The Old Patagonian Express is advertised as ‘a journey through the landscape and time.’ The train ride serves principally as a tourist attraction and for most this will entail a trip meandering from Esquel through the hills to the village of Nahuel Pan 22km away. The train is stationary for fifteen minutes before departure, allowing spectators time to take it the sight as well as a lungful of the characteristically thick steam-engine smoke as the train gets ready to depart.
The journey itself takes almost an hour, with the train rumbling along the tracks and affording excellent views of the vast, sparse landscape as it lists on one of the many broad bends in the track.
Much of the land through which the route travels is part of a vast estancia, an Argentine ranch. A herd of horses might playfully gallop alongside the train, and the journey affords the ability to spot other Patagonia wildlife, including packs of llama-like guanacos, ostridge-like rheas and occasionally, condors.
It is fitting that Paul Theroux championed in his work of the same name the importance of the journey itself, not the destination. The little pueblo of Nahuel Pan is an underwhelming, sparse place to arrive.
Half a dozen shacks greet the passengers disembarking the train each offering different services: soft drinks, snacks and several local handicraft workshops. The torta fritas, literally ‘fried cakes’, are very similar to a doughnut without the jam and are a delicious value. A tiny museum offers an exhibit on the history of the area and its native Mapuche Indian inhabitants.
The highlight of the Nahuel Pan stop is getting a look at the pair of disused trains resting beside the tracks. It is a sad sight to see these formerly imperious engines, brown with rust, lying dormant and slowly being eroded by the Patagonian breeze, but they are fascinating objects to inspect close-up and pose for a photograph with (bonus points for those clutching their copy of Theroux).
The schedule changes according to the season and unfortunately The Patagonia Express has developed a reputation as being unreliable. As well as the trip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan, another more substantial 406km journey is offered from the town of Maiten, near Bariloche, to Bruno Thomas Pass 55km away.
The official website is now up and running again but the information can be at odds with what the stationmaster has to say in his authentic wooden ticket office at Esquel station. Those interested would do best to just show up to see if the train is running, you can also try to double check details over the telephone, if anyone answers.
The last word should go to Paul Theroux, who after his journey on board ‘La Trochita’ in the 1970s noted, ‘The engine looked derelict, as if it would never run again – but it had a hundred more years in it, I was sure.’ Nearly halfway there, he might just be right.
—by George Warren
← cont. from: Rolling through the Andes: The Old Patagonian Express
Esquel to Nahuel Pan
All trains depart Esquel at 10 a.m., returning at 12:45.
Telephone Inquiries – Esquel: (02945) 45 1403
El Maitén: (02945) 49 5190