Anyone who’s read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas by Paul Theroux probably dreams of traveling by train through the Americas. But that’s considerably harder to do now than it was when Theroux set off on his adventure because so few train lines still exist. One exception is the Tren Crucero luxury train in Ecuador which takes passengers on a 4-day exploration of the culture, food, and natural beauty of the Andes and the Pacific coast between Quito and Guayaquil.
Aboard the Tren Crucero train in Ecuador
You can do your Tren Crucero journey from Quito to Guayaquil, traveling from the Andes to the Pacific (as we did), or vice versa.
The train itself is plush and comfortable with lots of big windows, sitting areas, and tables from which to relax and watch the world slowly roll by.
Attentive and English-speaking staff members are also quick with a drink or a snack or answers to your questions.
The open-sided viewing car at the rear of the train is a great place for taking photos or just feeling even closer to the passing landscapes. We spent a lot of time there.
Some days also featured onboard entertainment, including a traditional band that played as they strolled through the cars.
The passing of the train is a big deal in the villages through which the tracks pass. Locals wave, dogs bark, and life generally pauses as the train rolls through.
Highlights of a Tren Crucero luxury train trip
The Tren Crucero itinerary includes many off-train excursions that explore the culture and natural beauty of Ecuador.
One of our first excursions was a visit to Cotopaxi National Park where wild horses roam and towering Cotopaxi Volcano dominates the horizon.
A few of the train stations along the way were also used as live performance venues so that we could see various traditional dances of Ecuador.
We also toured one of Ecuador’s many rose farms where we learned the surprising reason why Ecuador produces so many of the best roses in the world. Find out why in our post from inside a rose farm in Ecuador.
Building a train line through the Andes was not easy, but one particular rocky outcrop required amazing engineering. This spot is now called the Devil’s Nose and the Tren Crucero passes through it using a complicated series of track which switchbacks along the steep section, sometimes requiring the train to travel in reverse.
At Laguna de Colta, we got off the train long enough to visit the Iglesía de Balbanera near the train station. Built in 1534, this small baroque structure is the oldest Catholic church in Ecuador.
At the Urbina train station, we met a local man named Baltazar Ushca. He’s better known as the last iceman of Ecuador because he still collects ice by hand from the glacier on the flanks of the nearby Chimborazo Volcano.
Passenger trains are rare enough, but steam engines are even rarer. At one point in the journey, the Tren Crucero is hooked up to a steam engine known as “The Black Monster” for part of the transit.
A second steam engine was also used briefly as we approached the city of Guayaquil.
Tren Crucero itineraries are crafted so that passengers arrive at the train station in the town of Guamote with time to wander around the very authentic market there.
There’s no tourist junk in the Guamote market, just rows and rows of daily necessities (clothing, animal feed, fresh vegetables, even guinea pigs) and traditionally-dressed shoppers from area villages.
While snacks and drinks are provided on the train, meals are enjoyed at area restaurants and feature many Ecuadorean specialties including locro soup and alpaca.
The scenery changes every day as the Tren Crucero travels through villages, past small farm plots, around Andean peaks, and then down through lowland lushness to the Pacific (or vice versa).
The Tren Crucero is not a sleeper train, so nights are spent in hotels along the way. Many of the accommodations are in haciendas which have been transformed into history-filled hotels (like the one above). Those who pay a supplement for Gold Class transit stay in better hotels or in better rooms.
See some of what we saw from on board the Tren Crucero in our video, below.
Yes, the Tren Crucero trip is very expensive by Ecuadorean standards (outdone only by travel in the Galapagos), but if you love trains, have the funds, and want many of the best elements of Ecuador’s beauty and culture packed into one tidy, no-brainer itinerary then a Tren Crucero trip is for you. Get more details about this adventure on the rails in our story about travel on the Tren Crucero for The Dallas Morning News.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador