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Infamous for its relentless winds and endless wide-open terrain, Patagonia is a land where only the hardiest of things—both natural and man-made—can survive. The Patagonian resilience is best personified by La Trochita, Argentina’s only fully-functioning steam engine train and one of the few remaining narrow-gauge steam train lines in the world. An opportunity to ride behind the old engine and see its bellowing smoke rise through the pale blue Patagonian sky is an experience for all ages.  

 

 

The adventure begins as the train climbs out of the amphitheatre-shaped Esquel valley. The snow-capped Andean mountains loom on the western horizon as the train travels eastward through the Chubut foothills.  Chilean flamingos congregate in the fertile marshlands below.

 

 

Before long, the train turns north and enters the moisture-deprived region called the Patagonian steppe.  These arid, wind-swept plains extend eastward as far as the eye can see, barren and stark yet fascinatingly beautiful. To the west, the mountains stand like ancient sentinels looking over this unforgiving terrain.  Signs of life are limited to an occasional herd of guanacos grazing on pampas grass. Not intimidated by its surroundings, La Trochita forges on.

 

 

The story of La Trochita is one of starts and stops, much just like the original 402-kilometer (250 mile) route through the Rio Negro and Chubut provinces. The state-run rail project was a high-risk proposal when it began in 1906. The Argentine government proposed building a series of railways that would connect the inaccessible central region of Patagonia to Atlantic ports. The complex plan languished due to the financial constraints of World War I, but in the early 1920s work began on the narrow-gauge-section.

 

 

From the original go-forward decision, the .75-meter (2.5 feet) gauge tracks took nearly 40 years to reach the town of El Maitén in the province of Chubut. The final tracks did not reach the terminal station of Esquel until 1945, with service beginning that same year.

 

 

Despite reaching top speeds of around 20 miles per hour, the train experienced dozens of mishaps. Mostly derailments, the accidents have  resulted from inclimate weather of high winds and ice, to more bizarre collisions: running into a cow.

 

 

But La Trochita’s most difficult struggles were yet to come. The national decline of Patagonia rail lines began in the 1970s due to their inability to compete with alternative modes of transportation. By the 1990s, most trains were all but abandoned. But La Trochita, special in the hearts and minds of those who traveled its steely rails, continued to operate. Her following grew with the publication of Paul Theroux’s 1980 book entitled, The Old Patagonian Express. Public outcries against ceasing train operations prompted local governments to swallow their threats and keep it rolling for future generations.

 

 

Today the steam engines, Philadelphia-made Balwins and German-made Henschel & Sohn, as well as the Belgium-made passenger coaches, are all painstakingly refurbished and maintained in local workshops.

 

 

La Trochita now departs with its coaches teeming with travelers eager to ride the nostalgic 25-mile, three-hour roundtrip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan (a similar trip is offered from the other terminal station in El Maitén). For those with time and a superhuman tolerance for back-breaking wooden seats, the train also travels the entire six and one-half hour route from Esquel to El Maitén during the annual train festival in mid-February.

 

 

The Argentine Patagonia is not short on stories of struggle and survival but some are naturally more endearing than others. A passage through Patagonia would not be complete without a passage on-board Argentina’s loveable legend, La Trochita.



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