Whilst in Argentina’s beautiful Salta, you must indulge in the spectacular day trip on the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), which is nothing short of stunning!
Salta starting point
This train journey will leave you breathless at the ever-changing dramatic vistas unfolding throughout the day – a memory you will not forget in a hurry. In Argentina’s far north, Salta is the starting point for this amazing day trip.
During a stay of 14 days in Salta whilst waiting for a bus to the Atacama Desert in Chile and hearing so much about this train trip, decided to splash out…
A couple of companies in Salta sell tickets, although it is best to go direct to the Tren a las Nubes website for prices and schedules.
A little on the railway’s background
Construction of the train line commenced in 1921 and opened in 1931.
Prior to this time, everything was transported from the mines by donkey. And until tourism, the line was used by only cargo trains to transport minerals and Saltpeter (fertiliser) from mines in the highlands.
Designed by American engineer Richard Maury, the line which travels through 21 tunnels, over 13 viaducts, crossing 20 bridges, going around 2 zigzags and 2 spirals, has been hailed as an architectural masterpiece and a feat of engineering.
Let me take you on the amazing train journey…
Around 6 am in the early hours of the morning, Salta’s train station is serenely quiet.
Trickles of excited passengers start appearing, until the station gradually becomes crowded and buzzing, as we wait in anticipation.
Window seats are a premium, although there isn’t any pushing in as seat numbers are allocated on the ticket’s purchase, otherwise, it would be a free-for-all.
Finally, tickets are checked, we board, and sink comfortably into our seats, whilst the train slowly pulls away from the station.
The adventure begins with a slight incline and 500 eager passengers on board…
The landscape gently unfolds to a remoteness of Argentine craggy mountains and arid nature, defined by cacti forests. Slowly, we cross several salt desserts before increasing in altitude.
Breathtaking but eerie, it feels as if we are travelling through a last frontier. Nothingness surrounds us as we travel further into mountains…
The seclusion ensures that the land has remained unspoilt.
The continual sound of the train tracks and the train’s slow speed gently rocks you into a meditative state, whilst looking out to the horizon and an expansive Argentinian landscape.
Enjoy the vistas as we climb higher into the clouds, at a speed of only 35 kilometres per hour.
A road travels parallel along the train line where possible, from which you can take better photos of the actual line. Although I don’t think that the experience would be as magical as being on the train – maybe do both whilst in Salta?
As the train climbs even higher, the road starts to fall away and is masked by peaks, whilst the train snakes its way around the mountainous terrain.
The forever-changing panorama resembling a moonscape continues, as we climb even higher.
A splattering of small settlements and abandoned mines glimpse pass during the hours, until reaching San Antonio de los Cobres at around 3,700 metres. Cargo trains still use this line from the Chilean side.
More abandoned mines and once settlements are passed – industrial relics of the past and testament to a more prosperous life.
The incredibly natural beauty on this adventure is stunning.
We stop at a cross-section in the middle of what seems like nowhere, which is where the train’s engine is replaced. Because of the steep incline and height to come, the last part of the journey requires the pushing of carriages, and no longer the pulling.
The train hugs the mountain so close that you can reach out and touch the rocky outcrop.
On we continue to the final section of this dramatic journey – the famous curved 224-metre-long La Polvorilla Viaduct.
At a height of 4,200 metres, this part of the track is claimed to be engineering genius – look down if you’re not scared of heights.
The snow begins to fall and wind whips any exposed faces. At this height, the relentless cold continues.
As the train stops, local faces followed by Llamas come up to passengers. Locals offer their handmade goods and souvenirs through windows.
This is one of the only ways in which locals make money – faces are gorgeous.
Sadly, after only around 30-minutes at the viaduct, passengers are scurried on to the train once more, for the return journey down the mountain.
As you descend once more into a barren and desolate nature, reminisce that this vast area was inhabited by nomads in pre-Columbian times.
The weather begins to close in with the promise of black ominous clouds developing.
The Train to the Clouds, slowly pulls back into its Salta resting place for the evening. Tired but exhilarated passengers are offloaded, with an incredible day firmly inscribed in our minds.
Some train details
The city of Salta is at around 1,187 metres above sea level and during the 434-kilometre return journey on the Trens a Las Nubes, you increase in altitude to 4,200 metres.
Don’t be too concerned about any altitude-related illness. The train does have a First Aid area with a doctor and nurse on hand.
A full bar and restaurant service also awaits but this is expensive, so buy some food in Salta before boarding (although not really permitted). A basic breakfast and afternoon snack is included in your ticket.
Expect this unique train journey to last around 16 hours.
Lucky enough to have experienced the complete journey on the train for the whole day back in 2011, departing from Salta train station and returning to this station, this has now changed.
Due to a derailment in 2013, then repairing the train line, and with its re-opening in 2015, the day is now very different. You have two options to get to La Polvorilla Viaduct, which is the highlight of the train line at 4,200 metres.
Found this official Tren a las Nubes video, which gives you a quick taste of only a small portion of the trip. It also looks as if the train had an upgrade and repainted since 2011.
A bus now leaves from Salta and takes you to the towns of Campo Quijano, Gobernador Solá El Alfarcito, Santa Rosa de Tastil, a couple of other tiny villages, before reaching San Antonio de los Cobres for the Tren a las Nubes. The train trip is an hour long to La Polvorilla Viaduct. You spend half an hour at the viaduct before returning to San Antonio de los Cobres on the same train, then by bus back to Salta.
The other option is to make your own way to San Antonio de los Cobres to pick up the Tren a las Nubes for the onward journey to the viaduct, before returning on the same train.
If you have loads of time and heading into Chile from Salta, then the Salta–Antofagasta railway (“Huaytiquina”) from start to finish runs for 941 kilometres, starting in Argentina and extending to the Chilean Pacific coast.
I’m not sure of prices, details, or whether you can hitch a ride on one of the cargo trains, but this also sounds like another exciting and dramatic train ride. Crossing the Andes then descending in to the Puna de Atacama and Atacama Desert, would be a fantastic sight.
Back in Salta
Tired and hungry, but with heads full of incredible images from today’s experience, we walk back to the hostel in the centre of Salta.