The Northwest Feature

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Tren a las Nubes

With a bird's-eye view of its passage over the 210-foot-high Viaducto La Polvorilla, the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) is probably the Northwest's most famous attraction. This train ride of a lifetime takes you on a 16-hour journey to the high, desolate Puna and back.

The trip begins at 4,336 feet as the train climbs out of the Lerma Valley from Salta into the mountains. It rattles over steel bridges that span wild rivers, winding ever upward through many turns and tunnels to reach the viaduct (13,770 feet), just beyond San Antonio de los Cobres, the only town of any size in the Puna. In San Antonio and at the viaduct you can disembark to test the thin air and visit a train-side market set up by locals for just this occasion.

The 217-km (135-mi) round-trip takes in 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, and a couple of hairpin bends and spirals, all of which are interpreted by the bilingual guides on board. Medical assistants take the ride with you to help with altitude sickness. Stop in at the dining car; breakfast and an afternoon snack are included in the fare.

When to Go

The heavy rains of summer mean the train stops running completely between the end of November and March, and in wintertime those that mind the cold might want to think twice about committing to 15 hours travel in the mountains. On August 1 the Festival of the Pachamama is celebrated in San Antonio de los Cobres.

What's out the Window

The infrastructure alone makes the trip incredible as the rack-and-pinionless train uses all the tricks in the book to gain altitude while avoiding steep grades. The trip isn't only for railway enthusiasts, though: an other-worldly landscape offers view after spectacular view as the train twists and turns along the route. For the parts where the train is accompanied by a road, or as it passes through infrequent villages, there are people to wave to. In San Antonio de los Cobres and on the lookout at the Viaducto la Polvorilla, locals gather round the train for a chat—and to sell handicrafts and trinkets. The guides in each carriage provide lots of information for each stage of the journey; when there's nothing more to be seen out the window, or once the sun's gone down on the return journey, they double as entertainers.

San Antonio de los Cobres

San Antonio is like many small towns in rural Argentina, except that it's so heavily battered by sun and wind even the kids have wrinkles. It's also really difficult to get to and has very little oxygen in the air. Essential accessories for visitors are sunscreen, extra clothes for warmth at night, and coca leaves—they're chewed as an aide to digestion (which helps with altitude sickness). All that saliva production promotes swallowing, too, which will pop your ears (like sucking hard candies on a plane). Only since the last couple of years have there been lodging options; the basic Hostal del Cielo (Belgrano at Comandante Goulu 387/490–9912www.vivirenloscobres.com.ar) and the smarter Hosteria de las Nubes (RN51 s/n 387/490–9059www.maresur.com) are the best right now, and more hotels are being built. Renting a room of someone's house is an option, too. A small ethnographic and archaeological museum, ANTAPU, fills in some detail on the town's background and raison d'etre, but it's still very young and needs more work. The main business is making artesanías—handmade goods that can be sold to tourists.

Reservations

Reservations can be made at many agencies in Salta or with Les Amis (Cerrito 84411/5246-6666) in Buenos Aires and cost 120 USD in low season, 140 USD in high season. Salta Station, Ameghino and Balcarce, Salta0800/888-6823www.ecotren.com.

Extending your trip

Though you can only buy return tickets, there's nothing to stop you getting off in San Antonio and continuing north to the salinas (salt flats) and on to Purmamarca in Jujuy. Bear in mind, however, that there's no public transport, though for the right price drivers will take you in their own cars. Going south to Cachi isn't as easy; the road is narrow and dangerous. Make sure to tell the gendarmeria in San Antonio if you're going to attempt this route.

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