the seaport, where the Caronia stopped. The next thing we should note is how amazingly narrow the strip of the Andes is here (recheck the SA map), especially when compared with the Andes in Peru and Bolivia. You really must keep that vertical, narrow strip of mountains in mind as we take this trip, the narrative of which will be in the next posting. But because of this trip, we see how mainland Ecuador is very neatly divided into three sections. To the east is Ecuador's part of the Amazon jungle. Compare this area again to the SA map to see how it fits in. All the rivers here flow to the east, to the Atlantic, and are part of the Amazon watershed. Since I'd seen the Amazon, I saw no reason to travel to this part of the country. If you do go, you need your yellow fever vaccination to be up to date. With ten years' validity, mine ran out last year, but I redid it this March, even though I didn't need it for this trip. Doesn't hurt.


West of the narrow strip of Andes is the coastal plain. As we said in Guayaquil, it's just as hot here as in the Galápagos, and so we'll have the heat until we reach the mountains. The first hotel stop will still be down on the plain in Bucay (not shown here), but we'll then arrive up in the Andes at Alausí and beyond. That means our three-night train trip will be like a backwards L, and involve one day going east on the plains and then go north in the mountains the rest of the way to Quito.


One more comment about the coastal plain. In Guayaquil we talked about the Guayas River. All rivers on this side of the Andes flow into the Pacific. The Guayas is considered the national river of Ecuador and is the most important river in South America that does NOT flow into the Atlantic. Now trace your way up the Guayas to where it drains the west side of Chimborazo, whose importance we've already discussed. Now look at the coat-of-arms of Ecuador (Image by Ysangkok). Prominent in the center are Chimborazo and the Guayas River.


In the census of 2010, Guayaquil had a population of about 2.3 million, considerably larger than the capital, Quito, with 1.6 million. Most of the other large cities are in the range of 2-3 hundred thousand, including Manta, Durán (adjoining Guayaquil to the east, where the train leaves from), and Cuenca, in the southern mountains, which has a (disused) rail line to it. Finally, in the mountains, locate these names that will be coming up later, starting from the south: in addition to Cuenca and Alausí, Riobamba, Ambato, Latacunga, then Quito.


We also need a bit of selected history, since I, for one, knew nothing about this area, and we all need to play some catch-up, I'm sure. As early as the first millennium, the Quitu tribe established a commercial center in the area of Quito, which lasted for centuries. In 1462, the Incas took over this northern area, but then in 1534, the Spanish conquered the entire region as part of its American empire, which had numerous provinces.


When we discussed the statues of the two leaders in Guayaquil, we said that Guayaquil and its area became independent of Spain first, and Quito and its area followed later. We should know more about that, because it's quite interesting. Let's start with this map of the Spanish Empire in the Americas in about 1800 (Map by Shadowxfox), two decades before Ecuadorean independence.


It's indeed a curiosity that the empire was so large that we discussed it recently with Texan and Southwestern US history (2015/2), and now with Ecuador. Click to find details in North America. Florida and Texas are as we said, as is Luisiana (spelling based on "Luis"), which was Spanish for a considerable period. I have a problem with a province called Oregon, because to my knowledge, Spanish claims never went north of California, they just explored the area. But then in Puget Sound (that northernmost body of water at Vancouver Island) there is indeed a Juan de Fuca Strait and the San Juan Islands, so perhaps it was considered a province by wishful thinking. I also have a problem with "Nueva" & "Vieja" California (New & Old), since I've always known them as "Alta" & "Baja" California (Upper & Lower), with the latter name still in use.


But now move down to where Ecuador is today, and you'll find several small provinces named after their major cities, most notably Quito and Guayaquil, all of which became part of Ecuador. (The others—check Ecuador map--are Macas, Cuenca [#20] and Loja [#21]). But before we get on to Ecuadorean independence from Spain in 1822, we need to backtrack almost a century, to 1736.


French Geodesic Mission    Early research showed that some French scientists came to Ecuador to work on the equator. I didn't know much about it, or what they did. Reading ahead about Riobamba, I heard about an Ecuadorean scientist who joined them, but knew even less. Then I read about one hacienda we stayed in being connected to them, and got more curious. Too many little details were piling up that didn't yet fit together. So when I finally delved into it recently—AFTER finding about the equatorial bulge—I was amazed to find out that's the major thing they came to investigate. So, after a bit of research, let me pick up all these bits and pieces and I'll tell the story ab ovo, literally "from the egg", in other words, "from the beginning".


To do so, I have to make reference again to Sir Isaac Newton, shown here in 1689 at age 47. I never thought there'd be another occasion to do so after talking in 2015/8 about his Third Law of Motion being the reason why paddlewheels work on steamboats, but here we go again. Newton first published his Principia in 1687, which included, among his Laws of Motion and much more, his prediction that the Earth is shaped like an oblate spheroid (that is, had an equatorial bulge).


Those fancy words can be simplified. A spheroid is anything that's round like a sphere, such as a beach ball (Photo by Norvy). If someone sits on the beach ball it gets squished top and bottom. A squished beach ball—back to fancy words—is an oblate spheroid. In other words, the top and bottom are closer together than the distance side-to-side. Of course, there's the opposite possibility, where the top and bottom are further apart than the distance side-to-side. That's called a prolate spheroid (Both Images by AugPi), and is the shape of an American football (Photo by Erik Drost), as with this one being punted.


When I was writing above about the equatorial bulge, I had no idea it was based on Newton's prediction that the Earth was an oblate spheroid, and certainly not that the French visit to Ecuador was used to prove Newton right, as well has having other benefits. Live and learn. Let me rephrase that. Travel and learn.


The French Academy of Sciences Académie des sciences had been founded in 1666 by Louis XIV, and both are shown here shortly after its founding. About two decades later, Newton's Principia came out. There was significant debate in the Academy about the shape of the Earth. While Newton had predicted it would be an oblate spheroid, one French astronomer held to the view that it was a prolate spheroid. It's odd to think today that anyone could believe that the poles were pointed, like an American football. Therefore, Louis XIV and the Academy sent out two expeditions to determine the answer, one to the north, and one to the equator. Their measurements combined would determine where the bulge is.

