The Train to The Clouds (Video)

The Train to the clouds

The Train to the clouds or “Tren a Las Nubes” as it is known in Spanish is one of the highest railways in the world. It is a testement of the Argentina of days gone past when the country was more open to outside help. The rail way was designed by the Engineer Maury and the parts and materials came from England and France.

The train now only runs a short distance between the town of San antonio de los Cobres and its iconic bridge the Pollvorillo.

We offer tours up to the station from which the train leaves as well as a number of different tours that can be combined with the train ride.

“The possibility of a railway in the area began to be explored as early as 1889, and numerous studies were carried out up until 1916 analysing the feasibility of the line given the steep gradients and harsh terrain. Construction of the railway officially started in 1921, with the intention of connecting the North of Argentina with Chile across the Andes. The La Polvorilla viaduct, the highest of the line, was finished on 7 November 1932.

The route was designed by American engineer Richard Maury,(who later died in Salta) and after whom one of the stations has been named. The complete railway was inaugurated on 20 February 1948, following numerous delays and complications and a 2-year period where work was paralyzed.

“The line got its name in the early 1960s after students filmed a trip on the Salta-Antofagasta railway from inside the train carriages, often showing the vapor from the then-steam locomotive which – together with the cold mountain air – formed large vapour plumes. The footage was later offered to the Clarín newspaper to make a documentary, which was subsequently called Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) because of the vapour clouds in the film. Ferrocarriles Argentinos (FA) later adopted the name to make it more appealing to tourists.It was not until 1972 began being officially used by tourists as a heritage railway.”

Quote taken from wikipedia.


The Amazing Variety of N.W Argentina

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Is there anywhere else in the world that has so much stunning variety of scenery and diversity of species in such a comparatively small area? We can’t say we know the answer but with our biased view, think it’s pretty unlikely.

Whilst we are not keen on rattling off loads of numbers, the following may help put Salta Province into context. Argentina is just over ten times the size of the UK and the Province of Salta, on its own, is larger than England.

The population of the province, however, is only about 1.3 million with 800,000 of these living in the City of Salta. This leaves a lot of space for other stuff!

The region is dominated by the mountains and foothills of the Andes and within a couple of hours you can travel from the buzz of the city into the total silence of the Salinas Grandes (salt flats) or to the Altiplano at over 4500 meters.

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The foothills and mountains of the Andes make for stunning scenery at all times of the year. The lower hills are green for most of the year and the high Andes offer a glimpse into the tumultuous earth movements of the past. 

On the desert plains across the region the scenery ranges from hosts of cacti, standing upright as though ready for battle, surrounded by huge expanses of flat desert scrubland only broken by the sightings of Rhia or Lllama and Vicuňa.

The beautiful serenity of the Cloud Forest (also known as the Yungas) not far out of the city provides great examples of plant symbiosis, where moss and bromeliads cling to the trees in large numbers , creating a cool and mysterious environment.

The temperate valleys that contain lakes and rivers that run off of the Yungas and mountains complete the breadth of geographical environments that are present in this highly diverse area.

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The variety of geographical environments ensures that there is a massive diversity of wild life in the province of Salta.

In our three National Parks, El Rey, Baritũ and Los Cardones it is possible to see a number of wild cats; Jaguar, Cougar, and Panther if you are very lucky!

In the parks and across other parts of the province Tapirs, Anteaters, Armadillo, Fox and even Cayman which are quite easy to spot. The famous Llama, Vicuňa and Guanaco are numerous across the Altiplano, but you have to keep your eyes peeled as they easily meld into their environments.

Birds of all shapes and sizes can be found in all areas with Toucan, Chuňa, and parrots being the most colourful. There are a huge variety of birds of prey as well as the spectacular Condor the iconic bird of the Andes, worshiped by the Inca people and many civilizations before them.

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The history of the peoples and places of Salta province is still an area of great interest to visitors. To meet the indigenous peoples of the High Plain and the Yungas. You may also come across the Wichi people of the Chaco. To see how these people live in this modern age is quite remarkable. They have difficult lives with many challenges.

There are many opportunities to look into the past, to the time of the Inca and other pre-columbian peoples at archeological sites across the region. The famous ruins of Quilmes which was once inhabited by the mighty Calchaqui indians is located just outside the beautiful town of Cafayate. Going up into the Andes from Salta the ruins of Santa Rosa de Tastil are hidden off of the road leading up to the Altiplano these are a must see for those interested in early south american settlements.

You can see why we think we do pretty well on the variety front. This is only a glimpse. Come and join us in our search for more…Ian


The Markets of Argentina

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One of the joys of Latin America are the many and various markets. Its is possible to buy everything from household goods to fruit to T shirts to crafts on a street side market if you know where to look!

