A MISSED OPPORTUNITY —or— Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

My search for a passenger train in Guatemala left me feeling like Doña Quixote.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Resistencia, Argentina (a country where I did take a number of passenger trains).
photo © Lorraine Caputo


Once upon a time, I almost took a train.

No, I didn’t. And for many years thereafter I have waited, patiently, for the chance again.

I am defeated—or I choose to be. Here I put the Guatemalan iron horse out to pasture.


How many times I’d been in Guatemala over the years and never journeyed by rail: twice the end of 1988, twice the beginning of 1992; December 1993 and March 1994; and twice the beginning of 1996.

Now I sit here many years later, trying to figure out why I didn’t take it then, or even then. Sometimes my route north or south was in the wrong direction. Sometimes I was in too much of a hurry—sometimes others were. I believe one time I didn’t want to have to face the dangers of Guatemala City’s Zona 1 streets, hotel to station, at sunrise to catch a 7 a.m. train.

(Kick, kick, kick.)


In early 1992, I had met two young Dutch men. They told me of taking the train to Puerto Barrios. It was running so late, those small wooden cars skip-clicking through the pouring rain. Near Amate, the trip was aborted. A bridge had washed out. A woman they met aboard took them through the already-darkened streets to her home.

Their tale piqued my desire to someday take a chapín train. Images formed in my mind of narrow rails through jungle green, into the hearts of lives shielded from the highway view, into the banana plantations.


In November 1993, I began another trip to Central America. I vowed to take that train. So much for good intentions.

While at Lake Atitlán, I met an Israeli couple that wanted to do the Jungle Trail: a three-hour walk from Finca Chinoq, Guatemala, to Corinto, Honduras, through plantations and swamp. But they would like to have a translator. Would I be interested in coming along?

Need I think about it? For several years I had read about this. However, I had put my dreams aside, as a woman traveling alone. There’s no question. I’d be a fool…. Yes, I will.

We finalized our plans: a middle-of-the-night bus to Guatemala City, so they could take care of some business there. Then to the ruins of Quiriguá, and the next day head into the fincas. I suggested that we take the train. No: it is too slow; it is not the right day anyways; they want to get moving.

Well, when would I get another opportunity to do the Jungle Trail? And anyways, the train will always be there.

While the couple was off mailing a package in the City, I sat on the curb of the train station parking lot watching our gear. Sometimes I glanced over to the station, to the guarded gate into the railyards. The Jungle Trail versus a train. Is there a choice? And all along our bus ride to Quiriguá, I could occasionally glimpse those tracks. The Jungle Trail versus a train. Is there a choice?

Anyways, the train will always be there.


Well, in March 1996, the trains stopped. Sometime that same year the station in Guatemala City burned. I would see its empty hull and charred roof while passing through the capital.


Why did I never take it all those years?

Because, of course, it would always be there—it would never die.

Yeh, sure. Like chivalry and knights errant.

But hope was instilled in me.



The railroads of Guatemala, 1925. from Wikipedia


In May 1997, I wrote to Ferrocarriles de Guatemala (FEGUA) to ask about the status of passenger services in its country. Within a month, FEGUA responded:

  • Ferrocarriles de Guatemala suspended operations approximately one year ago, due to the very bad conditions of the infrastructure, for which reason the administration decided not to provide cargo nor passenger service.
  • Presently, in the course of this month [June], it will be know who the new concessionaire of the rail system will be, based on offers submitted in previous months.
  • [Such-and-such] company … in California … does excursions with steam engines approximately every year….

No, no special excursion trains. The purpose of riding the rails, of writing this book is to know the country. Not only the landscapes, but also that community that forms within the train. No, scratch number three—the community within will be foreigners, not Guatemalans.

Ah, but point two. A new concessionaire. So that means passenger service will return.

The end of that year, I hoisted my backpack Rocinante and headed into Latin America again. In February 1998, I arrived in Guatemala with a pocket full of that hope.

The stretches of rails I saw paralleling the highway from Tecún Umán on the Mexican border to Coatepeque appeared to be in good condition or under repair. Two Mormon missionaries in Ocós told me they had seen maintenance trains. But everyone I spoke with said the same thing: No, there are no passenger trains.

From Quetzaltenango I called the main office of FEGUA in the capital. Yes, a new administrator had been found, and passenger service will resume by the end of this year. There are no cargo trains running either. Rail reparations are underway.

Dang. Only about ten months too early.

For the next few months, the Guatemalan newspapers reported the struggles of the railroad to reclaim the clearance on either side of the tracks. In the less than three years since service was suspended, people had begun to build homes and businesses within that zone. Between Morales and Bananera I saw many market stalls and parking lots set up across the rails.

I guess, perhaps, Guatemalans has lost hope that the trains would ever return. I know I was beginning to—but held onto the Head of Transportation Department’s words: By the end of the year, there would be passenger service again.

Ay, and those tracks from Morales to Bananera to Quiriguá—in such horrendous condition.


10 March 1998 / Quiriguá

Rails heading into the banana plantation

split off just before the station

A few hundred feet down the line

a yellow & black gate blocks

with a simple word that shouts



The old wooden station       faded orange & black

rain gutters rusted through

138.3 miles to Guatemala City

59.1 miles to Puerto Barrios

Part is now a funeral home

even though a sign proclaims



Four children bounce on a low

fence made of a stretch

of an old rail


I stop to talk with a young man

in the former ticket office

& will this once more be a station

when service begins again?

He & his friend look surprised

But in Guate they say

by the end of the year

the trains will return

The friend says

Only God knows


A faded old-orange wooden boxcar

rots on its rusting wheels

The rusting rail upon rotten ties

becomes buried beneath

partly burned trash

weeds & fallen leaves

dirt eroded from a landscape cut


My heart quickens at the thought

of finally       in the future

riding this train


I leave that stretch

at the turn-off for the highway

My Spirit wants to follow

its winding path

through tropical growth

those 59 miles to Puerto Barrios


In that port town, I spoke with the station chief. He was confident service would return.

That was before Hurricane Mitch hit in October 1998.


= = = = = = =


Again I begin planning another trip. I will give one last try at taking a train in Guatemala. In July 2002, I researched the internet. The new concessionaire is called Ferrovías Guatemala. Yes, it is running cargo trains from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. It has plans to get the line toward the Mexican border going again. Passenger service, however, is limited to only a high-class, expensive tourist train in Februaries.

Well, in my experience, where there are cargo trains, there is also clandestine passenger service. I will go in person and see if somehow I can ride with el pueblo—if, indeed, el pueblo can still ride the rails.


May 2003

I arrive in Quetzaltenango. For several weeks I try calling the telephone numbers for Ferrovías Guatemala I got from a website. No matter what time of day I call, one line is busy. At the other number, I receive a recorded message: The person you are calling is not available. Please hang up and try your call later.