 As I found this out, I had a strange feeling. I'd just written about me being in Spitzbergen and in the Galápagos, and about me being raised higher in the latter. I was unwittingly describing something similar to the two 18C expeditions.

No one went to the North Pole. I used Spitzbergen to represent the North, while the northern expedition didn't even go that far, but just to Lapland, in northern Scandinavia. This expedition was under Anders Celsius, the Swedish physicist (think of the temperature scale) and French mathematician Pierre Maupertuis. I do not know what the name of the northern expedition was. It's less well-known, since they found normalcy, that is, no bulge. I suppose they could be considered a control group.


The expedition to the equator was called the French Geodesic Mission. They didn't have that many choices of destinations where the equator passes over land; it runs through Indonesia, then Africa, then South America. I have to guess that they chose Ecuador because of the mountains. Perhaps it was easier doing their measurements there. It was under the leadership of French astronomer Charles Marie de la Condamine, plus two other French astronomers and two Spanish geographers, plus assistants. This is a 1760 painting of La Condamine located in the Musée Condé within the Chateau de Chantilly NE of Paris. In Ecuador, they were joined by Ecuadorean geographer and topographer Pedro Vicente Maldonado, a scientist from a leading family in Riobamba, who collaborated with them. In addition to measuring the roundness of the Earth, they were to measure the length of a degree of latitude at the equator. This mission was the first major international scientific expedition.


The left France in May 1735. The landed in northern Columbia, sailed to Panama, where they crossed overland to the Pacific (no Panama Canal yet!), then sailed to Ecuador. I'm pleased to have heard that they landed in "my" Manta, in March 1736. They then split into two groups, traveling overland through rain forests, and arrived in Quito in June 1736, a date since celebrated as the start of the Mission. They measured the length of a meridian (longitudinal) arc of 3° at the equator. The one they chose passed through a high valley perpendicular to the equator, from Quito south to Cuenca. I don't know of any other north-south route through the Andes here other than the route that the railroad and main highway follow (see Ecuador map), so perhaps I went most of the length of their survey area on the train. They finished their work in spite of having heard that the Lapland expedition had finished its work earlier, proving the Earth is oblate and beginning the vindication of Newton's prediction.


As scientists, the expedition members came across other things they later reported back to Europe about. They were the first Europeans to come across rubber tapping, and therefore rubber. The identified the correct types of tree that produce quinine, used against malaria. Their visit led to the expedition over six decades later of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in 1802, which we'll discuss in due time. And last, but not least, their work led to what became the metric system.

 When the meter first evolved in 1793 as a unit of measurement, it was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. This was presumably to associate it as a "child of the Earth". It's obvious that the measurements taken in Ecuador by the Mission led to the definition of the meter.

(In 1889 the meter was redefined by a prototype meter bar (changed twice); in 1960 it was redefined in terms of a certain number of wavelengths emanating from krypton-86; in 1983, the current definition was adopted, the distance traveled by light in a specific fraction of a second, working out to about one three-hundred millionths of a second.)

The journal of La Condamine's ten-year voyage to South America was published in Paris in 1751 under the lengthy (and very royalist) title, in a style popular in its day: Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi, a l’équateur (Journal of the Voyage Made by Order of the King, to the Equator), with the equally lengthy subtitle: Servant d'introduction historique à la mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien (Serving as a Historic Introduction to the Measurement of the First Three Degrees of the Meridian). The copy just illustrated is located in the Houghton Library (of rare books) at Harvard University. La Condamine, who was a good writer, got most of the credit for the expedition, which drew a great deal of attention in France. Maldonado was in the end invited by the Mission to return to Europe to continue his scientific work. He became renown there, and is buried in London.


At the time of the bicentennial of the 1736 Mission in 1936, a monument was raised at the equator north of Quito in commemoration of the visit. However, there's no record that the Mission ever visited that area, so the site would seem to arbitrary. We shall return later to the topic of equator monuments as part of the narrative.


The French Geodesic Mission went "to the Equator" in 1736. It was not listed as going to Ecuador, even though that's what we say today, because Ecuador didn't exist. If you refer back to the map of the Spanish empire, there were several Spanish provinces, specifically the Province of Guayaquil on the coast and the Province of Quito inland, plus a few smaller provinces. Even when Humboldt got there in 1802, these were still separate provinces of the Spanish Empire. (Actually, Quito had other names besides Provincia de Quito, each with special connotations, One was the Presedencia de Quito, another was the Real Audencia de Quito, which had more juridic significance. Still, the city's name appeared in all of hem.)


We now pick up two decades after Humboldt when, as those statues showed us, the Province of Guayaquil became independent of Spain, with the rest to follow shortly afterward. The official date of independence from Spain is 1822. Still, Ecuador was not an independent country. At first, Ecuador decided to join Simón Bolívar's short-lived country called Gran Colombia (Greater Columbia), which covered northern South America.


First, a comment on Gran Colombia. This was an era when the United States gained independence individually in 1783, but unified into a larger country. In 1822, Brazil gained independence from Portugal, but never broke up into smaller states, staying a huge, unified country. As for Central America, I'll again quote myself, this time from 2015/2 (Ctrl-F "Central America"): The area had not belonged to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, but to a separate entity, the Captaincy General of Guatemala of New Spain. It had declared its independence from the Spanish Empire as well, was promptly annexed by Mexico in 1821, but then became independent, this second time from Mexico, in 1823, and formed the Federal Republic of Central America, a democracy. But that only lasted until 1841, because civil war broke out between those that wanted unity, and those that wanted to secede. The Republic broke up into its constituent provinces of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. (You will realize that Belize had been British Honduras, and Panama had been a province of Columbia, until the US helped it secede to allow the US to build the Panama Canal.) This is why there are so many small countries in Central America today . . . .


