So you have an appetite for desert landscapes and majestic vistas? A visit to San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile, combined with several organized tours, can go a long way to satisfying your craving. In San Pedro de Atacama the main street, Calle Caracoles, is lined with long-established and impromptu tour operators, ready to help you explore the Atacama desert and beyond.
If your visit to San Pedro de Atacama only whets your appetite for the unique, there is another add-on to your trip that you might consider. Salta is Argentina’s eighth largest city, has a rich colonial heritage and is located in the north-west corner of the country. Take a look at an atlas and you will see that it is located just across the mighty Andes mountain range from San Pedro de Atacama.
It is an add-on however that will require some planning as the only direct transportation between San Pedro de Atacama and Salta is by coach. The journey takes approximately 11 hours with 3 or 4 bus companies offering the service. I noted Pullman, Andesmar and Gemini having departures from San Pedro de Atacama at 09:30am three times a week. My ticket on Pullman cost $ 29,000 CLP ( approx. $60 USD ) for the 600 kilometer journey. Needless to say the landscape during the journey is spectacular crossing the mighty Andes mountain range on an 11 hour coach journey is truly unique in its own right and you arrive in Salta ready for another memorable adventure.
Salta is the starting point for a unique train journey. The Tren a las Nubes ( Train to the Clouds ) climbs more than 3,000 meters ( 10,000 feet ) to an altitude of 4,200 meters ( 13,800 feet ) above sea level during its 7- hour journey through dramatic mountain scenery. It is also the world’s fifth-highest train journey and the highest for a traction system that is not rack-and-pinion.
Originally constructed as a commercial link between Salta in Argentina and Antofagasta in Chile to service the mining industry, the section of the track from Salta to the highest point at the viaduct of Polvorilla is now also used as the touristic ‘Tren a las Nubes’. It is a full day round-trip adventure beginning and ending in Salta. The round-trip, entirely by train, takes approximately 16 hours.
What you will See
After crossing the tobacco fields of the fertile Lerma valley the train begins its ascent through a heavily-forested humid region referred to as the ‘Yungas’. This is the Argentine section of one of the most important ecosystems which extends through the eastern Andes in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. This ecosystem represents the transition from the drier highlands to the west and the forests of the east.
Soon the landscape becomes increasingly drier, with contrasting pockets of vegetation as the train snakes along the sides of steep river canyons, through tunnels and over viaducts. Striking multi-colored rock formations are interspersed with giant cactus fields and the vistas alternate between steep canyon walls and vast plains that stretch endlessly to the horizon.
The final stretch above 3800 meters ( 12,500 feet ) is across a huge plain covered with the characteristic yellow scrub grass that survives at this altitude. This is the Argentine ‘Puna’- a vast plateau in the highlands of the Andes.
After crossing a total of 29 bridges and 13 viaducts, passing through 21 tunnels, circling 2 spirals and negotiating 2 zig-zags the train arrives at its destination and the highest point on its journey, the viaduct at Polvorilla. Along the way, in addition to the majestic scenery, you will also see village communities, mining settlements and abandoned dwellings in this most arid of climates.
There is a welcome stop of about 40 minutes at the Polvorilla viaduct to get some fresh air and exercise and to purchase souvenirs from a small group of local artisans. It is also a chance to take photos of the impressive viaduct.
The return trip back to Salta has only one additional stop at San Antonio de los Cobres which is the transfer point for passengers who have chosen to return to Salta by coach. This provides another break of about 30 minutes while the transfers are made and is another welcome stop to exercise the lower limbs, take in some water refreshment, mingle with the local artisans and take more photographs.
The Train Experience
The train has 7 or 8 seating coaches and a dining coach. The seating arrangement is designed to encourage interaction between passengers: at both sides of a central aisle there are four seats, two facing forward and two facing backward with minimal knee space. There is some overhead space for any carry-on items but this is minimal and would not accommodate bulky items such as coolers or suitcases. I was fortunate to be surrounded on both sides of the aisle by Argentines from different parts of the country. In their friendly manner they shared their maté ( brewed tea ) with me, even sweetening the brew to my taste. The sharing of maté, even with complete strangers, is symbolic of friendship.
