The Train to the Clouds

31 Jul

The drive from the airport to the city center isn’t terribly long, but Eduardo insists on engaging me in conversation. Never mind the fact that his English is almost as lousy as my Spanish! I’ve learned by now how to say one billion in Español and when I reveal to him India’s population statistic, he can’t stop shaking his head in disbelief. Mucha gente, he says from under his breadth. The rest of his questions about my homeland run the gamut. Do people eat meat? Do they drink alcohol? And most importantly, how are the chicas? Muy lindo, I assure him!

Having sufficiently beefed up his knowledge about India, he sets me down at No.770, General Güemes, my address in Salta for the long weekend. Conveniently located, Espacio Mundano is a quaint little bed and breakfast, kitted out in traditional Salteña aesthetic; plenty of potted plants, heirloom furniture, and the all-essential patio.

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Like many of the big cities in Argentina, Salta is both the name of the city as well as the province it governs! A little confusing at first, but you get used to it eventually. Located in the country’s northwest, Salta was founded by the Spanish in the late 16th-century, to be the halfway point between Lima and Buenos Aires. Prior to that, it was a tract of land, in what were then considered the southernmost reaches of the Inca Empire!

Today, Salta is regarded by many to be the most Spanish of Argentine cities, by physical appearance, at the very least. Colonial-era buildings abound, dating from the city’s foundation to the early 20th-century, and spanning a wealth of architectural styles. While the functions of many have probably changed since, they all seem to have benefited from good upkeep.

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For anyone visiting the city, a weekend is plenty, but Salta is also a launching point for destinations within the province. It is considered the gateway to the red-rock formations of Valles Calchaquíes; the wine-growing region around Cafayate, and even the neighboring province of Jujuy. It is also the starting point for Tren a las Nubes or Train to the Clouds, and for anyone who knows me by now, that is precisely why I’ve trekked this far north 😉

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The proposal to build a railroad, connecting the mineral-rich areas of northern Argentina with Chile, goes back to the early 20th-century. But it wasn’t until 1948 that the Salta – Antofagasta Railway came to be. Cutting right through the Andes and traversing a route almost 600-miles long, the railway connects the province of Salta with the Pacific Port of Antofagasta. Today, mineral trains continue to ply between both countries, but Tren a las Nubes is the only passenger service on the route, and true to the cliché, lacks any destination!

A 7 AM start means pitch darkness for this time of year in the Southern Hemisphere. By daybreak, we have already left the Lerma Valley behind and are now following the course of Rio Toro. Ridged mountainsides meet the mostly-dry riverbed, and groves of giant cacti make up the vegetation. By 9 AM, the terrain is surreal enough for most, but the guides assure us it only gets better! Through it all, the railway will eventually climb about ten thousand feet in altitude, utilizing every measure known to engineers – spirals, switchbacks, tunnels and viaducts – all the while, keeping in complete harmony with its surroundings.

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They call my lot “aficionados del trenes” in the Spanish-speaking world, but I haven’t come across any on the train so far, and yet, every seat on board is taken! Fact is, Tren a las Nubes is one of Salta’s top attractions, drawing people from near and far. Be it the thrill of being carted up to a dizzying altitude; the dramatic and constantly changing landscapes, or simply, a window to the sheer might of the Andes, there’s something in it for everyone…

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It’s a little past noon and we’ve just entered a region known as Puna de Atacama, a high arid plateau, and the precursor to the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world. If one were to choose an adjective to describe the topography here, it would more than likely be inhospitable!

Past deep ravines, riveting rock formations, frost-covered slopes, and the rich hues of now-abundant Puna grassland, we make a short halt at San Antonio de los Cobres, a mining settlement. Elevation: 3774-meters above sea level!

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US engineer Richard Maury was responsible for the construction of the line, and probably his single greatest achievement lies some 22-km west of San Antonio de los Cobres.

Standing 63-meters tall, above a deep canyon carved by a tributary of Rio San Antonio, is La Palvorilla, a spectacular curved viaduct. It is also the point where the Salta – Antofagasta Railway reaches its summit at 4200-meters above sea level, making it the fifth highest railway in the world!

Outside, its blustery and bitterly cold, despite the sun beating down on us. But everyone decides to brave the odds. After all, its not everyday that you can claim to shop (in my case, browse) at an artisans market nestled at almost 14,000-feet!

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Setting out early in the morning and returning to Salta (by buses from San Antonio de los Cobres) only by 9 PM, a journey on Tren a las Nubes is a full day’s excursion. The price of the ticket includes breakfast on board and an evening snack. Lunch can be bought in the cafe car, or for a little more, ordered in the dining car. But Salta, at an altitude of about 3,800-feet, is significantly lower than La Palvorilla, which means your appetite grows exponentially with the drastic drop in elevation, and that well-meaning 4 PM snack does little to tide you by!

Luckily, Salta’s got you covered! That and the fact that Argentines eat particularly late, so you never have to be concerned with places shutting early. I make a beeline for Doña Salta as soon as I step off the bus, only to find a handful of tables occupied. By the time I leave (closer to 11 PM) the restaurant is finally buzzing with activity. In between, I order a selection of Empanadas, Tamales and Humitas – practically everything on the Salteña culinary spectrum – and the local cerveza, which, for want of imagination, is a namesake of the town and province!

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A different take on the ubiquitous Argentine snack, the Empanadas here are smaller in size and come with a host of fillings not found elsewhere in the country. They are similar though to the Salteñas found in neighboring Bolivia. If you’ve had Tamales from Mexico previously, the ones from Salta don’t quite compare. The Humita, on the other hand, is top shelf stuff. The traditional dish, made out of corn, is loaded with cheese here! As for cerveza Salta, it’s a lot better than national favorite Quilmes!

Salta by night is a very different experience altogether, one that should not be missed. The city’s many monuments, plazas, and historic buildings are all beautifully illuminated by night, giving one the impression that Salta has a year round festival of lights! Nothing quite beats Iglesia San Francisco though. Despite having its imposing belfry clad in scaffolding, the Baroque-Italianate masterpiece leaves me with a lasting memory of the city…

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A full set of pictures from my visit to Salta and my journey on Tren a las Nubes can be seen on Flickr.

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