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Cultural Itinerary of Ecuador's Trans-Andean Train

Date of Submission: 24/02/2016
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Ecuador to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Chimborazo and Guayas Provincia
Coordinates: ALAUSÍ station (X 739923 Y 9756671); BUCAY station (X 708500 Y 9754992)
Ref.: 6090
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The Trans-Andean railroad is a unique railway, narrow-gauge (106.7 cm), 450 km long, built beginning in 1873 and, with the decided backing of the Liberal Revolution  led by Eloy Alfaro, completed and inaugurated in 1908, crossing through five provinces in Ecuador’s Highlands and Coast, with widely varied climatic zones, including primary forests. Set within a complex geography crossing through different ecosystems, from the coastal plains up to the lofty summits of the Andes, the railroad unites and integrates two of the country’s most important geographical regions. For several decades, it was the fundamental driver for economic, social and political development and for cultural exchange.

Most of its route crosses over the Andes range, which influenced the construction of a complicated layout that earned the name of the “world’s most difficult train” because of the human, technical and material efforts required to build it.

Ecuador’s Trans-Andean Railroad, or “Alfaro’s Train”, is still used to this day. All along the railway, the scenery is spectacular, and communities along the route continue to live their traditions and customs. Its 44 train stations feature characteristic architecture, framed in typologies associated with the train’s passage, reflecting a formal expression of the local reality and time. Because of its historical significance, Ecuador's train – since it was refurbished beginning in 2008 – calls for a new approach to managing heritage for tourism, geared to strengthening local ventures as a means for cultural exchange and their potential focusing on enhancing economic and social dynamics for the population groups influenced by the railway. One tourism product, called the Cruise Train, has been awarded the “Wider World Project” prize, and was named the best tourism product outside of Europe by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Recently, the railroad won first place in the Best Train Destination in South America category from the World Travel Awards (WTA).

The section from Alausí to Bucay, with the famous Devil’s Nose on its way, is part of the railway network.

This segment of the railway starts in Alausí, a Heritage City of Ecuador thanks to its Historical City Center conserved to this day; it runs 35.1 km, past views of the western slopes of the Andes, and major towns such as Huigra, at 1337 meters altitude, which had a lodging for railroad employees, a roomy headquarters of the railway association, a complex of housing for engineers, as well as a hospital and several rental houses to lodge visitors. These symbolic elements from the past century have been maintained over time. . This section reaches Bucay, a tropical valley ranging from 700 to 1200 meters above sea level on Ecuador’s coast, where the main railway workshops were set up, which are also maintained to the present day. The railway crosses through eight towns and stations, 16 metal bridges and four tunnels built in the early 20th century.

The Trans Andean train goes down from Alausí at 2428 meters altitude, by gradients dropping as much as 5.5%. The main feature while crossing through the mountains is the Devil’s Nose, 800 meters of massive rock (basaltic andesite) called Cóndor Puñuna (in the Kichwa language, the Condor’s Nest) where the railway zigzags, the engineering solution for a stretch where the train climbs 150 meters in barely 1.47 km. This great feat of engineering was designed by engineer John Harman, brother of Archer Harman, one of the contractors for the construction, and this section was completed, with great efforts, in 1901.

The giddy ups and downs link Cóndor Puñuna with the slopes of this great massif, where the rail station of Sibambe is located at 1100 meters altitude at (X 737335 Y 9755834) there is a narrow gap where two rivers merge, the Alausí and Guasuntos Rivers, to form the Chanchán River. The layout of this stretch of the railway was constantly adjusted and revised, because of the rigors of the lowland climate and the terrain with Andean buttresses and cliffs.

At the complex of the Sibambe station, at the Devil’s Nose, a museum has been set up to show the heritage of the railroad, with material and immaterial testimonies. This interpretation center is managed by the community of Nízag, a native indigenous population group from the sector, located in an area of pre-Hispanic agricultural terraces, crossed by a section of the old-time Andean Roadway System (which is not among the sub-sections registered as World Heritage).

