Train to the Clouds

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Argentina -

Along the route to To­lar Grande we kept spot­ting and cross­ing one of the world’s great feats of en­gi­neer­ing: the rail­way track that Richard Maury de­signed in the early 20th cen­tury, hav­ing re­put­edly spent seven years trav­el­ling the moun­tains on a don­key to plan the route. Its high­est point is 4,800m and it uses switch­backs on the gra­di­ents. Cur­rently, the only way to ex­pe­ri­ence part of the line is to take the Tren a las Nubes, a tourist ser­vice that runs two or more days a week, de­pend­ing on weather con­di­tions, de­mand and the sea­sons. Leav­ing the sta­tion in Salta by coach, you are bussed to San An­to­nio de los Co­bres to board the train. Oxy­gen and med­i­cal staff are on board in case of al­ti­tude sick­ness. The high­light, not sur­pris­ingly, is cross­ing the jaw-drop­ping Polvo­rilla Viaduct.

⊳ I com­mented that there was a church in the vil­lage. “The peo­ple are Catholic, too,” Jorge said. “In Au­gust they give their thanks to Pachamama, but in Septem­ber the peo­ple walk to Salta Cathe­dral on a nine-day pil­grim­age. It’s a way to keep har­mony between the two be­liefs – the indige­nous and the Catholic – a syn­chro­ni­sa­tion.”

Head­ing out across the Salar de Arizaro, one of the largest salt flats in the world, we stopped sev­eral times to ad­mire the glit­ter­ing sur­face, which in places looked as if it had been sprin­kled with di­a­monds. But Jorge had promised the high­light of the puña was yet to come.

“It’s an amaz­ing rock,” he said. “Just wait un­til you see it.” I was scep­ti­cal – af­ter all, the land­scape was full of in­cred­i­ble for­ma­tions.

Then, ris­ing from the salt flat, a vol­cano-shaped cone came into view, and I saw what Jorge meant. By the time we reached the sign for the ‘Cono de Arita’, I was suit­ably im­pressed by its strange beauty. How had I never heard of it be­fore? We started to walk towards it, but soon re­alised its close­ness was an il­lu­sion, the con­trast of the brood­ing cone and the stark white ground play­ing tricks with per­spec­tive.

We thought we had this epic land­scape to our­selves, but a mov­ing cloud of dust an­nounced an­other 4WD head­ing our way. It pulled up and its ea­ger pas­sen­gers jumped out and set off on foot towards the cone. We felt that self­ish pang you some­times feel when you’ve dis­cov­ered some­thing won­der­ful but want to keep it for your­self.

“Come,” said Jorge, pick­ing up on our dis­ap­point­ment, “I have some­thing spe­cial for you.” We car­ried on down the road, bear­ing off up a slope, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon play­ing through the speak­ers. “Are you ready?” Jorge asked as we emerged from be­hind some rocks and onto a hill, just as ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ started and Clare Torry’s soar­ing vo­cals kicked in.

The hairs on the backs of our necks rose. There be­low us was the cone, look­ing like a gi­ant pyra­mid and seem­ingly float­ing on the daz­zling plain. Once the song fin­ished, we got out of the car and slowly dis­persed, each of us finding our own spot to qui­etly sit and gaze at the oth­er­worldly sight; each, in our own way, pay­ing our re­spects to Mother Earth.

A per­fect cone ( clockwise from this) The sur­real vol­canopy­ra­mid of Cono de Arita; star­ing over the mir­rored wa­ters of Ojos del Mar; cap­tur­ing the cone in Jorge’s glasses; en route through myr­iad red hills and rock

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