In street gutters, I find spent phone cards with old-time photographs of Ferrocarriles de Guatemala. Card one of the series of six shows a steam locomotive. Card four, a woman waits next to a car in the station, a wicker suitcase at her side. On card six, a woman stands in the doorway of a back vestibule. The reverse of each tarjeta tells a bit of the history of this country’s railroad.

In an internet café, I see a large map of Guatemala. I stand there, on tiptoe, fighting the glare of glass, compiling a list of towns along that silver rail:

GUATEMALA CITY—San José del Golfo—Sanarate—Guastatoya—El Jícaro—San Cristóbal Acasaguatlán—Cabañas—Usumatlán—Zacapa—La Pepesca—Gualán—Natalia—La Libertad—Morales—La Ruidosa—Navajos—Cayuga—Picuatz—Tenedores—Veracruz—Entre Ríos—Piteros—PUERTO BARRIOS

Still, almost every day, at all hours, I call those numbers for Ferrovías Guatemala. The line is busy. The recording: The person you are calling is not available….

I also phone FEGUA. A woman tells me, “No, FEGUA has no cargo nor passenger service. When will there be regular passenger trains? I don’t know. Perhaps next year. Ferrovías Guatemala? Perhaps they do.”

I finally lay my game plan: The road from Cobán meets up with the Atlantic Highway at El Rancho, between Guastatoya and El Jícaro. To bypass the madness of Guatemala City, I will travel through the Cuchamatanes Mountains to Cobán and come down to El Rancho.


16 June 2003

From El Rancho

I search across these drylands

greened with scrubbrush

South of this highway

upon which I travel

Hoping to catch some sight of those

silver rails I so need

to ride to complete

this book

No      still five years later

passenger service has

not resumed

But cargo has

from Guatemala City

to Puerto Barrios

A hope, a wish

… perhaps in vain …

& so to Zacapa I go

a town on that rail line

With my pockets full of

hope       full of wishes


We are at Jícaro now—a town that map showed to be on the route. But I’ve yet to see the tracks. San Cristóbal Acasaguatlán, another town. Through the spaces, the vistas, between trees, bluffs, homes—no glint, no cut of rails. No bridge spanning that river. (I know the line swings quite south of the road for a while. Is this search in vain? I keep checking my list of towns along the way. Perhaps the tracks are on the other side of yonder río. (Is that the Motagua?) Usumatlán—three kilometers from the highway, the sign says. Perhaps this is a bit in vain—and I can’t hope to see it until we turn off this highway. The next town is Zacapa.

If this effort fails, I’ll try further up the line. I will keep hope until the end—if my courage to ask for a ride holds out.

I continue to peer across those lands. Three kilometers. Would that be at the foot of those now-mountains?

Part of my mind begins to argue: This is crazy. All you know is, there are cargo trains running. You have no idea how often. Yes, perhaps every day or two. Or perhaps once a week. Perhaps once a month.

Hope, hope—a wish and a prayer, another part of my mind responds.

I know the train exists, that it is once more being used. Wherever I’ve been in Latin America, freighters have taken passengers—clandestinely. Could this country be any different?

We are now at the turn-off for Zacapa, Río Hondo. Deep River—my river of hope runs deep. Let it not be dammed by discouragement, disillusionment or fear.

Yes, I’m mad, I tell that other part of my mind that continues to rant. I’m a Doña Quixote, with my faithful compañera Rocinante. Yes, I’m tilting at windmills in hopes that somehow, somehow this book will raise a call for the return of passenger services.

As soon as I write these words, we enter Zacapa. We pass a small plaza with a brick windmill—and Sancho Panza with Don Quixote.

My guidebook says there are inexpensive places to stay near the train station. That would put me just where I want to be—close enough to it should the opportunity arise to take a ride.

I stop into a shop to buy a juice—and to ask where the station is. The woman tells me, “No, it’s not safe there. There’s lots of robo.” Her right hand grasps at the air.

When I explain my quest, she walks from behind the counter. “No, during the day it is safe—even for a woman alone. At night it’s different.” She encourages me, “No, go there first and see. If not, you can return to the market area for a cheap place to stay—15 quetzales.”

I hop a combi. We pass the church and the being-renovated central plaza. Down streets, past stores and workshops, to the south edge of town. Soon I see the railyards with rotting wooden cars. On a nearer track a deep-blue and yellow engine faces the direction of Guatemala City. Attached to it are several container cars with the names of northern companies. Near the gate stands an armed guard, hands on rifle.

The stone station is marred by gang tagging. The orange, press-wood eave tiles sag in the humid heat. Some are missing, some have holes punched into them. A dulled plaque commemorates the first anniversary of the “gift” of the railroad from the International Railroad Company of Central America (aka United Fruit) to the Guatemalan government, in 1968. Deeply engraved on the front eave is FEGUA. But above the old ticket window is a new sign: FERROVÍAS GUATEMALA. The company whose one phone number was always busy, and the other number, “The person you are calling is not available. Please hang up and try your call later.”

Across the street is the ramshackle of an old, two-story turquoise building. The bottom half is adobe or concrete; the top half, wood. The empty windows stare at the station. Above the doors off the balcony one can still see the former room numbers. Without a doubt, this was one of the inexpensive hospedajes.

I check out the only hotel still operating, Posada de las Molina (the final “s” missing), Inn of the Mills. From the outside, it looks nice. An older woman sits in a screened porch in the plant-filled courtyard. She informs me it will costs 50 quetzales for the entire night. So this is where the lovers tryst, the women work their nights. Away from the center of town, away from the spying eyes of neighbors.

I return to the station and set my pack down on a tree planter. I call to the guard, “Is the station chief in?”

“What is your business?”

I introduce myself and explain my quest. He disappears around the corner and within seconds reappears. “You can come in and take photos if you like.”

“No, I don’t have a camera. My poems and stories are my photos to show people the journeys.”

He urges me to enter with my pack and points to a group of men talking on the back platform. “He’s over there.”

“The one in the red ballcap?” I refer to the older man.

“No, el joven.”

I walk up to the one who looks perhaps in his mid-thirties, tall and slim with short dark hair. Once more the introduction, the explanation—and then the question. “Do freight trains here, as in other countries, ever take passengers?”

No. But, yes, he could grant me an interview. He invites me into his stark, grey-metal-furnished office. An old wooden station clock on the wall is stopped at 8:25.

Douglas Aldana, the jefe de patio in Zacapa, spends the next hour or so talking with me about the new company, its fifty-year contract, and the challenges of bringing the trains back online. Getting the right-of-way clearance five years ago “took quite a bit of doing.” Hurricane Mitch has set them back. Cargo service is provided once more between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios. Next will be the stretch to Tecún Umán. Yes, passenger service is in the master plans, but he has no idea what type of service it will be. I can probably get the information in Guatemala City.

Several times the phone rings. He lets his assistant answer the calls. The second time our conversation is interrupted. While he is gone, I study the list of stations he has photocopied for me—the altitude and milepost of each stop. When he returns, I say it must have been quite a ride, almost like a rollercoaster. Aldana’s eyes brighten, “Oh, yeh, it was quite a beautiful passage.” He suggests that if I go to Guatemala City, I could probably get special permission to ride on a cargo train.

