A trip on the Old Patagonian Express rates as one of South America’s classic journeys. The steam train puffs, judders and lurches across the arid, rolling steppe of northern Chubut, like a drunk on the well-worn route home, running on a track with a gauge of a mere 75cm. Don’t let Paul Theroux’s disparaging book The Old Patagonian Express put you off: travelling aboard it has an authentic Casey Jones aura and is definitely not something that appeals only to train-spotters. Along the way you’ll see guanacos, rheas, maras and, if you are lucky, condors, as you traverse the estate of Estancia Leleque, owned by Italian clothes magnate Benetton, Argentina’s biggest landowner.
Referred to lovingly in Spanish as La Trochita, from the Spanish for “narrow gauge”, or El Trencito, the route has had an erratic history. It was conceived as a branch line to link Esquel with the main line joining Bariloche to Carmen de Patagones on the Atlantic coast. Construction began in Ingeniero Jacobacci in Río Negro Province in 1922, but it took 23 years to complete the 402km to Esquel. Originally, it was used as a mixed passenger and freight service, carrying consignments of wool, livestock, lumber and fruit from the cordillera region. The locomotives had to contend with snowdrifts in winter, and five derailments occurred between 1945 and 1993, caused by high winds or stray cows on the track. Proving unprofitable, the line was eventually closed in 1993. The Province of Chubut took over the running of the 165km section between Esquel and El Maitén soon afterwards, and La Trochita has matured into a major tourist attraction.