On the Old Patagonian Express

 

 

The locomotive slowly backs up to the slatted rail carriages. Gleaming like an unused stainless steel oven, it reflects the strong Andean morning sun back at our cameras. Suddenly, it whistles and releases a cloud of white steam that freezes instantly and forms tiny droplets that fog my sunglasses. Everyone cheers. The crowd assembled at Esquel train station is in a party mood. We have already fallen in love with La Trochita, as the locals call the Old Patagonian Express, and we haven’t even started our trip.

Not that we’re going far. Nowadays only one stop is on offer: from Esquel, a pleasant admin town in the Andes, to Nahuel Pan, a native Patagonian village, one hour away.

When Paul Theroux wrote about his ride to the Andes and turned his journey into legend, the times were different. The 1970s and 1980s were the Golden Age of Tourist Travel when affordable flights shrank the world to a manageable size. Every corner of the earth was ready to be probed and scrutinised by hordes of youngsters with their possessions on their backs and an unquenchable thirst for the exotic.

Those were the times when La Trochita was the only land approach to the remote outposts of Esquel and Trevelin and their lifeline with the large cities of the north. The train was built to carry freight and link up with the Bariloche–Buenos Aires line at Ingeniero Jacobacci.

When I first set eyes on La Trochita I nearly fell backwards laughing. I’d heard about a “narrow gauge train” but I didn’t expect a tram. And yet, this is what the Trochita is: a steam train run on simple tram lines 75cm apart. These are the tracks that had to be laid out quickly during the first world war to transfer troops and provisions to the Western front. After the armistice, they were dismantled and Argentina bought them lock stock and locomotive. The cheap and dirty temporary war transport found permanent use in Patagonia.

Passenger services started after the coal-fired engines turned to oil in the late 1940s and by the 1970s backpackers had started exploring the mysterious Patagonia of lore. But the mounting maintenance costs of the Patagonian Express caught up with it. The engine uses 100 litres of water per kilometre , so a pump station was built every 40 kms in the dry steppe. The increasing price of oil and the dangerous terrain – as late as 2011 the cars were derailed because of strong winds – also conspired to close the line, except for the short one-hour trip we’re about to embark on.

At last we’re all aboard and with a thud we start. It’s 10:05, and we’re five minutes late, but who cares? We all clap instead.

We chuff and chug at walking pace out of the town. A guy  runs in front of us with a red flag to stop the traffic before we cross a road. He then runs to his car and leaves us standing. We meet him at the next junction waving his flag in front of a lone van whose driver strops, stunned.

Although our engine can reach a speed of 65km/hr, we are running only at an average of 20km/hr. Probably because we drive parallel to Estrada 259 and we cross it a few times. A lorry zips by faster than us but, hey, we have priority. The guy with the red flag is waiting for us. The lorry stops and the driver takes a picture on his smartphone.

The complete journey north took something between 14 to 20 hours. The passengers used a cast iron wood-fired stove to cook their food: they fried eggs, seared steaks and even roasted whole racks of lamb on top. We have one in our compartment, too, and I would love to crack an egg on it, but it’s not turned on. These days there is a proper restaurant car for us tenderfoots. Still, the uncomfortable couches are 1922 originals.

The driver’s having a lot of fun with the whistle. We scare a horse tied to a tree, and it starts running in circles. A woman on the bridge of the Esquel canal is stunned and nearly drops her shopping. Soldiers from an Army base we pass, smile and wave. Better stop snapping – this is Latin America!

Once out of the city, we are into the scrub-and-thorn bush that defines the Patagonian landscape all the way to the coast. Bare mountains look down upon us as we look down on Esquel in turn. We pass through a thicket of pines planted for timber. You have to go to the snowy peaks far away, to the National Park los Alerces, to see proper forests, for the Andes hold the moisture from the Pacific and don’t let it reach the steppe.

The ticket inspector comes in, all Argentinian seriousness, followed by the official photographer, all smiles, who takes orders for professionally taken pictures next to La Trochita. I also find out that tomorrow, Saturday, there is a mock raid by armed bandits on horseback who will stop the train and rob the passengers. Tickets cost extra for the raid experience.

By now we’ve reached the main crossing point on Highway 40, where the guy with the red flag is waiting for us along with trainspotters gathered for the 10:50am sighting. A car starts off and runs suspiciously at the same speed parallel with us; maybe that’s a real hold-up? Actually no, he’s only filming us, one hand on the camcorder, the other on the driving wheel. I suppose he won’t see another car for 100 kilometres, but I still look away in disapproval.

 

 

We have now reached the first farmhouses of Nahuel Pan. The pueblo comprises twenty-two Mapuche and Tehuelche families dispersed over 1500 hectares for every homestead is built around a well. Argentina gave them the land for free, but it’s arid, dry and hard to farm. To the villagers the 45-minute stop of the Old Patagonian Express is the sole money-spinner and they’re waiting for us.

We disembark at Nahuel Pan amid makeshift artesanias where thick woollens and glazed pottery are vying for our attention; we visit the local museum that presents a blunt history of the treatment of native Patagonians by the Argentinian government; and we queue at the canteen to buy empanadas and tortas fritas (flat dough patties fried in oil).

And that’s it. The locomotive has done a turn and is now ready to return to Esquel. Our trip was short but sweet enough to turn anyone into a train enthusiast. Someone said once that every locomotive is a living spirit; but our lovely Trochita is more than that.

It’s a train with a soul.

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the Southern Discoverer round the world or the Star round the world there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

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