When he was a kid, he never thought he would work for the railroad—though his father was a brequero (brakeman) and he had uncles on both sides that worked for it. “Ah, so you’re carrying on the family tradition.” “,” he responds with a light laugh.

We go out onto the back platform. As I grab my Rocinante, I ask, “Where was the old waiting room?”

He leads me to the patio where I had first entered. “This was it.”

“Well, the benches are here. So there’s hope.” I shift the weight of my pack. “I have been waiting seven years to take a train here, without luck—and unfortunately I can’t wait another seven. But in fifty years, ay, perhaps there will be a train. We’ll both be retired. I’ll see you and say, Hey, Señor Aldana, let’s go for a ride to Puerto Barrios.”

He smiles and laughs.

“For me, train journeys are a good way to know a country,” I continue.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you have not only the vistas, and you are traveling slow enough to really see them, but—more importantly—you also have the community inside the train. And there are always three things that are the same with all journeys, no matter where.”


“The whole human world has to stop for the passage of the train. The children wave. Dogs bark.”

“And it doesn’t matter where,” he says, looking thoughtful.

I glance over the railyards one last time. “In other places I’ve noticed people living in the old boxcars.”

“No, not here. We helped them find other places to stay. Plus that’s why we have an armed guard.” He motions towards the man who had let me in.


I flag down the first combi returning to town and watch the railyards disappear as we turn our back on them.

After dinner I resume my study of the list of stations, and my possible course of action. Of all the towns, the guidebook solely mentions Quiriguá. There is lodging there. Only five names appear in bold-faced, capital letters: Guatemala City, Rancho, Zacapa, Gualán and Puerto Barrios. What does it mean? The only staffed stations?  (Then no use in going to Quiriguá.) Stations with workshops? (But Aldana said the only one was in Guatemala City.)

Damn, why didn’t I notice this before and ask him?

I have no idea where Gualán is, if it is accessible by road, if I could find a place to stay. All I know is that it is 21.9 miles, eight stops from here. Thirteen stops, 23 miles beyond, would be the next hope, Quiriguá—whose name sits on this page in front of me in plain type.

The next bold-faced, capital-letter station is Puerto Barrios. The end of the line.

I believe I have reached my last hope. Perhaps it is time to stow the lance and shield in the attic, put the horse out to pasture, and tell Sancho to go home to his wife and kids.

What would Don Quixote do in this case?

Wait fifty years, find Señor Aldana and say, “Well, shall we take a ride to Puerto Barrios?”

What should this Doña Quixote do?

It’s now nearing midnight. I’ve been reviewing my notes and realizing questions I’d forgotten, clarifications I need, points perhaps for this story. I’ve now a list of queries, in case I decide to return to the station come morning. If Aldana is willing to spend a bit more time with me. And I kick Doña Quixote out of the bed, who keeps repeating, “Perhaps, upon sleeping on it, he will have a change of heart.”

Just as I’m turning in, I hear a locomotive blast that lasts a minute. Then the rumble of freight cars in the distance.


About ten a.m. I arrive once more at the station. I can see Señor Aldana out on the back platform talking with some men in a pick-up truck. They begin unloading tools and parts. Finally he notices me standing by the former ticket window. He approaches. After we exchange the customary pleasantries, I ask if he might have a few minutes.

“We’re having problems with one of the locomotives. But if it’s only a few minutes, sure.” We enter his office.

My hunch about the bold-faced, capital-letter towns on the list is correct: the only staffed stations. Bananera is another, though it isn’t marked as such. The frequency is not a set schedule; only when necessary. As for the number of cars—the trains aren’t as long as in Mexico and other places, as the terrain won’t permit it.

We discuss the geography of the line. Aldana draws a map on the backside of the station list, showing its relation to the mountains, to the Río Motagua and the highway.

He suggests the best way to keep updated on when passenger service resumes is to e-mail or write the parent company, the Railroad Development Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It probably has a website.

Did a cargo train pass through last night? Yes, about 12:30 a.m.


As I leave Zacapa, traveling east on the highway, I keep an eye out for the glint of silver rails. I get off the bus at La Trinchera. Far across a field, I see a deep-blue and yellow locomotive.

I have called off the search for a train ride here. It would violate a basic principle of this book: to ride with the people. If, in this country, el pueblo isn’t allowed to ride the freight trains, then there isn’t a train for me to take. For me to ask special permission would make me an elite. It would be no better than taking a tourist train.

And I am sure Mr. Posner and his Railroad Development Corporation will continue for the next 44 years to tell the people and the government that passenger service “is in the master plans.” But as I have seen in many countries, when such service is put in the hands of private corporations, it disappears. No, it’s not important that it provides a safe, energy-efficient way to travel. Not important that it creates many jobs: the official workers within the train—as well as the ad-hoc vendors along the way, giving people in these impoverished communities some way to feed their families. Not important that it can provide a mode of transportation the poor can afford to take. The only thing that is important is, Does it make a profit?

We’d seen it happen in the US, Mexico.

And only when the government steps in, can the people be guaranteed this option of traveling.

Perhaps someday I can return to Zacapa and say, “Hey, Señor Aldana, let’s go for a ride to Puerto Barrios.”


story © 2004 Lorraine Caputo



More than a decade later, are there passenger trains in Guatemala?

Still ideas float about to bring back passengers trains in Guatemala, from Tecún Umán on the Mexican border in the west to Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. The latest plan was to be presented in early 2017 – but it appears this, too, has come to naught.

In the interim, you can visit the Museo de Ferrocarril in Guatemala City. This railroad museum opened in 2004 in the old train station in the capital city.

It would appear that I shall continue to be Doña Quixote.



About this Project

For three decades, I have searched for and taken passenger trains from Alaska to the Patagonia. To date, I have ridden over 100 trains – always local trains, no tourist ones – in almost all of the countries of the Americas. From these experiences, I have been composing a collection of poems and stories of the adventures.





The Old Patagonian Express preparing for the journey. photo © Lorraine Caputo


For weeks I have continued to ride that narrow-gauge track winding through my memory.

Three times have I ridden the Old Patagonian Express – and each time, it was a different experience.

The story I shared in A VOYAGE INTO HISTORY : The Old Patagonian Express was based on my experience in late 2008. The time before that, in 2005, I rode in the rear car with the local inhabitants. Both of these times, the train went only as far as Nahuel Pan, and the train was segregated: the high-paying tourists rode in special cars; the local inhabitants rode in a separate compartment.

But how the service had changed so much in 10 short years!

It is that first time, in late 1998, that has been winding through my mind.  You see, back then, it was a much different journey. All passengers rode together. There was no separation of the locals from the tourists. And La Trochita (as the Old Patagonian Express is lovingly called), went as far as El Maitén, half-ways to Ingeniero Jacobacci where it connected with the San Antonio del Oeste-Bariloche Tren Patagónico. This Esquel-El Maitén leg of the line has six watering stops: Nahuel  Pan, La Cancha, Molloco, Lepá, Leleque and El Maitén, where the repair workshop (taller) is.

