Steam Trains On Top Of The World – Bolivia

This story is about my steam train adventure in Bolivia in South America

First, A Quick Quiz.

Which is the highest railway station in the world? Actually, I think that distinction now belongs to a station on the line to Lhasa in Tibet, but that line is relatively new, completed in 2006. Back in the 1070’s there were two very high railway lines. The summit of the Central Of Peru line stretching from Lima to Huancayo with its famous switchbacks was the highest point, but the honour of the highest railway station rested with Condor, on the railway line between Uyuni and Potosi in Bolivia. At 4,786.9 meters it is well above the vegetation line, and very cold at night.

condor bolivia steam train stories andes
Condor, in 1976 The Highest Railway Station In The World

TalTal Chile, Home Of The Kitson Meyer

Our journey started at Santiago in Chile. We headed north to Taltal, home of the Kitson Meyers. Regrettably none was operating at the time, but the Manager there presented me with a builders plate from Beyer Peacock 1904. This came from one of their locos that had been scrapped.

kitson meyer taltal steam engine  chile
Kitson Meyer Tal Tal Chile

I remember we stayed in a guest house in Taltal. This was a small town, and probably didn’t have a hotel. The owner had 2 gorgeous daughters and one took a liking to me. Being rather naive at the time, I refused her advances. This was like something out of a movie. We had fish soup, and from memory just about everything food wise was made from fish in this seaside town. After a pleasant stop we headed north towards Antofagasta.

No More Steam Trains In Antofagasta

The trip north was interesting as the road followed the rail line. Every now and then we would see a roundhouse full of steam locos, with none of them working due to the fact that this section had just been dieselised. Basically we missed out on steam by a few weeks.

antofagasta locomotive depot chile steam engines
Antofagasta Chile Loco Depot July 1976

Interestingly, the roundhouse at Antofagasta was dual gauge. The line south and that over the Andes to Salta, was meter gauge, while there was another line heading north that rarely saw train movements which was standard gauge.

Salta Socompa Railroad

When we approached the depot superintendent to find out if there were any steam movements scheduled, he told me “Que Lastima” which in Spanish means “What a Pity”. This triggered a decision to continue on into Argentina via the very famous Salta Socompa railroad.

salta socompa chile argentina andes crossing
The International Express From Antofagasta Chile to Salta Argentina

This trip is known as one of the great Andes crossings, rising to 4,220 meters and includes a couple of Zig Zags and spiral loops. The train was very crowded leaving Antofagasta, and we were jammed in with the locals.

Once the journey got going passengers pulled out thermos flasks of coffee, Matee and cognac which was duly poured into the coffee. One lady took pity on us and shared some of her coffee. It tasted great and helped us cope with the high altitude. At this point on the trip this was easily the highest we had reached. Apart from the diesel motive power, it was a great trip.

Salta argentina july 1976
Salta Argentina July 1976

We Arrive At Salta, Argentina

At Salta, we wanted to hire a car to photograph the line to the border. Unfortunately, none was available for 2 weeks, so we had to move on. This section had some spectacular Cactus, and was a bit like the old wild west of the USA. Hire cars were scarce back in those days. I remember walking around Salta and noticing that all the cars parked on the side of the road were touching. I wondered how anyone could get in or out of a parking space?

Soon someone came along and got into their car. They shunted the cars back and forward and drove away! In this super flat city no one left their car in gear or with a handbrake. It was very efficient.

Salta was one of 2 cities in Argentina where we stayed at really cheap dives. When I say cheap, Argentina had been a first world country back in the 1950s selling enormous quantities of beef to Europe. Then there was a food poisoning scare and Argentinian beef fell out of favour. This hotel had no hot water. While this was common in Bolivia and Peru, it was the bottom of the barrel for this country.

Late that afternoon we were raided by the secret police. These were people you didn’t mess with. Remember people were vanishing at the time and ending up in quicklime. Anyway they interrogated us and left. Not long after, I noticed a $50 note was missing from my wallet. US bank notes all look the same to us, unlike the very distinct Aussie notes. It was easy for them to slip one out without drawing attention. In any case you didn’t argue with these guys. One of the rules of safe travelling back then was to stay away from the police! You can read about my encounter with the military in another cheap hotel on the Argentina story.