This was a period of large versus small, of unity versus disunity, and so Bolívar tried to unify northern South America into one large entity. However, Gran Colombia lasted only from 1819 to 1831. We have two maps to illustrate this, each one showing something of importance. First look at this map of Gran Colombia, map 1. We'll discuss the expanse of the country later, but here it's divided into a number of Departments. Click to inspect the following details. First, note that Panama had been a part of Gran Colombia, just as it later was a province of an independent Colombia, until the United States in the early 20C helped it gain its independence, so that the US could build the canal. Here, Panama has the interesting name of the Departamento del Istmo, the Department of the Isthmus.


But our attention moves to two of the departments in the SW. In yellow, we see that the former Provincia de Guayaquil is now the Departamento de Guayaquil, but, in purple, the former Provincia de Quito is now the Departamento del Ecuador. Why, we wonder.


Now look at Gran Colombia, map 2. I cannot say why the departments were changed, perhaps there was a reorganization of some sort. But this map is easier to follow, and shows the countries that were left when Gran Columbia dissolved. In yellow is the Departamento de Venezuela. In blue is the Departamento de Cundinamarca, which became Colombia (and part of it Panama, a century later). And in pink, we see a unified Departamento del Ecuador, where Guayaquil has already yielded to joining Quito, but under its new name. Of course, other borders have shifted over time. Actually, Ecuador became independent of Gran Colombia in 1830.


Now it's not unusual in Latin American countries for the capital city to have exactly the same name as the country. In Spanish, México is the capital of México, and Panama is the capital of Panama, odd as that sounds to the ear of on outsider. It's in English and other languages that those two capitals are renamed Mexico City and Panama City (if necessary, Spanish can say México DF, just like Washington DC, but that's not the casual, everyday designation). If the Provincia de Quito had not changed its name, we'd have another example of this, where in Spanish, Quito would have been the capital of Quito, but English would have to call it *Quito City. But that never happened. Why was the ancient name of Quito dropped from the name of the country?


I am absolutely amazed to find that it was the international fame brought to the area by the French Geodesic Mission. While that influence apparently started to show during the period of Gran Colombia, it burst forth during the time of the Republic. In the First Constituent Assembly, delegates from Guayaquil and Cuenca were glad to yield to the city of Quito and suggested the name República de Quito / Republic of Quito. That suggestion was scrapped in favor of the name República del Ecuador. Thus, while quite a number of countries lie on the equator, because of the Mission, it's Ecuador that's adopted the name. Now be careful. Determine what double meaning is meant by that name.


República del Ecuador is understood by Spanish speakers, at least tacitly, to mean both "Republic of the Equator" and "Republic of Ecuador". That double meaning doesn't exist in many common languages: English - equator/Ecuador; Italian – equatore/Ecuador; German Äquator/Ecuador; Swedish – ekvator/Ecuador: Russian – Экватор/Эквадор (Ekvator/Ekvador). Keep that in mind for later, when we reach the Equator Monument near the end of the trip. Enough said for now.

 French, however, does use the same word: équateur/Équateur, but undistinguishable when spoken. Portuguese the same word, but distinguishes them by using Equador for the country, and Linha do Equador ("Equator Line") for the line.

Ecuador Rail History: The G&Q    The late 19C was a period of great railroad expansion, and Ecuador was no exception. A railway was begun in 1861, but it advanced slowly. It finally reached Bucay in 1888, the point of the first stop on our train trip, but still only down on the coastal plain. Finally, in 1877, President Eloy Alfaro pushed to extend it into the Andes to make it the Ferrocarril Transandino / Transandean Railway, when he commissioned a contract with the Guayaquil & Quito Railway Company (G&Q), which had just been incorporated in, curiously enough, New Jersey. In this way, Alfaro allied himself with two American brothers, Archer Harman, the G&Q financier, and John Harman, the Chief Engineer. They set out to conquer the Andes and build what was thought to be impossible, the line that became known as the world's "most difficult railroad", by first rehabilitating what had been thus far built on the coastal plain and then continuing it on to Quito. The G&Q line was built between 1897 and 1908. Up until then, Quito had been isolated for centuries, reachable only by a 20-day perilous overland journey. When the line reached Quito, the celebrations lasted for days, because the trip between the two major cities was then reduced to just two days.


There had also been political and religious resistance opposing the grand project. Alfaro and the Harmans succeeded in realizing the dream of connecting two different parts of Ecuador, breaking the hold of the Catholic Church, and bringing the 20C to Ecuador. Today the station in Durán that serves Guayaquil is called the Eloy Alfaro Rail Station.


In time, the G&Q main line became the Southern Division of Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos, now called Ferrocarriles del Ecuador, the national railway of Ecuador. In 1957, a Northern Division was completed, connecting Quito to the northern seaport of San Lorenzo. In addition, a spur line, the Cuenca Line, called the Southern Subdivision, was built off the Southern Division between 1915 and 1965, leaving at Sibambe for Cuenca.


But almost none of this lasted. Even though the railway had been of economic significance for many decades, by the mid-20C rail travel was declining everywhere, and the Ecuador system also suffered from neglect. Then it was particularly done in by torrential El Niño rains in 1982-3 and again in 1997-8, causing massive landslides that severely damaged the line, essentially rendering it useless. Service was severely curtailed, and road services took over passenger and freight transportation in Ecuador. At the 2008 centennial of the railroad, only 10% of the railway was open.


In that centennial year of 2008, President Rafael Correa (Photo by Fernanda LeMarie - Cancillería del Ecuador), who is still in office at this writing, named the railroad a "national cultural patrimony" and indicated that it would be rehabilitated and restored. I'm sure many locals doubted it could be done, and I've seen in the online rail community huge disbelief, coupled with huge joy when it happened. The original main line between Guayaquil and Quito was opened to the public in 2013.


Now that we have the riches-to-rags-back to riches details up to the present, we can look at a map of the Ecuadorean Railroad (Map by jkan997). However, since you may want to be able to refer back to it, I'll give you the direct link, so you can keep it open in another window:


It's another excellent map. First click to inspect the Southern Division, shaped like a reverse-L. It's the former G&Q, in red, happily fully restored. You can see our trip route from Guayaquil (Durán) via several locations we've been mentioning, to Quito. It's the part built from 1897 to 1908 and runs 446.7 km (277.6 mi).


