On the outskirts of Esquel, a tranquil town in the heart of Patagonia’s Chubut province, the quiet is broken at regular intervals by the piercing whistle and familiar chugging of ‘La Trochita,’ as the Old Patagonian Express is affectionately called to by locals.
La Trochita, which translates as ‘narrow gauge,’is steam-powered locomotive that appears as old as the surrounding foothills. As this ‘little engine that could’ splutters and wobbles along, it retains a defiant majesty despite its countless years of service.
The paint on the 1922 engine is parched and cracked from decades of exposure to the diffused Patagonia sun and dry wind. The well-worn track, with a gauge just 75cm wide, covered in dust and sprouting grass, looks like something out of the Wild West. The original carriages remain too; in the center of each cabin is an original wood-burning stove, traditionally used to heat the cabin and warm water for the popular local beverage, mate.
The uncomfortably rigid wooden chairs serve as a reminder of this train’s authenticity. A battered beast, this train has fought off the elements, accidents and several attempts at closure through the years and today provides one of the world’s most famous train journeys and arguably South America’s finest.
Cherished by Esquel’s residents and surrounded by the rolling hills of the Andes, the Old Patagonian Express still attracts tourists from across Argentina and the world. In a country whose train industry withered away decades ago with the development of paved roads, La Trochita remains as a fine working example of the rare narrow-gauge locomotive. The engines as well as the track itself are a decade away from their centenary, and visitors flock to Esquel all year round to ride one of the finest, not to mention oldest, of the few working long distance narrow-gauge steam trains in the world.
A Journey through Time
At the time of its construction, the Old Patagonian Express line was intended to form part of a planned rail network across Patagonia.Although the project to connect the area to Bariloche and beyond was launched in 1908, it was subject to numerous setbacks caused by governmental wrangling and the difficulties brought on by the onset of the First World War.
Construction began in 1922, but progress was painfully slow and the track only reached Esquel in 1945, operating as a freight service bringing supplies, and later on passengers, to and from the region.
Service declined throughout the 1960s and 1970s, although the train journey was popularized by Paul Theroux and dubbed ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ in his 1979 book of the same name.
Deciding one snowy winter to travel from his home in Boston as far as he could by train, Theroux calculated that the tracks finally ran out in Esquel. His book recounts his journey across the United States, through Mexico and Central America and along the Andes until its conclusion in deepest, dustiest Patagonia. Once off the train in Esquel, so ended his journey and with it the final chapter of the book.
Despite its fame, in part a result of Theroux’s book, the unprofitable line was closed in 1993 but after strong public outcry was saved from extinction by the local government, which operates the line today, albeit on a more limited service. In 1999 the line was declared an Argentine National Heritage Site. Far from resenting the constant influx of tourists, such is the popularity of the train with the townspeople that they still wave each time it passes.
Contact us to ask about our Old Patagonia Express Tour
→ continued, George Warren’s: The Old Patagonian Express Today