What I hold close to my memory’s heart are the wild landscape, far from the modern roads of humans, and the people who live in that region who have no other way to reach home.

Let us get on the Old Patagonian Express of several decades ago – when it still was a local train in which tourists happened to also ride (for quite a bit more money, truth be told).

All Aboard!


Map of the Old Patagonian Express train line. produced by: Moebiusuibeom-en




Under this week’s bright sun

& cirrus clouds

La Trochita is prepared

for its journey

Señor Rickert the stationmaster cleans

the windows outside

with a rhea-feather duster

Engineer Juan sweeps the floors

His wife Mary shines

the inside panes

Comedor chairs are lowered

from the wall hooks


Nº 16 chugs into place

& connects

Clicks of camera shutters scurry

through the morning air


A long whistle blow of

of that black steam locomotive

I run       & just as it

begins to pull away

hop onto the vestibule

Cecilia calls my name

& trotting alongside

our departure

she takes a last

picture of me


& here I stand on the

open space between cars

Cinders spray over

falling on my hair

& upon this page


We climb above Esquel

Children wave

Bicyclists weave down

the ribbon highway


& in the distance

snow-streaked mountains

divide the earth

from sky


In the old-fashioned first-class

red leather seats

are mosty empty

I pause on the next vestibule

the wagons rocking

& make the leap, turning

the brass knob

into the dining car

There Mary serves me a cup of coffee

After a while other passengers

enter our conversations of trains


& up on the high plains

horses gallop from our

warning whistle

A flock of sheep runs, runs

across the scrub-brush fold


In a dry laguna bed

ten guanacos stand like

brown silhouettes against the

pale silt sand


& across that disappeared water

rheas rush from the rumble

of this petite wooden train

Above       a falcon soars

his shadow cast below




our first refilling stop

The tanks overflow

water streaming down

the narrow-gauge tracks

Steam roars into the robin-egg sky

The assistant oils the wheels


Bees swarm around the moist pump

Artemesia       brushed by photographer-passengers

scents the early afternoon


I close the segunda door

on the comedor discussion

Old wooden benches

for two on one side

for one on the other

Silvered mesh wraps around

the woodstove       cold & silent

on this almost-summer day


A Welsh descendent

& a Mapuche share tales

with guffaws

and wild hand-dances


With a short whistle song

we continue on

slowly ascending


A young couple over there

The woman quiets their

crying daughter

She peers into her mate’s eyes

He turns away

to the vista swaying by

His crossed arms rest

on the open window’s sill


A hare escapes

through the thorn bushes




a half-dozen abandoned log cabins

Their windows & doors agape


In a valley of this undulating land

that white-patched sierra peeks

Sweet herbs swell the air


But       once more

our call comes


A small lizard slinks

through tufted grasses

& dried mullein


Four startled sheep scatter

frantically       blindly

towards the tracks       & away


Barely visible in the near distance

stand four guanacos

with two calves


A hawk swoops on the currents

of the slightly clouded sky

bathed by the black steam

of our trencito


Frightened maras

hop in long strides       fleeing

over the Patagonian prairie




two gauchos await near a cabin

Their loose pants

studded with silver coins

held by woven belts

& tucked into boots

Low-crowned hats shade their faces

They hoist their family’s luggage

up       & into these cars


Out on the vestibule

Mary talks with a villager

“Oh, your baby is so precious”

she cradles him in her thick arms

looking into those new eyes




welcome to Benetton country

Miles & miles of sheep estancias

stretch to any horizon


Here a gaucho departs

wearing a Metallica t-shirt

His well-muscled arms bulge

carrying bags & provisions

for his family

He greets them at the gate

with broad hugs & broad smiles

With his teenage son this father

spars around the shaded yard


Ñandús & chicks

roam this valley

as we make the last

stretch towards

El Maitén


The mountains near       & retreat

a bandoneón to the north

closing       & opening       around

the plains


The dense carbon smoke of Nº 16

swirls across the land

These old wooden wagons

reel & creak with

the clatter of rails

& the chug of engine



poem © 1998 Lorraine Caputo

A homestead on the Patagonian plain. photo © Lorraine Caputo


Journey’s End

In those days, the service went as far as El Maitén. The following day, it would return to Esquel. After all, this was still a local train, to fulfill the transportation needs of the inhabitants of these small hamlets in the middle of nowhere, on these Patagonian plains.

When I debarked in El Maitén, I visited the taller where these mighty steam engines are kept alive. Also just getting off La Trochita was a German locomotive engineer with a shaft under his arm: “Can you replace this?” Sure enough, the workshop would be able to help keep alive a steam locomotive half a world away.


The Patagonian landscape. photo © Lorraine Caputo



For almost thirty years, I have been riding trains (now over 100), from Alaska to Patagonia. As I explained in An Affair Never-Ending, riding the rails became a way to more deeply know (and fall in love with) a country. And I choose to ride trains in which the local people also ride.


My favorite place from which to meditate on the landscapes slowly, rhythmically clicking by is from the vestibule. photo © Lorraine Caputo

A VOYAGE INTO THE PAST : The Old Patagonian Express

Juan, our engineer on this day. © Lorraine Caputo


As the 1922 Henschel steam engine leaves its shed, people gather along the long platform to watch its dance as it couples the eight cars for the journey to Nahuel Pan. For some it will be a many-year dream fulfilled, to ride the famed Old Patagonia Express. For others, like that petite, white-haired woman there, this is a step back to childhood when she first came to Esquel. She had been relieved to step out of her carriage after the almost-day-long journey from Ingeniero Jacobacci on La Trochita, as this train is loving called by locals.


The white-haired lady is ready to step back into her childhood. © Lorraine Caputo


El Viejo Expreso Patagónico – also called El Viejo Expreso Patagónico and La Trochita – has been the subject of many books, like Paul Theroux’ epic journey through the Americas, The Old Patagonia Express, and documentaries. It was a challenge to build this 400-kilometer (244-mile) narrow gauge line through the desolate Patagonian landscape. When completed, it was the southern-most regular passenger service in the world. It yet holds that distinction, being the main transport for the Mapuche inhabitants of Nahuel Pan.

All aboard! © Lorraine Caputo


Those villagers slip into the rear car with the workers while the tourists board the five 1922 Belgian-made passenger cars. In the two dining cars, one at either end of the train, doña Jovita will serve coffee and tortaletas, beer and sandwiches during the trip. As our journey begins, guides tell the historical trek of La Trochita.


Inside the Belgian-made cars, built in 1922. In front of the seated woman is a salamandra stove. © Lorraine Caputo


Early 20th Century Patagonian villages were isolated. To get their goods to city markets as a three-month or more travail. Under the 1908 Ley Ramos Majía, these communities petitioned for a connection to the outside world.

