All Steamed Up

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, May 22, 2005

WOOOHOOO!! WOOOHOOOO!! With whistle blowing and a grand flourish of smoke, the Old Patagonian Express "La Tronchita" arrived back in Esquel Station from its thrice-weekly run to Mapuche. Until recently this was probably one of the few remaining narrow-gauge steam trains in the world still offering a commercial service for passengers and freight. It used to ply the 400 km route north to the small agricultural centres of El Maitén and Ingeniero Jacobbaci on a weekly schedule, but is now reduced to the 40 km round trip to the first station down the line as a tourist attraction. Despite its reduced status, it still maintains all the glamour and allure of the grand age of steam (albeit on a rather miniature scale - the track is only 75 cm wide) and travels at the stately speed of 30 kph with all the accompanying visual and sound effects of whistles, bells and hissing plumes of steam.

The train was in commercial service from the mid 1940s until the late1970s, and was an extension of the main Ferrocarril Roca line that ran from Puerto San Antonio on the Atlantic coast to Lake Nahuel Huapi up in the Argentinean foothills of the Andes. During that time the German Henschel engines gamely pulled full loads up the steep grades of the mountain passes, and the engineers would fill the 4,000 litre water tanks from strategically located pumps at the fifteen stations along the way. During those years there were many odd mishaps, with the train being derailed several times by high winds and ice on the tracks. The final ignominy was a derailment in 1979 caused by a collision with a cow - and believe it or not, the engineer's name that fateful day was Señor Bovino! That was the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were, and signalled the beginning of the end for the full commercial service. Luckily, on our trip there were no mishaps and "La Tronchita" successfully completed its run with a full complement of steam train enthusiasts.

After about ten days of seemingly continuous rain, we decided to take advantage of the first sunny day for a short trip south to the nearby historic town of Trevelin. Nestled in a fertile valley under the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding Chubut hills, it attracts visitors from far and wide due to its staunch Welsh character. Although there are many communities on the Patagonian coast that were established by immigrants from Wales in the middle of the 19th century, Trevelin is the only settlement in the interior of Chubut Province that retains its strong Gaelic flavour. The name itself means 'the town of the mill' and the original grain mill built in 1918 is now a museum exhibiting many artefacts from the original settlers. Many of the street names - Jones, Williams, Evans - testify to the origin of the founding families. A certain John Evans is particularly commemorated for his bravery in raising the alarm before an Araucanian raid during the Conquest of the Desert campaign - the carcass of his horse is even entombed in a special monument near the plaza. The plaza itself is of interest due to its highly unusual arrangement of eight streets radiating out from the central octagonal hub.

The main purpose of our visit was to find one of the famed Welsh teahouses for a late afternoon treat, now that the day had turned cool and cloudy. We were tempted by the oldest establishment, 'Nain Maggie', but eventually succumbed to the crackling wood fire and warm atmosphere of 'La Mutisia'. Surrounded by reminders of the early days of the Welsh pioneers, and serenaded by harp music, we settled back to enjoy the delights of a traditional Argentinean Welsh tea. Along with a seemingly bottomless pot of steaming tea, there were accompanying plates loaded with piping hot bread and scones fresh from the oven, plum jam and local honey, lemon pie, cheesecake, black Welsh fruitcake, brownies, light milk squares and pineapple with whipped cream brownie cake. Of course, despite our valiant efforts, there was no way that we could finish everything, so the contents of our 'doggie bag' kept us supplied with treats at coffee break for the next three days!
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