Argentina was still smarting from the 1976 Military Coup, and the currency was rock bottom. One of their trademark dishes was Milanesa Neopolitana, or crumbed veal with tomato sauce and cheese. At this time you could buy a huge plate for just $1US. They also featured fine wines at ridiculous prices. The exchange rate was 205 pesos per us dollar to give you an idea of prices on this sandwich board.

milenesa napolitana salta argentina
We Ate Milanesa Neopolitana At This Restaurant

Steam Train On The Belgrano Internacionale Passenger.

Eventually, we boarded the Internacionale train, which had come all the way from Buenos Aires and was heading to La Paz in Bolivia. It was a very long journey! This line was 3′ 6″ gauge and quite a famous one due to the Andean Crossing to Antofagasta.

The final section from El Volcan to La Quiaca was steam hauled with a Belgrano Railway Henschel 2-10-2 no 1345. On our limited budget, we decided to go straight to Uyuni. I remember the border crossing well. At the time there was some sort of dispute between the two countries. Argentina had recently experienced a military coup, following the demise of Isabel Peron. Due to that, we had to walk the 3 kms to the Bolivian station at Villazon. This was a steady climb at altitude with a full backpack.

Hebschel 2-10-2 no 1345 arrives at La Quiaca on the Internacionale from Buenos Aires To La PAz

The Internacionale arrives in La Quiaca

For those of you who haven’t ventured to Bolivia, or South America for that matter, it is a very different world. In the 1970s, Bolivia was ruled by dictator Hugo Banzer and it was not uncommon for political opponents to simply disappear. Just 10 years before the Cuban hero, Chez Guevarra was executed by the Bolivian army. You needed a “Salvo Conducto” to travel outside of cities and towns. There were checkpoints at the entrance to all major towns in the country, and if you travelled by bus, soldiers frequently made everyone alight and did thorough searches for weapons. The Army was on high alert.

We had no permits to photograph trains or anything else for that matter, and we knew what happened to people who disobeyed authority in this part of the world. Mind you that didn’t stop us anywhere else either! Perhaps you can begin to understand the challenges we faced photographing trains in this part of the world.

La Paz, the capital, more than 10,000 ft above sea level was more like a peasant town than a large city. There was little industry, and not long after we were there another coup took place.

Uyuni Bolivia Steam Train Action

The trip from the Argentine border north to Uyuni in Bolivia was spectacular. For hour after hour the train winds through an incredible gorge with breathtaking scenery. It was multi-coloured indicating rich mineral deposits. The only trip to rival it in my opinion is the Copper Canyon in Mexico, but this line was dieselised years before. We gradually gained height, moving up to the Altiplano. Uyuni sits at 3,700 meters above sea level.

Uyuni Bolivia ice cream makers
Ice Cream Vendors At Uyuni Bolivia

I remember well all the women churning ice cream in the streets. From the civilized countries of Argentina and Chile, this was quite a shock. The people were extremely poor, and very colourful, but there was steam!

uyuni blivia markets
Uyuni Bolivia Markets 1976

There was an abandoned Garratt, and tank engines did the yard shunting. I managed to photograph a 2-8-4 there. As it stands, most of the steam locos in Bolivia are still rotting away close to where they once operated. I believe the Garratts are still sitting at Uyuni in a rather distraught state. Maybe one day and enterprising rich rai lfan will get one back in steam in some far flung corner of the planet. The air was getting thin again, but nothing compared to what we were about to witness.

2-8-4T No 551 steam train engine Shunting At Uyuni Bolivia
2-8-4T No 551 Shunting At Uyuni Bolivia July 1976

From Uyuni west there is a spectacular stretch of high altitude rail line to the Silver Towns of Potosi and Sucre. It is in this area that we probably managed our finest collection of South American Steam photos.

4-8-2 + 2-8-4 Garratt Uyuni Bloivia steam engine
Class Leader 901 4-8-2 + 2-8-4 at Uyuni Bolivia July 1976

Even in 1976 this was mixed between steam and diesel, with some very unique Japanese Mitusbishi 2-8-2’s providing the main motive power. Due to the extreme altitude, these engines were equipped with twin compressors, one on either side of the smoke box. It made them much more symmetrical from the front.