Water sources where a steam engine could fill up every 40 kilometers (24 miles) had to be pinpointed in the dry Patagonia plain. In 1923 construction began southward from Ingeniero Jacobacci on the San Antonio Oeste-Bariloche line. Narrow gauge or troche angosta (75 centimeters / 29.5 inch) was chosen because of the land’s mountainous lay. Midway down the line, a workshop was established at El Maitén which still maintains these steam engines and makes any parts needed.

Despite icy winters, the global economic crisis of the 1930s and the high cost of laying the line, cargo service finally reached Esquel in 1945. Five years later the first passenger train arrived, with trains running several times per day. Each journey took 14 to 16 hours, longer in winters. These days, the usual speed of the Old Patagonia Express is 45 kph / 27 mph, with a maximum speed of 60 kph / 36 mph, due the winding nature of the tracks.

In 1993, then-President Carlos Menem turned administration of the railroads over to the provinces. Because many could not afford the maintenance, dozens of lines closed nation-wide, including the Ingeniero Jacobacci-El Maitén leg of the Express in Río Negro Province. With determination, Chubut Province has kept La Trochita alive.


Over the years of taking trains throughout the Americas, I have learned that three things are always true when a train passes:
• Traffic must stop.
• People – especially kids – wave.
• Dogs bark.
© Lorraine Caputo


Between Esquel and the first north-bound station, Nahuel Pan, we cross several modern-day roads. The cars must stop for our passage. We exchange waves as this little train clatters along. A truck on Ruta 40 salutes the Express with a blare of its horn.

La Trochita twisting across the mountainous terrain. © Lorraine Caputo

Watching the terrain of the Old Patagonian Express. © Lorraine Caputo










The Old Patagonian Express on the longest curve of the line. © Lorraine Caputo


Nahuel Pan Mountain rises beige and faded-green on the east horizon. Across the narrow valley are small farms. Birds wing from our approach. The longest curve of the line is just south of Nahuel Pan hamlet. From the last cars, the engine comes into view. Its steam pumps across the blue sky.


The Mapuche-Tehuelche village of Nahuel Pan. Here many passengers will visit the Museo de Culturas Originarias Patagónicas. © Lorraine Caputo


The Old Patagonian Express preparing for the homeward journey. © Lorraine Caputo


The Henschel refills its water hopper at Nahuel Pan and pirouettes to the front of the cars. Further on are several abandoned engines. Meanwhile, passengers visit the Museo de Culturas Originarias Patagónicas and buy crafts from these artisan villagers. With a toot of the locomotive whistle, we board the wooden cars for our homeward journey.


Homeward bound. © Lorraine Caputo


The end of our excursion is nearing. Across the vestibule, I see that petite, white-haired woman looking wistfully out her window of the next car. What memories has this trip brought her? Perhaps the smell of sausages cooking on the salamandra stove each passenger car has. Perhaps the bustle of others gathering baggage and bundles as La Trochita approaches its final stop.


The summer fields of Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo


All year long, through winter snows and summer fields of thistle, Esquel visitors hop the Old Patagonia Express, once or twice weekly in the off season, daily at holiday times. Once monthly, the ride goes as far as El Maitén, where the maintenance workshops can be visited. In the high season, nighttime rides are offered from Esquel to Nahuel Pan. Another regular run of La Trochita is from El Maitén to Desvío Thomae. About once a year, foreigners charter La Trochita to do the entire line, from Esquel to Ingeniero Jacobacci, a four to five-day excursion. Schedules are posted on the website.

The second weekend of February is the Fiesta Nacional del Tren a Vapor (National Steam Train Festival) in Maitén.


Gazing into the mighty Henschel’s innards. © Lorraine Caputo

Guiding the Henschel to bed. © Lorraine Caputo

At the end of the day’s run, La Trochita mounts the roundtable to be turned around before entering the locomotive shed. © Lorraine Caputo


I have spent many hours studying the hatched lines to see where the rail roads go. © Lorraine Caputo

I have spent many hours studying the hatched lines to see where the railroads go. © Lorraine Caputo

Imagine, if you will, that I found a new passion after I left my mate of many years.  I was not looking for a new love. Nay – you could say, it found me.

It was 1988 and I struck out to learn, face to face, mouth to ear — about Mexico and Central America. Twenty-nine years old and I reclaimed my self, my independence. And during that ten-week sojourn, I took the first honest-to-goodness train of my life. We ain’t talking ‘bout no rapid from the east side to the west. We’re talking ‘bout El Oaxaqueño, 12 hours from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Ay, how I relished the mystery of traveling through the night, awakening in the morning amidst hamlets nestled in the folds of rock, cliffs so close I could study their formations.  The slow reach of the sun over one and another range of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Wood smoke scenting the crisp air. The food offered by the women who boarded, the conversations with other passengers and the workers. The squeal of wheel upon rail as we hairpinned through those mountains, finally descending to our destination.

 I then knew that riding the rails is a perfect way to learn about a country. Many times the train goes where no road goes. You travel slow enough to be able to see wildlife from those smoke-hazed and cracked windows, critters scared by the traffic of highways. You can catch glimpses into homes set close to the tracks.  And beyond passing through pueblocitos, within the train itself forms a community. You can talk, share lives and food, walk about. Face it, you can’t even begin to do that on a bus.

If I could, through my poetry and stories, share these experiences, put a human face on the names of pueblos from Alaska to Patagonia through these rides. I decided to devote every cent, every opportunity to travel by train.

But come 1997, the raison d’être of these journeys changed. No, it deepened.

With the signing of NAFTA, Mexico had to agree to privatize its national holdings, including the railroad. In five sectors it was sold off to consortia, made up by Mexican capitalists and — in larger part — by US cargo train companies: Union Pacific, Santa Fe-Burlington Northern and others. By early 1996 freight services were in their hands.  Then 1 October 1997 — I came to discover — marked the official turnover of the passenger services.

I didn’t know this when I crossed the border on an October day, planning to again to ride the rails. I wanted to go to a friend’s family’s village in the Sierra of northern Durango State.  I could make it totally by trains.

Or so I thought.


14 October 1997 / Matamoros, Mexico

Just after dawn I cross the bridge from Brownsville and arrive at Mexican immigration.

“How will you be traveling?” the official asks.

“By train.”

“Well, you’ve missed today’s train.  It left at seven this morning.”  He turns to a co-worker. “Isn’t that right?”

The other man raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders.

My information says the Tamaulipeco leaves at 9:20 a.m.  I head off for the station, through the streets of this awakening city, in hopes of catching it.

I stop at a stand where a brazier and pots of coffee steam in the cool of morning. “Which way is the train station?”

The man replies, “There are no trains, no hay.”

Further down the main road, I find a tourist information booth. Two men are inside, one behind a desk. “The train station? It’s up about four more blocks. Pero no hay.”

Next door is the government tourist office. The young woman shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s best to go to the station and ask.”

Once more I make my way up the now-busier street. At the next corner, near the tracks, a tourist officer and several taxi drivers sit on a bench. They all say, No, there is no service from here because of privatization by the government. Pero sí hay from Reynosa.  It leaves at 4 p.m.

