I love trains.
Long before Zab and I ever planned to travel indefinitely together, let alone to South America in particular, I already knew about all the possibilities for train trips in the continent, and the Tren Patagónico always stood out to me as something that looked a bit special. So, of course, taking this train had to be factored in to our travels in Argentina.
Linking San Carlos de Bariloche in the alpine landscape of the Argentine Lake District to Viedma on the flat, dry Atlantic coast, this train covers 826 kilometers (513 miles) in 19 hours. That’s just 43 kilometers per hour (27 mph), which if you’re used to European high-speed trains, sounds like a snail’s pace.
That’s part of the charm, though. The journey (which we took in the direction from Bariloche to Viedma) is an experience in itself, not simply a means of transport. If we had wanted to cover the ground between the Andes and the coast quickly, we could have flown, but that’s no fun.
Interestingly, the train, despite only making the journey once a week in each direction, and taking much longer than the equivalent bus journey, is actually cheaper than the bus, even if you buy the most expensive tickets in a two berth sleeper cabin of the train at AR$350 (£45). If you’re willing to slum it in a reclining seat (which we were not), it’s cheaper still.
This is the main problem however: the train only runs once a week (west-to-east on Mondays and east-to-west on Fridays), meaning that tickets are scarce. We arrived in Bariloche on a Thursday, hoping to get tickets for the following Monday, but it was completely sold out. We were able to get tickets for the Monday after that, and there were only about six places in the sleeper still available at that time.
On the day of our departure from Bariloche, we rushed to the station in the east of town, just by the bus terminal, arriving just twenty minutes before departure time and finding it all a-bustle with people waiting to board, load packages and say goodbye to friends and relatives. It felt like a completely different station than the one we remember visiting before to buy the tickets, which felt like the train station of a long abandoned town out in the Wild West.
Quickly before boarding, we had to buy vouchers for dinner and breakfast on board, which although not included, were reasonably good value at AR$75 (£9.80) each for both meals. This proved to take longer even than buying the tickets themselves, as the lady selling them had to first find her little booklet of tickets, cut out a new price from a tiny sheet of paper, search for five minutes around her desk behind the glass screen for glue to affix the new price, write out our ticket numbers on each voucher and take our money. She then told us that these weren’t the real vouchers; she was out of those, but the staff on the train would know that and it didn’t matter anyway. We didn’t ask any more questions.
We then boarded the train and were shown to our cabin by the friendly attendant, who gave us a key for it and showed us how to use the sink (we had our own sink!). We then settled in and waited to be off.
After a while, we were in the outskirts of the town, and quickly left the lake behind, the landscape opening up around us in to something quite different than we had seen in and around Bariloche. Our idle gazing out the window was interrupted by a knock at our door. We opened and were asked by a camp, little old man in a dinner suit:
¿Estamos cenando acá? (Are we taking dinner here?)
We told him yes and he took our order. When he left, we exchanged a glance that affirmed that neither of us had expected this level of service.
The train trundled on, the landscape changing further, becoming more rugged and desert like. The occasional horse, looking up from its mouthful of grass, reminding us that animals did indeed live here.
After about an hour and a half of travel, the train began to slow and signs of civilisation appeared. We pulled in to the stump of a platform at Pilcaniyeu, and were told we’d have ten minutes to step off if we liked. Passengers smoked cigarettes, checked that their cars (loaded on the front of the train) were still there and townspeople gathered around to collect packages and goods that had been sent for them from Bariloche.
We made two more similar stops at the dusty little hamlets of Comello and Clemente Onelli within the next two hours, and then, just as the sky was beginning to glow with the setting sun, we noticed houses alongside the track before we even began to slow down, and realised that our next stop must be a big one.
The town of Ingeniero Jacobacci felt like a metropolis after our last few stations, and we spent a good half hour there. People loaded and unloaded things on crates, families fussed over their recently arrived relatives and middle aged men shared mate, cigarettes and gossip with friends in the way you’d imagine they might do at a bar on a Friday night.
After all that excitement, we were happy to sit down in the dining car and eat. We took our assigned table (which had normal chairs, not benches bolted to the floor as we expected) and were brought the uninspiring, though entirely edible and filling food as the world outside melted away and the windows of the carriage became mirrors with the inequity of light between inside and out.
Upon returning to our cabin after dinner, we discovered that what had previously been one long, comfortable bench, had been transformed in to two bunks, ready for sleeping. We spent some time reading, listening to podcasts and chatting, then got in to our bunks.
It was only then, once the lights had been switched off, that it occurred to me to look out the window to see the stars, certain to be bright and numerous in this unlit wilderness. Lying on my back in the bottom bunk, looking up at the sky out the window, I didn’t see much at first, but once my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see the entire arm of the Milky Way. A magnificent sight to fall asleep to.
In the morning, we woke up to find ourselves almost in another world. The land we travelled through was completely flat, brush land, with the very occasional tree breaking the horizon.
Breakfast was a similar affair to dinner the night before, though the movements of the train seemed jerkier (possibly because it was speeding up in order to arrive on time), making spreading jam on toast that bit trickier.
Finally, we pulled in to Viedma with no ceremony at all, and disembarked. We felt fresh and well rested from the journey, glad we had taken the time to travel this way, rather than by any other, faster means. We had earned our arrival, the destination not being simply the goal, but also the reward for the journey.
The train from Bariloche to Viedma (as described here) leaves at 15.00 every Monday, arriving in Viedma on Tuesday at 09.30.
In the opposite direction, it leaves Viedma at 18.00 on Fridays and arrives in Bariloche at 12.28 on Saturdays.
Tickets cost AR$350 (£45) per person in a two berth cabin with sink (camarote) or AR$140 (£18) in a reclining seat (pullman) and can only be bought in person at the train stations. Credit cards are accepted.