My partner and I were down in Argentina last week. He was in Buenos Aires at the behest of the Argentine government and I was just coming along for the ride. We have been doing this routine for the last few years every November. Usually the business takes place in Buenos Aires and then the two of us take off to somewhere else in Argentina for about a week. Last year we spend time in Cordoba and this year we decided to have a little fun in Salta.
Salta is a medium size city in the extreme north western part of Argentina. The Bolivian and Chilean borders are virtually within spitting distance. The flight from the domestic Aeroparque Newberry in Buenos Aires on LAN Argentina takes about two hours.
Like most Argentinian towns and cities Salta has an attractive, leafy main square ringed by Spanish colonial era buildings, the ground floor of a number of these buildings being used for cafes and restaurants.
The City of Salta is also the gateway to numerous interesting attractions. The Calfayate wine growing area is not far. The endless rock formations on the road to Humahuaca and Purmamarca are absolutely awe inspiring and not to be missed.
As my readers could easily guess there was another reason to pay a visit to Salta. And that happened to be the "Tren a Las Nubes", the Train to the Clouds.
The Tren a Las Nubes operates from Salta to the La Polvorilla Viaduct, a distance of 130 miles, and back. The viaduct is the highest point of the line at about 4220 meters (13845 feet) above sea level. The track is part of the Salta to Antofagasta line, a Chilean port on the Pacific Ocean. In Argentina the line is operated by the Ferrocarril General Manuel Belgrano company, in Chile the Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia is the operator. The total length of the railway line is about 585 miles, using meter gauge track. Despite the incredible steep grades it was decided during the planning stages for the rail line not to use rack, but to stick with a pure adhesion railroad.
This of course necessitated a significant number of viaducts, tunnels and zig-zags. Reportedly there are about 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 2 spirals and 2 zigzags. The route was designed by the US engineer Richard Maury and the first rail was laid in 1921. By 1932 the railway had reached the La Polvorilla viaduct and it was finally finished in 1948.
The impetus for building the line was to facilitate the exploitation of the rich deposits of various minerals and the export movement of agricultural products from the Salta province. Antofagasta in Chile is the closest deep water port to the area, there is no place even remotely close in Argentina that could be used for this. Unfortunately freight rail traffic basically ceased during the 80's, due to some incredibly misguided political transportation policy decisions. I must hasten to add that Argentina was only one of many a country that managed to destroy their superbly functioning freight rail systems during those years. And the Argentinians are still paying for this huge mistake with hopelessly overburdened roads and a national traffic fatality rate that will bring tears to your eyes.
It seems however that there are some sane voices after all. On the 15th of October of this year the Chilean and the Argentinian governments signed an agreement to refurbish the entire line, with a weekly trial freight train to start immediately.
Back to the "Tren a Las Nubes"! It is run by the Ecotren S.A. corporation and started up again in 2008 after a three year hiatus. It runs every Friday, leaving Salta station at 07:05 hrs.
As mentioned before the train will go up to the La Polvorilla viaduct, the highest point on the line. It stops there for about 45 minutes and then proceeds back down the grade to the station at San Antonio de los Cobres.
There passengers are off loaded and put on buses for the remaing trip back to Salta. Arrival time back at the Salta station is about 20:30 hrs. A long day to be sure.
There are seven or ten carriages forming the train depending on demand. One generator/medical carriage, one dining car, a bar/snack car and the rest are pure passenger coaches. All this is being pulled by a roughly 35 year old General Motors six axle EMD GT22CU diesel-electric locomotive.
Ecotren S. A., the operator of the "Tren a Las Nubes", reportedly refurbished the coaches for the renewed start up of the service. For a train that depends solely and exclusively on tourists for it's revenue very little thought seems to have been given to this rebuilding of the passenger coaches. There is no air conditioning (during my trip it was incredibly dusty and hot) and even though there were ceiling fans either they did not work, or nobody bothered to switch them on. The seating was very uncomfortable and crammed. The vis-à-vis arrangement is ludicrous. The poor woman sitting across from me and I were constantly playing a game of footsie trying to get comfortable and forever apologizing to each other for stepping on each others toes. For a roughly 14 hour train ride this is simply unacceptable. What was baffling to me was the fact that the seats could have been "reversed", positioned all in the same direction and thus giving passengers a lot more leg room. If however, for example, a family of four wanted to sit vis-à-vis this could have been easily arranged!
The coaches rode well. Must have been the good old German quality trucks being used! But then again, we did not break any speed records.
The dining car was built by Fiat in 1974. It was certainly functional and clean. Shortly after the beginning of our journey we had bought meal tickets for a one o'clock lunch of roast chicken with rice. At the appointed hour we made our way to the dining car and were seated at our assigned table with an Italian couple. The food was simply prepared, but plentiful and tasty.
At Chorrillos we encountered the first zigzag. There are two of them and they allow the train to gain a considerable amount of altitude without having to resort to a complicated rack and pinion track system.
Just in case you did not gather what's going on:
Soon we reached the station of Maury, named after the rail line builder. Here the locomotive runs around the coaches and pushes the train up the rest of the trip to the La Polvorilla viaduct. There are no "run around" facilities at the La Polvorilla viaduct, thus the maneuver at the Maury station.
Eventually we reach the end of the trip at the La Polvorilla viaduct. This is the highest point of the line at 4220 meters or roughly 13850 feet. The train will run across the viaduct for the obligatory photo opportunity and then sit for about 45 minutes so passengers can get out and take in the view. And be hassled by locals trying to sell useless trinkets.
The air is very thin up here. So I was not at all that unhappy when the whistle blew, indicating that it was time to get back on the train for the ride back.
Now the passengers were entertained by some folklore groups for a while. This kind of thing is not really my cup of tea, but i will have to admit that the group in our carriage was good. There after we all received certificates documenting our ascent to 4220 meters via train.
It had been a long day already and by now quite a few travellers had trouble keeping their eyes open. Once we reached the San Antonio De Los Cobres station all passengers were off loaded and put on buses for the remainder of the trip back to Salta. We arrived back at Salta at about 8 pm. The empty train would get in at about midnight.
A few observations:
It will be an early (one has to be at the station at 06:15 hrs) and long, 15 hour day. The rail line is an engineering marvel and while the scenery is wonderful it is not a Glacier or Bernina Express experience! The equipment is not the best and the seats are uncomfortable. It is expensive!
A few more scenery shots:
A short video of the "Tren a Las Nubes": .