Patagonia's La Trochita: The Old Patagonian Express

5 July 2015

The train had been pootling along at less than 32 kilometres an hour when it stopped completely. There had been no warning, and there was no explanation.

When it remained stationary for 10 minutes, there were no complaints. Instead, many of us stepped down through a gale into high grass to enjoy a view towards sun-brushed hills and snow-capped peaks, to photograph the train in the landscape or to have ourselves photographed in the cab while the crew were busy elsewhere.

“What’s going on?” I asked Erica, our chirpy guide. “El viento,” she said – the wind. It might be too strong for us to carry on.

 La Trochita puffs along (images: Getty)

I was disappointed, but the woman behind me didn’t seem to mind. As the wind whipped her hair over her nose and mouth and threatened to make off with her handbag, she yelled in Spanish: “I’m in love with Patagonia.”

Her fellow passengers felt the same way about the train. These days it might be a much-reduced service, its fuel-oil-fed steam engines pulling tourists only between a couple of stations, but it’s still La Trochita (“the little gauge”) or, as Paul Theroux christened it, The Old Patagonian Express.


Take A Seat On A Travelling Monument


It was 70 years ago this year that the final stretch was completed in a line of 400 kilometres running through tricky terrain in the foothills of the Argentine Andes between Ingeniero Jacobacci, in Rio Negro Province, and Esquel, in Chubut Province.

At that time it was a freight-only service, one that had been conceived initially as a way of integrating Patagonia and its ranches into a national rail network. Passenger carriages were added, from 1950, but Patagonia is hardly commuter country, so when roads improved and hauliers undercut the railways, the narrow-gauge line (75cm) and its puffing engines, much as they were loved by leisure travellers, seemed doomed.

 Once were rolling stock

Closure was averted in 1992, and the line declared a national monument seven years later.

Though its full length has been used since for occasional charters, the only regular services now are between Esquel and the Mapuche Indian settlement of Nahuel Pan (20 kilometres) and, less frequently, between Esquel and El Maiten (165 kilometres), where the engines are lovingly maintained in workshops.

La Trochita may be a Patagonian train, but it’s of mixed ancestry. The builders of the line, some of whom settled in the region, included Turks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Macedonians and Croatians. The carriages are Belgian, the engines are Baldwins, from the United States, and Henschels, from Germany.


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Bandidos Attack By Appointment Only


The train I took was hauled by a Baldwin, locomotive number 16, which looks like the sort of vehicle that Indians attack in a westerns, complete with a five-pointed star on its smoke box door and a cowcatcher down below. (On a few charters the train does get attacked – by actors playing bandidos, who assault it by appointment and fire blanks.)

The car I sat in, panelled in honey-coloured wood, had seats in dark brown leather, the numbers stencilled in white paint directly on to the seat-back. The seats had stumpy legs that had been turned on a lathe.

Across the aisle was the salamander, a log-burning stove. In front of me was an oft-painted wooden box with chunky hinges and the label LENA (firewood) scratched into its paint.

In the old days, passengers would throw timber from this box into the burner to heat themselves, their soup and the water with which they made mate de coca tea. When the firewood ran out, they’d wait for one of the stretches where the train slowed to walking pace, then jump down and grab a few more branches.

On our trip the firewood box served as a seat – for Erica, who came and went at intervals with her headset microphone; for a man selling old black-and-white photographs of the train; and for a Mapuche Indian with a guitar, who played us a few tunes from what he called the “musica original patagonica”.


Where Passengers Outnumber The Locals


In between these diversions and visits to the dining car (pastries and mate de coca), we craned our heads out of the windows in readiness for the viewpoints to which Erica had alerted us: one over the town of Esquel; one over the Chico valley, a favourite spot for horse treks; and one at the Curva del Huevo (Egg Bend), where from a rear window we’d be able to see pretty well the full, snaking length of the train.

It was at that bend that we came to our unscheduled stop. The ever-present Patagonian wind was a particularly potent presence here, gusting, the crew reckoned, at 120 kilometres an hour. Staff were sent ahead to check wind speed at the most exposed stretch of track; consultations were held when they returned.

Someone must have decided conditions weren’t quite so bad as they had been in May 2011, when the roof of one car, ripped off by wind, fell on the rails and caused the whole train to roll over.

For, 20 minutes or so after we had stopped, Erica was rounding up the snappers and shooing us all back on. “Vamos a pasar” – on we go.

 Mapuche country outside Esquel

And on we went, to the blustery Nahuel Pan, named after a revered Mapuche chieftain, where we outnumbered the locals when we disembarked. In a few huts here built with railway sleepers and roofed with tin, the Mapuche run a little museum to indigenous culture and some shops selling sheepskins, knitwear and jewellery.

They sell souvenirs, too, and nearly every one of them, whether it’s a badge or a coathook, bears the unmistakable silhouette of the vehicle that carried the customers here: La Trochita.

Michael Kerr travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America.


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This article was written by Michael Kerr from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Michael Kerr

Michael Kerr is the former deputy travel editor of The Daily Telegraph. When he escapes Britain, it is often to the Americas or Spain. He is the editor of three anthologies of Telegraph writing – two on trains and one on journeys by water.