Whether you travel up the magnificent Quebrada del Toro by train – along one of the highest railways in the world – in a tour operator’s jeep, in a rented car or, as the pioneers did centuries ago, on horseback, the experience will be unforgettable, thanks to the gorge’s constantly changing dramatic mountain scenery and multicoloured rocks. It is named after the Río Toro, normally a meandering trickle, but occasionally a raging torrent and as bullish as its name suggests, especially in the spring. The road and rail track swerve up from the tobacco fields of the Valle de Lerma, southwest of Salta, through dense thickets of ceibo, Argentina’s national tree, ablaze in October and November with their fuchsia-red spring blossom. Both go past Santa Rosa de Tastil, with its two museums, and Tastil, with its pre-Colombian site, on to the dreary but strategic mining settlement of San Antonio de los Cobres.
Many tour operators in Salta offer tours by road, some of which shadow the train for much of the way, offering passengers the chance to photograph the handsome locomotive and wave at it frantically, expecting passengers to reciprocate. Alternatively, operators such as Clark Expediciones can meet you off the train when it stops at Polvorilla Viaduct, and guide you around the altiplano in a jeep; you miss out on the return train journey and the folk show (a possible blessing) but get the best of both worlds – the train ride up in daylight plus a chance to explore the area more independently. MoviTrak runs the most popular jeep safari excursions up the Quebrada del Toro, often combined with a return leg down the Quebrada de Humahuaca.Read More
The Train to the Clouds
The Train to the Clouds
Travelling through the Quebrada del Toro gorge on the Tren a las Nubes, or Train to the Clouds, is an unashamedly touristic experience. Having been out of service on and off for a while, the train began seriously again in 2009, run by a consortium of three local companies.
Clambering from the station in Salta (it never exceeds 35 km/hr) to the magnificent Meccano-like La Polvorilla Viaduct, high in the altiplano, the smart train – with a leather-upholstered interior, shiny wooden fittings, spacious seats, a dining car, a post office and even altitude-sickness remedies – was originally built to service the borax mines in the salt flats of Pocitos and Arizaro, 300km beyond La Polvorilla. The viaduct lies 219km from Salta, and on the way the train crosses 29 bridges and twelve viaducts, threads through 21 tunnels, swoops round two gigantic 360° loops and chugs up two switchbacks. La Polvorilla, seen on many posters and in all the tour operators’ brochures, is 224m long, 64m high and weighs over 1600 tonnes; built in Italy, it was assembled here in 1930. The highest point of the whole line, just 13km west of the viaduct, is at Abra Chorrillos (4475m). Brief stopovers near La Polvorilla, where the train doubles back, and in San Antonio de los Cobres, allow you to stretch your legs and meet some locals, keen on selling you llama-wool scarves and posing for photos (for a fee). Folk groups and solo artists interspersed with people selling arts, crafts, cheese, honey and souvenirs galore help while the time away on the way down, when it’s dark for the most part.
The train leaves (and returns to) Salta’s Ferrocarril Belgrano station several times a week during Holy Week and in July and August, with a less frequent service from March to June and from September to November. Tickets cost US$120–140 and should be reserved in advance at wwww.trenalasnubes.com.ar. The Ferrocarril Belgrano station in Salta is at Ameghino 690, ten blocks north of the central Plaza 9 de Julio, and can be reached by buses #5 and #13 from downtown, the bus terminal and the campsite.