The overnight to Córdoba

15 Jun

The demise of long-distance train travel in Argentina followed closely on the heels of the United States. Vastly improved highways, comfortable overnight buses, competitive fares; you get the picture. By the 60s, passenger trains were but a shadow of themselves. So if you were to ask any sane individual today, how they’d get across the length and breadth of this vast country, you’ll probably get “by bus or plane” as their reply.

But there has been a bit of a resurgence in the past few years – new long-distance trains, a revised schedule; and you’d never have expected it, online bookings too! So with an e-ticket in hand, I find myself on Platform 8 of Estacíon Retiro one Friday evening, waiting to board the 20:38 departure of train 269, Buenos Aires to Córdoba.

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About a thousand Pesos (~$70) gets you a one-way fare in Camarote class, the highest of 3 classes available on Argentina’s long-distance trains. It’s also the only “sleeper” accommodation offered, the rest having premium economy-style seating. You could choose to split that fare with a fellow traveler, of course, but if not, you’ve essentially bought yourself passage in a private cabin. Not a bad shout.

Not only is this overnight journey one off my Argentina bucket list, it’s also somewhat of a throwback. Two years ago to the day, SK and I were on day 5 of our 7-day adventure on the Trans-Siberian, barreling through taiga country. That was also the last time I traveled on a long-distance train. This morning, I awake, many thousand miles away from Russia, to a view of the Pampas

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Argentines aren’t big on breakfast in general, but even so, the dining car is a disappointment, offering little more than overly milky Cafe con Leche and packaged Alfajores. As I labor through all of that, I can’t help but wonder, what a lost opportunity that is.

Train 269 only makes a few stops, and when it does, it probably serves the interest of very few passengers. Rosario, at an unearthly hour, followed by Cañada de Gómez at the crack of dawn, and finally, Villa María, at a more amicable 11:05 AM. Understandably, a few passengers alight here, but it also doubles as a smoke stop, giving nicotine-addicts a much needed respite.

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With such few stops, one would imagine a fairly quick journey time, but the sub-optimum condition of tracks on our route – and across much of the Argentine rail network for that matter – make the reality quite different. Its taken us the better part of 18-hours to cover a paltry 700-km (~435-miles). The buses, in comparison, do the run in about half that time.

On the upside, we’ve been punctual throughout, eventually pulling into Córdoba‘s grand Estacíon Mitre, a good ten minutes early…

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Settled in the late 16th-century and named after one of the most storied cities in Spain, Córdoba is the second largest city in Argentina, and also its geographical center. By area, it actually boasts a footprint larger than the city of Buenos Aires, but its downtown and historic core are relatively compact, and therefore quite walkable. Abounding in lofty churches, lively plazas, and rich colonial architecture in varying degrees of upkeep; Córdoba is definitely worth a visit, with plenty to sustain one’s interest for a weekend or more…

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One of the oldest amongst the city’s many churches is Iglesia Compañía de Jesús, a Jesuit institution dating from the early 17th-century. The Jesuits, who were about two decades behind the earliest settlers to Córdoba, also established the first university in the country. By the late 18th-century they had lost control of it, but not before significantly defining the role education would play in shaping the city.

Four hundred years on, the National University of Córdoba, the old church, a secondary school, and some priests’ residences make up what is referred to as Manzana Jesuítica or the Jesuit Block, a UNESCO World Heritage site today.

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With no less than six universities to its credit, and a healthy percentage of its population made up of students, Córdoba has, noticeably, one of the youngest populations in Argentina. And by extension, an enviable nightlife too! Ex Abasto, Nueva Córdoba and Barrio Güemes are some of the more popular neighborhoods for those looking to go clubbing, but even if you’re not inclined to stay awake till sunrise, the city is full of vibrant street life, waiting to be explored on foot…

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Córdoba lies in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas; the surrounding areas making for a perfect day or weekend getaway. Flowing in from those mountains is the Rio Suquía, which cuts across the city on an eastward trajectory, a part of its flow channeled south by means of a canal, La Cañada. Only 3-km in length – but kind of hard to miss if you’re in the city center – it is one of the most endearing sights in Córdoba, lending the city a distinctly European feel.

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I’ve never actually done one of those open top city tours before, so the sight of a vintage red double decker parked alongside Plaza San Martin has me intrigued. I have a few hours to spare; there are only a handful of people about to board, and I could get the seat of my choice on the top deck – always a bonus.

90-minutes later I walk away beaming – riding that bus was the best decision I’ve taken all weekend! An amazing guide, who never once forgot to call out stuff for the only non-native Spanish speaker on board; a thoroughly informative tour all around, and a chance to ride a 60s-era Bristol Lodekka, which apparently made its way to Córdoba via London and NYC…

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My flight back to BA takes a little over an hour – about the same time it took train 269 to get past the suburbs of Buenos Aires. And the ticket cost me only ~$30 more. Would I recommend the train to anyone? Perhaps. Would I consider taking it again? ¡Por supuesto!


A full set of pics from my Córdoba trip are available on Flickr.

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