The compartments are clean and comfortable. They have video monitors which provide very informative commentaries about each significant point during the journey including interesting anecdotes about the construction of the rail line. These commentaries are over a speaker system and alternate in both Spanish and English. There is also an opportunity to purchase some items of memorabilia such as a DVD of photos of the trip.
The ticket price includes several small snacks that are served during the journey including coffee, tea and water. A breakfast sandwich snack is served shortly after the early morning beginning of the journey. You can bring your own snacks and drinks if preferred. The ticket price does not include the cost of an optional cooked lunch that is available and served in the dining car. Stewards circulate a menu with 2 or 3 options for lunch ranging in price from about $20 to $30 USD with 2 or 3 seating times. I opted for the lunch and the food was fine, cafeteria quality. Drinks were available but at an additional cost, even water. The dining car was very stuffy as it seemed that windows could not be opened but it was another opportunity to meet with some fellow travelers and exchange stories.
You will also notice that throughout the journey there are at least two jeeps marked ‘Seguridad’ that follow the road path of the train. As well as general security duties, they assist with ensuring that road traffic is prepared at rail crossings. There is also a medical support vehicle that accompanies the security vehicles as a precaution in the event of passenger illness. These vehicles are very visible throughout the journey and provide reassurance to passengers. I did not notice anyone having health difficulties during the journey and it is by no means a treacherous journey, but the presence of medical support is a sensible option for any journey that lasts for an entire day and involves high altitude.
You have the option to make the return journey to the Salta train station by bus, which cuts the return train journey time by approximately 2 hours. If you purchase that option, then the transfer to the bus takes place at San Antonio de los Cobres, about 30 minutes after returning from the viaduct at Polvorilla. There is a 30 minute transfer time with photo opportunities and time to stretch.
What you should bring
Because of the high altitude it is always best to bring a light jacket or wind-breaker as low temperatures and strong winds at the highest point can sometimes require such protection. It is a long day, and as altitude can affect people differently, consider the several different medications available to combat altitude sickness. As always, check with your doctor for the most appropriate for your case. Even though there is not much time spent outdoors, use sun-block and good sun glasses. Although there are some occasions to get water on the train it is best to bring plenty of your own.
Also importantly bring local currency ( Argentine Pesos ) since only cash is accepted on the train for all items such as drinks, memorabilia and lunch. I recommend bringing at least $100 USD equivalent in Argentine Pesos per person if you plan on purchasing lunch and some memorabilia. Pesos can be obtained easily in Salta at Cajero Automatica machines ( ATM’s ) or currency exchange offices. Finally, don’t forget your camera with an adequate memory card.
Ticket Options and How to Buy
All of the details that you will need such as timetables, optional add-ons, prices and logistics can be found at the website for the train journey at www.trenalasnubes.com.ar. The train journey always departs from Salta at 07:05 hrs from its own train station in the city. Tickets can be purchased from tour operators throughout Salta, from the train station at Calle General Belgrano in Salta or of course from the website. There is only one class of service on the train.
During its operating season the train departs only on Saturdays although during peak season ( July, end of March and April ) there are a few additional departures on other days. There are no departures during the rainy, low season months of January, February, most of March and most of December. It is important to review the schedule of departures from the website as there are deviations from the normal schedule/a few Saturdays during the normal operating season when no departures are scheduled.
The website details a variety of ticket options, the simplest of which is a round-trip passage by train for a price of approximately $170 USD per person. In this case, the train returns to Salta at 23:30hrs. An alternative is to return by bus which reduces the total travel time by two hours, returning to Salta at 21:30hrs. This option costs just over $200 USD and was the option I chose in October 2013.
There are many other ticket options available on the website. These include combination tickets with bus tours and off-road adventures to specific attractions in the area combined with the train journey. Details and prices are outlined on the website.
Salta is an interesting city to visit in its own right and serves as the center for many tours in the region. It has a rich colonial history and maintains many of its colonial structures. Its main square, with an exceptional cathedral, is a vibrant focal point for social interaction having an active live theater with opera and ballet, a park gazebo for impromptu tango sessions and many outdoor cafes to just relax.