Old Patagonian Express keeps chugging along

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.

With several blasts of his whistle, the engineer eased La Trochita forward beyond the rail yard, past an unofficial garbage dump and out into the high desert countryside.

Several times the train crosses the famous Ruta 40 (Highway 40), which runs almost the length of the country along the spine of the Andes. People wave from their vehicles at the crossings as the passengers wave back. Riding or seeing La Trochita is an event. The train was declared a National Monument in 1999.

“Down the narrowness of the track beside the desert the laboring engine chugged, always seeming on the verge of spewing its guts out, exploding in a shower of metal and vapor, or else seizing up in a succession of glugs and stopping on a slope, rolling backwards into a dip, and going no more,” wrote Theroux.

The train still chugs and glugs on its three-hour, 25-mile excursion to the indigenous Mapuche village of Nahuel Pan and back. Herds of fluffy sheep — with miles of open country as an invitation — launched into movement in unison cued by the collective noises of hundreds of mechanical parts in motion as the train chugged along at about 28 miles per hour.

“I like the smallness of the train and I like the friendliness of the people on the train,” said passenger Vicki McGrath of Florida. The highlight for her: “The scenery.”

For her partner, Bob Godshalk the journey just whetted his traveling appetite. “I thought it was pretty good ... a little short.” The clanking crate was part of the aural attraction for Godshalk. He liked “the old-timey feeling, the wooden cars and the noisy travel.”

Earlier in its history La Trochita had a more utilitarian and sometimes even a more sinister function: it was used to transport troops during Argentina's "dirty war," waged by the military junta against perceived enemies of the state.

When Carla Paillaqueo was very young, her family moved by train from the town Ingeniero Jacobacci. “I remember many military in the trip,” she said. “My grandma told me one time that the military go inside the house and check if someone has a gun and they remove everything in the house and sometimes they take the babies too,” she said. “I was very lucky.”

After a decade in which the train made only the three-hour trip to Nahuel Pan, in 2003, the 16-hour, 250-mile trip to Ingeniero Jacobacci was resumed. The train winds its way through 600 curves on that journey.

In Nahuel Pan passengers piled off to wander among the scattering of small log cabins where the Mapuche residents had stalls selling jewelry, weavings, stones and wood carvings. Bundled in multiple clothing layers, the passengers took plenty of photographs in front of La Trochita during the 50-minute stop.

Paillaqueo says the people of Patagonia hold La Trochita dear to their hearts, a spirit epitomized by her late grandfather Florencio. “He really loved his job," she said. "Sometimes he moved the machine with the people inside and one time people sent him pictures.”