North West Argentina's new tourist train powers ahead

Quebrada de Humahuaca train

The most exciting new tourist attraction to emerge in northwest Argentina since… well, probably the Train to the Clouds in the 1970s, is now promised for June 1st.

 

It’s another train, but this one will be powered by solar energy and lithium batteries, and run through the spectacular multi-coloured landscape of the UNESCO-protected Quebrada de Humahuaca.

 

The train service was originally slated to commence on 20th March, but after a trial run with passengers the week before, it was discovered the weight was too much to cope with the gradient in the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

 

But Jujuy province’s tourism minister Federico Posada recently told La Nacion: “We’re trying to get it up and running during May, but the definite date for tourists is 1st June.”

 

The electric train has a capacity of 72 passengers, and runs off six lithium batteries, part- powered by photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof which generate energy while it’s in motion.

 

Initially, the train will embark from Volcan, at 2,084m (6,837ft) altitude, rising to 2,390m (7,841ft) in Maimara, 35km further north; stopping along the way at Tumbaya and Purmamarca, the Quebrada’s busiest tourist destination celebrated for its breathtaking Seven Coloured hill.

 

Though it can reach between 100 and 120km per hour, the train will operate at between 30 and 50kmh so passengers can enjoy the stunning scenery.

 

It’s a hop on hop off service, with three trips per day and tickets (priced at US$30 for foreigners, with discounts for locals) valid for 12 hours.

 

“You see the landscape in a different way, you appreciate things you can’t see from a car. And, besides, it’s totally silent, the experience is incredible,” said Emiliano Rodriguez, executive co-ordinator of the Jujuy to La Quiaca Train Project.

 

For the province’s secretary of tourism, Diego Valdecantos, the US$17 million project marks “a before and after for tourism in Jujuy. We expect a big increase  in tourist demand because it’s an iconic product.”

 

Both Volcan, the starting point for the train, and Tumbaya, the first stop, are less popular tourist destinations: the huge old railway station in Volcan was long ago turned into an artisans’ centre, but the town itself is marred by a huge dust-belching cement factory; while Tumbaya is mainly visited during Easter to see the image of the Virgin of Punta Corral.

 

The next putative stop along the train line is Tilcara, the most popular tourist town in the Quebrada, hopefully in time for Argentina’s winter holidays in July.

 

When it’s finally complete, the project first started in 2017 under Mauricio Macri’s government will stretch as far as Humahuaca: at 92km distance from its starting point in Volcan.

 

When it does set off, silently, it will be an emotional moment for local residents who remember the train from Buenos Aires which passed through here until 1993, all the way up to La Quiaca, on the border with Bolivia.

“The last train here was in March 1993, and I was born in August 1993, so I never saw a train run through the Quebrada. Being part of this fills me with pride: it’s a milestone,” said Emiliano Rodriguez.  

 

The dream is that one day the train will return to La Quiaca (note the name of Rodriguez’s train project), linking with Bolivia, which still has a functioning, if very irregular functioning national train service (albeit in a much smaller country).

 

One newspaper in Peru (another country with plenty of track but only a sporadically operating service) is even talking of connecting with the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu!

 

Let’s blow the trumpet for an innovative project: when it gets on track, this will certainly be the American continent’s first electric train.

 

Chief engineer of the Chinese constructors CRRC, Yin Yuguo, said: “We’ve made this train in China, but we haven’t got any record of anything simliar in the world.”

 

In December last year, when the first trial run was carried out with selected passengers (politicians and local worthies), the Chinese ambassador to Argentina Wang Wei said: “CCRC is a pioneer in light train transport that will take full advantage of the abundant solar and lithium energy resources of Jujuy. It’s supporting the green economy, lowering levels of carbon dioxide, offering a unique, comfortable and convenient experience.”

 

Ah, yes, lithium….

 

Of course, this is the subtext of this project: Jujuy, along with Salta and Catamarca in northwest Argentina, are in the hub of the lithium triangle.

 

This time last year, indigenous rights groups (bankrolled by Alberto Fernandez’s disastrous government) cut roads through the Quebrada de Humahuaca in protests which devastated the province’s winter holiday season.    

 

Lithium, and the Jujuy government’s right to override indigenous land rights when it concerns the prosperity of the whole, remains controversial.

 

What better way to spin the PR than introduce a solar and lithium battery powered train?

 

Duration
3 to 7 days
Group Size
1 to 4

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