This article has nothing to do with the legendary railroad, the Patagonia Express, which runs in the southern province of Chubut, or the train of the clouds, a tourist line operating out of Salta. This is an account, first hand of course, about the passenger trains operating out of Retiro station in Buenos Aires that rolls to Tucuman and Cordoba in the north.
I was curious about these lines because I had heard that the new administration in Argentina was robustly rebuilding and restoring train lines throughout the north of the country. That may well be true, there is work being done, but ask a local about it and he’ll laugh. Progress is leisurely, to say the least. Never the less, there are a lot of signs claiming that the train is coming back to say, Jujuy, and clearly there is work being done.
So, after futilely trying to purchase tickets on line at the official website for passenger sales, I blindly got to the station one Thursday morning to buy a ticket to get first to Tucuman. This leg would help me get to Salta and further into the Humahuaca Quebrada, north of Jujuy, and close to the border with Bolivia.
I was informed that the tickets to Tucuman were sold out, so I went to Plan B, to try to at least take this train to Rosario, where I would improvise and hop a long distance bus if need be. I was able to make this purchase for 370 Argentine pesos, which was about US$18, a relative bargain for a pullman seat, which has no adjacent seat, the only upgrade from first class, which is slightly cheaper. But if you prefer to have nobody sitting, or sleeping next to you, it’s worth the extra scratch. I boarded the fairly new coach and settled into my seat, # 37. Our departure was slow and steady, rolling out of the giant station yards and rusted hulks, taking a northern vector through the greater metropolis of BA.
It took close to an hour and a half to escape the sprawl and slums of the city, with lots of squalor and garbage visible from my slow rolling window. The average speed at take off never exceeded 25 mph, which would explain the 30 hour scheduled time to complete a journey of 700 miles, incredibly, 4 hours more than when first completed in 1896. Apparently, the continued deterioration of the tracks, and inadequate maintenance all this time, is the reason for the crawl. At many places along the way there are places where workers are busy doing something, and hopefully getting the iron horse back up to speed is the goal.
The terrain opened up and became rural when we finally got out of the BA suburbs, with lots of horses and dogs everywhere. The dwellings were predominantly concrete blocks or reddish bricks, with lots of rebar sticking out. My fellow travelers were all locals, in all age classes but all economizers like myself. As night fell, we were steadily passing through agricultural country, fields of who knows what, tractors and wide open spaces. Our arrival into Rosario was tedious, like a glacier, and this city appeared to be very spread out with no obvious center. At 8:15 our crawl ended at Rosario Norte, where I assumed I would get off, grab my stuff, and head for the bus station which was not far away. However, as I passed through the station lobby I decided to inquire from the lady at the ticket window if the train continuing on to Tucuman was indeed sold out. She informed me that there actually were seats available, but her computer was not working properly so couldn’t process the transaction. So she emerged from the office, escorted me outside, and asked one of the conductors to assist me and get me on the train. He helpfully complied, walked me back onto the train I had just departed, took me to a first class seat and told me to wait there, while he took my ID and processed my ticket.( As I write this now, the Trenes Argentina website is completely down, so that is a major problem with their operations which you might think would be easy enough to resolve. (Think again.)
So now I was back to my original plan, and after waiting around a few minutes, I got antsy and decided to go find the dude, who had told me that the dining car would be opening at 9pm. I found him on his way to get me, take my cash, and give me a ticket. The only problem was that I only had US dollars and a credit card, neither of which he could take, This temporary snafu was resolved when an affable local, overhearing our conversation, offered to exchange my dollars for pesos, no problem. After a quick calculation of the current rate, he gave me 2040 Argentine pesos for my C note, and I in turn gave 400 of those to the conductor. I celebrated solving this snag with a ham and cheese sandwich, about the only item still available on the menu, along with a sprite for $80. Damned reasonable on a train to nowhere, and I wolfed it down back at my first class seat with no neighbors. There were lots of empty seats here, another indictment of the thoroughly dysfunctional train website.
Settling back into my seat, and wisely getting my down sleeping bag out for a pillow and comforter combo, I contorted myself into every angle to get some sleep. The train seats do not recline much, and the massive metal armrest between seats is immovable and a pain in the ass. Nevertheless I did manage to doze off into spells of tormented sleep, punctuated by bursts of racket, ranging from crying kids, to hacking coughs, scattered ringtones and assorted metallic creaks. The rhythm of the train would soon rock me back into a trance, from which I awoke every half hour or so. I watched a lot of barren landscape roll by, and several abandoned looking settlements, ghostlike reminding me of a Twilight Zone episode. Some, like Ceres, had a dilapidated train station, now almost in ruins, from when the old train used to stop there.
