On the Old Patagonian Express

 

 

The locomotive slowly backs up to the slatted rail carriages. Gleaming like an unused stainless steel oven, it reflects the strong Andean morning sun back at our cameras. Suddenly, it whistles and releases a cloud of white steam that freezes instantly and forms tiny droplets that fog my sunglasses. Everyone cheers. The crowd assembled at Esquel train station is in a party mood. We have already fallen in love with La Trochita, as the locals call the Old Patagonian Express, and we haven’t even started our trip.

Not that we’re going far. Nowadays only one stop is on offer: from Esquel, a pleasant admin town in the Andes, to Nahuel Pan, a native Patagonian village, one hour away.

When Paul Theroux wrote about his ride to the Andes and turned his journey into legend, the times were different. The 1970s and 1980s were the Golden Age of Tourist Travel when affordable flights shrank the world to a manageable size. Every corner of the earth was ready to be probed and scrutinised by hordes of youngsters with their possessions on their backs and an unquenchable thirst for the exotic.

Those were the times when La Trochita was the only land approach to the remote outposts of Esquel and Trevelin and their lifeline with the large cities of the north. The train was built to carry freight and link up with the Bariloche–Buenos Aires line at Ingeniero Jacobacci.

When I first set eyes on La Trochita I nearly fell backwards laughing. I’d heard about a “narrow gauge train” but I didn’t expect a tram. And yet, this is what the Trochita is: a steam train run on simple tram lines 75cm apart. These are the tracks that had to be laid out quickly during the first world war to transfer troops and provisions to the Western front. After the armistice, they were dismantled and Argentina bought them lock stock and locomotive. The cheap and dirty temporary war transport found permanent use in Patagonia.

Passenger services started after the coal-fired engines turned to oil in the late 1940s and by the 1970s backpackers had started exploring the mysterious Patagonia of lore. But the mounting maintenance costs of the Patagonian Express caught up with it. The engine uses 100 litres of water per kilometre , so a pump station was built every 40 kms in the dry steppe. The increasing price of oil and the dangerous terrain – as late as 2011 the cars were derailed because of strong winds – also conspired to close the line, except for the short one-hour trip we’re about to embark on.

At last we’re all aboard and with a thud we start. It’s 10:05, and we’re five minutes late, but who cares? We all clap instead.

We chuff and chug at walking pace out of the town. A guy  runs in front of us with a red flag to stop the traffic before we cross a road. He then runs to his car and leaves us standing. We meet him at the next junction waving his flag in front of a lone van whose driver strops, stunned.

Although our engine can reach a speed of 65km/hr, we are running only at an average of 20km/hr. Probably because we drive parallel to Estrada 259 and we cross it a few times. A lorry zips by faster than us but, hey, we have priority. The guy with the red flag is waiting for us. The lorry stops and the driver takes a picture on his smartphone.

The complete journey north took something between 14 to 20 hours. The passengers used a cast iron wood-fired stove to cook their food: they fried eggs, seared steaks and even roasted whole racks of lamb on top. We have one in our compartment, too, and I would love to crack an egg on it, but it’s not turned on. These days there is a proper restaurant car for us tenderfoots. Still, the uncomfortable couches are 1922 originals.

The driver’s having a lot of fun with the whistle. We scare a horse tied to a tree, and it starts running in circles. A woman on the bridge of the Esquel canal is stunned and nearly drops her shopping. Soldiers from an Army base we pass, smile and wave. Better stop snapping – this is Latin America!

Once out of the city, we are into the scrub-and-thorn bush that defines the Patagonian landscape all the way to the coast. Bare mountains look down upon us as we look down on Esquel in turn. We pass through a thicket of pines planted for timber. You have to go to the snowy peaks far away, to the National Park los Alerces, to see proper forests, for the Andes hold the moisture from the Pacific and don’t let it reach the steppe.