A loud train horn disturbs our conversation. We all cover our ears. A long chain of Northwestern and other cars come rumbling along. It stops. Security men begin searching between the cars for stowaways, pulling them off. A few jump and escape.

I turn back from my quest and catch a bus for Reynosa.



Out front of the bus terminal, I ask a man where the train station is. He responds, “No hay trenes.”

I walk up to a taxi driver (they always know). Yes, he agrees, at 4 p.m. there is a train. He gives me directions.

Later I stop by a man selling roasted corn at the curb. “No,” he answers, “there are no trains.”

“But in Matamoros they told me there is, and a taxi driver here said so, too.”

“Look,” he says adamantly, “you can believe me or you can waste your time. But there is no train.”

“Since when?”

“Oh, at least six months now.”

Another man comes. “For Monterrey? Yes, there is. My sister took it Sunday. It runs every other day. So, yes, today there will be.”

With this hope I follow the tracks to the blue and white station.

It is boarded up, the doors locked with heavy chains. Some of the windows are broken. Through their white paint peeling away, I see the schedule blackboard still hanging by the ticket window. The blue seats in the waiting room remain.

Between the old station and the abandoned restaurant next door, a man sells gum and candies. “Excuse me, sir. Why is there no passenger service?”

“It’s because of a company del otro lado, from the other side. It bought it and decided there will be no service.”

“Since when?”

“Oh, since three or four months ago.”

Right at that moment, a lengthy string of US freight cars halts, brakes clanking. Black-coated men begin searching among the cars for stowaways.

I return to the bus terminal and stay until night to go to Monterrey. In the women’s bathroom, I recount to Socorro, the attendant, my fruitless search for the train to Monterrey. She is surprised to hear the news.


15 October 1997 / Monterrey

I grew bored in Reynosa and finally took a bus here, arriving at 1 a.m.

At about three, I wander outside and ask two taxistas there. They conclude, “With the change of owners, no-one knows the present schedules. It’s best to go inquire there.”

“Who are the new owners?”

“Some are Mexicans, others are from the US.”

I wait until the light of day begins washing the city streets and I walk as fast as I can with this forty-pound knapsack to the train station. A man sits behind the ticket window.

“Is there still a train for Durango?” I shift the pack on my back.

“Yes. It leaves in fifteen minutes. For only one? Ninety pesos.”

Ay, I tell him of my misadventures with the Tamaulipeco. “Since when doesn’t it run?”

“Since January.”


We leave behind those saw-tooth mountains of Monterrey, swirled with white rock. The chilled dust of early morning blows through my shattered window. Our train of hard foam cushioned seats, of dirty floors and dirty floors rocks and sways past a hamlet of rubble of once-homes destroyed.  From the ruins of one flies a zopilote. Forests of ages-old yucca trees. A hawk soars over the green desert thicket. Encrusted sand dunes sculpt the earth. I snuggle into the warmth of the sun as we pass by a village of old-fashioned adobes.

And I awaken at Paredón. In those hazes of sleep, I expect this car to be full of Mexican Revolutionaries.

The train winds through low mountains, then horseshoe-curves around a flatland. Once more it begins to corkscrew through mountains. A hawk sits up on the rise of ancient basalt boulders. The desert sand is laced with dry streambeds and footprints, horse trails, coyote tracks.

We zoom past cornfields and jolt past a sky-blue circus big top as we enter Concordia. There, a black-hatted, sun-glassed man boards. He strolls up the aisle and back down, playing a beat-up guitar and singing a corrida. He gathers his tips, then goes to the back of the car. He performs a few ballads, a fellow passenger joining in.

As we pull into the next town, a new voice and masterful strumming is heard. All women’s eyes turn to that man, black hair pulled back into a curly ponytail.  They nod, smiling, whispering to one another.

Near the tracks, nine students stand. Their brass coronets gleam in the now-afternoon sun. A few practice notes, and as we pull away, they play a clarion call.

The strolling musician is gone.

We fast clip upon these old rails. The diesel engine hums deep. Vineyards and orchards neatly crisscross this wide valley.

Over a soccer field in Gómez Palacios bobs a blue and yellow kite. Children gather in the stands, watching its dance. A colorful clothesline flaps its laundry in the cool sun.

At Torreón, an elderly woman boards. Her silver hair is covered by a black lace scarf. She holds one corner of it in her mouth, hiding the right side of her face. It falls away for a second, revealing a misshapened nose, a cheek deeply incised with wrinkles, a sunken eye, a sneering mouth.

A little girl’s dark eyes peer over the seat in front of me, then dart away as I grin. Next they appear around the side of the seat and retreat with a shy smile.

As we ride into the sunset, we hug mountains of folded rock.  Shadows fall deep and long. The red soil is shaped into irrigation ditches and plowed rows of golden maize. The bright-yellow sun nears a blanket of gilt-edged periwinkle clouds touched with peach. I listen to the music of this train and wish I could write its symphony.


Dah        Dah

counterpointed by squeaking springs.

Just before the sun sinks beyond, the bottoms of the clouds are etched in magenta. Then the landscape falls into greys. The pastel sky drains. Out there, to the north, a long spume of white smoke blows from an orange bundle of flames.

I turn my eyes to where the moon has risen above the sierra. The rest of our way to Durango, I gaze upon her fullness.


17 October 1997 / Durango

Sunrise is beginning to wash the eastern sky. The once-full moon disappears in the western. The chill of this semi-desert morning hovers around and within this caboose. In the warmth of a diesel stove, the conductor, an old farmer and I huddle.

“Come Monday,” the conductor says, “there will be no more passenger service — only cargo. The day before yesterday there was a passenger car. Now they ride in the caboose.”

“Why will there be no more passenger service?” I lean towards the stove, holding my hands out.

“The new owners have decided the tracks are in too bad of shape.”

“Who are the new owners?”

“Union Pacific here, Santa Fe elsewhere. They own the tracks, stations, everything. And they’re ending a lot of services.”

Así pues, I wanted to take the train from Matamoros to Monterrey, but there is none now. But there is from Reynosa, they told me. So I went there by bus. Pero no hay.”

The farmer shakes his head. The conductor nods his, “But we believe some will return once repairs are done — like that one.”

“Well, the story is much the same up north. Before, all the passenger trains were run by the freight companies — Union Pacific, Santa Fe and others. But during the 60s and 70s they decided to do away with them. Then in 1976 the government said we needed them again. But AMTRAK, as the passenger service is now called, doesn’t own many lines. It has to pay the freight companies to use theirs. So AMTRAK can’t make much money, and fares are high.”

The conductor checks the fire.  “, money is more important than the people.”

The old man nods.

The conductor falls silent as several other workers enter. He hands me a cigarette and lights it, hands cupping the flame.

Once they leave, he continues. “One has to be careful of what one says. There are many animalillos.” He draws a finger across his throat.

