Where in the world is Patagonia? Well, it is in the far west of Argentina, where a wonderful railway line, the 2′ 5 1/2″ Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel railway runs along in front of the spectacular Andes for a distance of 402 kms.
The train, dubbed the “Patagonia Express”, travelled the distance daily hauled by either a Henschel or Baldwin 2-8-2. Sometimes it was double headed too. We travelled by train from Buenos Aires in 1976 to photograph and ride this amazing railway.
Bahia Blanca General Roca System
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in Argentina, most of the broad gauge had ended. We heard that there was some steam in Bahia Blanca, so we headed there.
We had a great time in Buenos Aires. We stayed at an old hotel, the Gran Viena, reminiscent of the grand old days when Argentina was a first world country. Her fortune was made selling beef to Europe before a contamination scare brought the trade to a grinding halt. It was dangerous back then, less than 6 weeks after the military coup which finally overthrew the government of Isabel Peron. The secret police were combing the streets, arresting people at random, robbing them and then releasing them. Citizens were disappearing daily, never to be seen again, to be tortured and then dumped in quick lime. The currency had devalued by 6 times, which made it cheap for us to travel. The black market in pesos was rampant. The banks were advertising 75% interest rates, something unheard of in my country.
When we went to Argentina, we were told not to wear any jewellery, or it would be stolen. I wore no watch for that reason. On my first night in the capital, after being in sleepy Paraguay, I decided to buy a travel clock. We went into an arcade where we couldn’t be spotted to get some money out of the secret wallet. Back on the street, I noticed someone was watching. We started walking and they followed. As they approached we started running. Unfortunately, the two men caught me! I was petrified.
They asked what I was doing there, and I managed to answer them in Spanish that I had only been in the country for one day and had done nothing. Then I saw a uniformed policeman nearby and I tried to escape. One of the men pulled out a pistol and pointed it at my head. That stopped me dead in my tracks and I shat myself literally, knowing what was happening at the time. Next they showed me their credentials as the secret police. Fortunately they let me go. It was a near miss.
After arriving in Bahia Blanca, we thought this peaceful little town would be a safe haven, but were again proven wrong. As we settled into our hotel, there was a parade in the street outside, with tanks and armoured vehicles passing by. The army was clearly on the alert in this town. We had booked into a cheap hotel which only had cold water.
At 1 am the door burst open and there were several soldiers with AK47s and full combat gear including hats with camouflage. They surrounded us, and went through the luggage. Then they left. We left town the next morning.
We Arrive At The Esquel Line
After a long train ride, we arrived at Ingeniero Jacobacci and there was the “Patagonia Express” waiting for us in totally miserable rainy weather. This was a far cry from the European Express trains. It was more like a toy train. Small carriages and narrow gauge, an amazing railway. Even today a section of the line continues as a tourist operation with steam.
The “Express” rattled and rolled at very slow speeds over the narrow tracks as it worked its long journey to Esquel, a journey of nearly 20 hours averaging 20 kph. Hardly impressive. Here is the schedule from those days. When there are trains running now, they usually only go as far as Nabuel Pan, a mere 19 kms. I am not sure if steam is still operating.
On the train it was very cold. With the damp, it was rather unpleasant with heating being supplied by open windows! Everyone was well rugged up. To keep warm, the locals drank Mate, a herbal tea which gives you energy. It is a herb called yerba which is ground and added to hot water. The locals had fancy silver straws they use to drink the mixture. A little pungent, but we had to try it.
Some way down the track we came to a grinding halt. The bad weather resulted in a landslide and a derailment. Because we were on the “Express”, they had to get the passengers through, so a train came from the other direction with a loco on either end. They attached a loco to the back of our train too, to pull us out of the section. Then the passengers swapped trains!
It started snowing, as if we weren’t cold enough and by the time we reached Esquel it was more like blizzard conditions. Now we had to find a place to stay. We ended up in a dorm with piped water heating. Boiling hot inside and freezing outside. We were stuck there for 2 days as the snow continued to fall.
