John Burke once took a train to the sky


The mists of dawn had cleared as I walked through dry and dusty streets to the three-storey station, built in Beaux Art style in 1908.   Milling around was a crowd of hawkers and pickpockets, beggars and passengers – all jabbering in Spanish under the watchful eyes of policemen in pith helmets.


This is about a scheduled train-ride long ago, one that occasionally operates as an excursion, because what is among the most spectacular trips on Earth usually has to be done by road these days.   For I was not at Delicias station, Madrid, in the poverty-stricken Spain of the nineteen-sixties, but in the capital of underdeveloped Peru two decades later, and Desamparados was the passenger terminus of a railway which literally takes the breath away.


Its 207 miles were completed a little over a century ago, with the original railroad company already purchased in 1890 by the Peruvian Corporation, (originally British, later Canadian).  Then as now, profit came from carrying tons of ore down from the Andes to the Pacific    Nationalised as ENAFER in 1969, the line also had a pair of daily trains to carry 800 passengers eastward and westward.

A first-class ticket from Lima to Huancayo of around eight dollars bought one of the most spectacularly cheap rides on earth.  The other class would have been an even bigger  bargain, offering a close-up of the highlanders’ way of life:  peasants and parcels, children and chickens, all crowded together just like in Spain’s ancient third-class.


My ticket had been bought the previous day (as required in Peru), so I went straight down to the low, wide platform.  Arrived there from the neighbouring port of Callao was a green and yellow diesel-engine, whose brass plate said MONTREAL LOCOMOTIVE WORKS, and six orange carriages made in Rumania.  Each had a yellow logo saying ENAFER-PERU and then FERROCARIL DEL CENTRO to distinguish this central railway from the southern line between Cusco and Lake Titicaca.   There was never enough money to join the two.


The interior of the carriages was a cool green, and the vinyl seats were comfortable,  with those on the right affording the best views.  There were tables between the seats, and soon after departure – at 07.40 sharp – a dusky Peruvian boy in a red jacket took orders for breakfast:  “¡Desayuno! … ¡Desayuno!”


The train passed the cathedral and presidential palace, built by the conquistadors, all the while hugging the right bank of the stony River Rimac.  Then we went through the pueblos jόvenes, peripheral townships whose wicker cabins, succeeded by brick huts, all crammed with descendants of the Incas migrating to Lima for jobs, overflow into the Andean foothills.


Within half an hour, the train was visible climbing and, at 1,600 feet, crossing the first of 61 bridges made in England or America.  At this point desayuno arrived: bacon and eggs with Peruvian coffee.  I did not finish until we had reached Chosica, which echoes the Pyrenean landscape at an altitude of 2,400 feet. With its stone dwellings, this is a popular resort for wealthy Limenos, because it is situated above the cloudbank that envelopes the Peruvian capital, 500 feet above sea level, from May to October.

The first full hour of the journey was signalled by a long toot, as the Canadian locomotive approached the San Juan tunnel (2,296 yards), the first and longest of 66  which alone would have made the world’s highest railway such a feat.  The entrepreneur, Henry Meiggs from Boston, used mules and llamas to bring up equipment for his local labour and Asiatic coollies whose descendants run Peru’s many Chinese restaurants.

Higher still went the train, and cacti could now be seen on the mountainsides. With an average gradient of 4½%, the Pacific side was so steep that at 22 places – having crossed some points and passed a loop – the train would shunt up to buffers.  The detached locomotive then went onto a turntable to pull back the carriages from the other end up to a higher branch.


The track was still following the course of the Rimac, now a mere stream tumbling towards us from waterfall to waterfall.  Occasionally, we also glimpsed the hard road over the Andes with the odd bus or lorry wheezing along.  At one of the few places where the track is double, a freight-train clanked by – truck after truck laden with minerals.  Then as now, half of Peru’s exports consisted of copper, silver, iron, gold,  lead, tin and zinc.


Onward climbed the train … past San Bartolomé (4,896 feet) with women in bright shawls selling fruit from the platform … past Tamboraque with its smelter … past San Mateo, the source of Peru’s famous mineral water.   Once, a cockatoo in dazzling colours was spotted, and then I became almost dizzy looking down on a canyon with rope spans like those that parted in Bridge of San Luis Rey.

I was sitting opposite a typical Peruvian matron, of colonial caste, and her two daughters, the elder of whom was studying at San Marcos, the oldest university in the Americas.   Like all good families of Lima, they were going to spend Easter in cooler Ayacucho.  This would require a bus from Huancayo, but busy father would follow by air.  Our own altitude was already 10,500 feet.


By 11 o’clock we seemed to be floating in brilliantly clear skies.  The carriage got hot despite the half-drawn blinds on the left side (the sun goes north below the Equator).  Passengers abandoned their photography or backgammon, and began to doze.  Breathing became heavy.  It was not so bad for the Indian highlanders, but an effort for the criollos – South Americans of Spanish stock – who were used to coastal climes.   We were already at 12,000 feet, having made a steep ascent from Rio Blanco to Chicla.  The breathtaking panorama, for those whose eyes still focussed,  included age-old Inca terraces.


Just before the burning sun reached its zenith, the toiling train pulled into Casapalca at 13,633 feet.  Lead and zinc were being mined here by men in yellow helmets, and the cabins had metal roofing rather than dwellings topped by round, red tiles.  At last, a doctor in a white coat began passing through the carriages with a rubbery black bag, offering oxygen.    My sequel will see the train at the summit before descending to Huancayo.