Light at the End of the Tunnel

22 Jun, 2016 | Sareena Kamath


Photos: William Wroblewski

Along the desolate outskirts of the west Andean town of Uyuni lies a dumping ground for abandoned locomotives, some dating back to the 19th century. Walking beside the long-forgotten railway tracks and hollowed-out train carcasses of this almost post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape, accurately called El cementerio ferrocarril, it is difficult to picture the thriving center of transportation that once existed here.

Before the early 1940s, this British-made railway was largely controlled by the mining industry and thus served as a central mode of transporting and distributing minerals to Bolivia’s borders and beyond. However, as the mines began to yield less and eventually fall out of favor, so did their cargo trains. Add to this the political disputes that transpired between Bolivia and Chile over the maintenance of their shared train tracks connecting La Paz to the northern seaside town of Arica, and the development of better highways and the buses that traverse them, and it is not surprising that the passenger trains died out as well.

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Enter FCA Empresa Ferroviaria Andina SA, a modern locomotive transportation service of both passengers and cargo. According to FCA general manager, Cynthia Aramayo Aguilar, the current route was formed by the pre-existing tracks of two major companies that survived the dramatic decline in train transportation and joined forces about 20 years ago. Commenting on the status of train travel after the introduction of Bolivia’s highway network, Aguilar offered, ‘We couldn’t compete either in terms of time or price, so we as an administration looked for something to do with our passenger trains – how to reinvent them. Not to compete with highway travel, because that is impossible, but to offer something different.’

FCA oversees a myriad of different travel routes extending all over the country, but perhaps its most popular services are the tourist trains, the Expreso del Sur and the Wara Wara del Sur, which follow two separate tracks along the southwestern boundary of Bolivia. Both trains make up the principal ‘T’ line and travel from Oruro to Villazon, with stops in popular tourist destinations like chilly but breathtaking Uyuni and Tupiza. They are designed to not only transport passengers from one place to another, but also offer them an entertaining and relaxing experience along the way. The primary difference between the two is their respective departure times from Oruro – while the Expreso del Sur has afternoon departures at 2:30 pm, Wara Wara del Sur departs at 7 in the evening.

The trains are divided into two seating classes, salon and executive, both equipped with several features to accommodate both the passengers’ safety and comfort. However, for a respectable change in price from 60 to 120 bolivianos, passengers in the executive class can also enjoy larger, more comfortable seats, air conditioning, better video screens and other amenities, including more personalized attention from the train’s staff.

Both classes have access to the train’s dining car, which offers a clean and comfortable seating area and a menu housing a large selection of national and international dishes, including pasta, red meat and poultry, and a few healthy vegetarian options, ranging in price from 30 to 50 bolivianos. Also available are a wide range of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, including a sizeable pour of Bolivia’s own national liquor, singani, which I readily sampled along with my dinner.

While the other cars of the train are mostly quiet and peaceful to accommodate movie watchers and sleeping passengers alike, the general atmosphere of the dining car is far more animated. Sounds of laughter and spirited conversation filled the room as tour groups, couples and new friends ate and drank together while enjoying their meandering ride through Bolivia’s highlands.

In fact, the view is probably the train’s most unique and defining characteristic. Rather than simply following along a highway, the tracks are nestled right inside the scenic natural landscape of the altiplano. On the journey between Oruro and Uyuni, the gently undulating background does not change drastically, but passengers can still enjoy the vast stretches of farmland and meadow bookended by far-off mountain ranges and the almost piercingly blue, cloudless sky. Peppered throughout this serene countryside are herds of llamas, alpacas and cattle grazing or being led across the salt-encrusted plain. Around the shallow yet expansive lakes, one can also take notice of the huge flocks of brightly colored flamingos, perched gently atop the water’s surface or preparing to take flight. As one of the train’s crew members, Pedro Montoya, commented, ‘I was born in the altiplano, lived my whole life in the altiplano, and will probably die in the altiplano. But I never tire of this view.’

As the train shudders to a halt in Uyuni, the same town that houses one of the most infamous collections of its rusted, graffiti-covered ancestors, it is interesting to contrast the past and present moments of Bolivian train travel and think about where it is heading. While Aguilar still maintained that trains will not be taking the place of either highway or air travel any time soon, she did reveal FCA’s plans to expand its existing tracks. She made note of the administration’s ongoing negotiations with a similar train company in Chile to hopefully extend the current ‘T’ line to Arica and the coast of the Pacific in the next few years. An addition like this could have ground-breaking implications for the decades-old conflict between Chile and Bolivia and the fight for el mar. In this way, perhaps it is the humble train, not the shiny new plane or automobile, that is the most indispensable mode of transportation.

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