Waking up to early light at 7, I was staring out the window when another tiny burg, Pinto, passed by. Here the houses were made of adobe, much more basic than the south in this dry desert. Lots of mesquite trees, cactus, wire fences and horses and dogs. The only other critters I saw were birds, one of which built jumbo branch nests on top of the old power line poles, some of which were close to washing machine size, similar to the ospreys in Baja California. One after another, but I never did see which fowl was doing all the work.
My train mates were a jovial bunch, many traveling with families, and the bathrooms were kept clean as could be expected. The traffic on the nearby road put our pace to shame, and even some of the birds were leaving us in the dust. The big plus was the hypnotic rhythm of the tracks, canceling out many other more irritating sounds, like the branches rubbing against the exterior of the coach. At Colonia, another one horse town, I hopped off to grab a couple of 10 peso empanadas, nothing fancy but hot and adequate. The train actually performs a maneuver of sorts after leaving Rosario, where by we are now facing backwards, leaving the sensation that we’re heading back to big BA.
Actually, we’re continuing north, the land is flat as a pancake with no hills visible in either direction. The nearby traffic is almost all produce trucks, all covered so I can’t tell what they’re hauling, but not much else besides the odd bus or motorcycle. The desert here is quite lush, prickly stuff, similar to parts of Arizona or Mexico, and a machete would be essential to get through the tangle. Goats seem to have replaced cattle as the primary livestock, probably a better beast for this absolute briar patch of cactus and stickies that would be a problem for most living creatures. A few narrow trails, but very forbidding country.
The sky was solid overcast al day but no rain or big wind. I was getting antsy towards the end of the line, timing our progress against the km markers I would see, but I quit when I realized how slow we were going. Kind of like watching food commercials when you’re hungry. I had a free reservation in Tucuman at a place called La Gurda, where I was looking forward to a hot shower, decent meal, and a cold beer.
The advertised 30 hour ride actually took 31, with an excruciatingly slow arrival in Tucuman that was more like a reentry to earth. This was an ancient looking terminal, with heaps of old cars and locomotives rusting away. There was a huge welcoming mob here awaiting their arrivals, and I unloaded, and staggered through the crowd and out the front door. I got approximate directions to my place, and set off for the 5 block walk to find it. As it turned out, nobody knew of the place, it was semi hidden but directly across the street from a busy police substation. I had a $US 21 dollar private room with shared bathroom and breakfast included. The only negative was the smoking area in a courtyard about 15 feet from my door, so I had to get the group to pipe down twice later that night so I could get some z’s. And that was with earplugs, but it worked out.
After a week spent in Salta, Tilcara, and Calilegua, I arrived via night bus from Salta to Cordoba. It’s a grand city that I will expound upon soon, but this piece is all about the train rides. Despite a gruesome 31 hours on the way from Buenos Aires to Tucuman, I was determined to take my medicine and finish what I started with the 19 hour return to Retiro station. Thus, as soon as I arrived at Cordoba’s bus station I walked directly across the street to the train terminal and bought my ticket for 3 days later, just to make sure I got on……very convenient and $600 for the pullman back, US$29. When I boarded that train, Sunday at midday, I was fighting an exotic cold, and had already bought snacks and water for the trip.
The passengers today were an older bunch, likely returning to the big city after visiting family over the weekend. We pulled out of the station right on time, and again our takeoff could be measured with an hourglass and not a stopwatch. Of course this very poky departure provides plenty of time to study the neighborhoods passed through and examine the city scene with a leisurely, steady eye. The afternoon passed by and I was grateful to have a good book to read. The scape became solid fields and plains for hours, sunset came and went, and back out came my sleeping bag to hunker down with as night fell. The coach was not very full, so as I was looking around for a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, I found a set of unoccupied first class seats with a pair facing each other across a fixed table. I was able to stretch out from one seat beneath the table to get my feet on the facing seat, which enabled me to extend almost flat. This was an improvement on all other configurations so far, and I was able to catch some solid z’s. I awoke as we were entering greater Buenos Aires, and checked out the hordes of commuters heading to work on an early monday morning. We arrived on time at 7:30, I grabbed a cup and croissant in the station, ambled downstairs and boarded the line C subway and lurched across town to Constitucion station. Here I got out on the street, brazil I believe, and walked 13 blocks to Colonia Express, where I waited 3 hours for my boat. When I finally arrived at Tres Cruces bus station in Montevideo, my passage from Cordoba had taken 29 hours total. I’m glad that I did it, but there will likely be no repeat of this mission.