Back on track: The return of Argentina's Cloud Train - Americas - Travel - The Independent

Back on track: The return of Argentina's Cloud Train

Argentina's Train to the Clouds is once again hitting the heights at 4,200m above sea level. On-board oxygen cylinders are supplied, but as Hester Lacey discovers, it's the landscape that leaves you breathless

Assuming everything goes to plan – and that's a big assumption in these parts – tomorrow El Tren a las Nubes, the Train to the Clouds, will once again begin its clamber from the lovely colonial city of Salta into the mountains that divide northern Argentina from Chile. The train's operators are taking things easy to start with: just one round trip a week until the end of June, at which point it's due to become more frequent.

The tentative nature of the timetable is only to be expected: guidebooks cite the Train to the Clouds as one of the finest adventures available in the region, but even the most recent editions carry a footnote warning that the train has been out of action for several years and that it might be back on track in 2007... or maybe 2008. South American scheduling can be pretty relaxed.

In fact, the train did return late last year – albeit only for a couple of months – and I seized my chance to make the journey across the Andes from Argentina. The day I boarded was only its second outing since 2005, and there were clearly still a few teething problems to be ironed out. (The lighting failed on the journey back, which made for some interesting trips to the loo.) However, the refurbished carriages were smartly decked out, with multi-lingual guides presiding over each one, cleaners scurrying about throughout the day, plenty of legroom and breakfast and lunch provided.

But before this great train ride, I embarked on a splendid road trip. The adventure began in Poncho Huasi, a posada (bed and breakfast) set in a colonial house in the village of Cerrillos on the outskirts of Salta. It's run by Nick Evans, a rangy Englishman, along with his tiny Argentine wife, Alicia; it turned out to be the perfect base from which to explore the region.

Alicia has lived in the area all her life (her ancestors were among the gaucho leaders who helped oust the Spanish conquistadores in the 19th century), and the couple's enthusiasm for the area, combined with the local knowledge of generations, make them ideal guides. If they aren't free themselves to head off into the mountains or across the puna (grassland), they have a network of local contacts who are equally knowledgeable. It's a philosophy that strikes a neat balance between the straitjacket of a fixed itinerary and the vagaries of do-it-yourself backpacking, all on a very reasonable budget.

My plans had included a few tastings in the wine-producing region of Cafayate, where the vineyards are the highest in the world, but I spent more time in Salta itself than planned: it is quite rightly known as la Linda, the beautiful. And once we hit the road north, with Nick at the wheel, I was too diverted by the red-and-yellow mountains and deep gorges to bother with bodegas, so I left the vineyards for another time. We paused in the pretty town of Cachi, where Alicia spent her holidays as a child. We ate ice-cream in the square and strolled down sunny, cobbled streets. We wandered down the Devil's Throat, and were serenaded on pan pipes by a busker who had set up his pitch in a towering natural amphitheatre, two of the many startling rock formations on the road through the Canyon de las Conchas.

We then picnicked on llama salami and goats' cheese at Quilmes, the ruined foundations of a town that resisted both the incursions of the Incas and of the conquistadores. Climbing up into the hillside fortifications reveals the terraced layout of this ancient place, but the high mountains behind it couldn't protect it forever. The Spanish eventually lost patience with the stubborn inhabitants, the Diaguita Indians, in 1666 and force-marched them over 1,300km to Buenos Aires; most died on the way, and the survivors were enslaved.

A new historical chapter is being written here: the descendants of the Diaguita Indians are attempting to reclaim their former homeland and are currently engaged in a very modern legal stand-off with the owners of a rather splendid-looking hotel that has been built near the site, but is now surrounded by tape that bears the Spanish equivalent of "do not cross".

One of the greatest pleasures of the road trip was stopping off in places the guidebooks are likely to overlook. Villages such as San Carlos or Angastaco are mere specks on the map, but even the tiniest settlement here has a beautifully kept square and a café for coffee and an empanada or two. The cool, dimly lit churches built of adobe, with ceilings and doors of cardon (cactus wood) are filled with unexpected treasures. Some house life-size statues of the Virgin Mary, adorned with real hair, outfits that are changed according to the seasons, and skirts hung with silver offerings from the grateful, symbolising her successful intercessions: a heart, a child, a cow. A few hundred metres up the road there might be the scene of a Pachamama, with sacrifices of food to the spirit of the earth mother. There is equal devotion here to both Christianity and far earlier faiths.

These quiet hamlets are certainly one-horse towns, but you can't help but feel jealous of the horse. Nick pulled the car over in one such and we contemplated the pastel adobe houses, the wide horizons peppered with cacti, and the framework of the mountains. It was absolutely silent. "Cities are all very well," he said, "but this is what it's really all about, isn't it?"

The view in front of us, like so many around here, would be the perfect setting for a Western movie. It's hard not to feel the car is out of place here. We should have been galloping across the desert in the solid Argentinian-style saddle that makes horse riding so easy and comfortable, or gliding through the canyons and mountains by train, on tracks that are an enduring testament to the engineers of the last century.

The vertiginous railway line of the Train to the Clouds once ferried trucks of minerals from the rich mines of northern Argentina towards Chile. It's often described as the "most amazing train in the world".

The statistics reveal why: work on the track began in 1921 and took 27 years to complete because of the extraordinarily demanding terrain, and the 217km, 16-hour round trip from Salta to La Polvorilla viaduct u

oincludes 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, two spirals and two zigzags. La Polvorilla, a feat of engineering comparable to that of the track itself, is the highest viaduct in the world, at over 4,200m (the summit of the Matterhorn is barely higher). This magnificent conduit is an elegant structure and, from a distance, its steel struts look as fine and delicate as a spider's web, slung over a deep gorge.

