'Riding On The Roof' A Highlight Of New Rail Tours In The Andes To Ecuador's Cotopaxi National Park By Metropolitan Touring

Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador’s largest tour operator, has introduced one-day adventure excursions by rail from Quito, the capital, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Cotopaxi National Park, an ecological sanctuary. The full-day tour combines riding on the roof of an autoferro, a one-coach train, with spectacular views of the Andes Mountains; massive snow-capped Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes; the chance to see llamas, wild horses and birdlife on the park’s windswept moors; and lunch at a cozy restaurant. Departures are on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays year-round. Cost is $77 per person.

The autoferro, which resembles a bus on train tracks, departs the Quito train station on a southward journey through valleys between eastern and western ranges of the Andes. Passengers can leave the comfort of the car to climb the outside ladder to the roof for the exhilarating ride and panoramic views, protected by a guardrail, sitting on cushions and swaying as the autoferro lollops and lurches along narrow-gauge tracks at a leisurely pace. The constantly changing scenery is awesome: snow-capped peaks, high treeless plateau (paramo), rushing streams, lush valleys, and steep slopes with patchworks of terraced fields tended by Indians.

Considered the most beautiful of the Andes volcanoes, perfectly symmetrical 19,347-foot Cotopaxi has a colossal snow-covered cone that gleams in the sun and on clear days can be seen in Quito, 44 miles north. The first recorded eruption, during a battle in 1534, terrified Spanish conquistadores and Incas. Its last major eruption in 1877 caused avalanches to reach the Pacific Ocean, 200 miles away.

Participants leave the train at El Boliche, stopping at the recreation area before driving to 89,920-acre Cotopaxi National Park, founded in 1975 as a sanctuary for nature lovers, hikers and mountain climbers and now the most visited Ecuadorian national park after the Galapagos Islands. Tour members visit the small natural history museum and Limpiopungo Lake, home to many bird species, and take a nature walk on the vast plateau. White-tailed deer, Andean gulls, hummingbirds, rabbits, frogs and with luck the rare Andean condor may also be seen.

An alternate tour, Cotopaxi National Park by Rail Plus Hacienda, has a shorter autoferro ride to Machachi in a small valley framed by volcano peaks. After hot chocolate and a snack, participants go by motorcoach up to the Cotopaxi moors for a nature hike and then to an hacienda with a comfortable farmhouse built from local materials like adobe, straw and eucalyptus wood. Lunch in the family dining room includes farm-fresh cheese, garden vegetables and home-made desserts. In the afternoon participants have leisure time and a choice of horseback riding, birdwatching, hiking, watching cheese made or cows milked, or just relaxing at the hacienda. The tour price, which varies with the number of participants, ranges from $123 to $215 each for two to 15 persons.

The rail trip to Cotopaxi has been added to two- to four-day Expreso Metropolitan Touring rail and road packages featuring rooftop rides aboard an autoferro on the famous 1,000-foot Devil’s Nose (La Nariz del Diablo) switchback, an almost sheer cliff on which the railway track zigzags down a ledge cut into the mountainside overhanging a river gorge south of Alausi. The tours link Quito with the market city of Riobamba; restored Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and Pacific port; and colonial Cuenca. Quito and Cuenca are World Heritage sites.

The two-day Quito-Riobamba-Quito Expreso costs $311 per person, double occupancy; the two-day Quito to Guayaquil tour $360 to $772 for two to 15 persons; and Quito-Cuenca adventures, with choice of hotel, $532 or $555 for three days and $695 or $749 for four days including tours and excursions, hotels, all meals, tour guide, ground transportation and transfers.

Metropolitan Touring celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. Train trips can be added to stays in mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Information and reservations are available from Adventure Associates, 13150 Coit Road, Suite 110, Dallas, TX 75240; (800) 527-2500 and (972) 907-0414; www.metropolian-touring.com

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