“Even on el otro lado,” I respond, “people are afraid to speak up. For fear of losing their jobs, their homes, their cars and all else.”

We talk about our pueblos, our people on either side of the Great River. Of how US corporations are robbing the people of the trains, the farmers of their lands.

Soon the day is lighter and more passengers board.  Our conversation ends. I take a perch in the cupola. The old man stays at the table, near the stove. The conductor begins his work.

At about 8:30 a.m. we leave, with two locomotives, seven open hoppers, this caboose, a car with barred windows for security guards and a payroll car behind.  Over two dozen passengers are crowded in here.


Past shantytowns of wood and cardboard homes and into the desert, its edges and mountains hazed. The rocky land rises, studded with fruiting nopales, and it falls away to dry stream beds.  Through forests of mesquite, the ashy soil beneath carpeted with sage. Campos of maize sprinkled with sunflowers, fields of frijol. Cows graze near the tracks. One’s breath steams the morning. Another, chewing its cud, slowly moves off to a quieter place, away from our clicking train.

We stop at a village. The sun strokes my face through this open cupola window. The farmer looks up at me writing these words. With a slight laugh I wave my pen, writing in air. He nods and smiles. I lean out a bit and notice in the third hopper up front rides a white-jacketed, white cowboy-hatted man.

A herd of seven bulls begins stampeding, one by one, across a high field of grain. Above them flies a flock of low-swooping black birds. And just as suddenly the bulls stop.

In the yard of a blue and turquoise house, a young boy runs. He pauses to watch our train go by.

On the stove the workers heat some chiles rellenos and water for coffee. One of them warms his hands.

We arrive at another village.  On the gravel road traversing the tracks a bicyclist stops to look. Before we depart with nine new passengers aboard, he pedals off.

A yellow-sweatered boy climbs up to sit on the cupola floor.  He calls to his nervous brother to join him. I squeeze myself closer to the window to share my seat with him.

Lucia — a pueblo of raw adobe walls. A woman with her young daughter runs alongside us. The conductor leans out the vestibule.  “Where are you going?”

“To Canatlán.”

“Get in the caboose.”

En serio?  They told us there was no passenger car!”

And more pots appear on the stove. Their smells waft up to my hungry nose. The conductor motions me down to share lunch with them.

As we slow for the next stop, Los Pinos, the old farmer waves good-bye before darting out the back door.

The conductor rummages through his black sports bag. His ball cap comes flying, landing at my feet, as he puts on a gnarl-faced mask and turns to us at the table. He tosses that aside and digs out a cassette player. Between stops he listens to music through the headphones.

A woman sits upon the bed platform in the rear section. Her young fingers skillfully crochet a doll’s dress. Her son Josué puts on the Halloween mask. Papa reads today’s paper. Over his shoulder, her green eyes study an article he shows her.

At this workers’ dining table sits Mary with her four-year-old niece. Next to me is Rosario. Rosario, now 18, yes, has finished her studies. “A ver – we’ll see,” she says with a shrug when asked about her future. Mary, 23, finished only secondary school. She has no job. “No, I’m too old to finish my studies,” she says with a tilt of the head, a lift of the shoulders.

We ignore, then parry, and ignore again the chiding of men.

Through the partly opened window, I catch glimpses of countryside and villages, of children waving, of workers in the fields. Lakes glitter in the noon-day sun.

Esfuerzos Unidos, Alisos, Nuevo Ideal. Family by family, person by person, the caboose begins to empty. Angelita, Las Flores, Chinacates. A wagon drawn by two horses trots across a field.

The wooden crucifix and rosary beads above this table sway with the train’s rocking. We begin winding our way down through the heights of the Sierra Madre. Rock walls hug this train.

The conductor goes atop. Another worker hops out a cupola window to join him. There I see them standing, coated against the wind, speaking into walkie-talkies. One leans through my window and begs some matches.

At Kilometer 157 we make a short stop. A sow leads three piglets across the dirt road. The conductor climbs down to talk with some fellow workers there about when their paychecks will come. “We have the payroll car here.”

“No,” one states, “I got my letter.”

“Well, after Monday, no hay tren.”

No me digas — Don’t tell me,” another says surprised.

A lone zopilote soars over a land of bleached bones. Two yellow butterflies dance above a yucca. Beneath the shade of mesquite a burro lies. He lazily turns his head to these clapping cars. We still creep through this mountain chain, metal screeching against metal. Not far from a swift river sits a lone adobe house. In the front patio grazes a tethered horse. A small waterfall tumbles. A black bull wanders to the shallows to drink from the clear waters.

At Santiago Papasquiaro we wait. The locomotive pulls away. A dust devil picks up trash & egrets in its whirlwind. We finally depart here. Three young boys jump on a trampoline in a yard. The man with the white sombrero is gone. A dog on a rooftop barks as we gain speed.

Rosario, now in the cupola, squeals as one of the brakemen walks through with the mask on.

Within the cloudless sky a hawk dips and rises above the scrublands. A roadrunner darts among the brush. Above a pool of steaming sulfur springs hovers an orange and white dragonfly.

The conductor sits at the table reading the news. After a while he falls asleep. Rosario and Josué sit across from me up here, singing corridas. A six-pack of Modelo goes around the caboose. One by one, the cans of beer are popped open.

A pair of blue and black butterflies appears alongside us. But just as quickly, we leave them behind.

At Presidio Rosario gets off, a bit tipsy from one beer. A family of four women and a boy come on with hand-made ribbon wreaths protected by clear plastic bags.

We journey along a river that occasionally cuts cliffs and other times winds through the plain. At Corrales the new women and boy depart. They walk across the wood-plank bridge, across the river, into town.

We arrive at Tepehuanes, only seven passengers left, the end of this line. The adobe station is pink-painted bricks. The train goes a bit further to begin loading timber for the paper mills down south.


Next door to the station is a hotel. My room is large, with thick adobe walls. I open the shutters of the window and begin spreading my work on the table beneath it. Before sunset I head for dinner, crossing the bridge over a brook, climbing the hill into town. After I return, Magdalena invites me to join them in the kitchen. An adobe stove in the corner warms the interior dimly lit by one bulb. On tomorrow’s south-bound train, she will be leaving on a “trip.” Later, she confides she is going to el otro lado. Since the train will no longer be arriving, there will be no guests for their hotel — and so to make a living? She will leave her 113-year-old mother in the care of a young Lola. Lola’s mate, José still doesn’t believe the train will end come Monday, that this was indeed the last train to Tepehuanes.

I spend evenings in that kitchen, seeking the heat of that stove, chatting with Lola and José. Doña Julia dips gingerbread cookies into her glass of warm milk, gumming her words. One night of chilled stars and the sierra silhouetted against the waning moon, she tells me of when she met Pancho Villa. She was down by the river washing clothes with other women. No, she laughs, she rejected his invitation to join the revolutionary forces. I ask her if it were true he had many women. She only gives me a demure, silent look.

My plan is to spend a month here, then travel down to Durango. From there I will take the train to Felipe Pescador, to make the connection with the south-bound Ciudad Juárez-Mexico City train.

