In 1979, Paul Theroux’s overrated opus The Old Patagonian Express made the dying narrow-gauge railway that ran south from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Esquel a global household word. Its antique steam locomotives no longer traverse the entire 402-kilometer route, but the dusty township of El Maitén, with its rusting rails, weathered workshops, and twirling turntables, is the best place to savor this picturesque economic folly.
Like Esquel, it retains enough rolling stock that committed trainspotters can board this living anachronism and fill their photo albums in the process.
Gringos may cite the Gospel of Theroux, but Argentines know the train as La Trochita (a diminutive for “gauge”) or El Trencito (Little Train). The yards are still open, though only a couple of locomotives (an American Baldwin and a 1922 German Henschel) are in running order; the mostly Belgian cars date from 1922 to about 1960.
In summer, by reservation only, the train does a 2.5-hour excursion to Thomae (the first station south of Maitén) and back (US$20 pp) four or five times weekly in January and February; the rest of the year, it’s only once or twice weekly. For reservations, contact Grado 42 (Avenida Belgrano 406, El Bolsón, tel. 02944/49-3124, latrochita [at] elbolson [dot] org).
For current schedules, contact El Maitén’s Secretaría de Turismo (Avenida San Martín s/n, tel. 02945/49-5016, www.elmaiten.com.ar), near the railroad tracks, or Estación El Maitén (Carlos Pellegrini 841, tel. 02945/49-5190). The new platform is a welcome addition, and the old station has added a small but interesting museum (9 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, US$0.50). The nearby workshops are open 8 a.m.–2 p.m. daily.
The Camping Municipal (tel. 02945/49-5189, US$2 pp) is on the nearby Río Chubut. Hostería Refugio Andino (Avenida San Martín 1317, tel. 02945/49-5007, refugioandino [at] epuyen [dot] net [dot] ar, US$10 pp) has accommodations, a restaurant, and long-distance phones.
Grado 42 (Avenida San Martín 1136, tel. 02944/49-4955) goes to El Bolsón (US$5) at 7:30 a.m. daily. Vía Bariloche (Avenida San Martín 1317, tel. 02945/15-68-1121) goes to Esquel (2 hours, US$5) at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition