LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 38
Page. 84 - 95
By: Soledad Gil
Pictures: Federico Quintana
HIGH IN THE CLOUDS
The plan was to follow the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) up to San Antonio de los Cobres, reach the salt flats and pass through Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes and las Lagunas del Toro on our
-Don't have any.
-Don't have any of those either
-A pen? What do you want one for?
-To write with.
What a silly question. I searched my pockets but couldn't find that
-Sorry, no. (For the last few days we had been completely isolated
from the rest of the world.)
-Yes! That I do have!
Relieved and very pleased to at least have found a healthy gift, I began to distribute grapefruit hither and thither. "Tastes good!", they exclaimed as they squeezed them with their small weather ridden hands.
On the trail of the Tren a las Nubes, the "coinsweets-pen" scene repeated itself almost at every station. In San Antonio de los Cobres, the
most important urban centre en route, there are two other strategic spots where you encounter the same requests: The Inti-Huasi- the "diner" where those who follow the tracks of the train (by 4x4) stop for lunch, and the Hotel de las Nubes, the hotel to keep in mind when you're visiting this part of the country.
We highly recommend a stop there to admire the view, and recover from the affects of the altitude with a "coca tea" or a well deserved rest. We felt exhausted, almost as if we had run all the way up, instead
of being expertly driven there in Federico Norte's well-equipped -including huge quantities of grapefruit!- four wheel drive vehicle.
We left Salta very early in the morning, determined to catch up with the train which had departed earlier still. The roosters were crowing when we reached Route 51 leading to Campo Quijano.
This town of 12,000 inhabitants is not only the last stop before the paved roads turn to gravel, but also the original campsite set LIP on 9 July 1921 for the railroad workers. Here the Argentine national day is annually celebrated with typical gaucho-horse exhibitions and other festivities. The rest of the time, this town is a curious blend of cactus' country and charming small houses with their own swimming
pools. Quijano takes great pride in being the town where the remains of Richard Fontaine Maury (the creator of the famous train) lie.
Caught between spirals and zigzags.
The moon was still there to welcome the new day when we followed the course of the Rio Toro, and reached El Alisal. So far, no train in sight.
The road slowly became steeper, and just as our ears began to pop and we were starting to feel dizzy, Fede Quintana came to our rescue with some acusay, (small balls of coca leaves) , however I resorted to the Bolivian cure known as sorojchi pills, (see LUGARES 34). When at last, after passing through Chorrillos the train finally appeared, we were fully recovered and genuinely thrilled at our sought after encounter. The train chugged along, enhancing the immensity of the
mountain tops and the cactus plants. All the shades of green, ochre, and dark red of the mountains came to life with the white, blue and bright red contrast of the wagons. At the steepest point it did two amazing zigzags, slowed down, and then came to a complete halt, when it actually began to move backwards down an even steeper hill, disappeared into a tunnel, then re-appeared some 50 metres higher up. At the height
of 2,550 m, it stops at the famous town, of Ingeniero Maury.
This tourist train runs, since 1992, between the months of April and November, from Salta to the La Polvorilla viaduct, at an altitude of 4>220 m. At its final destination, a ceremony takes place every Saturday at about 2.30 p.m., accompanied by the musical theme of Chariots of Fire. The viaduct is a genuine work of art, 224 metres long and 63 metres high. Its construction began in September 1929, and was
inaugurated by the first train towards the end of 1932. This stretch only covers 217 km of the total 570 km to Socompa, on the border with Chile, somewhat less than a quarter of the 903.8 km of railway tracks
which link Salta to Antofagasta, the real purpose for Maury's train. The C-14 branch , of the Belgrano Railway, is the third highest in the world, and the locomotive pulls the 10 wagons which can carry
520 passengers. This branch includes 19 tunnels, 29 bridges, 13 viaducts, 9 freight sheds, two spirals, and the two incredible zigzags of El Alisal and Chorrillos, which climb as much as 54 metres, the equivalent
to an 18 storey building.
