The last train to Patagonia leaves at 6 p.m. on Fridays from Viedma, a small city on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. Eighteen hours and 513 miles later—having crossed the country from east to west—it arrives in Bariloche, a picturesque mountain town in the foothills of the snowcapped Andes.
The Tren Patagónico is the only regularly scheduled, long-distance passenger train left operating in this vast region of southern Argentina and Chile. Carrying people, vehicles, and freight, it traverses territory so epic and remote that you can look out the window for hours and only see brown, gently rolling steppe that seems to stretch on forever.
There is hope that long-distance trains may make a comeback in Argentina, a country which had an extensive railroad network in the 20th century. One major route recently reopened between Buenos Aires and Mendoza, the third largest city in the nation, after 30 years out of service.
Still, save for a few tourist lines, Tren Patagónico is the only one remaining in Patagonia. As I wait on the platform in Viedma to take the train myself, a bell tolls and the locomotive lets out a sigh. The train sets off towards the setting sun, and soon the lonely landscape around us plunges into total darkness.
A nostalgic ride
First light comes between Los Menucos and Maquinchao, violet dawn behind low, rolling hills. Rabbits, sheep, and ostrich-like rheas hurry away from the tracks as the train rumbles past. After seven o’clock, passengers take their seats for breakfast at old wooden tables draped with green cloth. This was the site of card games and conversation over cheap bottles of Malbec wine last night, but at this hour, it is maté, a typical South American tea, that is passed from hand to hand.
The train carries a curious mix of restless travelers, nearly all of them Argentine. Some are tourists; among them, a group of retired history teachers, and a pair of pharmacists on a motorcycle tour of the country, their bikes stored away as vehicle freight. “This is a dream. A dream!” one of the pharmacists says. He is 58 years old and has never been aboard a long-distance train before.
The majority of the passengers, however, are locals who live in the solitary towns along its route, barely reached by public transportation. They take the train to Viedma or Bariloche to study, work, and transport supplies. In times of natural emergencies—volcanic eruptions, major snowstorms—the train has also brought critical aid and supplies when the towns are cut off by road.
Nearly everyone I meet recalls the days when rail travel was much more common in Argentina. The country’s extensive railroad network—more than 29,000 miles of track at its midcentury peak—grew from an immigration boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Largely English and Italian companies operated lines to move fruit, wool, meat, and grain from the fertile countryside to Buenos Aires. This frontier expansion also involved the vast displacement of Indigenous communities across the territory.
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“The train changed everything around here,” says Poli Lefiu, a local rancher, at the station stop of Maquinchao. Born in a remote outpost on the range, Lefiu, the descendant of generations of Patagonian ranchers of Indigenous Tehuelche and Mapuche origins, is intimately familiar with this land. “When the train started to run, people came to sell to the passengers in Maquinchao and all of the small towns,” Lefiu says of the first decades of the 20th century. “They would arrive in horse-drawn carts with wood-fired stoves atop their wagons, to grill meat and lamb on the side of the tracks for people to eat.”
Many of the Tren Patagónico’s present-day stops were founded with the train’s arrival. Everywhere, there is evidence of the past. Small cluster of trees mark wells where the train stopped to refill with water. Ghost towns stand entirely abandoned since the 1990s, when the Argentine government launched an effort to break up the state-owned railways into private entities, leading to a devastating decline in service. It is striking, then, to see the Tren Patagónico now—so full of people and freight on a Saturday morning in late summer, rumbling across the empty steppe and leaving hazy trails of dust in its wake.
My Argentine grandfather, who lives in New York, spoke longingly of the summers when he took the steam train from Buenos Aires to Bariloche himself. “In those days, the trip was direct from the capital,” Abuelo told me by phone before I set off. “The cars were made of wood, and we slept on the floor.”
For today’s passengers, the Tren Patagónico offers sleeping cabins and coach-class Pullman cars with large, reclining seats. The sleeper cars are occupied largely by tourists. The Pullman coaches, by contrast, are filled with locals who use the service out of need; most have brought with them pillows, blankets, and coolers filled with food for the long trip. Children sleep sideways across their parents’ laps and large bottles of supermarket-brand soda roll around at people’s feet. Everyone else seems to be passing around interminable cups of maté.
Demand for this once-weekly service is so high that tickets must be reserved many weeks, if not months, in advance. “If it weren’t for the train, I’m not sure we could do this, economically speaking,” María Montesino, 29, tells me. She is moving her family across the country, traveling in a two-person sleeping cabin crammed with three of her five children and all their possessions: a television, a speaker, bags upon bags of clothes, and a Hello Kitty backpack stuffed with shoes.
I’d first happened across Montesino and a dozen of her relatives on the platform in Viedma, saying their goodbyes through choked sobs just minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. As with so much else on this old, legendary route—from the well-dressed waiters gliding through the restaurant car to the worn-down station buildings made of stone—it was a scene that could have been drawn from another century.
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Rafael Huerao sits quietly in his coach seat, dressed in a button-down shirt with a short velvet tie and a wide-brimmed hat, a guitar resting between his legs. He is a payador, a folk singer who specializes in duels of verse. “I am off to a festival near Bariloche,” he says. Before I know it, he stands up and starts performing. The other passengers in the car are captivated, many of them singing and clapping along. “It’s been a long time since someone got up and sang like this,” says one older man traveling alone.
Out the window, the land changes faster now. After the small town of Ingeniero Jacobacci, the train begins to climb out of the steppe and into the Andean foothills, crossing high bridges over dried-up rivers, and winding through narrow canyons of sheer rock. Bariloche isn’t far.
Passing one ranch house, I catch a glimpse of a little boy and his mother standing halfway along the driveway towards the tracks, waving to the train. Almost as soon as they appear, they are out of sight, replaced by the long and lonely land. It is comforting to move through so much vastness in good company, I think to myself, and so I take a seat and enjoy the music.
Gaston Zilberman is a social and environmental photographer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow him on Instagram.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to provide the correct name for Rafael Huerao.