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Rail Travel in The Andes: An Excerpt

Megan Branch, Intern

In his new book, The Andes: A Cultural History, Latin American Literature professor Jason Wilson looks at the dramatic influence The Andes have had on South American history and on literature from all over the world. Since we’re nearing the end of travel season, I’ve excerpted a passage below about the uniqueness of rail travel in the Andes—including altitudes that tend to make most people sick.

Crossing the Andes has always meant building bridges, roads and, more recently, railways. In 1934 a recently-married Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, a naturalist and prolific publicist of Latin America, reached Ecuador by boat to visit Chimborazo and the Galapagos Islands. Before the railways had been built from the tropical disease-ridden coast at Durán, across the river from Guayaquil, to Quito 290 miles away, the journey on horseback had taken eight days. Then the American Harman brothers (Archer and John) built their track, switchbacking up the Nariz del Diablo after the Chan Chan river gorge. Work had begun in 1897 and was completed in 1908 in what was a great feat of railway engineering (until suspended in 1983 and again in 1998). It climbed 10,626 feet in fifty miles and reached a pass at 11,841 feet, which von Hagen likened to the tundra in its bleakness, before descending to the Quito plateau. Theroux had wanted to ride this train, but it was overbooked.

Another railway engineering feat is the pass at Ticlio, on the line from Lima to Tarma in Peru, the highest railway pass in the world built above the Rimac gorge by the “indefatigable” and “unscrupulous” New York-born Henry Meiggs (actually at 15,865 feet). According to Wright, over 7,000 Andean and Chinese labourers died building a railway that has 66 tunnels, 59 bridges and 22 switchbacks. You can ask for oxygen masks on the train that now runs from Arequipa to Puno on Lake Titicaca, where the station of Crucero Alto is 14,688 feet high. The 1925 South American Handbook warned that soroche or mountain sickness was “usually the penalty of constipation”. Paul Theroux felt dizzy and sweated up this line, and the “astonishing” beauty of the landscape from the train window was ruined. Then a molar ached. He later learned that blocked air in a filling creates pressure on the nerve: “it is agony,” he wrote. The passengers started vomiting, until balloons filled with oxygen were handed around before they passed through the highest railway tunnel in the world. As a train enthusiast, Theroux marveled at the engineering, supervised by Meiggs between 1870 and 1877 the year he died, but surveyed by a Peruvian called Ernesto Malinowski. There is a Mount Meiggs near Ticlio.

Another gringo, Dr. Renwick, took a train from Arequipa to Cuzco, spotting the extinct volcano of Vilcanto at 17,000 feet, “one of the best known in all Peru”, and nearby Ausangate, towering over all others at 20,000 feet and visible a hundred miles away. He acutely remarked that Peruvians were so accustomed to these mountain giants seen from the train that they hardly noticed a peak like Huascarán, which “anywhere else would fill the mind with astonishment.” He is still right.

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