Every large town has a market, usually covered, selling meat, fish, vegetables and fruit alongside spices,  grains,  nuts, local cheeses and flowers. The stalls are usually grouped by type and there is considerable friendly rivalry. The meat stalls sell every type of animal product imaginable and unidentifiable innards are displayed alongside trotters as well as the usual cuts of meat and chicken.

There are usually plenty of places to eat too, and although they do not look too savoury, the produce is good quality, hot and cheap and safe  because there is a very quick turnover.  Empanadas and corn dishes are always popular

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Tourism hubs such as Humahuaca, Purmamarca and Cafayate have extensive craft markets. Woollen goods are widely available in traditional styles and a myriad of colours, most people invest in an Andean hat after a trip to the Salt flats ! There are also all sorts of basket weave, jewelry, pottery and wooden carvings. You can find everything from cocktail sticks to salad servers, and  cooking pots to tapestries They make attractive and inexpensive souvenirs and gifts. Many of the carvings are based on traditional Wichi designs using various differing coloured  hardwoods found in the Chaco region like Palo Santo or Bulnesia Sarmiento (green), Guayacán or Caesalpinia Paraguariensis (dark brown), iscayante and algarrobo or Locust tree (both reddish) and Palo Blanco or Phyllostylon Rhamnoides (light brown or yellowish).

Most of the small villages and towns have their own markets which sell similar produce  but because they are used by the locals the prices are more competitive.

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Working towns like Tilcara, have a profusion of  ferreterias ( ironmongers) and household goods shops amongst the coffee bars and hostels but the hub of the town is the central market.

The best place in northern Argentina to buy fresh lamb, goats cheese, pickles, andean potatoes and beans of every description. Alongside the fruit and food market is what is known as the American Feria, this where clothes donated in the USA are sold to locals through a collaborative.

It is possible to find real bargains at very cheap prices, some still have store labels on them.  There is plenty for children here too with toy stalls and sweets and the inevitable dogs chasing around. The touristy craft market is around the town plaza and really comes alive in the evenings when it is serenaded by the competing penas (folk music)

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My local market is the San Martin Mercado in Salta and I love the vibrant atmosphere with all the  colours, aromas  and noise.  I learnt early on not to plan menus then shop, as recommended in all house thrift and cookery books, as all produce here is seasonal.

However learning to live with the seasons is great and although many vegetables are slightly odd shapes and the fruit very ripe, the flavours are amazing and it is a pleasure to find new ways to cook or adapt favourite recipes. I am still an oddity here as most locals shop for vegetables on a daily basis and Im still in the  weekly mode, partly because we live a little out of town and its the habit of a lifetime, but fruit is definitely best bought on an as you need it basis.

Finally its ok to haggle if you are buying multiple items. Most market traders will round down or offer additional fruit to make change easier

Happy shopping ! Ceri


Winter in North West Argentina

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The seasons in Argentina are, of course, the reverse of the northern hemisphere, but each have a distinct and charming flavour of their own as you will have seen in our last post.

In winter most days are dry, sunny and warm. They can reach up to 30 degrees celsius with cobalt blue skies, great days for travelling, trekking and all kinds of sports and activities, but days are shorter with eight or nine hours of sunshine and at night temperatures can drop significantly to around -3 degrees.

The vegetation becomes thinner and takes on a brown tinge, offering great opportunities to spot the animals and birds out in the country.  The tall verdant green sugar cane plants are harvested and fires can be seen across the vast Estancia, clearing the land in preparation for planting for next year.

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May 1st is a special day in the culinary life of the area. It is the day when tradition dictates that the first ‘Locro’ of the year is prepared for the family.  Locro is a stew made of different cuts of beef, tripe and other parts of cow intestines, chorizo, huge amounts of pumpkin and pulses and is cooked in a huge pan over an open fire for a minimum of six to eight hours. It is a fabulous dish with immense flavours and when shared around the open fire makes one feel that, even for a gringo, being a Gaucho is a real possibility.

Sunday May 21st is the International Day of Museums. This year forty organisations across Salta province joined in the event with – MAAM in Salta city (The Museum Of Archeology of the High Mountains)– putting on a particularly engaging exhibition.

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We believe that Salta’s most spectacular winter event is the ‘The Gauchos of Gũemes’ parade on 17th June. It commemorates the great General Martin Miguel de Gũemes who led his Gauchos to victory in the fight for Independence of Argentina from the Spanish.