The maximum height (4,475m), is further out, at Abra de Chorrillos. It is possible to reach these lost stations, inhabited mainly by miners, by the cargo and passenger trains on Fridays. That journey naturally
has its attractions but the round trip to Socompa takes over 48 hours. You sleep on the train, without any Vangelis music, nor refreshments of any kind, the priority being for the wagons transporting lithium,
borax or copper.
Lunch and the big thrill.
After Gobernador Sola, in Puerta de Tastil, we went our separate ways and bid our farewells to the train, until the next meeting point which would be at Abra dc Muñano, the station right before San Antonio de los Cobres. The next town was El Alfarcito, with its charming little church surrounded by mountains. This stop was followed by Santa Rosa de Tastil, with its small Museum and the ruins of the Tastil indians,
high up on the hills which overlook the ravine. Here you can already begin to get a glimpse of the peaks of the Nevado del Acay (5,950m) and the San Miguel (5,750m), as wcll as the peaks of the Tuzgle and
Quewar volcanoes, where according to our guide Federico Norte, there are some undiscovered Inca ruins.
We reached San Antonio, the former capital of Gobernacion de los Andes, before the train. We had our lunch at the Inti Huasi. A tasty chicken dish, a dessert, followed by bowl of soup (in that order), for the modest sum of $4- We then headed for the viaduct at about 1.30 p.m. and by 2 o'clock we were at our posts waiting to see the train passing by the thin line between heaven and earth. When we heard the first whistle, we were all ready with our cameras pointed in the right direction. The train seemed to fly through the air in slow motion. The passengers
waved and shouted greetings in incomprehensible languages, and the bridge just barely creaked, only enough to remind us of its impressive role.
It was impossible not to give a thought to all those workers who lost their lives in the attempt to join two mountains in the air. Their graves are scattered alongside the railroad tracks. Eighty men died
frozen in the winter of 1931, when they were caught by a snow storm which tasted for a whole month. Then there was also an engineer who had originally designed one of the tunnels, and took his life when
he discovered that both ends never met!
The Salt Route.
We immediately returned to San Antonio, where the train stops for half an hour on its way back. We were first to arrive and were surrounded once more by the coin-sweets children.
By the time the train pulled in, we were completely absorbed by the atmosphere and sang along with the rest of the folks when the flag was hoisted. Even the tougher ones in our group were unable to hold
back a tear or two. After the train departed, we decided to allow it to win the final stretch to Salta, and changed route towards Salinas Grandes.
The 80 kms which we traveled to reach it took Lis a good hour and a half. However it was well worth while. The road ends at the foot of a white blankct of salt. The sky was cloudy and we were watching
the sky hopefully to see the ball of fire push its way through the clouds, while the sunset fell upon us swiftly and quickly as sunsets do. When we were just about to give up our hopes, all at once the white salt flats began to turn yellow until the entire surface was
a bed of gold. The temperature dropped abruptly, and we took shelter in the warmth of the 4x4 and waited for the moon, mate in hand, but the water got cold and the moon stood us up.
We returned to San Antonio, where we were awaited at the inn with steaming hot showers and a big plate of home-made ravioli.
A lost dot on the map.
The following morning we took the Provincial Route 129, which leads to Hombre Muerto and Antofagasta de la Sierra. Our next destination, Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes was 75 km away.
The name alone was enough to awaken our curiosity, which was distracted by the view on our way there. Salt flats, donkeys, guanacos, vicuñas and semi-frozen streams lined by golden and vibrant Hades of grass which were in fact a tribute to the name of our final destination. We saw a single countryman, the only sign of human life on our way.
Santa Rosa is an apparition in adobe. It has a school for 70 children and a country-style clinic, but nothing could erase the impression of being in a ghost town. We returned through Pocitos and Cauchari, and said bye-bye to San Antonio. Before returning to the main road, we crossed an amazing ravine, inhabited by huge cactus plants and completely irregular silhouettes. After dodging rocks and streams we passed by San Bernardo de las Zorras, a tiny village, lodged below the railroad tracks. It was dark by the time we got hack on Route 51.