The low murmur of excited discussion loaded the ticket hall. On the ground all-around me, a few chickens sat in cages up coming to sacks of firewood, bundles of clothes and blankets, and packing containers of kitchen area tools and other domestic products.
Salta railway station was coming to life on a gray early morning, but none of the couple of dozen persons who’d brought these belongings have been there to board a regular commuter company. They experienced arrive to travel on a weekly freight train that adopted the Salta-Antofagasta line up into the Puna, a distant location of arid, mountainous beauty in northwest Argentina.
It was March 1999, and I was on the South American leg of a spherical-the-planet excursion. The prospect of driving a freight prepare into the Andes had led to all types of views. Like was I destined to endure numerous hours perched on a coal heap, a soot-lined driver offering me swigs of the regional aguardiente to retain out the chilly? Or would I have to bed down on the wood ground of a dusty wagon like some Depression-period hobo?
I was only reassured when I really noticed the educate. Hooked up to freight wagons, which were in turn coupled to tank vehicles that sat guiding the diesel locomotive far in advance, ended up passenger compartments. With padded seats.
The train had no set departure time. Possibly 9, it’s possible 10am. When almost everything was prepared. We pulled out of the station at about 9:45, setting up up velocity as we handed the city’s outermost streets and entered a a lot more bucolic earth. We built our way throughout flat fields, wherever workers set down their equipment, wiped their brows and waved to us. The sunshine was commencing to burn off via the clouds.
Once in a while the educate would cease at a small local community to allow off passengers. Via the window I purchased chocolate-stuffed bread rolls, virtually-overripe bananas and bottled h2o from the outstretched palms of distributors. We headed northwest along a purple river with gray alluvial islands, which the one keep track of from time to time crossed on metallic viaducts as it climbed together the steep-sided, inexperienced valley.
Following a handful of hrs we arrived at the large desert, in which pampas grass and tall cardón cacti grew all all-around, and the sun’s rays highlighted the purple, gray, yellow and brown levels in just about every craggy sandstone outcrop. In the Puna, the rock formations carry these evocative names as Devil’s Throat and The Castles.
No person in my compartment appeared unimpressed with the scenery. I talked to Maria and Antonio, a young few from Salta who were being sitting across the aisle from me we located the sweet place in the Venn diagram where by our Spanish, English and French language abilities overlapped. They stated that the space felt foreign to them since they were from a town and of European descent. The mountains were being house to indigenous people, who produced up the vast majority of the passengers – the relaxation being a handful of sightseers and backpackers.
The practice slowed down at a signpost to permit a relatives disembark. A few or four persons greeted them with open arms, as well as mules to have their belongings. Possibly they lived down in the fertile valley just seen a few kilometres absent. It appeared a single of the couple of places exactly where men and women could eke out a living from this severe land.
Maria took out a maté established comprising a steel, filtered straw – identified as a bombilla – and a compact brown gourd. This she filled with dried yerba maté leaves, warm drinking water and sugar. Maté is the national consume of Argentina and is ordinarily handed round a group of people – subject to selected protocols like handing the gourd on to the man or woman to your right when you’ve completed. This was my initially style of it. It was a bit like sweet black tea, but without the need of any underlying bitterness.
The temperature inside the educate experienced dropped and the bundles of garments I’d noticed back at Salta were staying place to great use, their proprietors donning layer on layer of woollen sweaters as we climbed bigger into the Puna. I was glad when the steaming maté gourd came back again round to me quite a few far more situations.
A person of the world’s optimum railways, the Salta-Antofagasta line crosses the Andes to the Pacific coastline in Chile. Our educate – the Tren Mixto Salta-Socompa to give its total title – travelled as significantly as the border, from wherever it was achievable to capture a Chilean freight company onwards.
The Tren Mixto was not the only passenger support operating on the Argentine area, though. The a lot quicker, far more deluxe Tren a las Nubes – the Teach to the Clouds – took visitors on return working day journeys from Salta for US$170, and made available a buffet automobile, people bands, bilingual guides and, in scenario of altitude sickness, oxygen tanks.
But I was happy to be aboard what was in impact a lifeline into the mountains. The amusement was all about me, each within the carriage and by means of the window. It mattered very little that our $10 tickets entitled us only to fundamental services. We could get as significantly hot drinking water for building maté as we preferred from an urn at the close of the carriage. And bathroom arrangements were being easy: a hole in the ground as a result of which I could see the floor speeding by.
Outside, the clouds have been thickening, forming a barrier in between the scrubby simple and the distant, snow-speckled peaks. I observed lightning strike a hillside 200 metres away, a puff of smoke suggesting it had vapourised a cactus.
As dusk fell and the train’s comfortable lights came on, Antonio, a singer-songwriter in his spare time, sang a couple of melancholic people tunes, which equipped the gathering gloom properly. These tunes experienced a soporific influence. There was little to see exterior, and anyone was tiring many thanks to a extensive day and the thinning air.
Quickly, out of the evening, came the dim lights of a town: the copper mining outpost of San Antonio de los Cobres, 3775 metres higher than sea amount. Following far more than 12 hrs on board, I resolved this was the correct place to disembark.
All those travellers who have been keeping on board ended up obtaining out sleeping bags and even more dresses. They would have to endure increased altitudes and bitter cold as the prepare wound its way by way of the evening to the border at Socompa. It would take virtually a day and a 50 % for the coach to return.
These of us in want of lodging were being whisked off through the dim streets of San Antonio by minibus to a smart and fashionable stone-crafted hotel. There, soon after a late supper of hen and chips, I slept off my only reaction to the altitude: a sore head.
When I woke up the next day I realised the resort had supplied me a phony impact of the city. Even on a crisp, sunny morning, San Antonio was a bleak spot, with potholed streets, a stark mountainous backdrop and lots of dilapidated adobe-brick structures.
But I was blessed to pay a visit to when I did. The Tren Mixto would cease operating various several years afterwards, and while the Tren a las Nubes nonetheless runs, it now only can make the 2-hour round excursion from San Antonio to La Polvorilla viaduct. Travellers need to travel by tour bus from Salta to San Antonio. Advancements to the highway signify the journey can take just 3 hrs by street, as opposed to half a working day by teach, so it’s tough to envision the Tren Mixto returning.
I took a wander by means of the streets of San Antonio, which were being mostly deserted apart from for some little ones enjoying football in the property of a crumbling school. Many of the buildings had their shutters closed, though some have been just boarded up and deserted. Dust blew along the street floor, pushed by the cold wind coming down off a hillside that shown the Argentine flag. I puzzled how significantly that painted nationwide symbol intended to all those living in the properties close to me.
Copyright © 2020 Nick Elvin