The ticket inspector comes in, all Argentinian seriousness, followed by the official photographer, all smiles, who takes orders for professionally taken pictures next to La Trochita. I also find out that tomorrow, Saturday, there is a mock raid by armed bandits on horseback who will stop the train and rob the passengers. Tickets cost extra for the raid experience.

By now we’ve reached the main crossing point on Highway 40, where the guy with the red flag is waiting for us along with trainspotters gathered for the 10:50am sighting. A car starts off and runs suspiciously at the same speed parallel with us; maybe that’s a real hold-up? Actually no, he’s only filming us, one hand on the camcorder, the other on the driving wheel. I suppose he won’t see another car for 100 kilometres, but I still look away in disapproval.

 

 

We have now reached the first farmhouses of Nahuel Pan. The pueblo comprises twenty-two Mapuche and Tehuelche families dispersed over 1500 hectares for every homestead is built around a well. Argentina gave them the land for free, but it’s arid, dry and hard to farm. To the villagers the 45-minute stop of the Old Patagonian Express is the sole money-spinner and they’re waiting for us.

We disembark at Nahuel Pan amid makeshift artesanias where thick woollens and glazed pottery are vying for our attention; we visit the local museum that presents a blunt history of the treatment of native Patagonians by the Argentinian government; and we queue at the canteen to buy empanadas and tortas fritas (flat dough patties fried in oil).

And that’s it. The locomotive has done a turn and is now ready to return to Esquel. Our trip was short but sweet enough to turn anyone into a train enthusiast. Someone said once that every locomotive is a living spirit; but our lovely Trochita is more than that.

It’s a train with a soul.

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

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A Cycling Tour Of Buenos Aires

 

 

I enter the offices of Urban Bikers in Buenos Aires rather apprehensively. It’s a stifling, humid summer afternoon and I’m about to go on a three-hour city tour by bike wending my way through the most chaotic traffic in Latin America. Eat your heart out cage shark divers! Who’s flirting with real danger now?

I was worried, but shouldn't have been. Predictably, Ana, my guide, wanted to live, too, so we avoided busy traffic junctions. But the big surprise were the cycle lanes. Since 2011 the mayor of Buenos Aires has created a whopping 100km of cycle paths separated from car lanes via small, but psychologically significant, raised boundaries.

We start at Plaza San Martín, named after Argentina’s national hero whose statue commands the square. This provides an opportunity for Ana to give me the lowdown of the history of Buenos Aires from the first colonization attempts in 1536 to the stirrings of independence in 1810 and beyond. She proves a great storyteller throughout the tour, with juicy gossip peppering her tales, especially as she approaches the modern times.

Our next stop is in front of the railway clocktower, built by British merchants in 1910 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Argentinian revolution. Originally called Torre de los Ingleses and nicknamed ‘Big Ben’ (though it looks nothing like the original), it was rebranded Torre Monumental after the Falklands war. Unsurprisingly, it’s been vandalised with a frequency that follows the ups and downs of Argentina’s relationship with Britain. I bet it wasn’t a coincidence that the Malvinas Memorial was built facing this particular clocktower.

We hit the first big traffic junction. It’s choc-a-bloc, so we glide easily through the stationary cars onto the long Avenida Eduardo Madero. We’re headed to one of the city’s hidden attractions: the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, a green urban refuge with paths, ponds and perennials stretching over 865 acres.

In the shade, at last, we reach the Rio de la Plata riverbank where porteño families are sunbathing and swimming in the shallow waters – 300 metres in and they’re still only half-submerged. Birdlife abounds but so does insect activity: after battling off mosquitoes, picking out ticks and swatting sandflies, we decide to move on.

We’re now in the Puerto Madero district; the Buenos Aires docklands with warehouses converted into modern apartments. Although locals turn their noses up at Puerto Madero, because it lacks the identity of a barrio, foreigners love it. Maybe I’m showing my foreignness myself, but there’s a lot to be said for the tranquillity and charm of the canal that runs through it, with its four picturesque boat locks and iron bridges.

