La Trochita: The Little Engine That Couldn’t by John Ciullo

In August 2004, my wife and I left our comfortable lives to embark on a life journey through South America. Our son Camlin has become quite a traveler, gamely following us through mountains and river valleys, foreign cities and southernmost points.

As with most six-year-old boys, Camlin has an endless fascination with trains. Since setting foot on Argentine soil and learning about La Trochita, the narrow-gauge railway that traverses the wind-swept plains of Patagonia, his quest for a ride has been relentless. As we stood in line waiting to purchase our tickets, he clutched his toy train and quivered with delight that his day had finally come.

La Trochita, Argentina’s only fully-functioning steam engine train, is also one of the few remaining narrow-gauge steam train lines in the world. La Trochita is to narrow-gauge trains what Seabiscut was to thoroughbred horseracing: the long-shot that never quit.

The state-run rail project was a high-risk proposal when it began nearly a century ago. The Argentine government proposed to build a series of railways that would connect the inaccessible central region of Patagonia to Atlantic ports. The expensive plan languished due to the financial constraints of WWI but in the early 1920’s work began on the narrow-gauge-section.

The La Trochita experience has always been a waiting game. 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. The entire 402-kilometer (250 mile) narrow-gauge route from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel began service the same year.

Today the majority of La Trochita’s departures serve day-trippers who long to ride the nostalgic 25 mile, three-hour roundtrip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan. For those with time and a superhuman tolerance for uncomfortable wooden seats, the train travels the six and one-half hour route from Esquel to El Maitén during the annual train festival in February.
Time moves slowly in Esquel, preparing us for the journey back to another century. After a half-hour delay, we inched out of the station. Moving slowly through the soft morning light, I gazed out my window and realized that the draw of La Trochita is truly universal. The train was packed with people of all ages and nationalities gathered to experience the man-made marvel traveling through an unforgiving landscape. Camlin’s eyes sparkled as he realized his dream of this ride. Even the local children ran to catch a glimpse of the engine pulling its cramped passengers through dusty neighborhoods on its journey out of town.

The old Henschel & Sohn steam engine labored up the steep slope of the Esquel valley. Before long we were rewarded with unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains as well as Parque Nacional Los Alerces, west of town saddling the international border with Chile.

La Trochita’s coaches, built circa 1922 and equipped with pot-bellied stoves, were now bustling with activity. Without the aid of a sound system, the tour guide provided a history of the train barely audible over the chattering passengers and squeaking cars.

Above the din, a family of musicians filled the air with the rhythmic sounds of Argentine traditional, folklorico, music. The color and texture of the man’s tattered gaucho hat matched his dark, weathered skin. He strummed his guitar confidently while his wife lyrically described the struggle of daily life in Patagonia.
“Sueño del alma que a veces muere sin florecer” (Dream of the soul that at times dies without flourishing), she warbled.
Camlin nudged me and pointed to the blissful face of a newborn child swaddled in a woven blanket held closely in the singer’s arms; the child lulled by the familiar sounds of his mother’s sweet voice. The performance was a welcome diversion from loud thrashing sounds heard outside the coach indicative of the growing turmoil of our locomotive.

Problems are nothing new for La Trochita. The national decline of Patagonia rail lines began in the 1970’s due to the inability to compete with alternative modes of transportation. By the 1990’s, they were all but abandoned except for La Trochita, special in the hearts and minds of those who traveled its steely rails. The local government responded to public outcry to save the legendary train and keep the train rolling for future generations.

The train’s neck-snapping jolts and exceedingly slow pace suggested today’s ride was not moving to plan. Typically La Trochita runs at a top speed of 20 miles/hour; we were barely crawling. The coaches lurched forward as the engine coughed its characteristic black smoke. A dull grumble of concern grew within the rank and file. Even Camlin, typically brewing with optimism, was beginning to show signs of doubt. “Dad, why are we stopping again?” he asked. His question remained unanswered.
Now 40 minutes into our trip, we began to pick up speed but heading in the wrong direction. Our tour guide reappeared to inform us that she too had no idea what was going on –honest but far from helpful.

Twenty minutes later we were safely back in the Esquel train station due to “engine problems.” Sometimes vague answers are sufficient.

To their credit, the train company offered a full refund for the excursion. My wife made a dash to the ticket counter. Within minutes the office resembled the bank run at the Bailey Saving & Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life with people waving their tickets in the air demanding a cash refund. Fortunately she was third in line and triumphantly returned flush with Argentine pesos.
Surprisingly Camlin took the entire adventure in stride. With remarkable insight, he reminded me, “La Trochita is the Old Patagonia Express, Dad. They just need time to fix it. We’ll come back when they’re done.”
On the platform in Esquel, we vowed to return to give the loveable legend another run. I expect La Trochita will proudly carry its passengers directly into the relentless wind of Patagonia for many years to come.

Tourist train (2 ½ hours RT, US$8); two departures most days in high season (Jan – Feb, July-Aug); weekly on Saturdays the rest of the year; service available from both Esquel and El Maitén. Annual service from Esquel to El Maitén and return during annual festival in February (6 ½ hours one-way, US$28 RT).