Before coming to Salta, I had heard much praise about the famous "Tren a Las Nubes" built at great expense through high mountains and deep gorges by the engineer Richard Maury between 1921 and 1948.
The first thing I did upon arrival was to try to buy a ticket for the train ride up to San Antonio de los Cobres and back. I was naturally very disappointed to be told that the train was not running because heavy rains had caused landslides that had not yet been cleared off the track. I learned however that it almost never runs from December to March while the freight train goes through regularly every week. I therefore suspected that the famous Tren a Las Nubes is kept idle because there are not enough tourists in winter to fill it to its full 550 passenger capacity rather than because of alleged track problems.
It would have been nice to add the Tren a Las Nubes to other special train experiences I had enjoyed elsewhere like the Blue Mountain train in India, the Manakara train in Madagascar, the trans-siberian train in Russia the Altiplano ferrobus in Bolivia, and many others.
Fortunately, a minibus tour was covering almost the same route up the Quebrada del Toro (Bull's gorge), so I took that instead. These three first pictures all show the same railway viaduct over the Rio del Toro. Naturally, its called the "Viaducto del Toro".
That's looking backwards along the Quebrada del Toro at the same viaduct.
The scenery was great so I decided to enjoy the minibus tour and forget my frustration about having missed the train ride.
Here is another one of the 13 viaducts. Thirty one lower iron bridges, 9 culverts and 21 tunnels totalling 3000 meters in length were also required to reach the Chilean border some 570 km away.
The Rio Toro is almost dry now but it can be a raging torrent at times.
In some places the valley is wide enough to sustain a few cattle ranches.
We saw cattle but very few.
This 180 degree panorama shows the tracks climbing towards the border on the left after coming from the east on the right.
The valley gets progressively drier as we gain altitude towards the historical village of Santa Rosa de Tastil at 2700 m. whose cemetery can be seen in this picture.
We had a short pipi stop in Tastil, just long enough for me to snap this friendly llama loitering near the restaurant.
North of Tastil, we soon reach the hostile "Puna", a bone dry, hot at noon and freezing cold at night, windy desert where even the cactus struggle to survive.
And we still climb...
We still climb and we reach 4080 meters above sea level at a place called Abra Blanca...
Before descending a little into this high puna plain.
Finally we reach San Antonio de Los Cobres at 3775 meters (12 500 feet). Here, the atmospheric pressure is so low that breathing in enough oxygen is a problem for most people not acclimatised to this altitude like the Quechua people who live here. As the name indicates, the town was founded to exploit nearby copper mines but these have run out now and the remaining residents have a hard time to make ends meet.
The Quechua have nominally adopted Christianity to survive the Spanish steam roller occupation but they have remained attached to their traditional beliefs and still worship Pachamama, the spirit of mother earth, source of all life, and Inti the sun whose heat makes Pachamama fertile.
I don't believe in spirits but if I had to choose, I think that Pachamama and Inti make more sense than a three in one deity of which one has allegedly been born to a virgin mother! It is interesting to note the similarity between the Andean Pachamama and the earliest recorded deity, a goddess of fertility unearthed in the Anatolian site of Catal Hoyuk (7000 BC). Also worth mentioning are Ecuador's Valdivia feminine figurines (4000 BC) and Malta's "Fat Lady" goddess (3000 BC)
We drove right through San Antonio and followed the river upstream to see the great La Polvorilla viaduct, the highlight of this trip.
Here is my first glance at the remarkable feat of engineering that the La Polvorilla viaduct was when it was completed in 1932. One thousand and six hundred tons of steel beams were cast in Trieste Italy and transported half way around the world to be assembled in this remote gorge at an altitude of 4330 meters. What an accomplishment!
The viaduct measures 63 metres high by 220 meters long, it is curved and asymmetric, the western abutment on the right, being 4.5 meters higher than the eastern one. Every piece had to fit perfectly so it was first assembled in a similar gorge near Trieste before shipping it by boat to Buenos Aires.
In those days, Argentina was rich and could afford such extravagance to connect its northern provinces to the port of Antofagasta on the Pacific Ocean. A freight train still makes a weekly run to the Pacific but most of the revenue now comes from passengers in the tourist season.
After this impressive sight, we stopped for lunch in the quasi deserted town.
The impoverished Quechua have no choice but to watch the tourists through the window as they eat their meal and to beg a few coins when they come out. At least, these do it with a smile...
And then it was time for the long drive back to Salta giving us a chance to enjoy the spectacular scenery once more.
Robert Maury who designed and supervised the construction of the 570 km mountain railway from Salta to Socompa on the Chilean border, fully deserves to have a town named after him for such a masterpiece. It is important to mention that this train uses normal locomotives that depend only on friction to pull their load (no cogs or rack and pinion that many mountain trains use). Naturally, the old steam locos have now been replaced by more efficient diesels!
After a night in Salta, I caught a very early bus for the 12 hour trip to San Pedro de Atacama via the beautiful 4230 meter Paso Jama.