Another scary moment passes as we cycle through an access road to the main Buenos Aires-La Plata highway before we reach the Boca district. Ana warns me: although Boca is one of the prime tourists spots in Buenos Aires, parts of it are fraught with danger. Indeed, we cycle through crumbling housing estates that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bronx circa 1990 and through narrow streets where sullen youngsters are hanging around.

And yet Boca’s port at the mouth of Rio Riachuelo is an explosion of colour, noise and movement like no other: street entertainers struggle to be heard next to ear-splitting restaurant touts, vivid shop signs fight it out with dazzling graffiti and backpackers with selfie sticks interfere with amateur photographers setting up their Nikons on tripods. Who cares if the shop prices on the central Caminito are sky-high – look at those painted houses!

Dicey or not, I prefer Boca than San Telmo, another Buenos Aires beauty spot, which, however, I can’t fully enjoy on the saddle. The cobblestone streets that looked so pretty and authentic when I was here last Sunday are a bugger to cycle over. I have to use my diminishing muscle power to stop my bike veering to the right and onto innocent pedestrians or to the slow moving traffic on the left and into a taxi that’s been stopping and starting next to me since Parque Lezama. I know the driver’s angry with me because, when finally we reach the traffic lights of the wide Avenida Independencia, he revs off noisily, leaving me to breathe a lungful of petrol fumes. I can only pray he uses unleaded.

From then on it’s plain sailing, so to speak, until we reach Plaza de Mayo facing the Presidential palace. Overlooked by the old Town Hall and the Cathedral that gave the world a Pope, this is the nerve centre of the capital, Argentina’s own Tahrir Square. It’s here where Evita made those firebrand speeches in the 1940s; it’s here where Argentina’s mothers protested against the disappearance of their sons during the country’s Dirty War; and it’s here today that 350 ex-soldiers hold a vigil for the right to be recognized as Falklands war veterans.

We cycle the final few kilometres back to Plaza San Martín through Calle Reconquista, against the one-way traffic. Apparently it’s easier to see the cars coming at you in the narrow streets of the centre. But hey, who cares? After pedalling for 18 kms, I feel like a veteran Buenos Aires cyclist.  And proud of it.

 

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

 

 

In Evita’s Footsteps

  

 

Not many of us know the name of the wife of a foreign head of state, unless he happens to be the President of the United States. But even then, Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote a musical about Hilary Clinton or Michele Obama and Madonna never portrayed them on film. After such exposure, it’s inevitable that Evita Perón has become the pop face of Argentina.

However, there aren’t many places in Buenos Aires where you can trace the steps of a figure that’s still controversial – and I’ve been to all three of them.

The easiest to get to is the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace facing the vast Plaza de Mayo. Most tourists keep outside and take pictures of the pink façade, but stay in Buenos Aires over a weekend and you’ll be able to visit the palace yourself (Sat–Sun 10am–6pm; free).

Once inside, the atmosphere is very jovial and low-key. The Presidential Guard, presumably specially chosen for their chiselled features or brawny physique, mix freely and pose smiling next to curious tourists. There is a chapel and two side patios: one commemorating the Falklands War and another opposite, full of palm trees and presidential busts.

But it’s the central hall, that will be the focus of your visit. Named the Gallery of Honour it contains portraits of popular Latin American figures: Salvador Allende, Oscar Romero, Che Guevara, Getulio Vargas.. and, at last, Evita. Portrayed smiling with long, flowing hair, unlike the short crops, bobs and chignons favoured in the 1940s and 1950s, she’s the one getting all the selfies. A short description identifies her as ‘Popular Leader’ and underlines her main claim to history: in 1947 she campaigned for the women’s vote and won. Her opponents counter that this right was long overdue: Chile, Brazil, Uruguay had all adopted women’s suffrage by then.

