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Old Patagonian Express keeps chugging along

Rickety steam train fits the rugged land of Patagonian Argentina.

ESQUEL, Argentina — As the huffing, creaking, smoke-blowing mass of iron lumbers out of its corrugated metal shed, the clicking of cameras begins.

The Old Patagonian Express, immortalized in Paul Theroux’s 1979 book, rumbles to life as it has since its first trip in 1922.

Its passengers line the narrow-gauge tracks, cameras at the ready, wearing furry hats to ward off the chill in this mountain town hard up against the Andes in Patagonian Argentina.

"When darkness fell it did so in that sudden Patagonian way, as swiftly as a dropped curtain, filling the night with chill. In the desert silence was the sound of the wind, and the fretting train,” Theroux wrote in “The Old Patagonian Express” of his journey on the train.

La Trochita, the old Patagonian Express.
(Andy Stiny/GlobalPost)

The same starkness of place that struck Theroux in the high Patagonian desert remains. Like a photograph from an earlier era, the train and the landscape remain unchanged. There is little obvious development outside the towns.

The Brits built the trains here, including "La Trochita," or the little narrow-gauge one. They decided to put in a narrow-gauge railroad to promote commerce and connect ranching communities, deeming the building of a full-scale railroad too challenging. The small train had its heyday after World War II when large amounts of wool were shipped north on the train and then over to the coast on a standard-sized railroad.

Later a road was put in and wool prices declined. By the early 1990s, the Argentine government was trying to sell its railroads including La Trochita, but there were no takers. But with democracy returning to the country and the greater awareness of Patagonia and then Theroux's book, tourism started growing.

Today at the Esquel station you are just as likely to run into Argentine tourists taking pride in their moveable national heritage as you are Europeans and a smattering of North Americans.

Carla Paillaqueo grew up in Esquel, living just feet from the train yard for 22 years. Now a resident of the New Mexico ski resort town of Taos, she still affectionately remembers the little train.

“My grandpa he worked for 40 years in La Trochita — all his life,” she said. “When I was young, maybe 10 or 11, my grandpa he would bring me sometimes when he was working. His job was to turn on the machine (the locomotive).”

Tickets for the train can be hard to come by in January and February at the height of the Argentinean summer when schools are out and many take their vacations. Passengers on one December trip included a Buenos Aires lawyer, an out-of-work Londoner on an extended South American holiday and a wildlife biologist from Florida.