Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes) is one of the most extraordinary experiences on offer in Argentina. It’s the third-highest high-altitude train in the world; an adventure through the depths of the Lerma valley on a railroad with a century of history behind it.
The province of Salta boasts some of Argentina’s most dramatic scenery, and the Train to the Clouds is a delightful way to take in all of it. It’s a journey for journeying sake with the same departure and arrival point. The service takes passengers from the city of Salta 4,220 metres above sea level to the Polvorilla viaduct, which in itself, is worth writing home about. On the way there, one is treated to the vastness of Argentina’s high Andes with hopes for a llama sighting or two.
The route has changed significantly in recent years. For safety reasons, part of the journey is now carried out by bus and the rest by train with lots of photographic opportunities along the way namely:
- Campo Quijano
- Quebrada del Toro
- Yunga mountain forest
- El Alfarcito
- Quebrada de las Cuevas
- The kaleidoscope-esque Yacoraite formation
- Resting llamas at San Antonio de los Cobres
- Mina Concordia
- The Polvorilla viaduct
- Artisan markets
- Santa Rosa de Tastíl
Here’s a detailed breakdown of this air safari into the heart and soul of Salta.
6.15 AM – Check-in at Salta Station
Wake up bright and early to make your way to Salta station. I was lodged at uber chic Legado Mítico boutique hotel a stone’s throw from Plaza 9 de Julio so it was a brisk stroll to the check-in point. If your hotel is also as centrally located as Legado Mítico it’s perfectly fine to walk, otherwise, ask your accommodation to order a taxi. Bringing your passport as well as a print out of your ticket is mandatory.
Upon arrival, you’ll be assigned a bus colour. There are three buses: yellow, red and blue. If you’re English-speaking, you’ll be put on a bilingual bus. There are designated seats in assigned carriages on the train but not on the bus. At the check-in counters, there are maps for purchase highlighting the full trail and the altitude at each location for your information. Outside, there are also vendors selling coca-flavoured chewing gum and coca leaves that one may stuff into their cheeks to stave off altitude sickness; symptoms of which include headaches and nausea. It’s no secret that people who are unaccustomed to high altitude conditions (pretty much most of us) may start to feel drowsy, a feeling akin to having your head in the clouds. The name for the journey is, therefore, quite apt.
7.00 AM – Bus departs
The bilingual guide on our bus was called Facundo, a name I came across rather frequently in Argentina. The company is particularly conscious of passengers getting altitude sickness so each bus also has a medic on board that checks up on us throughout the day. Ours was a jovial gentleman by the name of Thomas.
Construction started on the railway system in 1921 and it was designed by Richard Maury, an American engineer who later naturalized as Argentine. The first pit stop on the bus journey is the town of Campo Quijano, known as the “Gateway to the Andes”. Here, he’s buried alongside the tracks. Back on the bus, Facundo informs us of some of the wildlife that call Salta home and the area’s biodiversity.
Quebrada de las Cuevas which looks like a postcard straight out of the Wild Wild West houses colonies of large cacti that, sadly, are losing the battle against climate change. The Yunga mountain forest is where 60% of all birds in Argentina can be found and American Jaguars are also known residents. South American camelids like llamas and alpacas live in high altitude regions like this. There are also Austral flamingos and Andean Condors which are notably monogamous animals. He tells us that when a male bird loses its “wife”, it commits suicide but when a female loses her male spouse, she replaces him with a younger male. Interesting, very interesting.
All traces of city life are a distant memory as we traverse the arid Puna region which spreads across Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The name comes from Quechua, the language of the Incas and it means “place of high elevation”. The Andean Plateau (or Altiplano in Spanish) is second only to Tibet for having the most extensive area of high plateau.
Gazing out the window, my focus was split between Facundo’s speech and the gentle melody of Real Estate’s “It’s Real” in one ear via my EarPod. All the while, I wondered whether this really was real, as the impressive scenery along the way flawed me. The grand terrain would include snow-capped mountains, panoramic views at Quebrada del Toro and the Yacoraite formation (pronounced sha-co-rai-teh), all of which were ineffably beautiful and achingly romantic.
9.30 AM – El Alfarcito
Breakfast is served. In the quaint village of El Alfarcito, community residents serve up two small (albeit yummy) sweet pastries along with a steaming cup of tea or a coffee. It’s a very light breakfast so feel free to bring back up supplies. Here, you may also sample hot coca tea. Slotted between the various stops are impressive views of the Lerma valley which has rivers, tobacco plantations, horses, cows foraging, and wide lush plains. The province of Salta has many different geographical environments. You’ll often hear the area being referred to as “Salta la Linda” – “Linda” being the word for beautiful in the tongue of the indigenous tribes that resided here.
Majority of the train’s passengers are Argentineans, followed by a splattering of North Americans and Europeans. On the Bilingual English and Spanish bus, I was sat across from Marie Louise from Munich and Jeanette from Vienna. With nothing but leisure time on our hands and inspired by the wonderful views we were feasting on, we all got chatting. Marie Louise, a flight attendant, was holidaying between posts and Jeanette would emerge as one of the most remarkable women I would encounter on my trip. A much-needed breath of fresh air, she disclosed her somewhat risqué line of work to me, as well as the fact that she chose where in the world to live based on a type of wine she liked. I savoured that thought for the rest of the day.
