Original Article by Bob Maysmor
Through the heavy morning mist, fluorescent yellow jackets look like a string of bobbing lanterns. Then I see the five policemen who are wearing them; they are all carrying heavy automatic weapons. As the minibus pulls up, the gate is unlocked and the steel frame swung to one side. We are driven into the railway yard and hear the gate slam shut behind us. The police have surrounded the vehicle.
Fortunately, they are there to protect us but from what I am not sure. We are about to embark on a rare journey; a train ride on the world‘s highest historic railway that climbs from Lima, the capital of Peru, through the Andes to Oroya in the Central Highlands and then on down to Huancayo. At its peak the track reaches an altitude of 4818metres. With redevelopment underway there are no facilities for boarding at Lima‘s central Desamparados Station so we have been brought by bus to Monserrate Station a few kilometres away.
A week earlier, Lucho Hurtado, an entrepreneur who has been trying to get a regular tourist train established for a number of years, contacted me and advised that as the new coaches being specially built for the excursion train would not be ready, the trip had to be cancelled once more. Disappointed but resigned to such vagaries of travel, our fortune was reversed when just two days before, Lucho excitedly informed me that he had negotiated a buffet car to be taken up to Oroya on one of the regular scheduled goods trains.
Outside the carriage window beside the wall of a station building I can see a tiny shrine with two vases of red and pink plastic flowers standing sentry. Lucho is telling me the shrine is to Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the railway line, when suddenly the carriage jolts heavily and is connected to the goods train.
Moments later, at exactly 7am, we slowly pull out of the rail yard. The engine‘s horn emits an intrusive blast as we approach a road crossing. Early morning workers on bicycles glance up, somewhat surprised, to see a carriage full of people looking down at them. Chubbyfaced children wave and scruffy dogs bark, then turn away in defeat. We pass endless backyards where dusty washing hangs limp on sagging clotheslines.
I love train journeys. For me they are always magical, like sitting in a time machine passing through another world. It is as if you are viewing a movie, watching endlessly as the story unfolds.
Outside, on the edge of town, painted hoardings proclaim presidential candidates alongside naive murals painted by school children. Endless rubbish litters the trackside which is lined with halffinished brick dwellings. Nearly two hours up the track we arrive at Chosica, which sits under the high ridge of a dry rock mountain where brick houses creep slovenly up the lower slopes. On a siding at the station is Paquita, one of three luxury furnished wagons, built at the request of a former president of Peru for his wife. Nearby an old steam locomotive, number 206, sits watching the diesel locomotives come and go. A flash of colour catches my eye. It is a huge pink Micky Mouse towel hanging on a fence. Along the track there are stands of eucalyptus trees, introduced by the Franciscan monks for use as supports in mining tunnels. The train is spinejerking and swaying heavily as we follow the Rio Rimac, its mountain water cascading over the boulderstrewn riverbed. We clatter over the Puente Carrion, a bridge named after Daniel Carrion, a medical researcher who studied the epidemic that killed thousands of labourers who were building the line. Carrion, in an effort to determine its cause, deliberately infected himself with the disease, verruga peruane. He died in 1885 as a result and was declared a martyr by the workers.
As we pull in to Matucano, one of the larger towns on the track, Lucho tells us the engine will use the turntable to enable wagons in the yard to be shunted. When we are finally allowed to get off the train we are disappointed that the manoeuvre has already been completed. The indomitable Lucho calls out to the driver and asks him to go on the turntable again which he willing does much to the delight of all the photographers on board. Heading on, we traverse one of the nine multiple zigzag sections of track that climb the steep valley‘ walls. The track also includes 68 bridges and 71 tunnels.
The railway line was the brainchild of American entrepreneur Henry Meiggs who was quoted as saying ‘I can get a train wherever a llama can walk.‘ Meiggs proved himself correct when the line was finally completed in 1909. Unfortunately he died in 1877 so missed seeing his railway finished by 33 years. The massive project took 39 years to complete with a labour force of ten thousand, half of whom were Chinese.
As we pass through San Mateo, at 3,300 metres, people start to doze, lulled by the warm sun or maybe the thinning air. The train slows too as if affected by the ever increasing altitude. The diesel locomotive pulls the train uphill at an average speed of 25kilometres an hour. When we reach the town of Chicla, with its distinctive red and white church, I find I am starting to gasp for air. We are nearly at 4,000metres now and it‘s causing my stomach to gurgle. I force myself to take deep slow breaths.
As we exit tunnel number 51 we are hugging the mountainside on a ledge not much wider than the track. There is a sheer drop below and a towering wall of rock above. The vegetation is changing as we climb, with small shrubs replacing trees. At Casapalca Station a group of dusty miners sit outside a store drinking Inca Gold, a local beer. They wave as we clickityclack by. Further on, mining equipment graveyards, abandoned vehicles and grim workshop buildings together with huge embankments of slag fill the valleys creating an ugly environmental eyesore.
The train draws close to the head of the valley, which we traverse in a huge horseshoe loop then climb on up to the steepest gradient of the track. The surrounding mountains are multicoloured, painted with a palette of copper, zinc, lead and ironoxide deposits. I can see the highway following the railway far below, a thin black line snaking up the valley.
The train slows to a creaking groaning halt suggesting that it has had enough of its long heavy haul. We have arrived at Galera, the highest historical passenger railway station in the world. A sign on the derelict station wall says ‘Altura Sobre El Nivel del Mar (height above sea level) ¬Metros 4,781 ¬Pies 15,681‘. I climb down and walk to the front of the train. All around us there are mountains dusted with ice and snow and away in the distance glaciers are surging down from the peaks. Above the station a lone mountain named La Viuda, (The Widower) keeps vigil. The wind is bitter and I feel lightheaded, momentarily unsure if it is euphoria at being here or just a nagging lack of oxygen but, of course, it‘s the latter. Having photographed the engine I am called back. I try to run but just about pass out with a surge of dizziness.
A short distance on we reach Galera Tunnel, the highest point on the track at 4,818metres, although Lucho tells us a nearby sideline, to a mine, climbs a further 11metres in altitude. As we start to descend, so too does the sun, tinting mountains a pink hue, softening the landscape and casting a moving distorted shadow of the train across the alpine pastures. The highlight of the journey is all but over. With relief, we lose altitude as we drop down the valley from Oroya to Huancayo, to Lucho‘s pousada the Casa de la Abuela, to a cup of hot cocoa and a muchneeded warm bed.