The word ‘Gaucho’ was used to describe a “migratory horseman, good with cattle” but other phrases attributed to the qualities of a Gaucho says rather more.. “Noble, brave and generous” but also “One who is skilful in subtle tricks, crafty..” they definitely proved their worth on the battlefield!

The parade of the Gauchos involves around two thousand mounted Gauchos of all ages, in their distinctive red and black outfits taking part in a number of traditional rituals across the city. It is an amazing experience, with great emotion, passion and wonderful scenes only to be found here in Salta.

Gauchos parading on horses
Man holding onto horse - Winter - Blog
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One winter Sunday we visited La Caldera a small town not far from Salta to see a rodeo. There were a range of activities throughout the afternoon with riding of unbroken horses, the greatest challenge.

We grabbed a choripan (hot dog) and a beer and made our way to the performance ring.

With the unsuspecting horse tied to a large pole in the ring, a rider, dressed in traditional Gaucho gear including the beret, acted as guardian to the next brave soul about to climb aboard. Once mounted the rope was quickly released and the wild bucking bronco began. Three seconds seemed about the average ride but the occasional rider hanging on for dear life lasting ten seconds.

Fortunately no-one was injured and the afternoon continued with more beef, beer and wild activity. It was far too exciting to notice the cold and a really worthwhile experience.  


Climate changes in north west Argentina

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As with the rest of the world,  the climate in North West Argentina is a little less predictable than just a few years ago. It used to be that Salteneans would predict noticeable change from the date of each equinox, for example September 21st  the first day of spring,  heralded warmer weather and the likelihood of rain within the month, while on March 21st the first day of autumn invariably a cooler wind blew and the nights become chilly when the sun went down.  

They were absolutely right and with uncanny precision to which you could set the date!

The Salta area is particularly famous for possessing an agreeable year-round climate. If there was an ideal time to come then it would be in spring and the beginning of summer but each season brings its own speacial charme.

Pepper - Pimenton - Five Senses traveller
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We are now well into Autumn, the rainy season is petering out, but everywhere is still lush and green and the mountains are softened by their leaves . In the early autumn it’s a wonderful time to visit the high valleys where maize, peppers and chillies are harvested and left in the sun to dry. The days are hot but as soon as the sun goes down you need a jumper or fleece.

The wine region begins to bring in the grapes at the end of February but the process frequently continues into April when the vines are clipped back to their winter state. The high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions in the Calchaqui valleys, mean that these  vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries. This allows cultivating with little or no pesticides, enabling even organic wines to be easily produced.

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The dry winter climate changes the character of the region as most trees are deciduous and most other plants unless they are watered regularly go into their winter hibernation. This gives the terrain a harder personality as fields become brown  and the trees are bare. The area has  extremely dry and cool winters with regular frosts (a mean of 10 °C in Salta and 10.5 °C in Jujuy in July). However as daytime temperatures can rise to 24 + the diurnal range in these cities is fairly large. The large thermal amplitude is caused by intense radiation from the sun, causing the land to heat up by day, while during the night, there is less radiation, causing the land to cool and temperatures to fall down.

Roads are one the greatest casualties as surfaces expand and shrink rapidly leaving broken surfaces.

This is a great time for touring as the daytime temperatures are comfortable and most hostelries have blazing fires to keep you warm at night. Indulge in the amazing array of woollen goods for sale in the artisanal markets.

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Early September can bring snow, but by the third week temperatures are rising and the days are getting longer, and the world starts to become alive again. Daytime temperatures fluctuate between 23°C and 30°C, with lows rarely falling below 10°C. A feature is the warm Zonda wind which comes up from the south via the foothills of the Andes. It lasts a day or two and can reach gusts of 70 kms per hour.

Showers start late October. The spring is very rarely humid and the warm fresh atmosphere plus the rain enable a profusion of flowers to bloom. No wonder this is called Salta la Linda.

By November it is very warm most days with an average of 30 d depending on the altitude. The atmospheric layer is very thin here so the UV rays are powerful and extra sun protection care is needed.

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At the height of summer temperatures can hit the 104°F (40°C) mark and flash thunderstorms occur.  Outdoor living really comes into its own, the markets and street stalls are bursting with fruit and roadside BBQs offer tempting al fresco foods. Shade is always at a premium and you learn quickly never to go out without a sunhat.

Cool winds crossing the warm plains from the Atlantic hit the eastern Andes and rise to form convection clouds which produce thunderstorms. Classically the storms build up over 2 or 3 warm sunny days to shed their loads during the early evening. The thunderstorms when they come are short but heavy and often cause local flooding but the air after the event is fresh and the atmosphere is cleared of dust.