Leading off from it at Sibambe is the branch line to Cuenca, the Southern Subdivision. (The more important town is Alausí, so the subdivision is considered Alausí-Cuenca.) It was built between 1915 and 1965 and runs 145.4 km (90.3 mi). The entire subdivision is presently unusable, and possibly partially dismantled.


So is most of the Northern Division, from Quito to San Lorenzo on the coast, built in 1957 and running 373.4 km (232.0 mi). The exception here is the short segment between Otavalo and Ibarra, where an excursion train runs. I do not know why there is a discrepancy between this stretch and the rest of the Northern Division.


The obvious question is the future of the rest of the system. Since the old G&Q has only been operating since 2013, only time will tell if more restoration will take place, especially keeping in mind that the G&Q connects the two biggest cities, with presumably more potential, and, quite frankly, the others don't. Still, the railway represents the largest infrastructure in the entire country, with a total length of all three sections coming to 965.5 km (600 mi). In addition, I've heard there are plans to expand services into Colombia and Venezuela, so who knows how far things could go, giving the continued success of the present restoration.


Given the history, and given the fact that the Andes had to be conquered, two facts should be of little surprise. The entire system is narrow gauge, at 3.5 ft or 1,067 mm. In the mountains, narrow gauge is to be expected for purposes of maneuverability. Furthermore, the entire system is single-track. While single-track routes are common on individual lines in many systems, to have an entire system that way is less common.


Initially, steam engines were used, of course, made by Baldwin, the last ones being delivered in 1953. Some are still used for historical reasons (and for fun). Between 1957 and 1992, diesel-electric engines were delivered from Alsom, and these remain the principal engines today. More about both below.


But aside from the route, this being the Andes, we need to see elevations. We have two good maps that show this:


Much more is revealed when we can compare the route map with the corresponding elevations below. The route has three sections. You can really see that we're on the coastal plain all that first day, to Bucay. From Bucay to an otherwise unimportant point beyond Alausí named Palmira, the route has to rise. From there, while there's still some up-and-down, the route stays relatively steadily high to Quito. You can see that Urbina is the highest station on the route.


The town of Bucay has an elevation of 109 m (357 ft), and Palmira has 3,250 m (10,663 ft). That means that between these two extreme points of the ascent the train has to rise upward 3,141 m (10,306 ft), which is over 3 km and almost 2 mi (3.141 km, 1.95 mi). And it has to achieve this change in elevation in a distance of only 79.1 km (49.2 mi). Let's round out those numbers to make them more meaningful. Picture going 80 km while rising 3 km, or going 50 mi while rising 2 mi.


Check this map again to ascertain that much of that upward travel is accomplished between Sibambe and Alausí, where a rise of 511 m (1,677 ft) is achieved in only 11.8 km (7.3 mi). This is done partly by the two famous switchbacks at the oddly-named Nariz del Diablo/Devil's Nose, followed by the two Alausí loops, which are horseshoe curves. It's a high point of the rail trip—pun enthusiastically intended--and we'll do it together in the narrative in the next posting. Finally, copy and paste:


This is one last elevation map. To some extent it's repetitious of the last one, but I like it, and those with a stronger rail interest will agree with me that it's a masterpiece in presenting engineering information. In the graph, the differences in elevations are more startling, in both the ascent, and how the high point of Urbina stands out. We'll talk about steep grades later, but you can see the percentage of grade between each station. On the left are (1) heights in meters, (2) partial distances (between stations), and (3) distances (in km) from Guayaquil. Historically interesting are the blue circles showing where water is available for the steam engines, and below that, the green dots for fuel. The orange structures are repair shops.


Considering that the route is single-track, notice the green symbols showing short double-track sections. Some are full bypasses, others are sidings of various types. In blue are changes of direction*, and the purple circle is a roundhouse turntable. Then the route is divided into sections; blue structures are roadside encampments (for workers?); green flags are for flag stops; yellow dots show regular stations (all this applies to the past, when this was a regularly functioning railroad); then comes types of rail used, either 70 or 60 pounds per yard (I don't know what that means); and finally is a kilometrage scale, in tens.

 *Note the shape of the blue symbol on the map. A track layout to change direction is called a wye in North America (because it looks like the letter Y), and a triangle, or triangular junction, in British usage. It's a triangular arrangement of tracks with switches at each of the three points, and allows a locomotive or train to make the equivalent of a three-point turn. When such a junction is used exclusively for turning purposes, the point off the main track will usually be a stub siding.

Tren Ecuador    The route has now been functional again for two years. However, I don't see that it's used any longer like a traditional railroad, for people who want to go between towns. There are two types of excursion trains, run under the names Tren Ecuador and Tren Crucero. Tren Ecuador operates day excursions over short distances, mostly for the use of locals. Look at this page on their website:


The picture at the top shows that these are standard trains, with standard coach seating, not a special consist like the Tren Crucero, described below. (A consist [KON.sist] in American rail usage is the makeup of cars forming a train; British usage calls it a "formation".) Some are round trips; the ones that are not include a bus trip, either coming or going. For instance, click on their Nariz del Diablo train, and look at its itinerary. There's a longer and shorter version of the Tren del Hielo ("Ice Train") to Urbina to see Chimborazo, starting at different stations. Click on both to see their itineraries.


All these excursions are day trains, meant to appeal to locals, since you have to arrive at departure points on your own. Of these, Urbina and Nariz del Diablo are the only ones likely to appeal to non-Ecuadoreans. But go to the bottom of the list and click on Tren de la Dulzura ("Sweetness Train", passing through sugar cane and chocolate plantations, among much more). I mention this because it's typical, and because I saw it leave. When I got to Durán station, I at first thought it was my train (there's only one track), but it was too early. A tide of locals swept onto it, and it was a delight to see so much interest in a train. It paralleled what the Tren Crucero does on its first day, Durán to Bucay. Yet the itinerary as shown might or might not appeal to outsiders. But I show the offerings of Tren Ecuador to illustrate the business plan of the railroad, which seems to be doing whatever it can to make a success of the revitalized system.


