John’s Journeys; a breathtaking ride ll
John Burke continues on the trans-Andean line.
In my last article, I boarded the Central Railway train in Lima at daybreak for the 270-mile journey to Huancayo in the highlands of Peru. The morning saw a steep zig-zagging ascent of the Andes, and even at noon we had reached only 13,633 feet and covered less than a third of the way. It was, however, the slowest part with an average climb of 27 feet a minute on an average gradient of 1 in 22.
When the doctor appeared in first-class with a bag of oxygen, I grabbed the nozzle and gulped air. Altitude sickness, which may start with a throbbing headache, can lay one up for a fortnight. Daringly, I drank a fizzing bottle of beer, labelled Cuzqueño, with my lunch of chicken and rice.
Still only 96 miles out, the train came to Johnston, one of the longest switchbacks. Soon, it was on an easier gradient as it went through eight tunnels in two miles to reach the very last of all. This is Galera whose 1,286 yards is not much shorter than the length of San Juan, only an hour from Lima. At the western mouth is Ticlio where some sidings to a mine, in narrow gauge, reach even 15,806 feet.
The long tunnel goes through Mount Meiggs whose peak is marked by a metal flag in the red and white colours of Peru. The namesake promoter watched construction, under a Polish engineer, from 1870 until his death seven years later, with less than half of the railroad completed. Yet this did include the other end of the tunnel which once boasted the world’s loftiest passenger station, with the name and altitude displayed in Spanish: GALERA Altura15,681 pies.
At long last, the train began to go down the eastern slopes of the Andes as a series of zig-zags brought us to Yauli at 13,544 feet. The glare of the sun was still intense, and the dazzling snowcaps where in contrast to to the deep blue sky. For a long time, we seemed to slide along a gently falling plateau, where sheep grazed among patches of red rock, before halting at industrial Oroya (12,556 feet) from where a branch goes 82 miles northward to Cerro de Pasco, one of the world’s highest mining towns.
The westbound train was also stationery, so Indian women, wearing shawls and trilbies, did good business in bringing sweetcorn, lemons, oranges and bananas into the carriages. Through the window coud be seen a block of flats, three storeys high, as well as slag-heaps produced by Centromin’s smelter.
The last eighty miles from Oroya to Huancayo were laid only between 1905 and 1908, for the line had been dogged by financial and political problems. Out into the Andean countryside again, and there were more signs of cultivation. Some smallholdings kept pigs and donkeys, while now and then alpaca skins could be seen drying outside humble dwellings.
By mid-afternoon, the descent lay through an idyllic vale, bringing forth cries of “¡Que lindo!” (how pretty) from the Lima ladies. The landscape was dotted with rich farmsteads in Andalusian style, surrounded by fields of maize and potatos ripening in rich, red soil. Beside the railway rushed the broad Mantaro river whose waters would eventually reach the Amazon.
As the snowy peaks of the Andes faded into the distance, we stopped at Tambo where the valley opened wide. The shadows were lengthening when we arrived at the next station, Jauca, which was Pizarro’s old capital. Here, the train had to reverse around a copse of eucalyptus trees before continuing to Concepcion, situated at a height of 10,655 feet. Urchins in bare feet were watching women wash clothes in a stream close to the track, while behind was the small town’s bullring.
The last part of the journey was a slight climb for five miles to the terminus, and the route had included 22 switchbacks and 66 tunnels as well as 61 bridges, the first of which spanned 238 yards, a late British replacement double the length of the next two longest.
The timetable gave arrival as five o’clock, but it was a good hour later when the train arrived at what was a tiny station, considering that Huancayo (10,702 feet) is the provincial capital of thriving Junin. The ancient country town has long handled two-fifths of Peru’s wheat as well as other agricultural produce such as sweet potatos. Woven tapestries and silver jewelry are among the local handicrafts.
Huancayo retains a fine cathedral in colonial style, but many of the old buildings of my day have been replaced by modern artichtecture,as the town grew to 350,000 inhabitants. As for its vital link with Lima, it was the communist guerillas of Sendero Luminoso who partly put paid to the passenger service, as they could dynamite the single track at will.
The line always had to be restored for freight, and passenger services were revived upon pacification, but better buses and new roads became too competitive. As I
stated at the beginning, however, there is a train for tourists about six times in the year.
© JOHN BURKE 2018