The Hire Car
Having seen the amazing scenery, we decided to go to San Carlos de Bariloche, which is a local ski resort and tourist town. They have two specialties, boxed Belgian Chocolates and hand knitted sweaters. As I only had a parker, I purchased a sweater for $1US and a kilo of chocolates for the same price. I discovered later that they used non colourfast dies, so the colour blended into the whole sweater when washed in warm water. Still it kept me warm throughout the rest of the trip and beyond. I loved that sweater.
Our idea was to fly there from Esquel. We headed for the airstrip in overcast weather and heard our plane circle overhead and then keep going. It was unsafe to land. Plan B was to catch a bus and this proved an adventure yet again. This shot is of my companions leaping across a running stream. At one stage the bus stopped and we had to clear a large tree that had fallen across the road. Fortunately there was a chainsaw on board.
Eventually, we picked up a car and headed back to Esquel. I don’t think we told the hire car company exactly where we were going, and when we went to disconnect the speedo to avoid excess kms charges we found the seal had been mended many times before! Argentinians are very cagy.
The weather had cleared, and unfortunately most of the snow melted, on our return, but the ensuing week was a feast of steam. Being front wheel drive, the car was particularly suited to the terrain. You could accelerate out of corners, and the front wheels would pull the car around behind. It was a lot of fun driving on these snow covered dirt roads, sliding all over the place. Somehow we managed not to damage this car. It was a different story in Bolivia, but that is another tale.
I remember hurtling around the dirt road with snow on either side, sliding across crossings and having a great time keeping up with the trains. On one occasion we allowed Mike to drive and he nearly lost it due to inexperience in these conditions. This was like rally driving on not so perfect gravel roads featuring some ice. There was the odd rock fall too.
This is truly Gaucho country. These are Argentina’s version of Cowboys. They are famous for their long leather leggings and operate in a very cold climate. The ranches are huge, and we were told that many are owned by the Queen of England herself, somewhat of a paradox as at that time there had been a savaging of the Argentinian economy due to contamination of beef exports to the UK, and the subsequent ban.
Beef is big in Argentina, known as the world’s largest consumers. Everywhere you go there are steaks, steaks and more steaks! I particularly liked the Milanesa Neopolitana, crumbed veal with ham, mozzarella cheese and tomato paste –yum! Anyway, Patagonia, or at least the region around Esquel, is cattle country where Gouchos reign supreme.
Back To The Gouchos
We loved this railway line, and I know it was steam for some time, so many railfans got there and captured some photos. For us, we were there in its heyday with regular steam and double headers galore. Because it was winter, the snow capped Andes provided a brilliant backdrop.
Figure 4 Double Baldwins Pass Close By The Andes
One of the stations along the line was called Cerra Mesa (Table Mountain). We ended up here one night and had to find a place to stay. We did sleep in the car a couple of nights, and one night I slept out with my Space Blanket I bought from Australia and my sleeping bag. It was extreme cold out there.
Anyway we came across one of the Gouchos, a big man with huge arms and he invited us all to stay with his family for the night. They prepared us dinner and in the morning presented us with a bill for services! Quite the entrepreneur, he was.
There were plenty of double headers too. We managed double Baldwins and double Henschels.
Double Headers In All Combinations
We were fortunate enough to find this freight heading towards El Maiten one afternoon. It was the only time we managed to see double Baldwins during our stay.
While the passenger was usually a single engine, on this occasion we managed double Henschels. Note the Andes in the background.
There are two particular shots I am very proud of taken in this area. The first one is of a Gaucho who was racing across the pampas at speed with the train running alongside. This really was like the movies where cowboys would race the trains.
Figure 5 Gaucho In Full Leggings Riding As The Train Catches Up
I would love to know what you think of this and invite you to leave a comment at the end of the story.
The other happened early one freezing morning. Just to give you an idea of how cold it was, here is a picture of my friends at the location. Note the telegraph pole which I climbed with gloves on to get the photo.
OK, here it is. I had this one made into a poster to hang in my office.
Figure 6 In Beautiful Light And Freezing Cold A Henschel Heads South
I hope you enjoyed this story and the accompanying photos. We were truly blessed to have such wonderful weather, after the horrendous start to this part of our journey.
Now for the slide show!