The Old Patagonian Express (1979) is a written account of a journey taken by novelist Paul Theroux. In February 1992, after having read his account of the experience riding the line, I had the opportunity of undertaking the same trip at the time of a visit to Argentina, where I had lived and worked in observational astronomy and teaching from 1955 to 1963.
What follows is a transcription from the travel notes kept during my journey.
The (so-called by Theroux) Old Patagonian Express was a mixed passenger/freight, steam-hauled, once weekly train operating over a 415 kilometer narrow gauge (75 cm) track along the eastern foothills of the Andes, from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel in Northern Patagonia.
Getting there however was not half the fun, for the town of Ingeniero Jacobacci lies some 1500 Kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, on the Roca division of the Argentine State Railway system, an organization that compares unfavourably, say, with the Swiss Federal Railways.
The early evening departure of the Lagos del Sur (“Southern Lakes”) was delayed for several hours from the cavernous, British-built Constitución station in Buenos Aires. I shared the dimly lit, odoriferous platform with several hundred perspiring passengers in the 35 degree humid heat until 22:30, when the consist finally backed in.
Scrambling aboard, I found my assigned compartment and began to organize my effects for the two night journey in the lower bunk, when my travelling companion popped in through the sliding door like a cork from a wine bottle.
Sebastián was a very pleasant young Argentine athlete-in-training. He had no bad habits, no noisy radio, was well-groomed, clean, friendly, and not a compulsive talker. I had but one major concern regarding this fellow though: faced with the the prospect of sleeping two nights in the lower bunk below him, in a swaying and decrepit sleeping car, lurching and bouncing over uneven track and a poorly maintained roadbed —he explained that he was in training to become a sumo wrestler.
The attendant appeared at the door and taking a look at us asked which one had the upper bunk. “Yo,” admitted Sebastián. The wooden access ladder was quickly whisked away and replaced with a sturdy metal one. Sebastián eased his bulk into the upper storey and began working on his caloric intake with a two liter bottle of pop.
I excused myself to the dining car for the 23:30 sitting, where I gorged on beefsteak as the southern suburbs of the Federal Capital slid past and we plunged south across the flat, dark pampas. My table companion was a clothing merchant on the single night journey to Bahia Blanca. He was of North Korean origin and had come to Argentina as a refugee via the former German Democratic Republic where he was a student. He spoke Spanish, German, and Korean.
I slept fairly well in spite of the fear of being crushed by 200 kilograms of Argentine adiposity and upon awakening the next morning found us to be crossing the low hills north of Bahia Blanca in driving rain.
Returning to the diner I grabbed the only table with an intact window, remaining there all day musing on the constantly expanding difference between the published timetable and the times of arrival at the stations. We were four hours late into Bahia Blanca and six hours late as we crossed the Rio Negro into Patagonia proper.
We trundled past mean villages in a cloud of dust, greeted by scrawny curs and thin looking children. Towards midnight I retired to my lower bunk once again and slept like a log.
The following morning I realized why: we had been stationary all night on a siding called San Antonio Oeste. The engine had broken down and a replacement had been summoned from Ingeniero Jacobacci to rescue us, nine hours distant. The other passengers appeared not to be surprised by the delay, and I was comforted by the knowledge that the Old Patagonian Express would be held for our arrival at Ingeniero Jacobacci, for the main line express Lagos del Sur was the only connection to the Esquel branch line.
We arrived there eleven hours behind schedule, at 16:00. The connecting train it seemed, had not been prepared for our departure. The engine had to be fired up, manually turned on an ancient turntable, and the consist assembled. All this took another hour and a half as I watched the Lagos del Sur vanish in a cloud of dust into the west.
By then I knew I would never get to my reserved room at the hotel in Esquel that night and was resigned to sitting up until the next day, but the flight out of Esquel back to Buenos Aires wasn’t until 16:30 in the afternoon, so wasn’t overly concerned. I should have been.
We eventually departed Ingeniero Jacobacci at 17:15, hauled by a Belgian built, oil burning steam locomotive with tender, followed by two petroleum cars, a box car, a guard van, one second class carriage with wooden slat seating, one first class carriage with upholstered seating, and the dining car-cum-guard van at the end.
The ancient passenger carriages each had a wood burning stove in the middle to provide warmth, for even in summer the nights are chilly in Patagonia. The windows were all intact for once and even could be opened. Sebastián plopped down in the seat in front of me and immediately broke it.
We initially headed west paralleling the main line, turning south after about 45 minutes. At this point the engine broke down, leaving us stranded and unable to move forward or backward. The fire in the locomotive then set fire to the oil drippings between the rails and the crew with passengers frantically shoveled dirt onto the line to extinguish the blaze. This was initially unsuccessful so we uncoupled the entire consist car by car, pushing the diner, the passenger carriages, and the freight cars back down the line away from the conflagration.
The driver opened the smoke box to cool the engine. Finally the fires were all extinguished as the sun set behind the massive dark peaks of the Andes and we waited patiently for another replacement engine to arrive from Ingeniero Jacobacci. The southern sky blazed with stars and a gibbous moon rose around 22:00.
The carriages were cozy with the stoves keeping us warm, and the diner supplied beefsteaks and beer to assuage hunger and thirst. Around midnight we heard the distant puffing of our rescue engine. The disabled locomotive was shunted onto a siding, the line cleared, the consist reassembled, and we started off once more as I fitfully dozed, hoping that Sebastián, now seated in front of me, didn’t collapse his chair and land on my lap.
I awoke to a brilliant sunrise, painting the distant mountains with splashes of orange and magenta. But we were not yet even halfway from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel, and it became increasingly obvious I wouldn’t make my flight that afternoon. I considered possible alternatives like hiring a car and driver to take me to another town five hours distant from Esquel, from where there was a daily flight to Buenos Aires. I was due to fly back to Vancouver the next day.
We slowly trundled along bleak, semi-arid hills, covered with hemispheric clumps of coarse vegetation resembling in the the middle distance a bad case of smallpox, where the pustules all run together. Up close however they seemed like mossy hedgehogs and quite attractive. We stopped periodically for the engine to replenish its water supply and there were no further breakdowns, but by now we were running twenty hours late.
At 15:00 a passenger abruptly exclaimed, “Look, there’s Esquel airport!” I explained my situation and was told a tourist van regularly meets the train near the airport and loads passengers to ride down into town, and said that I should ask the driver to take me over to the airport.
The van was indeed there, and I arranged the trip for a small sum, bid a hurried farewell to fat Sebastián, and climbed aboard the van as the old Patagonian Express chugged off into the distance, still an hour away from the station in Esquel.
A half hour later I was on an Aerolineas Argentinos jet out of there and a couple of hours after that back in Buenos Aires, then a much needed bath at the hotel, clean clothing, and to a nearby cafe for a nourishing meal and a pint of Quilmes beer, with time to reflect on the wonders of the Argentine State Railways.
A few days later in Vancouver, softened by time the experience remained a memory of mixed discomfort, apprehension, and delight.
Now after another 27 years and periods of privatization and renationalization, the entire line appears to be defunct, though a portion of it near Esquel is operated as a tourist attraction.
January 28, 2019