El Tren de la Sierra

It All Began in 1980...

It All Began in 1980…

My interest in visiting South America first began when I read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas back around 1980. Even earlier, my interest had been whetted by reading the stories, essays, and poems of Jorge Luis Borges—though the South America of Borges was more nonspecific, almost mythical.

Theroux, on the other hand, was an intelligent and highly snarky American who decided in the 1970s to travel by train—insofar as it was possible—from Boston to Patagonia in Argentina. One of the routes he took, El Tren de la Sierra ran from Lima’s Desamparados (“forsaken”) station to Huancayo high in the Andes. It is one of two Peruvian rail routes that claims to be the second highest in the world; the highest is the recently opened rail route connecting Xining, Golmud, and Lhasa in Tibet. According to Wikipedia’s list of the Highest Railways in the World, the high point of the route is at Ticlio, altitude 4,829 meters (15,843 feet). The Tibet run is a scant 800 feet higher at Tangguia.

I am thinking of taking the same route as Theroux if and when I go to Peru. His goal was to go by train to Huancayo and take land transportation to Cuzco, from whence he would visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. The problem is, it is faster and far more convenient to go back to Lima and take the bus to Cuzco: Travel along the ridge line of the Andes is sometimes possible, but mostly not. Rains, snows, mud, and avalanches take their toll, especially between Ayacucho and Cuzco. Based on the map on the endpapers of my copy of The Old Patagonian Express, it looks as if Theroux flew from Huancayo to Cuzco, though I am not sure that is possible.

On his trip, Theroux ran into problems with altitude sickness, the dread soroche. To help combat the headaches and nausea, railroad employees handed out plastic balloons filled with oxygen, which afforded him some relief. There are some medications that are said to help, including Diamox, which has some gnarly after-effects, and a local preparation called Sorojchi. The locals also chew coca leaves with lime or drink a tea made with coca leaves called mate de coca. If I go, I’ll have to be prepared.  Here is Theroux’s description of his symptoms:

It begins as dizziness and a slight headache. I had been standing by the door inhaling the cool air of these shady ledges. Feeling wobbly, I sat down  and if the train had not been full I would have lain across the seat. After an hour I was perspiring and, although I had not stirred from my seat, I was short of breath. The evaporation of this sweat in the dry air gave me a sickening chill. The other passengers were limp, their heads bobbed, no one spoke, no one ate. I dug some aspirin out of my suitcase and chewed them, but only felt queasier; and my headache did not abate. The worst thing about feeling so ill in transit is that you know if something goes wrong with the train—a derailment or a crash—you will be too weak to save yourself. I had a more horrible thought: we were perhaps a third of the way to Huancayo, but Huancayo was higher than this. I dreaded to think what I would feel like at that altitude.

Theroux didn’t think much of Peru: He thought the whole place rather ramshackle. But then, that’s what Martine thought of Buenos Aires, which I love.

The Bus and Train Freak

At the Bus Station in Trelew, Argentina

At the Bus Station in Trelew, Argentina

Here in the United States, our intercity ground transportation is the pits. Even Mexico has us beat, with buses they manufacture themselves. Of course, neither the U.S. nor Mexico are any good at railroads, with a few minor exceptions.

One thing about me that you may not know is that I am a transportation freak. I think about public transportation a lot. Two weeks ago, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night remembering the bus company that took me in 2001 from Reykjavík to Akureyri via the Kjölur route across the desolate plateau that forms the center of the island. The bus I took was labelled Seydisfisbilar Akureyrar. (There may be a few diacritical marks missing: The line doesn’t show up on a present day Google search.).

The funny thing is that I could figure out bus and train schedules almost irrespective of what European language they’re written in. Asking questions and understanding the answers is an entirely different issue.

In Argentina, Martine and I rode long-distance buses between Puerto Madryn, Trelew, and Gaiman—mostly on the 28 de Julio line. They were so far and away better than anything Greyhound has in the field that I blush with shame. Even the verbal interface with the ticket agents in the above cities was relatively easy, until I found out that, on some routes, seating is assigned rather than being asiento libre (“sit where you please”).

When I am in Iceland, if I run into Straeto employees that either do not or will not speak English, I may run into a spot of trouble. But since 95% of Icelanders under the age of 70 speak English, that is pretty much a baroque fear.

As for Icelandic train schedules, there are none, primarily because no one ever built a passenger railroad to serve a sparsely populated island in the Arctic.