I spend the days writing, and talking with the local people about the end of this train, and of those to Aserraderos and Regocijo. One late afternoon several women and I drink coffee in an eatery. Candy, who works for the village, shakes her head. “I had heard such, but…” The waitress is shocked. “There is no train for Regocijo? But, but I was going to go visit my sister there in a few weeks! How will I be able to afford it now?

The Day of the Dead comes and goes. And every other day, when the cargo train is due in, I go down to greet the workers.


7 November 1997 / Tepehuanes

I go to dinner about 4:30 p.m. Afterwards I decide to walk down to the station to see if the cargo train had come in. Several workers and I sit on the platforms.

“Today is National Railroad Day,” says one.

“Ay, there used to be bands greeting us here and elsewhere,” another reminisces.

“But now there is just silence.  All is mute.”

The conductor turns to me. “Since two or three days ago, there’s no train from Durango to Felipe Pescador.”

“What?  How are people going to get there?  There’s no road!” I interject.

The workers dejectedly nod.

“There’s talk, too,” he continues, “that there won’t be one for Torreón nor from Mexico City for Juárez come the 13th or 14th of this month.”

“When I was in Durango, I asked about those trains, and I was told that they would continue to exist!”

“Well, that of the Felipe Pescador line was a bit abrupt. The jefe de patio got a telegram saying, ‘As of tomorrow, service is cancelled.’ What could he do?”

I look at the shadowing ground. “How is it now without passengers?”

Triste, sad.”


I arrive in Mexico City 15 November and go to the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. A woman in a 12th floor office shows me the official schedule as of 29 September 1997. She has received reports that between 40 and 50 routes have been cancelled since then. No, she didn’t know about Tepehuanes, nor Aserraderos, nor Regocijo.

In the next few months in Mexico, I madly dash after disappearing trains.

A copy of the rail map the FFCC de México used to give away, with most of the rides I’d taken marked. © Lorraine Caputo

A copy of the rail map the FFCC de México used to give away, with most of the rides I’d taken marked. © Lorraine Caputo

I look at my map of Mexico, noticing those black rail lines that go where no road passes, a web covering the nation from Baja to the Yucatán. I think of the routes I have taken over this decade of traveling. I think of the rides I will never get a chance to experience.

I shall miss the awakening from dreams, to see the full moon shining upon a sleeping home. Hushed voices in unlit cars of passengers coming, passengers going. The golden mesh of lights filling the valley as we’d come into Mexico City at night. I shall miss seeing the morning sun reach its fingers into the crevices, range by range, of the southern Sierra Madre mountains, morning mists over jungle cerros of Tabasco. I shall miss storm clouds mounding, then bursting upon the afternoon desert, sand imprinted by coyote, correcaminos running for shelter. Sunsets painting the western horizon.

I shall miss leaning upon the vestibule half-door, the wind blowing loose strands of my hair about, listening to the clickety-clack over wooden ties, the softer rhythm over concrete ones. I shall miss the smells of those women offering me gorditas de nopales con queso and atole in Chihuahua mornings, volovanes de cangrejo and coffee come Veracruz evenings. The bite of wood fires in crisp darkness. Of burning fields of sugar cane in the zafra.

I shall miss the children looking over their seats at this loca writing, or playing with their toy cars in the aisle, or sitting with me and this map, seeing where we had been and where we were going. Of sharing my sleeping bag with families migrating north, dressed in nothing more than thin cotton clothes.

I shall miss the stories of a doña Juana telling me of her childhood during the Mexican Revolution, before roads cut the Durango deserts. I miss sitting next to a doña Teresa embracing sweet azucenas to her Tehuantepec-huipil breast, like a Diego Rivera painting. I shall miss the conductor’s wife offering me a croissant, a banana and coffee, the workers offering me fish tacos or chiles rellenos.

I shall miss the sharing of lives and hopes, food and love with others, whiling away the time on those endless, timeless journeys.

Traveling by train no longer became a way to enjoy the country, to learn of its culture and life, to share community. No, riding became much more than that. I had to face deeper realities of the importance of these trains.

What will happen to those people who supported their families by selling to us passengers? On ebon nights, awaiting in the lights of the station, boarding with their baskets and kettles steaming in the chill air, stepping over bodies wrapped in thin blankets, sleeping in the aisles. The voices of mothers and their children quietly calling

Arroz con leche

Café       Atole

Tamalitos       Enchiladas

Gorditas . . .

How shall campesinos get their cheeses and fruits to market? How will they feed their families tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow?

What will happen to those villages whose lifelines were the silver rails?

Will abandonment beat the dirt roads, melt adobe homes into the earth? Will wooden doors bang in winter winds sweeping down from the north? No longer will laundry sway in a blue-white sun. No longer will small circuses pitch their ragged big tops for a few day’s pesos before moving on to some other pueblo. How many of these families have had to pack their trunks and bundles, migrate to a city in hopes of survival? How many of these communities are now rent by these winds of thoughtless change?

How will folks visit one another? How many will be able to afford a bus ticket for everyone in the family, to see abuelito, to celebrate Tía Rosa’s birthday, to take a holiday? Before, the bus was up to three times more expensive than the train. Who will be able to afford those bus fares spiraling, spiraling upward, now that there is no competition?

How many lines might continue to because these new owners deem they can jack the prices up, rake in the big bucks from the foreign tourists? Or because of protest by the people?

For now the vestiges of the Mexican Revolution continue to fray in the northern winds. Perhaps those days of train travel are gone. Or perhaps not. Maybe someday a new government shall come to power that recognizes the importance of the trains to communities, to the families, to the economies of these pueblocitos — as is happening in other countries.

Or perhaps a new Revolution is brewing in the Sierra Madre. Maybe one day former workers and a village will take up “arms” of máquinas and carros, appropriate the tracks, and with no funds from anyone keep the lines alive and gleaming silver to the ejidos, giving campesinos a way to get their products to market, for the ill to receive medical attention, for kinfolk to visit.

It may seem this affair has ended, but I still study my map, tracing those black lines. This is a love that has deepened with the years. I still search, every time I am in Mexico, for whatever visage of those train adventures. And, ay, when we meet once more, what a ride we have!

Sí pues, as long as there is a train upon which to journey, this shall be an affair never-ending.


© Lorraine Caputo


Would you like to continue riding the rails in Mexico? All aboard!

ADVENTURE ON RAILS (Nuevo Casas Grandes – Cumbres, August 2003)

DESERT REIGNS (El Águila Azteca – Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo, December 1996)

THE CONDUCTOR AND HIS WIFE (División del Norte – Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez, March 1994)

A TICKET TO RIDE (Torreón train station, October 1992)

EL JOROCHO (El Jorocho – Mexico City to Córdoba, December 1996)

THE JUNGLE TRAIN (Córdoba to Mérida, December 1996)

RANDOM ACTS (El Oaxaqueño – Oaxaca to Mexico City, April 1996)