Steam had lingered in this part of the world due to the extreme altitude. While the Central Of Peru by this stage was 100% diesel, the line between Antofagasta in Chile and Salta in northern Argentina had just fallen after modifications to get enough air into the diesels so they could work at altitude. Some of these things would seem very strange today with great leaps in technology.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
Hitachi 2-8-2 No 668 Heading away from Uyuni Bolivia July 1976

As it happens, a Mikado was rostered for the passenger to Potosi, so we were in luck. We hopped on board and traversed the high altitude desert for hour after hour. No trees at this altitude, we were now traversing one of the highest railway lines on earth, as close to the Gods as steam ever gets.

Hitachi 2-8-2 662 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
Hitachi 2-8-2 Heading Towards Potosi From Uyuni Bolivia

If you have never been at altitude before, it is an experience unlike no other. The air is incredibly thin, meaning you have to breathe more to get oxygen in your lungs. You tend to feel lethargic, and running is an effort. We would follow the trains in our Landcruiser, jump out and then get a picture. Then race back in and head off to the next spot. In a word, exhausting. I carried glucose and salt tablets with me and these helped.

Another phenomena of this part of the world were the skies. At times the sky seemed almost black due again to the thin atmosphere. It made for some great photos. They have not been touched up, only scratches and imperfections removed.

Hitachi 2-8-2 662 steam train engine bolivia south america  Potosi
Hitachi 2-8-2 No 662 In Fabulous Scenery West of Potosi Bolivia

We Arrive In Potosi

It was a great trip on the train. Once we had completed the journey there was a 1.5 km walk up a steep hill into town. No problem you might think but with a full laden backpack and being 4,000 meters above sea level, it took quite some effort.

One of our team, Lindsay Rickard, got off the train at Condor to photograph the freight following behind our train, and then went back to La Paz by rail. Mike and I travelled to La Paz by bus and then we all decided to return to Potosi and hire a car to photograph steam movements as it was such a spectacular line.

Unfortunately, there were no cars for hire in Potosi, and in any case, we wanted a 4 wheel drive after friends of ours had left their car in the desert after it broke down. Lindsay decided to go and get the car and headed off on the night bus.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
Freight Heading Down The Gorge West Of Potosi

He returned a day later totally exhausted, with a near new Toyota Land Cruiser. The Bolivian roads and police checkpoints really take their toll on you. While we waited there was time to photograph a Baldwin 2-8-2 shunting the yard.

baldwin 2-8-2 655 potosi bolivia steam engine
Baldwin 2-8-2 No 655 Shunting Potosi

I did my research about this part of the world and the extreme altitude and came prepared with glucose tables for energy and salt tablets as well. We made sure we drank plenty of water too. It was very cold and we used to stop the car, race out to a photo spot, then race back into the car and take off. You have no idea how exhausting this is. The air was so thin the sky looked almost black. You could say this was the railway line closest to heaven.

We were young and crazy, or at least I was, with little fear of safety or consideration of anything going wrong, so we approached our mission with gay abandon. I remember fishtailing down the road and sliding around corners leaving behind huge dust trails. It was a lot of fun. At night we would head back to our backpackers retreat in Potosi.

Heading For Sucre

Lindsay went off to have a good sleep after bringing the car back from La Paz, while Mike and I followed a train towards Sucre. Again, this section followed some spectacular countryside, although we didn’t follow the whole section of line. It leaves the road at Betanzos and is inaccessible for most of the journey beyond there. The line climbs up an amazing escarpment, one of the best I have seen.

sucre potosi bolivia steam train 2-8-2 668
Hitachi 2-8-2 No 668 Heads Towards Sucre

Back Towards Uyuni

The top of the line was Condor, the highest railway station in the world at the time, 15,700 feet above sea level. We witnessed natives playing soccer and were amazed at their energy at this altitude. We were told that they develop larger hearts and lungs than other humans to adapt to the climate, plus of course drink plenty of coco tea. They would chew coco leaves constantly as well for energy.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
No 668 At Condor

Top Of The World. Mitusbishi Mikado 668 on the Passenger Train

This was where I had my first taste of Coco tea. No, it was nothing like pure cocaine, but a mild stimulant which was really useful in this harsh environment. The locals would constantly chew the leaves to keep working in the harsh environment. It rotted their teeth as a side effect. We marvelled at the locals playing soccer at this altitude. Mike tried to join in but started puffing and panting. Turns out they have evolved larger heart and lung capacity.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
668 On The Regular Passenger

