The second-highest train ride in the world is now a carefully managed, once-a-month tourist experience. For tourists with the confidence to boast of how they beat soroche, the almost compulsory dose of altitude sickness. Potential headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting: with spectacular views. And regular folk dances and halts at strange, melancholy, deserted platforms. And many miles of dust discriminations in pulling away from the endless sprawl of Lima. The railway, promoted by the American Henry Meiggs, and designed by the Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski, was a monument to colonial enterprise, the will to conquer nature. 


Arthur Sinclair was impressed:

‘By rail to Chicla, 87 miles, thence on mule-back. This railway, it will be remembered, is, without exception, the highest in the world, and the engineering the most audacious. “We know of no difficulties,” the consulting engineer said to me; “we would hang the rails from balloons if necessary.”’


The 1891 party disembarked at Matucana (7, 788 feet above sea level), where they ‘resolved to stop for two days in order to get accustomed to the rarefied air’. Unconvinced tourists, we stood, awestruck and blinking from the dust and grit, in the open observation car. As the train swayed and shook, I discovered the true meaning of the term ‘branch line’, when a sprightly sapling ripped across my face. 

Lungs prepared after a couple of days of gentle introduction to mule transport, Arthur remounted the train and continued to Chicla (altitude: 12, 215 feet). ‘A dreary enough spot,’ he said. ‘Horses and mules from the low country frequently drop down dead here from failure of the heart’s action.’

The present operation, we were told, could be made more commercial by carrying cargo from the smelting plant at La Oroya (still in the top ten of most polluted places on earth), or agricultural produce and coffee from the farms of the cloud jungle. But freight traffic is too profitable a deal for haulage interests. And the political impulse is to let the heroic railway fade quietly away. The spectacular Lima terminal, Estacion Desamparados, once the offices of the Peruvian Corporation of London (sponsors of Arthur’s expedition), was now a library dedicated to Nobel prizewinning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. Who choose for many years to live in London. 


‘Leaving Chicla, the real tug of war begins,’ Arthur reported. ‘A wretched road, made worse by the debris from the railway, which, for the first fifteen miles, we saw being constructed still far above us, the navvies hung over the cliffs by ropes… Higher and still higher goes this extraordinary zig-zagging railway, boring into the bowels of the mountain and emerging again at least a dozen times before it takes it final plunge for the eastern side of the Andes.’


We step down from the train at La Galera. This was the highest station in the world before the Chinese, who are much in evidence here too, constructed the pan-Himalayan line through Tibet. It felt like coming ashore after a long voyage. Farne admits that moving from her seat might have been a mistake. She developed the worst headache of her life. Every step on the ground was a slow-motion adventure. Taking advice, I had dosed myself on coca tea (approved by Arthur) and the trick of learning to hold my breath as long as possible, before letting it slowly out. In fact, having taken one giant breath in Lima, I’m not sure if I remembered to take another until we disembarked, in the pulsing dark, all honking taxis, dogs, luggage, managed by a single policewoman in Huancayo. Our guide, the one who was supposed to meet us, was nowhere to be found.

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