Tren Crucero    On a more international basis, Tren Crucero, which translates as "Cruise Train", is the name of a special train that runs regularly on that line It's marketed internationally as a 4-day/3 night one-way end-to-end service in either direction. However, I now find its website also offers 3/2 and 2/1 possibilities, and even participation in just day trips on any one of the days, but everyone on the train on my trip went the whole way. I was delighted to discover that the country inns and haciendas used for overnight accommodations are a huge plus. However, as the program is still young, alternate accommodations can be substituted. In addition, the details of the local visits from the train continue to be adjusted. Remember that this only started in 2013, and a few minor stops on last year's itinerary were dropped, and a few interesting new ones added, so the trip details of this new excursion is still a work in progress.

 It's really worth mentioning the difference in the modern world between real transportation, which can be a lot of fun, and what is really non-transportation indulged in just because of the fun part, and often referred to as a cruise of one sort or another. Rail 'n' sail is gradually moving from the former to the latter, but that's probably necessary, because that's the only way to save—or restore—the former.

Real transportation is any of the recent Amtrak or VIA trips. People on the Texas Eagle or The Ocean really want to go from one place to another, and have fun while doing so. So is the Beijing-Lhasa trip and any other of the high-speed trips in China. A transatlantic crossing is one of the few real transportation possibilities (even though many fly the other way instead of doing the traditional round trip), but there are those who treat it as a cruise, and fly right back home. But then of course it's this cruising world that's saving the ship and rail industry, so it's necessary.

Still, cruise transportation can be used as real transportation. On the Kawartha Voyager cruise on the Rideau Canal, a handful of us did get off in Ottawa and continued our travels, but the majority had parked their cars in Kingston, so took the free bus back. In my mind, that cancels out the reality of using it as transportation. It's then an amusement-park ride. I used the American Queen as genuine transportation between Memphis and New Orleans, and I suspect most on the ship did, but there were parking facilities near the Memphis wharf, and there must have been at least a few who flew back to Memphis, cancelling out the transportation angle and making it an amusement-park ride.

There's one other thing, very useful on a cruise, but that still diminishes the transportation aspect, which is accompanying buses. On the AQ, the ship's buses met us at each stop and drove us around. That's very practical, but it also implies that a person could have skipped the AQ in favor of bus transportation. I mention this because two buses also followed the Tren Crucero, for bus service at each local stop. They also carried the luggage.

This is all only an observation. If it weren't for this cruise-type use, there would be no steamboats on the Mississippi, boats on the Rideau Canal, or trains in Ecuador. As rail 'n' sail diminishes as genuine transportation, these "cruise" services maintain an artificial transportation service to duplicate the reality. But that just shows how much fun rail 'n' sail is.

While we have the quality map at hand for the entire route, there is also a somewhat touristy map that shows how far each day progresses. It's an easy guide, but just keep in mind, the excursions have been slightly different each year from what it indicates:


The Tren Crucero Consist    The Tren Crucero is fully-airconditioned and First Class. It carries a maximum of 54 passengers, a full crew, and several guides—we had three. Its interior is different from any train I've ever been on. Do not picture rows of seats facing forward. Don't even picture traditional-looking lounge cars. It's worth describing in detail the consist (see above) of the cars of this train, especially the interiors. I have numerous illustrations, but unfortunately question the legality of my linking to most of them, but you can go find them yourself, so copy and paste:


The engine is diesel-electric, although we were pulled twice by steam engines, just for the fun of it. I like it for the jaunty style of its shape and for the three-color livery. I'd just wish they'd left the graffiti off, which gives it an unfortunate cartoonish look. The second car is a mystery car. It's apparently some sort of a utility car, and possibly has a crew area. If that it true, it's the equivalent of a caboose, but just not at the end of the train. Aside from these two "working" cars, there are four passenger cars, two for seating and two lounge cars.


This is the train underway, and in addition to those first two, we see the two cars with passenger seating, which are quite different from each other (see below). Note the windowless area in the first of the two. This is a locker area, free of charge. Now as we know, luggage is on the bus; these are for pure convenience. When stepping off the train, you can just put whatever "stuff" you've been holding on to into a locker and take the key, to be picked up again when you return.


As oversized as the windows in the two passenger cars are, they are smaller than the picture windows you see in the two rear lounge cars, which begin at that little round white roadside marker. An most spectacular is the roomy observation deck at the end. It can hold a large group, and is roofed over, open on three sides. I used it more on the coastal plain the first day. Once up top, it was used less, since it was so much cooler, to say nothing the wind caused by the train's movement. But I've never had an observation deck as nice.


We'll now check out the interiors, walking through all four cars, front to back. Each one has its own décor.


These two pictures show the first passenger coach. There is no seating by rows, but instead tables for two, five on a side, seating 20. There was plenty of room in this coach, since our group was only 13; four couples, a threesome with a teen daughter (who was about to study in Ecuador for several months), a woman solo traveler, and me. Two couples were from Australia, one from Germany, one from French Canada; the threesome was American, as was the solo woman, who was spending the year teaching English in Quito. It was an interesting group, and I was in language heaven. Aside from English, I spoke Spanish as appropriate, German frequently with the German couple, and French minimally with the lady from Québec, whose husband didn't say much in any language.


I was assigned seat #1 (!!!), which means I had table 1-2 to myself, which is the first one on the right in both pictures. The first picture is taken from the area of the lockers—you can see two keys hanging—which takes up about a quarter of the coach. You can see there is plenty of daylight coming through the windows. Now as to styles. This coach is described as representing Ecuador's colonial period, 1542-1824, and so is in the Baroque style of the artistic tradition of the Escuela Quiteña, the Quito School of Art. The Escuela Quiteña covers the 16C-19C, but is especially associated with the two centuries in the middle, 17C-18C. It was almost exclusively focused on the religious art of the Catholic Church.


This picture is of the second passenger coach, and is quite different, less lush, more severe. It's in the Neoclassical style, representing Ecuador's Republican period. This entryway was the one both coaches used most frequently. Since the total capacity was 54 and we seated 20, this must have seated 34. I have seen pictures showing international passengers in this coach, too, but on our trip, the entire coach was awarded to a group of the best high school students in Ecuador, with a couple of teacher chaperones. Since it was all highly motivated students, behavior was perfect and there were no problems. While I thought it was admirable that the government should do this, I said privately to some others that it might just indicate that the train didn't sell out to international passengers (there were no other Ecuadorian passengers on the train) so they made the best of it by filling the train with deserving students. Whatever the reasoning, all went very well. Of the two buses that did our tours, each coach group had its own bus.


