La Trochita - Patagonia Express
La Trochita hechando humo
Video of La Trochita Patagonia Express
LA TROCHITA, also known as Patagonia Express, is a part of the remarkable history of Argentine Patagonia. It gave birth to many struggling little towns, the same that later greatly suffered during its decline. But even if nowadays this small steam train can't rival the modern means of transportation, it is very valuable from the historical, cultural, and technological point of views, and has been declared a National Historical Monument in Argentina. " LA TROCHITA ," a rolling museum you can board, bears witness to the effort and sacrifices of the early settlers of this rugged land, truly representing the "Spirit of the South."
A group of " La Trochita " fans -including people from Esquel and El Maitén- and former and current railroad workers, have formed the "Friends of La Trochita Association " - FLTA (in Spanish, Asociación de Amigos de La Trochita - AALT). This organisation strives to keep this railroad alive, and to reclaim and restore its equipment and infrastructure. The FLTA invites you to board the Old Patagonian Express, an excellent way you can contribute to these ends.
Reasons why is La Trochita / Patagonia Express a tourism attaction:
The 402 km covered by the line from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel, a totally unusual distance for a 0.75 m narrow gauge branch. Even so, what we see today is only a small part of the original, unaccomplished Patagonian railways project.
Its original character has been kept largely unchanged, like virtually nowhere else in the world. Its legendary 1922 steam engines still pull the train, some of them being now regarded as unique pieces by their own manufacturers.
The train runs along the imposing landscape of the Andean foothills, where over 600 curves can have a surprise waiting just around the bend. And the many old stations and stops where the train must pause to refill its water tank, as the locomotives can consume water at a rate as high as 100 litres per km.
Paul Theroux's "The Old Patagonian Express" international success. The book was published in 1978, and it describes the author's train trip from Boston (U.S.) to Esquel, where he arrived on board of the venerable " La Trochita."
The great outcry caused by the federal government's decision to close down the line in 1992, which was avoided through the direct intervention of the Río Negro and Chubut provincial governments to preserve their heritage.
Map of La Trochita / Patagonia Express
Landscape seen from La Trochita
Read more: www.latrochita.org.ar
The sun has already vanished behind the mountains as the small bus approaches El Maiten, yet the rocks around still look somewhat golden in the evening twilight. Vast plains covered with dry grass have been the only sight for the past few hours, but now the grass gets somewhat greener and some trees stand by the road. There are even some of the famous argentinian cattle around. The driver stops at what seems to be the main crossroads of the town - I am the only passenger for El Maiten. The consequences of this fact begin to assemble in my brain as the bus slowly rumbles off, heading towards some livelier place than this ...
A few metres down the road, the track of the "Ferrocarril General Roca" crosses the road - that's what I am here for. But now I have to find a Hotel - a task which turns out to be easier than I thought, because there is only one in Maiten and it is only about a hundred metres down the road. Not that it looks like or actually offers great comfort, but they have a bed and it's cheap. Next is to find a restaurant - I stroll around the railway yard and its workshops and thereby stumble about the "Cumelen"Restaurant. With my more than limited knowledge of the Spanish language, I am still able to order a steak and some wine - some wine in Argentina means one bottle of red wine per person for dinner. A habit which I should try to introduce in Europe. The food is excellent and Pedro, the landlord of Cumelen's, rushes about the town to fetch someone speaking German. Of course he finds someone, this is becoming a very interesting evening.
The next day shows fine sunshine again. The train for Esquel is going to depart by 3 pm, so I have plenty of time to look around. I stroll around the town, the green meadows between the mountains, as always admiring the contrast of their colour to the blue of the Patagonian sky. The track towards Ing. Jacobacci is abandoned the guy in the ticket office said, but it does not look disused and later a Brazilian tells me they still run charter trains on it. The sun climbs up high into the sky, it gets hot. Very hot. To me the whole station area does not look like there is a train due sometime later today. The small hut, which serves as a ticket office is deserted, as are the workshops and the yards. All that is visible are old wrecks of rolling stock, which must have been out of service for decades. All Argentinians seem to have gone home for siesta by noon, the whole town is deserted now. Waiting. At 2 pm I awake because of a loud whistle from the direction of the workshops. I look around the "platform barrier" (See the first picture on this page) and really - an old German Henschel locomotive is shunting some wooden coaches across the yard - they look like from an old western movie. The water tanks are filled up, the locomotive is being oiled and cleaned and even some other passengers start arriving. A Swiss couple and their Brazilian guide and, later, a bus load full of argentinian tourists. At last, a few minutes before the scheduled time of departure, the train pulls beside the platform.
Exactly at 3 pm the locomotive gives three whistles and the trains pulls out of the station, beginning its 192 km journey towards Esquel. The coaches are filled up with people, even local television is on board, asking people questions about how great they think this railway to be. I am asked too, but due to my limited knowledge of Spanish I can't say very much. One of the passengers even seems to be something like a television star in this country, at least that is what she behaves like. Not that I don't like crowded trains, but this is going to be somewhat strenuous...
