The province of Salta boasts some of Argentina’s most dramatic scenery, and the Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes) is a delightful way to take in all of it. It’s the third-highest, high-altitude train in the world and an adventure through the depths of the Lerma valley on a railroad with a century of history behind it. One of the best train rides in the world, Train to the Clouds takes passengers from the city of Salta, 4,220 meters above sea level to the Polvorilla Viaduct, which in itself is worth writing home about. For safety reasons, part of the journey is now carried out by bus and the rest by train with lots of photo opportunities (and possible llama sightings) along the way. Here’s a detailed breakdown of this air safari into the heart and soul of Salta:
Wake up bright and early to make your way to Salta station. Bringing your passport and a print out of your Train to the Clouds ticket is mandatory.
Upon arrival, you’ll be assigned a bus color. There are three buses: yellow, red, and blue. If you’re English speaking, you’ll be put on a bilingual bus. There are designated seats in assigned carriages on the train but not on the bus. Outside the station, there are vendors selling coca-flavored chewing gum and coca leaves that one may stuff into their cheeks to stave off altitude sickness; symptoms of which include headaches and nausea. It’s no secret that people who are unaccustomed to high altitude conditions (pretty much most of us) may start to feel drowsy, a feeling akin to having your head in the clouds. The name for the journey is, therefore, quite apt. Fret not, however, as each bus and train has a medic on board who checks up on passengers throughout the day.
The first stop on the bus journey is the town of Campo Quijano, known as the “Gateway to the Andes,” followed by Quebrada de las Cuevas, which looks like a postcard straight out of the Wild Wild West. It’s home to colonies of large cacti that, sadly, are losing the battle against climate change. The bus also saunters past the Yunga mountain forest, which is where 60% of all birds in Argentina can be found. American Jaguars are also known residents.
All traces of city life are a distant memory as you traverse the arid Andean Plateau (or Altiplano in Spanish), which is second only to Tibet for having the most extensive area of high plateau. One can’t help but be flawed by the otherworldly scenery along the way; the grand terrain includes snow-capped mountains, panoramic views at Quebrada del Toro, and the Yacoraite formation (pronounced sha-co-rai-teh), all of which are ineffably beautiful and achingly ghostly.
Breakfast is served. In the quaint El Alfarcito, community residents serve up two small (albeit yummy) sweet pastries along with a steaming cup of tea or a coffee. It’s a very light breakfast so feel free to bring back up supplies. Here, you may also sample hot coca tea. Slotted between the various stops are impressive views of the Lerma valley, which has rivers, tobacco plantations, horses, cows foraging, and wide, lush plains. The province of Salta has many different geographical environments. You’ll often hear the area being referred to as “Salta la Linda”; “Linda” is the word for beautiful in the tongue of the indigenous tribes that resided here.
Passengers board the Train to the Clouds at San Antonio de los Cobres, the largest town in the Puna region. Here, there’s just sufficient time to familiarize with the area, and meet some llamas standing by to bid thee farewell. There are also local artisans hoping to catch the eye of prospective buyers for their wares. While this Northern Andean train once had a functional purpose, today it exists solely as a tourist attraction that breathes life into La Puna. The train ushers in a window to the outside world for the remote communities as well as much-needed customers for their handicrafts.
The Train to the Clouds journey is dizzying and chilling in equal measure. It is, however, safe: 34,000 passengers rode the train last year. It’s an experience capable of taking your breath away, although if this does occur, oxygen dispensers are on hand. Shortly after departure from San Antonio de los Cobres, complimentary postcards are handed out, which feature an impressive image of the Polvorilla Viaduct to whet your appetite for what’s yet to come.
The Polvorilla Viaduct (Viaducto de la Polvorilla) and its 1,600 tonnes of iron are the most important part of the journey, particularly as the train bends on the viaduct itself. The company has a policy to ensure that everyone’s happy with their experience at the bend. Passengers seated on the left side on the way to La Polvorilla will move to the right side for the return. This way no one feels cheated and everyone has equal time with the prized view. While on the viaduct, the train teases and slows down to prolong the excitement. At this point, feel free to stick your head out to take in the full scale of your elevation.
The Train to the Clouds later slithers back and off of the viaduct and halts nearby where passengers disembark to admire it from a distance and take the obligatory barrage of photos. A bespoke artisan market is set up specifically for the train’s patrons where one may procure local artifacts and perhaps even get a cheeky llama selfie. The time spent stationed near the viaduct culminates with a national anthem ceremony and group applause.
The train leg of the journey is around three hours in total and turns back instead of continuing on to Chile. With the same departure and arrival point, it truly is a journey for journeying sake. When was the last time you sat on a train just to go and not to arrive somewhere?
There are just two restaurants in San Antonio de los Cobres. Despite their sheer remoteness, both are viable places to enjoy a good old grill or parrilla (this is Argentina after all). For those who feel so inclined, various llama dishes are on the menu.
After lunch and a brief stroll around the town, passengers get back onto the bus towards the final stop of the day to enjoy “la merienda,” an afternoon snack. Santa Rosa de Tastil is the administrative centre of Quebrada del Toro. It’s a minuscule area within the Quebrada and has only about 12 families in residence. Santa Rosa de Tastil is also part of the Qhapaq Ñan framework, the intricate Andean road and trade system and UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a micro museum to take in, Museo de Sitio Tastil, and more artisan wares created by the local families. Take home beautiful mementos and clothing made from alpaca fibers, as well as gourds for mate drinking, a fiercely Argentinean pastime.
The Train to the Clouds is a long day trip but an experience I am inclined to give five stars. Buses arrive back in Salta around 8 PM. By this point, you’d be congratulated for championing through the soaring heights of the Altiplano without dozing off; the highest altitude reached on the bus leg of the journey is 4,800 meters. Overall, the trip is a captivating way to experience multiple Andean destinations magically wrapped into one unhurried outing.
Train to the Clouds Tips:
The price of your Train to the Clouds ticket depends on your chosen date of travel, but it usually hovers around $150 USD for foreigners and $120 USD for Argentineans. It’s also possible to hop on for just the train part of the journey and make your own way to the train’s departure point at San Antonio de los Cobres. There are three departures every week. The midweek dates vary but there’s always a Saturday service. Also, bring warm clothing. The bus is air-conditioned and particularly early in the morning, things just feel colder this high up.
Don’t burn the midnight oil the night before and get lots of sleep to prepare for the early check-in time and long journey; it’s around 13 hours in total. The evening before, have a light meal and minimize alcohol consumption. This reduces your chances of succumbing to altitude sickness when the air is thin. Lastly, there are USB ports on the bus so you don’t have to worry about your phone dying and can take photos all the way through. You’ll certainly want to.
The Train to the Clouds is one of South America’s great railway journeys high in the sky, and it’s high time you went on it.