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Ecuador’s Trans Andean Railroad, a symbol of National Unity and the country’s development, enabled exchange between the Highlands and Coastal regions (which prior to the railroad had been done on mule-back, a trip taking 10 to 12 days), and reached places that had been previously out of reach. Thus, the railroad changed Ecuador’s face, promoting trade and substantive sharing of customs and traditions among its regions and interaction with other countries through the Port of Guayaquil. Social exchange was also boosted when about 4000 workers came from Jamaica to construct the train in the tropical sections; the railroad has been a melting-pot for ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious exchange.

This railway is an icon of the period’s engineering (late 19th and early 20th century), with characteristics that convincingly substantiate calling it “the world’s most difficult train” because of the complexity of building a railroad crossing the tremendous Andes mountain range, from Guayaquil to Quito. Along with the railway and the train, different towns appeared or increased in importance, becoming gathering centers and points of trade, some featuring architecture influenced by the railway stations’ design, or with their own distinctive typologies.

The present submission for the Indicative World Heritage List considers this the most significant stretch from the standpoint of regional integration and development, for engineering to overcome the challenges posed by geography. It runs from Alausí (with its station and the town, which was itself named world cultural heritage), through Chiripungo, Piedra Grande, Zigzag Alto, Nariz del Diablo; Pistishi (with its station and the nearby town of Sibambe, the highest point); and then down from the Highlands to lower elevations, through the valley of Chanchán (with its station and nearby town) and Huigra (with its station and nearby town); Ochoa (with its station); Naranjapata (with its station and nearby town); San José (with its station of Ventura and nearby town); and finally the city of Bucay as the last station for this stretch and the first for Ecuador's coastal region.

Further, every episode treasured in the memory of Ecuador’s railroad frames realities involving local and national history, and diverse cultural expressions; the anniversaries of towns (when declared as parishes and cantons), moving episodes such as the transfer of political prisoners to be judged in Quito (even Eloy Alfaro himself, who promoted the train); but also new inter-regional family ties.  

Criterion (ii): "The proposed construction followed the policy goal of joining the country’s two most important regions at the time: the Coast and the Highlands, reducing regionalism and promoting circulation of merchandise for economic development and modernization of the country in short term”. It also enabled progress in use of the telegraph and the telephone.

This project in the late 19th century and early 20th century surpassed the aims of political differences and reinforced local and national economies. The railway engendered new towns and regions which were incorporated into the country’s development. These towns feature architecture that adapted to local tradition while assuming new elements contributed by the train stations and architecture from other regions of the country: for example, Alausí has wooden buildings, with outside porches, which are characteristic of the Coast. Different expressions arose, sharing different elements taken in new ways from very different natural settings. Another important value is the architectural legacy from the railway as a whole: bridges, tunnels and stations, some recovered and others on the way to being recovered, rather than being eliminated by new formal codes.

At this time (2014) this sows the world an engineering masterpiece, bringing together the intelligence, knowledge, hands and even lives from many Ecuadorians and foreigners. The railroad certainly qualifies for this category of the UNESCO representative list as world heritage.

Criterion (iv): The Ecuadorian Trans Andean Railroad is an example of the world’s engineering at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, which has survived to this day. It uses a straight-line system and a narrow gauge, based on wooden ties. “The construction of the Alausí – Devil’s Nose stretch was one of the most difficult in the entire railway system, because the machines had to be adapted to circulate on land with 5% slope, which is 2% more than standards allow. The change was approved by Congress, and in this stretch the surveyors and laborers had to hang from ropes to locate their equipment, make measurements, place dynamite, break boulders, or construct the railway foundation. The hooks from which they hung are still there in the cliff, in silent witness to this feat. The difficulty of this section was recognized in advance, before Harman arrived, by the railway engineer who studied the route through Chimbo, northwest of the final route. Sigvald Müller called this project “the world’s most difficult train”.   The uphill route called for increasing the slope, mechanically adapting the locomotives, and taking a zigzag route along the mountain rock called the Devil’s Nose”, climbing 150 m height in just 1.47 km.

