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By Bina Joseph

From April to October the “Tren a las Nubes” (“Train to the Clouds”) cuts a stunning swathe across the high peaks of the Cordillera de los Andes, from the city of Salta in northern Argentina, through the Valle de Lerma, entering the Quebrada del Toro, and arriving finally at La Puna.

It takes its name from the vapor that swirls under and over the wheels, bridges, and mountain slopes, creating the illusion of floating, suspended and drifting on high within touching distance of the clouds. Visibility stretches for endless miles, unspoilt by signs of human life — nature at its best, peaceful, pristine, and undisturbed. Enveloped in shifting clouds and vapor, the horizon spiked by craggy mountaintops, thousands of feet above terra firma, the experience is literally breathtaking.

This experimental initiative of Ferrocarril General Belgrano authorities in November 1971 developed through the decades into the popular touristic icon of today. The name was adopted from a color documentary of the 1960s filmed by two university students. At La Polvorilla viaduct, to create an effect for their film, they persuaded the driver to release large amounts of steam, which remained suspended in the low-temperature atmosphere, enfolding the train.  

History traces the origins of this train to the early 20th century when it was decided to build rail tracks from Argentina to Chile to facilitate the transportation of men, materials, and food to the saltpeter mines of Anafagosta, Chile, from Salta, Argentina, and to build trade between the two countries.

The slow, 16-hour journey covering 135 miles to this unfrequented area in northwestern Argentina traverses the mountain to the accompaniment of its own peculiar song, from Salta (3,894 feet) to a height of 13,780 feet above sea level in La Polvorilla, the third highest branch line in the world.

The diesel locomotive and its seven cars are a colorful sight, carrying around 470 passengers, dining and observation cars, and medical aid. Plush seats, picture windows, and controlled temperatures make for a comfortable journey. Restrooms at each end and a system of speakers and screens complete the modern amenities.
Campo Quijano, the first mining settlement, where Richard Fontaine Maury, the American engineer and designer, is buried, Del Toro (Bull’s) Ravine, and El Panteon viaducts pass by with their abandoned signs of former habitation. The green crops, the deep red splashes of the blossoming ceibo trees, and the waving grandeur of the cardons capture the lens of the camera. At Puerta Tastil, vegetation disappears, and the sharp arrowheads of mountain summits appear, displaying the green, pink, and brown shades of rich mineral deposits striating the slopes, plateaus and valleys.

Past Muñano Dale Station are spectacular views of the Acay Snow-capped Mountain, reaching almost 3.6 miles above sea level.  

Bilingual tourist guides provide commentary with descriptions of the lifestyle and customs of the locals, the history of the train, the geographical features, and the mines, while folkloric groups provide ethnic entertainment.  

Built using a special technique and famously portrayed on picture postcards, the La Polvorilla viaduct marks the zenith of the tour. One-hundred-thirty-one-foot iron gridirons support the steel structure. The train stops, allowing disembarkation and the opportunity to view and photograph the mountain vistas. The rarefied air of the Puna demands careful breathing (aided by oxygen and the ubiquitous green leaves sold as a panacea for altitude sickness) and limited, gentle movements.

The return trip makes a halt at San Antonio de los Cobres, with its characteristic east-facing adobe huts, at an elevation of 12,385 feet. At the handicrafts market vendors with faces darkly marked by the strong sunshine and wind of the Puna welcome visitors. Cozily wrapped in colorful blankets, they hawk handicrafts, fabrics, socks, and gloves woven from goat, llama, and sheep wool. Also on offer are regional delicacies such as locro, empanadas, llama-breaded steaks, mote with cheese, and grilled lamb.

The Train to the Clouds provides income and socialization opportunities to the local dwellers and the inhabitants of Salta in general; it is an emblematic voyage connecting far-ranging locales.

The railway line has 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, two spirals and two zigzags. Richard Maury studied the principle of adhesion of train wheels to railway tracks and the laws of physics, ruling out the funicular system commonly used. The train has no cogwheels. The design eschews the rack-and-pinion option for traction, hence the route is mapped to avoid steep grades. The train zigzags back and forth parallel to the slope of the mountain.

The passage seems to head straight for the heavens in a vertical flight past small Andean villages and ruins of thousand-year-old civilizations. Touch the clouds with your hands. Realize a dream open to only a few and live to recount it over and over again.

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