The last two coaches had the lounge areas. The first one started with the snack and beverage bar (Photo by All non-alcoholic beverages, and snacks, were included, as was everything else. (There was no tipping, and no cash handled, anyway).


The bar picture looked toward the front of the train, as do these two. They show again the bar, plus the gift shop, then this, the first lounge area. All the lounges were very living-room-like, with couches. The style of this third coach is described as pre-Hispanic, intending to illustrate the "Andean world vision". Perhaps the gray walls in the first picture are Incan? I remembered this lounge as the one with blue-gray couches.


The fourth and last coach had two lounges and the observation deck. First was the above "brown-couch lounge", and through the partition you can see the other one and the deck. Then came the "wicker lounge" (Photo by directly adjacent to the deck. This car was described as in the Classic style, showing "Ecuadorian coastal culture". I don't know what that means, unless wicker indicates a tropical climate. And of course, then came the observation deck:


I've shown this in detail to back up my statement that I've never seen a train like this before. And I have been on a train or two. It would be a huge credit to any system, but particularly to Ecuador's recovered system. As I've been delving deeper into this story, I've learned a lot more. One thing was how, when I looked at rail websites describing the transformation in Ecuador, people just couldn't believe the comeback. The rail system had become infamous for being so terribly in decline, with writer after writer moaning in funereal tones about the situation. Now people were amazed at the transformation, with one writer declaring Ecuador's rail system as being, and I quote, "back from the dead". It made me even happier about having traveled the rail system.


Locomotives in Ecuador    Aside from repairing he route and dozens of collapsed station buildings, many comments online were about the state of the locomotives, both the older steam ones and the newer diesel-electrics. Many had been lost or scrapped, but all those now in service are rehabilitated ones. The steam ones, I believe, were all worked on locally, and the diesel-electrics sent sequentially to Spain for rehab. I want to report on the status of these.

 I suppose steam seems to be the topic of the day. I just had my latest steamboat ride on the American Queen on the Mississippi in November, and in May I had my latest ride with a steam locomotive in Ecuador, although just for two short sections of the trip.

Since we're speaking about locomotives in general, I want to make sure we're all on the same page when we use terms like 2-6-0 or BBB. Locomotives are classified either by wheels or axles, as follows.


Steam locomotives are traditionally classified in the US and UK by their wheel arrangement, using the Whyte system, formulated in the early 20C. The system counts the number of leading wheels (in the front of the locomotive), driving wheels (in the center), and trailing wheels (in the back), separated by dashes.


Note in this picture how the driving wheels (in the red box), driven by the pistons, are larger and are the primary wheels, working actively. All the others are unpowered and therefore secondary in importance, working passively. The leading wheels up front are usually held together in an undercarriage called a truck or bogie, and called, in this case, the leading truck. Their purpose is to help negotiate curves, as well as to support the front portion of the boiler. The trailing wheels in the back are usually in a trailing truck. They fell out of favor in the late 19C, but made a comeback to be used to support the crew cab and rear firebox area. In the Whyte system, this locomotive would be designated 4-6-2, based on the total number of wheels in the front, center, then rear.


However, all other systems count axles instead of wheels, so the numbers are half as large. The Russian system is closest to the Whyte: 2-3-1. So is the French, but eliminates the hyphens: 231. However, most countries follow the system of the Union internationale des chemins de fer (UIC), the International Union of Railways, which, despite its French name, uses the German system. (!!!)


This, too, counts axles, but makes a very clever distinction between the important, powered ones, and the secondary, unpowered ones, thereby imparting more information. The above locomotive in the UIC system would be designated 2C1. Both sets of unpowered, less important axles stay with numbers, but letters replace them for powered axles, where A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4, and so on. So the C in 2C1 is saying that the drive wheels have three axles. In sum, for steam engines, one finds both the Whyte system and the UIC.


But steam locomotives have now gone the route of the steamboat. Electricity is now used to power locomotives. This power can come from a third rail, or from overhead wires. But wouldn't you imagine it simpler if the locomotive generated its own electricity? Why not have a built-in diesel engine generate electric power to run the locomotive? That's just what a diesel-electric locomotive does.


But the configuration of wheels and axles on the powerful diesel-electrics is such that there are no unpowered wheels in front or behind. Everything depends on the driving wheels. Or, looked at another way, there are powered driving wheels under much of a diesel-electric engine, and each axle has its own motor. Here, the Whyte system is not used, and instead, axles are counted, as they are internationally in the UIC. In this manner, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) uses a system that is a slight simplification of the UIC. In sum, for diesel-electrics, we have both the UIC and the AAR, very similar to each other.


Let's get to the point. The diesel-electrics in Ecuador are designated B-B-B in the UID and BBB in the AAR. Let's see what that means. With no numbers and all letters, each axle is powered individually, for lots of driving power. The letters are in three groupings, so there are three bogies or trucks. And each one of them has two (B=2) powered axles. So we end up with six powered axles in groups of two. Nobody counts wheels anymore, but for the record, that makes twelve wheels on one of these diesel-electrics. Take a look:


Here's diesel-electric #2408 stopped below Chimborazo, apparently pulling some Tren Ecuador coaches. It's a BBB, as they all are here. Find the three trucks (bogies). Find the two powered axles in each. And if it makes your day, even count the six wheels on this side, and double them. All the diesel-electrics in Ecuador are from the last delivery from Alstom in 1992. There are eight, numbered 2401 to 2408, all rebuilt or reconditioned.


