Okay, the second highest. The Chinese had to build one, too, but they spent $3 billion on theirs. The train I speak of is the Central Andean Railway, or Ferrocarril Central Andino, in South America. The line was completed over a hundred years ago, and while today it is used mostly for cargo, on occasion a passenger train still runs from Lima over the mountains to the city of Huancayo, Peru.
My family and I set out early to Desamparados Station in downtown Lima (it means “departures” in Spanish) for the 7 a.m. train. Unlike most things in Peru, we expected it to be on time, and it was. We were in tourist-class, which meant slightly more legroom and access to a lounge. While the seats are modern, the walls of the train are covered in wood and brass, reminiscent of the age.
The passenger car was built in the 1930s, and evidence of this can still be seen
The 13-hour ride starts near sea level, and ascends an average of 27 feet per minute into the Andes mountains, which make the Rockies look like foothills. 68 bridges, 71 tunnels, and 9 “zigzags” punctuate the trip. The zigzag is self-explanatory, a simple, yet brilliant way for the train to ascend a few hundred feet in an otherwise impassable area.
This photo illustrates the scale of the Andes, when compared with the highway below
Enough boring statistics, because that doesn’t do this trip justice. Facing rearward, and after rolling handily through the outskirts of Lima for almost an hour, we picked up speed and steamed around the mountains and gorges near Peru’s desert coast. We saw entire fields full of giant prickly-pear cactuses, their pods used to make dye, but I thought it was a great guard against intruders.
Our first stop was a small train station and roundhouse. The locomotive had to be turned around so it could pull us up the mountain. We were distracted by an old steam engine and missed the action, but the roundhouse was old-school – no hydraulics. Using nothing but gravity and leverage, a single man can rotate a 50-ton modern locomotive in about a minute. One of the passengers was allowed to perform this task. To me, this type of 19th century engineering makes the iPhone look rather obtuse.
Facing forward again, we spent the next five hours chugging up mountain after endless mountain, seeing amazing waterfalls, gorges, mountain villages, and alien vegetation. I must not forget about the alien plants – imagine the top of a pineapple, except fifteen feet across and ten feet high. Out of the top, grows a flower that looks like a giant stalk of asparagus, but crooked and snakelike, straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The kind of plant that makes me nervous if I get too close to it, because it looks like it might just eat me, or at least sniff the back of my neck.
The train finally reached its highest point at 15,583 feet, which I believe is about a thousand feet higher than Pike’s Peak. By this time, several passengers had received supplemental oxygen, although I felt fine. Actually, I felt better than fine. In spite of my avoidance of the bar-car, other than for some sightseeing and photo-taking from the open rear section, I was absolutely giddy – without the best oxygen supply, my brain seems to interpret everything from cancer to genocide as the funniest things ever – I think we were 2,000 feet down the mountain before I could wipe the smile off my face, but I came up with the most interesting conspiracy theory about the link between the Curiosity mission to Mars and the Federal Reserve Bank. I wrote it down, and that may be the subject of a later post.
By the last third of the trip, we were all pretty beat, and ready for it to be over, but occasional view of snow-capped peaks or rushing rivers kept us going until sunset. A few more trips to the lounge car at the end of the train, just to give us an excuse to stand, proved helpful, although it raised another question to my oxygen starved mind: there is enough lateral movement that the walk through four cars to get to the bar feels like a condemned ride at Disneyland, yet in all the movies, the heroes and villains always end up fighting on top of the train. We could barely stand up in the center of the thing without holding on.
This is the entire train, taken from the open lounge car at the rear of the train
The last hour or so of the trip was in the dark. Even that proved fascinating – so far away from the scourge of civilization, there are only a few million extra stars to look at.
Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us. They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, depending on what you would like to see in Huancayo. Ask for Lucho.