More unusual facilities on board El Tren a las Nubes include oxygen cylinders and medical staff. This seemed a bit over-cautious in Salta, at a mere 1,187m, but by the time we reached the highest point, the nurses were dealing with a steady stream of white-faced, grimacing altitude-sickness sufferers.

I escaped with only a mild headache, owing to a supply of the local remedy for high places: coca leaves, which have been used against the effects of altitude for centuries in South America. The plant constitutes the raw ingredient of cocaine, but the simple dried leaves are perfectly legal. Most of the locals on the train were quietly chewing a handful, and I did the same; the taste is bitter, and the chemicals the leaves contain numbs your mouth like a dentist's injection, but the habit also staves off the faintness that affects some people in the mountains.

The train climbs through scenery that is as austere as it is beautiful. Once Salta is left behind, the high-altitude stations stand, somewhat forlornly, in the middle of nowhere, some with not even a road in sight. At Diego de Almagro halt (3,305m above sea level), a pump bearing the maker's stamp of H Pooley & Son of Liverpool still stands in the abandoned station building. The makers will be heartened to learn that its green paint shows not a trace of rust.

The bills of lading and tickets from decades gone by flapped in the stiff breeze that blew in through the broken windows, handwritten in immaculate copperplate; other passengers picked them up as souvenirs and I wish I'd slipped one into my pocket to decipher later.

At San Antonio de los Cobres (3,774m), the only town along the route, the low-built houses and tiny market are dwarfed in the vast emptiness, scoured by the dusty mountain wind. Most of us who stepped out of the train here only stood for a moment, contemplating the bleakness, before returning to the shelter of the carriage; this isn't a place where you would want to live.

San Antonio is the last place the train stops before La Polvorilla itself. It glides across the viaduct before reversing back, poised for the return journey. The trip back to Salta is completed in the dark; you arrive back at the station 15 hours after leaving early in the morning. As days out go, it's surprisingly tiring. But the truly dedicated can forge on to Chile by cargo train, a rather less luxurious mode of transport than El Tren a las Nubes. Socompa, on the Chilean border, is a further two days away from La Polvorilla; on the other side of the viaduct, the tracks continue, winding onwards through the mountains

Getting there

The writer flew to Buenos Aires via Madrid with Iberia (0870 609 0500; with onward connections to Salta with Aerolineas Argentinas (0800 096 9747; ). A specialist such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; ) offers through fares from £735.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; ).

Getting around

Tren a las Nubes (00 54 11 5246 6666; ). One-day round trips cost $120 (£86), including breakfast and an afternoon snack.

Staying there

Posada Poncho Huasi, Guemes 760, Cerillos, Salta (00 54 387 4999 035; ). Doubles from £24, including breakfast.

More information

Argentina Tourist Board:

Five scenic rail routes through Latin America

Over the Andes from Lima to Huancayo, Peru

This line had the distinction of being the world's highest passenger railway, reaching 4,781m at Galera – until 2006, when the railway to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, opened. A recently introduced open-sided observation car allows passengers to appreciate the staggering mountain landscapes, dizzying drops from viaducts and the zig-zags by which train gains height. Careful planning is needed, as the train usually operates on only two days a month.

Where: The 18-day Peruvian Trail from 6 October includes this and the journey on to Huancavelica, organised by Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030; )

How much: £3,700

How long: 12 hours; 332km

The Great Brazil Express

This sumptuously refurbished 44-seat train offers a way of exploring the country on three- to 10-day itineraries, all starting from the south-eastern town of Curitiba and using small, independent luxury hotels along the route. Though the train has a bar and serves light refreshments, meals are taken in restaurants. Destinations include such "must see" sites as Iguacu Falls and the Pantanal.

Where: Great Brazil Express (0800 141 2143; )

How much: From €€1,177

How long: 3-10 days

The Old Patagonia Express, Argentina

Ramshackle though this railway through the bleak mountains of southern Argentina may be, it is full of character. When Paul Theroux came this way and took the train's sarcastic name for his second book of railway travels, you could travel between Ingeniero Jacobacci and Esquel in about 23 hours, derailments permitting. Today only the section between Esquel and Nahuel Pan sees regular trains, but the full line has reopened for charter trains.

Where: The 17-day Old Patagonia Express tour from 14 November covers the full line and is operated by the Railway Touring Company (01553 661500; )

How much: £4,795

How long: 402km

Mexico's 'Grand Canyon'

Two trains a day travel each way between Chihuahua and the Pacific coast at Los Mochis, reaching a 2,460m summit before dropping down to sea level over a line that was completed as recently as 1961. The scenery varies from prairie to deep river valleys, but the highlight is the Copper Canyon. The train stops at Divisadero station to allow passengers to walk to a viewing platform and gaze 1,000m down into the chasm.

Where: Explore (0844 499 0901; ) offers 13-day Copper Canyon & Tequila Express tours

How much: £2,595–2,895 depending on departure date

How long: 15 hours/655km

Cuzco (Poroy)-Machu Picchu, Peru

PeruRail's luxury Hiram Bingham is a full-day visit to the Inca site of Machu Picchu, with meals, drinks, transfers, admission and return to Cuzco included in the price. The Vistadome is rail journey only but offers snacks on board. The scenic journey, which passes near the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo and takes in the Sacred Valley, used to begin with a series of spectacular zig-zags out of Cuzco but this has been abandoned, necessitating a 20-minute taxi ride to join the train at Poroy.

Where: PeruRail (00 51 84 581414; )

How much: Hiram Bingham US$588, Vistadome US$71 one way

How long: Hiram Bingham 12 hours (including stops), Vistadome 3 hours; 107km

Anthony Lambert

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week