In the mid-1970s, Paul Theroux wrote the book that first got me interested in South America, The Old Patagonian Express. He traveled by rail starting in Boston and as far south as he could go in the Americas using more or less connected rail routes.That sort of fell apart in Central America, where there is no reliable way to cross Panama’s Darien Gap by rail—or road for that matter. But from Bolivia to Esquel in Argentina’s Northern Patagonia, the rails were still in use.
Now, some forty years later, Argentina has no train between the Bolivian border and Tucumán, between Bahia Blanca and Viedma, and between Ingeniero Jacobacci and Esquel. And the segment from Tucumán to Buenos Aires will probably close soon.
The stretch that interested me most was the one between Ingeniero Jacobacci and Esquel using a narrow-gauge route referred to today as La Trochita (“The Little Narrow Gauge”) or El Trencito (“The Little Train”). Shortly after Theroux wrote his most memorable chapter about the last leg of his trip, La Trochita was no more …
… except in the fond memories of Argentinians who decided to keep a couple of stretches of the steam train active for tourists. One is between El Maitén and Thomae and between Esquel and Nahuel Pan. Being an unregenerate railroad buff, I plan to take both segments. That is to say, if I can schedule it right.
Where Theroux in his typically snarky way wrote about Patagonia that “Nowhere is a place,” I, who am really from Nowhere (Cleveland, Ohio, which was destroyed by Maynard G. Krebs’s mythical The Monster That Devoured Cleveland), think that the eastern range of the Andes in Patagonia is truly beautiful. But then, Theroux was never an aficionado of fine scenery or especially of anything that threatened his comfort. (Hey, I still love his travel books!)
Probably about half or more of my next trip to Argentina will be exploring the town between Bariloche and Trevelin along the eastern slope of the Andes. I might even hop across to the border to Futaleufu in Chile, which is accessible only through Trevelin in Argentina.
The last time I saw a real steam locomotive in use was in 1977 when I was traveling by rail from Budapest to Košice in what was then Czechoslovakia. Near Miskolc in Hungary, the railroad yard was full of steam locomotives shuttling freight cars back and forth.