 

 

Such ambiguity regarding her legacy is expanded on in the new Evita Museum (Lafinur 2988, metro Plaza Italia; Tue–Sun 11am–7pm; AR$40), housed in an early 20th century neo-colonial mansion with heavily ornate wrought iron gates and flamboyant interiors. Evita’s also been here; in 1948, the house was acquired by her Social Assistance Foundation to be used as a women’s refuge. When Perón was deposed in 1955, the foundation’s assets were confiscated and government departments moved in. In 1999 it was declared a historic monument and in 2002 turned into a museum.

Inside, Evita’s history is detailed in pictures and objects. There are nineteen rooms overall, with scenes from Evita’s early films – she stopped after she married Juan Perón snippets from her melodramatic speeches and photographs with children and workers. What amazed me most is a photograph of hers age 14. Appearing, beautiful and sophisticated, she knew how to pose; I can’t help wondering what Madonna looked like at that age. There’s even a picture of her kicking a football – in a tight two-piece business costume. A seamstress by profession, she certainly knew how to spin the news, too.

She also had a knack on how to appear chic. By far the best reason to visit the museum is to marvel at Evita’s original dresses, shoes and hats. You know them all from the film, because Madonna wore copies, rendering to them a currency that is as pop as it is morbid: her clothes stand there ghostly, without a presence. Visitors surround them to study every feature, take pictures from the front, the back and sides, comment on the colours and try to work out her height. You can somehow picture her alive.

After all such detail, her last filmed speech, where she indirectly reveals to the crowds that she won’t be around much longer, punches a strong emotional impact. Whatever she was in life – a saintly presence or a dictator’s moll – she was certainly redeemed by her early death. By the time you read the trials and tribulations of her remains that suffered an embalming, a kidnap, a flight to Italy, a secret reburial, a disinterment and a very public return to Buenos Aires in a saga that lasted 20 years, you’re ready to forgive her everything.

And thus to Recoleta cemetery (7am-6pm daily; free, but there is talk of introducing a charge) where she finally rests in her paternal mausoleum and listed on the map under her maiden name, Eva Duarte. At only 100-odd yards left from the main entrance she’s very easy to find, so tourists don’t venture further in. A pity, because the cemetery feels like a grand museum with sculptures adorning tombs of astonishing opulence.

If it’s only Evita you’ve come to see, you’ll be disappointed. You can’t get her tomb in a photo unless you have a super wide lens because the path in front is very narrow. Most visitors just snap the plaque that confirms her whereabouts and grumble: “Why do they keep her there? Why not have a bigger monument?”

Well, not only do ‘they’ keep her here, but they’ve made sure she rests five metres below ground in a concrete bunker that should survive a thermonuclear explosion. One thing is sure: she won’t be disturbed again, because the myth surrounding her is thorny and very, very complex.

 

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

 

 

Chile

 

To me, Colonia del Sacramento is proof that, however outlandish your bucket list, it gets ticked off eventually. I’ve been wanting to visit the city for twenty years, ever since I found out about this patch of Brazil inside Uruguay and, yes, this year I did it.


 

 

The locomotive slowly backs up to the slatted rail carriages. Gleaming like an unused stainless steel oven, it reflects the strong Andean morning sun back at our cameras. Suddenly, it whistles and releases a cloud of white steam that freezes instantly and forms tiny droplets that fog my sunglasses. Everyone cheers. The crowd assembled at Esquel train station is in a party mood. We have already fallen in love with La Trochita, as the locals call the Old Patagonian Express, and we haven’t even started our trip.


 

 

 

Not many of us know the name of the wife of a foreign head of state, unless he happens to be the President of the United States. But even then, Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote a musical about Hilary Clinton or Michele Obama and Madonna never portrayed them on film. After such exposure, it’s inevitable that Evita Perón has become the pop face of Argentina.


 

 

I enter the offices of Urban Bikers in Buenos Aires rather apprehensively. It’s a stifling, humid summer afternoon and I’m about to go on a three-hour city tour by bike wending my way through the most chaotic traffic in Latin America. Eat your heart out cage shark divers! Who’s flirting with real danger now?


 

 

In Nicaragua, David Whitley heads up to the edge of a volcano crater and learns of the terror it has caused over the years