But the great romance is always in the steam engines. The information I have is that there were originally 18 steam locomotives in Ecuador. That any at all survived is, as online commentators point out, a minor miracle. They were all built by Baldwin, first under that name, and later, after the company merged, under the name Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton (BLH). After considerable searching online, I think there are the following five steam locomotives left in Ecuador that are operational. Below are the ID#, manufacturer, configuration, year acquired, and possible home base:

#11; Baldwin; 2-6-0; 1900; Durán
#14; Baldwin; 2-6-0; 1901; Ibarra
#17; Baldwin; 2-8-0; 1935; Bucay
#53; ….BLH..; 2-8-0; 1953; Riobamba
#58; ...BLH..; 2-8-0; 1953; Bucay


The possible home base is iffy, since things are so new, and changing. Since Durán and Bucay are both down on the coastal plain, at opposite ends of our first day's run, the one that pulled the Tren Crucero the first day for about an hour's ride could have been #11 or #17, which seem to show up more in pictures, or possibly #58. (I wish I'd known more at the time to have checked.) The other one that pulled us later for a short distance to Riobamba would have to have been #53. That would have been the one whose cab I was able to visit afterward. I can't speak for #14, since Ibarra is part of that short active section of the Northern Division.


You can see there are two configurations, 2-6-0 and 2-8-0. Which would be more powerful? If you remember the meaning of the numbers, eight drive wheels (four axles) would have more traction than six (three axles). That would explain why the ones acquired later would have that upgrade. Let's see what the restored engines look like.


Here's #17, beautifully decked out in G&Q livery (Photo by Ekem). Click to check out the wheels to confirm it has a 2-8-0 configuration. In front you see one small leading wheel (one axle, two wheels). Look carefully to find all four drive wheels (four axles, eight wheels), since the first one is partially blocked from view. They're large, and powerful. There are no wheels needed here under the cab to support it, explaining the zero. This (or one similar) took us for the first stretch out of Durán. I have another picture, also of #17 (Photo by Wayne77), in Chimbacalle Station in Quito, probably just on display.


The first two of these three pictures shows #53, up near Riobamba, where we were pulled by steam the second time. This is the engine I got to enter the cab on after we arrived in Riobamba. You can see the very steep steps up to it, just below the cab. The second one shows a little more of the size of the cab. The third picture shows one of the two short stretches where the Tren Crucero was pulled by steam, possibly the one near Riobamba. You see the utility car, the two coaches, the two lounge cars. And something else. Up front is one of the steam engines, probably #53. And in the back, behind the observation deck? That's the diesel-electric being towed backwards. We'd gotten to this point with it, and would use it when we left Riobamba. Meanwhile, it respectfully plays second fiddle to steam.


Finally, this YouTube video (1:07) shows #11 pulling the Tren Crucero, the third steam locomotive that I can illustrate and the only one that's a 2-6-0. Pause at about 0:23 for the best spot to confirm its wheels, particularly the three drive wheels (3 axles, 6 drive wheels in total).


Elevations    When we start the narrative for this trip in the next posting, obviously we'll be talking about the gross difference in elevation we saw earlier between the coastal plain and the mountains. We have a bilingual chart (Chart by Anita Graser) that visually depicts the differences to be experienced in the varying elevations, defined by each thousand meters. However, neither language on the chart is English. It comes from German Wikipedia, and annotates data that's in Spanish.


Up to 1000 m is the Hot Region, where it says bananas and corn can be cultivated. Actually, it's a great deal more: rice, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, pineapple, and the like.
From there to 2000 m is the Temperate Region, where the red box mentions "fruit".
From there to 3000+ m is the Cold Region, listing wheat, barley, potatoes, and cattle.
From there to about 4500 m is the Freezing Region, with llamas (German spelling: one L)
Above that is the Snow-Covered Region.


I've boldfaced above the two regions where the Tren Crucero spends most time. The Hot Region is the coastal plain, which includes both Guayaquil & Durán, at 4 m (13 ft) and Bucay - 603 m (1,981 ft), all on the first day. (For Bucay, that's the town's elevation—the country inn where we stayed was higher.) After all the hot weather in the Galápagos, I had it again for this one more day, but only one walk we took was uncomfortable because of the heat.

 While on the topic of the heat, I'll take this opportunity to post part of an email from Friend Ruth in Australia, who apparently is better informed about temperatures to be expected in the islands: Thank you for taking me to the Galapagos - it's somewhere I've always wanted to visit but decided against because of the excessive heat. . . . I was surprised by the stats on land v sea visits - going by boat I had always considered the only option - but now I know better!

Little time was spent between there and the Cold Region, where the rest of the trip on the train, and in Quito, was spent. Alausí, at the end of the steep rise at the Devil's Nose, is at 2,347 m (7,700 ft); Riobamba, about halfway to Quito, is at 2,754 m (9,035 ft); the hotel in Quito was at 2,824 m (9,267 ft). But while those are typical, they're not the highest in the area. That highest rail station at Urbina is at a hefty 3,609 m (11,841 ft), and BOTH country inns we stayed in up in this area were considerably higher than Quito, giving me some new altitude records we'll summarize at the end of the current series. It was striking to go from mop-your-brow temperatures to sweater-and-jacket temperatures one day to the next. But I enjoy cooler weather, and the different weather was for me a huge improvement.

 In the past I've mentioned some online tools I use to measure distances and latitudes. I'm pleased to mention that, after extensive checking online to find elevations in Ecuador, particularly for the mountain hotels, which were not located in towns where altitudes were often listed online, I've discovered a tool to measure altitude. It's an Elevation Map, and the link is simply

At first, I just zoomed into the towns along the rail route, right-clicked on a point of interest (on a road is best), clicked "Get Information", and there was the altitude, and also latitude and longitude. But it's easier to click on "Menu", fill in a location, click "Search Location", and you get the same thing. This is how I know not only the altitudes of haciendas in the woods, but also know that the altitude of Bucay (above) is less than that of the country inn for that night. Also, when I checked the Quito hotel, I found its altitude was within 4 meters/yards of what I'd already found online for the general altitude of Quito. But it's fun, anyway.

But once I'd escaped the heat, there were more woes. I instead had the altitude to contend with, just as in Tibet, due to lower oxygen at those levels. I took the same prescription pills, but still felt the same lethargy the whole time "up top". Slower movements helped, but longer walks became tiring. I've read that you could also get headaches, dizziness, insomnia, or shortness of breath, but I've never had any of those problems.


