The low murmur of excited conversation filled the ticket hall. On the floor around me, a few chickens sat in cages next to sacks of firewood, bundles of clothes and blankets, and boxes of kitchen equipment and other household goods.
Salta railway station was coming to life on a grey morning, but none of the few dozen people who’d brought those belongings were there to board a normal commuter service. They had come to travel on a weekly freight train that followed the Salta-Antofagasta line up into the Puna, a remote area of arid, mountainous beauty in northwest Argentina.
It was March 1999, and I was on the South American leg of a round-the-world trip. The prospect of riding a freight train into the Andes had led to all kinds of thoughts. Like was I destined to endure countless hours perched on a coal heap, a soot-covered driver offering me swigs of the local aguardiente to keep out the cold? Or would I have to bed down on the wooden floor of a dusty wagon like some Depression-era hobo?
I was only reassured when I actually saw the train. Attached to freight wagons, which were in turn coupled to tank cars that sat behind the diesel locomotive far ahead, were passenger compartments. With padded seats.
The train had no set departure time. Perhaps nine, maybe 10am. When everything was ready. We pulled out of the station at about 9:45, building up speed as we passed the city’s outermost streets and entered a more bucolic world. We made our way across flat fields, where workers put down their tools, wiped their brows and waved to us. The sun was beginning to burn through the clouds.
Occasionally the train would stop at a small community to let off passengers. Through the window I bought chocolate-filled bread rolls, almost-overripe bananas and bottled water from the outstretched hands of vendors. We headed northwest along a red river with grey alluvial islands, which the single track sometimes crossed on metal viaducts as it climbed along the steep-sided, green valley.
After a few hours we reached the high desert, where pampas grass and tall cardón cacti grew all around, and the sun’s rays highlighted the red, grey, yellow and brown layers in each craggy sandstone outcrop. In the Puna, the rock formations carry such evocative names as Devil’s Throat and The Castles.
Nobody in my compartment seemed unimpressed with the scenery. I talked to Maria and Antonio, a young couple from Salta who were sitting across the aisle from me; we found the sweet spot in the Venn diagram where our Spanish, English and French language skills overlapped. They said that the area felt foreign to them because they were from a city and of European descent. The mountains were home to indigenous people, who made up the majority of the passengers – the rest being a handful of sightseers and backpackers.
The train slowed down at a signpost to let a family disembark. Three or four people greeted them with open arms, as well as mules to carry their belongings. Perhaps they lived down in the fertile valley just visible a few kilometres away. It seemed one of the few places where people could eke out a living from this harsh land.
Maria took out a maté set comprising a metal, filtered straw – called a bombilla – and a small brown gourd. This she filled with dried yerba maté leaves, hot water and sugar. Maté is the national drink of Argentina and is traditionally passed round a group of people – subject to certain protocols like handing the gourd on to the person to your right when you’ve finished. This was my first taste of it. It was a bit like sweet black tea, but without any underlying bitterness.
The temperature inside the train had dropped and the bundles of clothes I’d seen back at Salta were being put to good use, their owners donning layer upon layer of woollen sweaters as we climbed higher into the Puna. I was glad when the steaming maté gourd came back round to me several more times.
One of the world’s highest railways, the Salta-Antofagasta line crosses the Andes to the Pacific coast in Chile. Our train – the Tren Mixto Salta-Socompa to give its full name – travelled as far as the border, from where it was possible to catch a Chilean freight service onwards.
The Tren Mixto was not the only passenger service operating on the Argentine section, though. The faster, more luxurious Tren a las Nubes – the Train to the Clouds – took tourists on return day trips from Salta for US$170, and offered a buffet car, folk bands, bilingual guides and, in case of altitude sickness, oxygen tanks.
But I was glad to be aboard what was in effect a lifeline into the mountains. The entertainment was all around me, both inside the carriage and through the window. It mattered little that our $10 tickets entitled us only to basic facilities. We could get as much hot water for making maté as we desired from an urn at the end of the carriage. And toilet arrangements were simple: a hole in the floor through which I could see the ground rushing by.
Outside, the clouds were thickening, forming a barrier between the scrubby plain and the distant, snow-speckled peaks. I saw lightning strike a hillside 200 metres away, a puff of smoke suggesting it had vapourised a cactus.
As dusk fell and the train’s soft lighting came on, Antonio, a singer-songwriter in his spare time, sang a couple of melancholic folk tunes, which fitted the gathering gloom perfectly. These songs had a soporific effect. There was little to see outside, and everyone was tiring thanks to a long day and the thinning air.
Soon, out of the night, came the dim lights of a town: the copper mining outpost of San Antonio de los Cobres, 3775 metres above sea level. After more than 12 hours on board, I decided this was the right place to disembark.
Those passengers who were staying on board were getting out sleeping bags and even more clothes. They would have to endure higher altitudes and bitter cold as the train wound its way through the night to the border at Socompa. It would take almost a day and a half for the train to return.
Those of us in need of accommodation were whisked off through the dark streets of San Antonio by minibus to a smart and modern stone-built hotel. There, after a late dinner of chicken and chips, I slept off my only reaction to the altitude: a sore head.
When I woke up the next day I realised the hotel had given me a false impression of the town. Even on a crisp, sunny morning, San Antonio was a bleak place, with potholed streets, a stark mountainous backdrop and many dilapidated adobe-brick buildings.
But I was lucky to visit when I did. The Tren Mixto would cease operating several years later, and while the Tren a las Nubes still runs, it now only makes the 2-hour round trip from San Antonio to La Polvorilla viaduct. Passengers must travel by tour bus from Salta to San Antonio. Improvements to the highway mean the journey takes just three hours by road, as opposed to half a day by train, so it’s hard to imagine the Tren Mixto returning.
I took a walk through the streets of San Antonio, which were largely deserted except for some children playing football in the yard of a crumbling school. Many of the buildings had their shutters closed, while some were just boarded up and abandoned. Dust blew along the road surface, pushed by the cold wind coming down off a hillside that displayed the Argentine flag. I wondered how much that painted national symbol meant to those living in the homes around me.