Channeling Theroux: Riding the Old Patagonian Express

All aboard La Trochita – revisiting the landscape that inspired Chatwin, Theroux, and Darwin on a slow train journey through a desolate landscape.

(First, a note: much is made of glaciers, penguins, and whales, but Patagonia is vast, with subtler pleasures to be discovered amid the wide-open spaces and world-famous attractions. In an effort to introduce travelers to a few of these, I’ll be sharing experiences from my own overland travels, starting today in the province of Chubut, where the landscape of the Andes transitions into the Patagonian steppe.)

Breathtaking view of the landscape from the train

Breathtaking view of the landscape from the train – photo courtesy of Bridget Gleeson

At the end of a 1970s journey by rail from Boston all the way to southern Argentina, the celebrated American travel writer Paul Theroux boarded the antique narrow-gauge steam train known as La Trochita, nicknaming it ‘the Old Patagonian Express’ – a name that became, of course, the title of his famous book detailing the trip. The railway was originally part of a much larger network, started by Argentina’s government in 1908 to connect the Andes to the Atlantic coast and Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, funding dried up after World War I, and much of the project was abandoned. But the Esquel line ­– including the part later referred to as ‘the Old Patagonian Express’ – was mostly complete by 1935, furnished with imported Belgian coaches and locomotives shipped in from Germany and the US.

Though the railway Theroux described as ‘almost at the end of the world’ no longer serves the longer segment he rode between Esquel and Ingeniero Jacobacci, in the province of Rio Negro, La Trochita still runs a shorter round-trip between Esquel and Nahuel Pan. A diehard fan of romantic old trains, I had to ride it myself. (I took the trip with my mother, which is why I appear in the family album-style photos.)

Me in front of the Old Patagonian Express

Me in front of the Old Patagonian Express – photo courtesy of Bridget Gleeson

The slow, creaking 20-kilometer ride is a touristy affair – the old-fashioned train compartments are charmingly cramped, so you’re literally bumping shoulders with the other passengers – but it’s also sort of magical. Coaches, dating from 1922, still contain the original wood-burning furnaces used to keep travelers warm, and to heat water for mate; there’s also a tiny antique café car with wooden benches on one end of the train.

Antique cafe car with wooden benches

Antique cafe car with wooden benches – photo courtesy of Bridget Gleeson

Outside, the landscape is shockingly empty, save for a few snow-capped mountains and puffy clouds, the curl of white smoke rising up over the grassy steppe. This is the bleak landscape that inspired writers from Charles Darwin (who believed the blank, endless spaces provided ‘free scope to the imagination’) to Bruce Chatwin. To quote from Chatwin’s In Patagonia: ‘there was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.’ (Might I also recommend Nowhere is a Place: Travels in Patagonia, a collaboration with Theroux.)

The only sign of civilization appeared as we pulled into the little village of Nahuel Pan. From the train window, I spotted a lady selling tortas fritas – the aroma of deep-frying pastry dough snapped me right out of the train’s trance.

Place where you can get tortas fritas

Place where you can get tortas fritas – photo courtesy of Bridget Gleeson

Sending an old-fashioned train station farewell from Argentina: until next time, literary travelers.

Venture into Argentina’s literary landscapes with LAN Airlines and its affiliates, offering daily nonstop flights from Miami to Buenos Aires, plus daily connecting flights from New York and Los Angeles.

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