A quarter of an hour later, the train stops at a crossroads and most of the people get off. The Brazilian tells me this was all a promotion show - the line has far to few passengers, not to many. Only he, I and the swiss couple remain on the train for the rest of the journey. So now there is time to relax, have a beer in the bar car (sic!), and talk with the Brazilian about nothing in particular. He tells stories about the politics in south America, the argentinian railways which seem to be doomed by privatization and the strange animals we occasionally get to see through the coaches windows.
The train is going slow now, very slow! The first regular stop is due soon, but as yet there are only the trees beside the houses of Leleque to be seen at the horizon. Slowly, the train comes to a halt. We leave the coach and see what happened: The wheels of the locomotive slip on the rails, we are unable to move. Only two trains a week have let the Patagonian grass grow so long, it now covers the rails almost completely. This grass seems to be like oil on the rails, and when the sand casters of the locomotive failed because of obstruction, the slightest hill was enough to stop the train. So now the travellers each get a box with sand and are sent out to cover the rails with it. After a few minutes we are on our way again, at a speed of approx. 4 km/h! As we approach Leleque, children appear running along with the train, jumping on the open platforms of the coaches and off again on the other side. One small boy is trying to outrun the train, and although some fences obstruct his way, he almost succeeds...
Nobody boards the train here, instead the minister for tourism of Chubut inspects the newest tourist attraction of his province. It is as such, the Patagonia-Express has its only chance of surviving. But there still seems a lot of advertising to be done, the minister does not look very pleased with only four passengers on the train and four personnel.
The tender is filled up with water again, and the clerk asks me if I want 'arriba la locomotara?'. Well, why not, so this is going to be my first ride on the footplate of a steam engine. The trains pulls out of Leleque and gathers speed. I learn that a locomotive is much more uncomfortable than a passenger car, everything is jumping and jerking as I try not to fall off. I found a place on the sand-box behind the fireman and cling myself to the hand-rails outside the cabin. Unfortunately, this is an oil fired machine, and the driver has to throw a handful of sand into the fire box from time to time, to clean it from remaining tar. So I have to stand up, searching for something to hold on to and find a tube obviously transporting hot steam to the tender ...
Very nice - my first ride on a steam engine, and after a few minutes I get my hand burned. But nevertheless, everything is very adventurous. The machine is emitting a hell of a noise, every four or five seconds huge flames shoot out of the fire box to burn the driver and his fireman - at least that is what it seems. I begin to imagine the great explosion which seems about to happen any minute now, still the little machine is pulling its train forward as if this is just business as usual... A small station comes into view, and, even better, a lonely man on a horse, standing on top of a mountain. As he glimpses the approaching train, he starts to come down to meet as in the station. Of course, due to the shape of the surrounding landscape and the many western movies I have seen in my life, this looks more like he plans some train robbery - but as we all reach the station at the same time, most of his interest concentrates on the bar coach at the rear end of the train and the various kinds of alcoholic drinks it has stored.
The train travels on, the landscape is more than vast. Sometimes you see a mountain that appears in easy walking distance, but when you take a look at the map, you realize that it is more than 100 kms away. The train personnel keeps on to entertain the passengers by photostops and even little truck tours to see the train from a few kilometres distance. This makes a quite impressive picture, because the train looks like a model one, compared to the surrounding hills. The engine driver goes over bridges, emitting huge clouds of black smoke for our cameras, and runs through small canyons at the edges of the waves of the plains. These seem to be ideal places for some red Indians to raid the train ...
The stops every hour become a routine, the sun is now standing low in the sky, casting long shadows of the moving train across the plain. It gets cooler outside, nevertheless I stand on the platform of the coach and grin like a happy child. A few minutes later I get inside to fetch my warm jacket, but I return immediately to keep on listening to the regular clattering of the wheels and the slight hissing made by small amounts of escaping steam through some leaky tubes on the locomotive.
The sun is now about to set completely, we are approaching the Andes again, their rocks shining red in the last light of the day. As it gets dark completely, the clerk brings some battery lights to light the interior of the coach. This is a bit of a pity, because now it is impossible to see anything outside. So back out on the platform, even if it is really cold now. We are climbing down into the valley where Esquel has been visible for the last half hour or so. As we pass the police post on the "highway", the policemen blink their signal lights to greet the train. The driver gives an answer, using the trains whistle - people of Esquel, come and see, another Patagonia-Express is about to arrive.
Night has fallen, as the train rolls into the small station of Esquel, but there are at least 30 people to greet our arrival, showing the train to their children and giving a welcome to the strangers that arrived in their town. Their hope is, as well as mine, that many trains might follow, not only bringing tourists to Esquel and the close "Parque Nacional Los Alerces", but also reminding them of the past, when their train was the only link to the world, and it never failed...
Let's hope that there will always be one more Old Patagonia-Express!