Ecuador's Expreso Metropolitan is back on track

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QUITO, Ecuador -- The Expreso Metropolitan, an antique Pullman railroad car, is back on track for Metropolitan Touring's sightseeing excursions through the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.

View of the Andes On two and four-day tours from Quito, travelers ride a car attached to a freight and passenger train hauled by a diesel locomotive on narrow-gauge tracks between Riobamba and Chanchan.

The refitted car has a rear-view platform, comfortable seats, ceiling fans, large windows, a bar and modern toilets.

The affectionately facetious name Expreso Metropolitan conveys the relaxed railroading style that combines with the thrilling trans-Andean train route.

Most passengers prefer to leave the comfort of the car, climb the narrow outside ladder to the roof, and, holding on to a hand rail for security, sit and sway as the train lollops and lurches along; the views are panoramic, and riding on the "roof of the world" is exhilarating.

The constantly changing scenery is awesome: snowcapped Andean volcanoes, cloud formations, breathtaking mountain passes, the paramo (a stark, high, treeless plateau reaching up to the volcano peaks), swiftly flowing mountain streams, patchworks of fields and Indians tending their crops on steep slopes.

The big thrill is the Devil's Nose, an almost sheer cliff along which a seven-mile section of track zigzags down on a ledge cut into the mountainside, overhanging a river gorge.

The switchback, necessary for scaling this cliff, is between the small towns of Alausi at 8,553 feet and Siambe at 5,925 feet; it was featured in the National Geographic film "Love Those Trains."

Expreso Metropolitan tours have departures on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays: two-day tours by rail and road that link Quito with Riobamba, the country's most Indian city, and the Pacific port of Guayaquil, and a four-day tour that ends in the colonial city of Cuenca.

A comfortable autoferro, which resembles a bus with metal wheels that runs on the train tracks, is used on some departures.

The route from Quito to Riobamba is along the Avenue of Volcanoes -- Pinchincha, Atacazo, Corazon, Iliniza, Antizana, Cotopaxi, Altar, Chimborazo -- where the highest volcanoes are snowcapped year-round.

Each itinerary provides a different mix of sightseeing -- visits to Indian markets (Latacunga or Saquisili) and craft villages; Banos, the pilgrimage spa on the Amazon side of the Andes; Inca and pre-Inca Canari ruins at Ingapirca; Ambato; Riobamba and Cuenca.

Dinner and accommodations are at either of two rustic country inns, Hosteria el Troje or Albergue Abraspungu, in Riobamba.

When the train trip ends at Chanchan, passengers either return to Quito overland; continue to Guayaquil by road and descend the slopes as the landscape changes to tropical rain forest, banana plantations and sugarcane fields of the Pacific coast, or drive farther south through the Andes for a two-night stay in Cuenca.

The two-day, one-night Quito-Riobamba-Quito Expreso costs $290 per person, double; the two-day, one-night Quito-Riobamba-Guayaquil tour costs $325, and the four-day, three-night Quito-Cuenca Expreso Adventure costs $645 or $726, depending on accommodations chosen in Cuenca.

Choices in Cuenca are El Dorado or the Oro Verde, and tour features include all sightseeing excursions, all meals en route with one breakfast at a colonial hacienda, snacks aboard the train and meals and accommodations at country inns or hotels.

The air ticket return from Cuenca to Quito is not included in the package price.

To book, agents can contact the operator's U.S. representative:

Adventure Associates
Phone: (800) 527-2500 or (972) 907-0414
Fax: (972) 783-1286

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