South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne
The Buenos Aires and Pacific Railway connects Buenos Aires on the east coast of South America with Valparaiso on the west coast. Fast trains provide a special passenger service three times weekly in both directions across this overland route.
We travel by the Trans-Continental Express, which leaves the Retiro Station, Buenos Aires, at 8:30 a.m. The luxurious train is composed of restaurant and baggage cars, together with a number of coaches divided into spacious private apartments, that serve as drawing-room by day and bedroom by night.
THE SNOW-CLAD ANDES.
We have barely been carried beyond the suburbs of the Argentine capital when we espy a clump of pampas-grass; it is the herald of the vast plains which are named after this graceful variety of vegetation. For nearly twenty-four hours the train traverses the Pampas, which majestically sweep away on either side of the railway track to meet a far-distant horizon, that is but an optical-illusion boundary to the extensive granary and grazing-ground of the Argentine. At first we feel the plains are monotonous, but soon we begin to realize that they can provide us with plenty of entertainment for at least one day's fare. We become more and more interested in the great herds of cattle we see, until some idea of the wealth of the Argentine dawns on us, and signs of remarkable achievements set us wondering how brilliant will be the future of this richly endowed country, which has bred from immigrants of various nationalities and classes a sturdy new race. Prominent among the features which break the level of the landscape are farmhouses and outhouses shaded by clusters of trees, stacks of the rich fodder known as "alfalfa," and windmills, whereby water is drawn from semi-artesian wells. At intervals pampas-grass retains possession of the plains, bedecking the pastures with a wild abundance of cream-tinted plumes.
The plains have worked their spell on us long before nightfall, but by starlight and the blaze of a pampas-fire we find them still more fascinating. However, a moment arrives when we can no longer resist a healthy desire for slumber in a most comfortable-looking bed. Before we turn in, we must be sure to close the windows, for the train is going to pass through a stretch of sandy desert.
We are called in the morning in time to be ready to change trains at Mendoza, which is reached at twenty minutes to six. Breakfast is awaiting us in the station buffet.
At a quarter past six we leave Mendoza to travel over the Argentine section of the Trans-Andine route. Although we have just finished breakfast, the first thing we do upon entering the train is to ring for a waiter and demand "grapes." The district around Mendoza is famous for vineyards, which yield luscious varieties of table fruit and a rich harvest for wine-making. The fruit and wine industries have already been brought to an advanced stage of development, and the neighbouring vineyards of the Mendoza and San Juan region are an important factor of Argentine prosperity. But the further opportunities of fortune-making offered by this vast, fertile region have lately attracted so much attention that Argentine grapes and Argentine wines are likely to become world-famous in the near future. The vineyard country is blessed not only with particularly rich soil and a stimulating climate, but with that other essential helpmate to industrial progress—good means of transport. Throughout the harvest season the Buenos Aires and Pacific Railway Company run special fruit trains from San Juan and Mendoza to Buenos Aires, and the freight cars travelling to the capital have the same preferential right to a clear line as the International Passenger Express. Hundreds of tons of grapes are now carried yearly by the railway and delivered at Buenos Aires in perfect condition for distribution to local markets. With special fruit boats to connect with the fruit trains, Argentine grapes could be transported to the world's markets, where they would undoubtedly be able to compete in quality and quantity with supplies from other countries.
For many miles we have been passing through restfully beautiful purple and green vineyards, when suddenly we are thrown into a state of excitement; only a short distance ahead the foothills of the Andes are barricading the railway track, Momentarily we expect a sharp pull-up, until there comes a breathless moment when we verily believe the engine is going to attempt the mad freak of butting against an immovable mass—and the next second we are being slewed round into the narrow opening of a pass. Our train has started on a climbing expedition to world-renowned heights, and the way that has been engineered for it through the rugged wilds follows the old trail, the primitive Trans-Andine route tracked by the aborigines, which until recent years had to be negotiated on foot or muleback by anyone who journeyed overland between Chile and the Argentine. To-day, the trip calls for no exertion on the part of the traveller, no courage to face hardships, or strength to endure discomforts. Seated in a "hotel on wheels" we make the journey skywards, being borne aloft over countless bridges across the Mendoza River, and here and there taken through a tunnel as we are slowly hauled higher and higher up a steep and narrow pass. An indescribably grand panorama is continuously passing before our eyes, arousing a tumult of emotions. There are times when the savage splendour of the mountains, with their weird and beautiful forms, their metallic-hued slopes and their snow-capped peaks, makes us feel intoxicated with the joy of life; and there are times when we are awe-inspired by the havoc that has been wrought by volcanic eruptions.
PUENTA DEL INCA, THE FAMOUS NATURAL BRIDGE.
Men armed with yellow and black flags are particularly noticeable in this glorification-of-desolation region. The Trans-Andine line is so closely bounded by rugged mountains that it has to be carefully protected against invasions by rolling stones and overhanging rocks. It is patrolled, in short sections, by trusty guardians, who remove such debris as can be easily and quickly shifted, but flag the train when the assistance of the engine-driver, fireman, and others of the staff with crowbars is required to dislodge an obstacle ahead.
Shortly before midday we are at Punta Vacas. From this vantage-point we get a fine view of one of the giants of the Andes, Mount Tupungato, which rises to a height of 21,451 feet. A little later we behold the still higher and more famous peak of Aconcagua. Puente del Inca is reached as we are finishing lunch; from the train we can see the Inca Bridge, a natural arch of rock which spans the River Cuevas. Puente del Inca used to be the halfway-house on the old trail.
Continuing our journey, we pass some old Spanish rest-houses, which were built about 1726. They are one-room refuges, with an opening just large enough for a mule to squeeze through. In striking contrast to these shelters, which must have saved the lives of many a traveller and his beast of burden when over-taken by a storm, are the snow-tunnels which have been erected to shelter the railway line so that the "Express" shall be able to run to time in all weathers.
At Las Cuevas, 10,400 feet above sea-level, we enter the tunnel that cuts through the Cumbre Pass, and emerge at Caracoles, on the Chilean side of the Andes. We have reached the highest point to which the railway climbs, and the summit scene, between Caracoles and Portillo, with a lava-strewn pass and the Inca Lake inset amidst snow-capped mountains, is a marvellous climax to the panorama through which we have been passing for about six hours.
The descent to the Pacific is very steep. We find much interest in looking upwards to trace the adventurous route by which we are being "dropped to earth"; also, there is a very striking change in the landscape, for the Chilean slopes of the Andes are picturesquely clothed with vegetation.
At Los Andes we change trains, proceeding by the Chilean State Railway to Llai-Llai junction, where a very good dinner awaits us in the station restaurant. From Llai-Llai we go south to Santiago, the political capital of Chile, which is reached at 10:30 p.m., whilst some of the passengers continue westwards to Valparaiso, the commercial capital, where they arrive at 10:40 p.m. on the day after leaving Buenos Aires.