To preserve this heritage property, the Government’s Ministry Resolution No. 029, published in Official Gazette No. 361, on 1 April 2008, declared that it belonged to the Nation’s Cultural Heritage, making Ecuador’s Railway Network a “Symbolic Testimonial Civil and Historical Heritage Monument.” This was the first step in beginning to recover and refurbish Ecuador’s heritage train, and the first stage, Quito – Durán, concluded in 2012.  Its integrity is supported by the existence of the original route, and the documentation of primary and secondary sources.

That stretch from Alausí to Bucay conserves 91.44% of the original route, stations, rehabilitated on the basis of national and international technical standards, conserving their esthetic and structural integrity while respecting their authenticity. Seven steam-engine locomotives are also conserved, , two being used and five being refurbished.

Criterion (v): The Trans-Andean Train is an extraordinary example of human interaction with the environment, because of its design that is suited to the transition from the coastal plains to the foothills and then the mountains themselves, integrating geographical regions, towns and cultures with diverse contents, forms and manifestations.

When the train was not operating well, for nearly three decades, this also affected many towns. In 2007 the Government made the strategic decision to rehabilitate the railway and its surroundings. The new railway service is oriented toward tourism, to bringing towns back to life, to reactivating food and crafts culture, to showcasing the different altitudinal climate zones of a small portion of territory and preserve flora and fauna.

The rehabilitation work to safeguard this cultural and historical heritage of Ecuador is good news, reiterating the concept from 132 years ago, of enhancing economies’ dynamics and exchanging goods and cultures; overcoming geographical contrasts and driving the country’s integration.

Since the Ecuadorian train is now a tourism and heritage system, recovering and using this strengthening of productive activities fostering tourism and historical / heritage value, with social responsibility; the rehabilitation process has gone side-by-side with recovery and rehabilitation of railway heritage, incorporating the community in providing tourism and complementary services, encouraging business ventures and driving local economies to responsibly use their heritage.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Trans Ecuadorian Railway, Alausí – Devil’s Nose – Bucay Section    
years of construction: 1876 – 1902
length: 78 km
narrow gauge: 106.7 cm
characteristic: mountain train Semmering Railway (1998), Austria
years of construction: 1841 - 1854
length: 41 km
narrow gauge:
characteristic: mountain train


Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (1999), India
years of construction: 1879 - 1881
length: 45 km
narrow gauge: 610 mm
characteristic: mountain train

Mountain Railways Of India

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (1999)
Nilgiri Mountain Railway (2005)
Kalka-Shimla Railway (2008)
Matheran hill Railway (Indicative List)

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is located in India’s Himalayas. It began construction in 1879, concluded in 1881 and was registered on the World Heritage List in 1999. It used the rack-and-pinion technology and narrow-gauge (610 mm) to circulate between Siliguri and Darjeeling in West Bengal. It is approximately 78 kilometers long, goes up through the mountains, rising 1,877 meters (from 326 m to 2203 m altitude). It helped the people get around and contributed to the region's socio-economic development.

In addition to the Darjeeling Railway, located in the Himalaya Range and registered on the World Heritage List since 1999, the railway circulating in the Nilgiri Mountains in the State of Tamil Nadú has been added. It is a rack-and-pinion railway traveling on a single track one meter wide, for a distance of 45 km. It was planned in 1854, but due to the difficulties of the route, in such a steep zone, it did not begin construction until 1891 and was completed in 1908. The railroad climbs the mountain slopes, rising 1,877 meters (from 326 m to 2203 m altitude), is still operating, and represents avant-garde technology for its time. During British colonial times in India, it played a very important role, facilitating people’s movements and contributing to the region’s socio-economic development. (UNESCO/BPI).