The Train to the Clouds runs as a tourist railway through the province of Salta, in northwestern Argentina. After crossing the Lerma Valley south of Salta and climbing the Andes, the railway enters a high altitude plateau, eventually reaching an astounding 4,220 meters above sea level.
This tourist train is part of the Güemes - Salta - Antofagasta Railway, the sixth-highest railway in the world. It has been 100 years since the start of this epic railway project. The Argentinian government contracted the American engineer Richard Maury in 1921 to trace a railway branch line that would cross the Andes to join northern Argentina with the port of Antofagasta in Chile.
Maury had previously worked on projects along the Hudson River (New York) and in Cuba. Completing the work of the Salta - Antofagasta Railway required 27 years, interrupted by the vicissitudes of Argentine history.
The route of the touristic train previously included an extension of 217 kilometers from the city of Salta to the La Polvorilla viaduct. Unfortunately, the most breathtaking sections of this extension are not in condition to be used by passenger trains at the moment. For this reason, passengers must travel from Salta to the small town of San Antonio de los Cobres by bus and there board the train to the Polvorilla Viaduct.
The bus journey from Salta to San Antonio de los Cobres is quite scenic but, of course, cannot match the spectacular train journey along this stretch.
Amazing scenery begins to appear when the bus arrives at the Quebrada del Toro viaduct, at the entrance to the Andes. You’ll spot a species of giant cactus named Cardón, which is endemic to the altiplano and grows only two centimeters per year. The oldest cacti here can reach up to 10 meters in height.
Another surprise is the purple color of much of the ground between the Quebrada de Torro and the small village of Alfarcito. This coloration is a product of the oxidation of minerals such as iron and manganese.
As the road winds up the Andes, the chances increase of spotting an Andean Condor, a sacred bird for the Incas and one of the few giant birds in the world.
Three South American camelids are also regular travel companions in this area: the vicuña, the guanaco, and the llama.
Guides warn passengers to walk and breathe calmly during the bus drive and the train journey. Mountain sickness can strike some travelers when exceeding 3,000 meters of altitude due to the lack of oxygen in the blood, causing a feeling of drowsiness and slight dizziness, constant yawning, and headache.
At San Antonio de los Cobres, travelers board the blue train for the journey to the Polvorilla Viaduct. From the train, you’ll have fantastic views over the Puna Region.
The rail tour ends when the train crosses the photogenic La Polvorilla viaduct at 4220 meters above sea level. The viaduct has a length of 223 meters and reaches 63 meters above the ground.
From the viaduct, the train returns to San Antonio de los Cobres. There, travelers have an hour and a half to eat lunch before continuing the bus journey back to the city of Salta. The village of San Antonio de los Cobres has various restaurants, some of which are very rustic. A culinary curiosity of this area is llama meat—Yes, the friendly camelid you greeted through the window along the way is edible, in the form of a casserole, loin (sirloin), or milanesa. Other typical dishes of this region are semolina tamales and corn humitas. And as everywhere in Argentina, there is no shortage of empanadas from Salta.
The fantastic landscapes, colored mountains, and engineering marvels make this day trip from Salta one of the best rail trips in Argentina. The journey to the Polvorilla viaduct is part of our trip from Buenos Aires to Lima.