And a further problem were the prescription pills I was taking for "stomach problems", which is of course a euphemism. They worked, but the warning that came with them was not to operate heavy machinery, since the pills would make you drowsy. Fortunately, I was not asked to take over running the steam engine during my cab visit (!!!), but these pills must have added to the fatigue. Still, by moving about cautiously, and taking it easy, I enjoyed the rest of the trip just fine.


Herbal Teas    In looking ahead to a possible trip to Peru and Bolivia, I found that most hotels in high-altitude Cusco give arriving "lowlanders" a complimentary cup of mate de coca, an herbal tea, which is supposed to help with what people in the Andes call soroche (so.RO.ché), or altitude sickness. The last day on the train I asked if they had any of that. They didn't, but suggested instead an infusión de cedrón. I didn't know what that was, and they obviously didn't know what the name in English was. It came in a tea bag, like any herbal tea, and I tried it, and it seemed to help. Of course, to some extent, any benefit from either of these brews might just be psychological. But psychological is good, too.


Well, it was weeks later until I looked up online what it was that I'd had. Cedrón turns out to be called lemon verbena in English, verbena odorosa in Italian, verveine odorante in French, Zitronenstrauch in German, citroenverbena in Dutch лимонная вербена / limonnaya verbena in Russian. Each of these names implies either a strong fragrance, or a lemon/citron flavor. Thus, an infusión de cedrón is a lemon verbena (herbal) tea.


I find it significant that it's native to the Central Andes and was brought to Europe by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 17C, where it was cultivated for its oil. It grows as a shrub to 2-3 meters/yards, and sprays of tiny purple and white flowers (click) (Photo by H. Zell) appear in late spring or early summer. The leaves emit a powerful lemony scent when bruised, hence the name. It's considered a plant for the herb garden since the leaves are used to add a lemon flavor to fish, poultry, and vegetable dishes and other foods and beverages. It can be added to real tea in place of actual lemon, and then, as I found out, is used to make herbal tea. It has a strong antioxidant capacity, which can help it counter altitude sickness.


But when I got to the Quito hotel, I asked for the mate de coca (MAH.té) I'd heard about, and it ended up being what I ordered with breakfast every morning to continue helping with the altitude. Instead of coming in the traditional leaf form, it again came in a tea bag. The name can be translated as coca tea.


But now we have to talk about coca, also a product of the Central Andes—and of its ancient Incan civilization. The leaves of the coca plant were revered by the Incas as being sacred or magical. Chewing those leaves was used to lessen hunger and pain, including acting as an anesthetic curing surgery. Chaskis (Spanish spelling: chasquis) were the runners who delivered messages in relays throughout the Incan empire on its extensive road system, and they chewed coca leaves for stamina and extra energy. When the Spanish took over the area, they realized the effects of chewing the coca leaves and took advantage of it as well.


This is the coca tree (click) and these are coca leaves (no attribution for either photo). This is an indigenous person in costume handling a single leaf (Photo by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil). Mate de coca is an infusion, an herbal tea, made by using these leaves, usually raw, in hot water. This is done either by submerging the coca leaf (Photo by Anikó) or using a tea bag (Photo by Franke 1), as I did regularly in Quito. As the first picture shows, the tea is greenish-yellow in color and is similar to green tea. Actual chewing of the coca leaf is common only among the indigenous populations, but consuming mate de coca is common among all sectors of society in the Central Andes. This is because it's held to be beneficial against the high altitude and to health, mood, and energy in general. The tea bags are in most groceries and are available, not surprisingly, to most establishments catering to visitors.


Now it's no secret that the leaves of the coca plant contain certain alkaloids, which, when extracted chemically, are the source of cocaine. But the amount available in a cup of mate de coca is only a small fraction, 0.25% to 0.77%, of what appears in cocaine prepared as an illegal drug, which has a highly concentrated amount of the material. The amount of the alkaloids present in coca tea is indeed a mild stimulant, but parallel to the amount of caffeine as a stimulant in coffee and tea. Furthermore, just as coffee can be decaffeinated, coca leaves can be decocainized, although a minute amount of the material will be retained in both processes.


Nevertheless, while coca tea is legal in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, and the plant is a cash crop in most of those countries, coca leaves and coca tea is illegal in the US unless it's decocainized.


Which now brings us to the topic of Coca-Cola. When it was invented in 1885, it was marketed as a patent medicine, which claimed to cure all sorts of things, and only later became a beverage. The name points out that it was made from coca leaves, for their stimulating quality, and kola nuts, a source of caffeine, for their stimulating quality. (To enhance the look of the logo, kola was respelled as cola.)

 The kola nut (Photo by Bob Walker) is the fruit of the kola tree, originally from West Africa. The picture shows the kola nut seed pod with half the tough husk cut away, exposing the nuts and their yellow fleshy covering. In the foreground are shown the individual nuts removed and separated, but also cleaned of the fleshy covering.

Perhaps you get some déjà vu here. We saw in the Galápagos that, while coffee cherries grow individually (like olives) and not in a large pod like kola nuts, they, too, have to have the fleshy covering removed to get to the coffee bean, just as is the case with kola nuts.

To put it bluntly, the two main ingredients in the original Coca-Cola were cocaine and caffeine. However, while the amount of cocaine, 9 mg per glass, was more than twice the amount than in a cup of mate de coca (4.2 mg per tea bag), it still was far from any serious concentration of cocaine.


But as of 1903, there was a change. Starting in 1904, Cocaine was prohibited in soft drinks in the US, and so Coca-Cola stopped using fresh coca leaves and started using "spent" leaves, leaves that have been decocainized, with only trace levels remaining. But it continues to use the coca leaf because of other extracts obtained from it.


Actually, Coca-Cola itself does not import the leaves directly, as there is only one company in the US, located in New Jersey, that is permitted to import coca leaves. This company prepares a cocaine-free coca leaf extract, which it sells to Coca-Cola, presumably along with the spent leaves. The raw cocaine extracted by this company then is sold to a company in St Louis, which is the only company in the US allowed to purify raw cocaine for medicinal use.

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