11:30 AM – San Antonio de los Cobres
Passengers board the train at San Antonio de los Cobres, the largest town in the Puna region. Here, there’s just sufficient time to familiarize with the area – and meet some llamas standing by to bid thee farewell. There are also local artisans hoping to catch the eye of prospective buyers for their wares. While this northern Andean train once had a functional purpose, today it exists solely as a tourist attraction which breathes life into La Puna. The train ushers in a window to the outside world for the remote communities as well as much needed customers for their handicrafts and as such, financial sustenance.
12.00 PM – Train time
Banish all images you have of this being just another train ride. The skyward journey is dizzying, awe-inspiring and chilling in equal measure. It is however safe – 34,000 passengers rode the train last year. It’s an experience capable of taking your breath away. In the event that this occurs, oxygen dispensers are on hand to aid anyone feeling lightheaded. A dining cart is another feature of the train and shortly after departure from San Antonio de los Cobres, complimentary postcards are handed out which feature a dramatic image of the Polvorilla viaduct to whet our appetites for what’s yet to come.
The Polvorilla viaduct (viaducto de la Polvorilla) and its 1,600 tonnes of iron are the most important part of the journey, particularly as the train bends on viaduct itself. The company has a policy to ensure that everyone’s happy with their experience at the bend. Passengers seated on the left side on the way to La Polvorilla will move to the right side on the way back to give everyone an equal chance. This way, no one feels cheated of the best view. While on the viaduct, the train also slows down to prolong the excitement. At this point, feel free to stick your head out to absorb the full scale of your surroundings.
The train later moves back and off of the viaduct and halts nearby where passengers disembark, admire it in all its glory and take the obligatory barrage of photos. This is when the sheer size of La Polvorilla and the grandiose canyon it’s stretched across becomes apparent. A bespoke artisan market is set up specifically for the train’s patrons where one may procure local artefacts, trinkets, souvenirs and perhaps even get a cheeky llama selfie. The time spent stationed near the viaduct culminates with the national anthem ceremony and group applause.
The train leg of the journey is around three hours in total. Instead of continuing on to Chile, it returns to its original point of departure. On the way back to San Antonio de los Cobres, the altitude did begin to get the best of me and I was compelled to take a power nap waking up just in time to tuck into the highest altitude meal of my lifetime.
3.00 PM – Lunch break at San Antonio de los Cobres
There appeared to be just two restaurants in San Antonio de los Cobres. Despite the sheer remoteness, both are viable places to enjoy a good old Parilla (or grill). This is Argentina at the end of the day. Various llama dishes were on the menu at both establishments but I had some reservations about ordering it, after all, I had just met my first one moments earlier. He was adorable and I was so grateful to him for not spitting in my face, kicking me, or whatever other nightmare scenarios I had pre-empted.
After lunch and a brief stroll around the town, we got back onto the bus towards our final stop of the day where we would enjoy “la merienda”, an afternoon snack. Santa Rosa de Tastil is the administrative centre of Quebrada del Toro. It’s a supremely tiny area within the Quebrada and has only about 12 families in residence. Santa Rosa de Tastil is also part of the Qhapaq Ñan framework, the intricate Andean road and trade system and UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a micro museum to take in, Museo de Sitio Tastil, and more artisan wares created by the local families. Here you can pick up ornaments at competitive prices compared to stores in the city. Take home beautiful mementoes and clothing made from alpaca fibres as well as mate jars because again, we are in Argentina after all. They’re mad for the stuff here.
4.15 PM – Bus journey back to the city of Salta
The Train to the Clouds is specifically what brought me to Salta. It’s a long day trip but an experience I’d be inclined to give five stars. Our bus would arrive back in Salta city around 8 PM. By this point, you’d be congratulated for championing through the soaring heights of the Altiplano sans snoozing – the highest altitude reached on the bus leg of the journey is 4,800 metres. The trip is a means of experiencing multiple Andean destinations magically wrapped into one unhurried outing, to enjoy the splendour of train travel. When was the last time you sat on a train just to go and not to arrive somewhere?
The price of your ticket depends on your chosen date of travel but it hovers around 150 USD for foreigners and 120 USD for Argentinians. It’s also possible to hop on for just the train part of the journey and make your own way to San Antonio de los Cobres where the train departs. There are three departures every week. The midweek dates vary but there’s always a service on a Saturday. Also, bring warm clothing. The bus is air-conditioned and particularly early in the morning, things just feel colder this high up.
Don’t burn the midnight oil the night before and get lots of sleep to prepare for the early check-in time and long journey – around 13 hours in total. The tourism authority also advises to have a light meal and minimise alcohol consumption the evening before. This apparently reduces the chances of succumbing to altitude sickness when the air is thin. Lastly, there are USB ports on the bus so you can keep your phone charged to be able to take photos all the way through.
Train to the Clouds is one of South America’s great railway journeys high in the sky, and it’s high time you went on it. Find out more and order your tickets on their multi-language website www.trenalasnubes.com.ar.
Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.