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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.