On the train journey down, we had seen some spectacular scenery closer to Uyuni and wanted to get back there. The map showed a sort of goat track which more or less followed the railway line, so early one morning we headed off chasing a freight.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
668 Heads Through A Gorge On A Freight

We passed a herd of Alpacas crossing a rocky creek bed. The road did get worse and worse, but with the rail line in site, we knew we were on the right track. In any case we had a 4 wheel drive which could negotiate almost any terrain. On the Bolivian road map this is listed as main route number 5!

alpacas potosi rio mulatos uyuni bolivia
Alpacas On The Main Road

At the end of the day, after the sun had set, we stopped, had something to eat and rather than drive for hours more in the dark, decided to sleep in the Land Cruiser. As it turned out we did have enough to keep us warm, but only just.

In the morning we awoke to temperatures of -20 C with ice all over the front of the car. We were camped near a creek and eventually got the windscreen wipers moving, shifting the icebergs of the glass. A train was on the way, so Lindsay hopped in the driver’s seat and away we went.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
We Farewell The Passenger As It Continues On Its Journey

The train we were following was the local “Tea And Sugar” train which ran once a week with a mixed consistency and stopped at every station and halt along the way. In a minute you will realise the significance of this.

At our first stop I took what I consider one of my best photos. This was one of the Mitsubishi 2-8-2s spurting a huge plume of smoke upwards in the freezing cold, windless air early morning. A poster sized print of this bears pride of place in my office even today.

Rio Mulatos Blivia hitachi 2-8-2 steam engine
Magnificent Is The Only Way To Describe This Early Morning Shot Mid Winter In Bolivia

Lindsay then discovered he needed to change the film in his camera. It was agreed I would drive to the next spot so the train wouldn’t get away. We came over a rise only to see boulders over the road with a narrow sandy passage. I hit the brakes and nothing happened. The ice on the brake shoes had just started to melt, giving the brakes no grip whatsoever. We bounced off the first rock, slid sideways on the second and at the third, the 4wd tipped on its side. Worse than that, there was a hole in the sump sufficient to let all the oil drain out.

land cruiser rio mulatos uyuni potosi condor bolivia
Our Hired Land Cruiser Capsized And Tore A Hole In The Sump

We had to act fast. The local was on its way and there was a stop just down the track. This was the only train to stop at this station for a week and we had not passed a single vehicle on the road. We decided to ditch the car, grabbed all our possessions and headed for the station. This led to an eventful ride in a Bolivian Mixed train with locals, animals and whatever else turned up. It was a slow trip back to Potosi.

Rio Mulatos Blivia hitachi 2-8-2 steam engine
Stuck In The Desert, We Wait For The Weekly Mixed Service

Decisions needed to be made. I had seen “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and knew what happened to them in Bolivia. It was in 1967 that Cuban revolutionary hero, Che Guevarra was executed by the Bolivian army, and everywhere we went by road we encountered road blocks near towns designed to keep insurgents out. You get used to being stopped by the army in South America. In some ways we were fortunate to ride the “Tea and Sugar” train. Because it stopped and shunted all along the line, we managed to get a few shots, including this one which shows how seriously cold it was.

Hitachi 2-8-2 668 steam train engine bolivia south america Uyuni Potosi
Taking Water From A Near Frozen Water Tank AT 3 pm

We decided the best thing to do was to cut our losses and run. I am sure the huge bonds now required to hire cars in this country can be attributed to our adventures, so I am sorry if it happens to you.

Lindsay had paid the bond, mostly in unsigned travellers cheques which could be replaced, so I stuck with him and we headed for the nearest border, that of Argentina. Mike headed towards La Paz and Peru, a much longer route, but more direct. 12 hours later Lindsay and I were celebrating our escape from Bolivia. I haven’t been back since.

So ended our steam adventure to the Altiplano of Bolivia. Just think if that Land Cruiser hadn’t capsized, I would never have met my first wife. That is the subject of another story on this site. I am constantly amazed how life works in such mysterious ways, even in Bolivia South America.



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