ARGENTINA – Train to the Clouds; a must-do ride in the Andes near Salta

Argentina is one of the countries I visit every year for a conference in Buenos Aires. I always add a week to go explore another region of this immense country. It has so much to offer and now it was time to make a 7-day road trip in Salta & Jujuy. I love unique experience so ride on the Train to the Clouds (in Spanish: Tren a las Nubes) was a must do from Salta. This train goes high up in the Andes mountains to an altitude of over 4000 meters. You don’t just see the train, but also the beauty of the Andes and the magnificent constructions that were needed to complete this railroad. Join me on this train ride (and bus) and I’m sure you’ll add it to your Salta trip too.

Train to the Clouds – History & facts

In the late 19th century the idea was suggested to build a railway between northern Argentina and Chile to increase economic wealth in the region. It’s called the Salta – Antofagasta railway and is almost 1000 kilometers long. If you have visited the Andes region in Argentina or the Chilean Atacama Desert, you know the Andes isn’t the easiest place to construct a railway. It took almost 30 years of planning before the construction started in 1921. Construction lasted for over 25 years before the first trains could run the complete track in 1948.

 

The railway is a so-called meter gauge narrow railway which means there is 1000mm between the tracks. Its highest point is at the La Polvorilla viaduct at 4220 meters which makes the railway the 5th highest in the world. It has two zigzags which are places where the train will go forward and backwards up the mountain. Two loops where needed and over 60 tunnels, bridges, and viaducts. In the late 20th century the tracks became in disrepair and now only serve tourists.

Tourists started to come already in the 70’s to witness this construction marvel because it became famous after a film was made in the 60’s. The name Tren a las Nubes is a bit misleading as one would think it’s named so because of the altitude. That isn’t the case as it’s named after the vapor of the steam locomotives that condensed into clouds rapidly at high altitude. Today however the trains that run are modern diesel locomotives, but a steam locomotive is still on display.

Tren a las Nubes – San Antonio de los Cobres by bus

Due to the high costs for maintenance the Argentinian government closed the C-14 track which runs from Salta to San Antonio de los Cobres. Until 2017 however the train would run all the way from Salta up to the La Polvorilla viaduct. Today, busses take you to San Antonio de los Cobres from where the trainride is the last 21 kilometers. The speed is very slow giving you lots of options to admire the surroundings. You can also go by own transport and not take the bus, but I recommend booking the complete tour. Going by bus isn’t that bad as it will stop at various places and gives better photo opportunities.  

Busses leave early morning around 7 AM but Kkala Boutique Hotel where I stayed made sure I woke up on time. The first stop is at an old C-14 railroad crossing where there is also one of the old steam locomotives on display. Breakfast is served at the second stop which includes local pastries and coffee. One more stop is made at the Del Toro viaduct. The bus then continues to the train station in San Antonio de los Cobres to board the train. For the train ride, see below.

On the way back, the busses will drop you in the center of town for lunch. There are several restaurants, including some that serve delicious llama meat. You will also have about an hour to explore town. Interesting from this part of Argentina is that there isn’t that much European influence, so you can see the indigenous culture and people. After lunch the bus departs back to Salta with some photo stops and a stop in Santa Rosa de Tastil. A small town with a small museum and church worth visiting. Busses arrive back in Salta around 6-7PM.

 

Train to the Clouds – train ride to La Polvorilla viaduct

The busses and train keep good contact so when the busses arrive boarding goes very smooth. Places are fixed on the ticket with a specific coach and seat number. The train departs when all busses arrive so make sure to be on time if you drive your own car. Organization of the Train to the Clouds is very efficient especially for Argentinian standards. I quickly walked around the train to take some photos before I boarded and went to my seat. I was sitting with an Argentinian family which, luckily, spoke English so that we could talk a bit. My Spanish is non existant.

It takes about an hour over the C-14 tracks (also called Belgrano Railway) to get to La Polvorilla viaduct at 4220 meters altitude. This altitude is high and altitude sickness can occur but normally doesn’t happen. You will be only on a day trip spending just a few hours at that altitude. Salta is already located at 1200 meters but it’s still 3000 meters up. I only experience light headache on the way back to Salta but when I arrived it was already gone. The strong sun is probably a bigger problem so bring anti sunburn.

The train goes slow, so you can admire the surrounding Andes landscapes. It’s beautiful! I cannot get enough of the Andes after my hiking trips in Patagonia and the 10-day road trip in Bolivia I did. The Tren a las Nubes will pass the viaduct and stop on it after it will go back in front of it for a 30-minute stop. You can go out and make photos and buy crafts from local indigenous people. Then, it’s an hour back to the station where the busses will take you to the city center for lunch.

The Train to the Clouds was my first heritage railway I visited. The train ride was amazing with beautiful views of the Andes and of course the 4220-meter viaduct was spectacular. I highly recommend making this trip as part of any Salta and Jujuy road trip. If you want to know what you can do more in the area read my 7-day Salta itinerary including Jujuy. Argentina is a great country where I also recommend visiting Iguazu, Mendoza, Cordoba and of course Buenos Aires whey you can drink good craft beer. I sure hope to return one day to Salta to make the crossing into Bolivia and then into Chile.

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Did you visit north Argentina and made this train ride too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!

Gallery Tren a las Nubes / Train to the Clouds

Check the gallery for more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.

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