Argentina’s Head-in-the-Clouds Tourism

SALTA, November 15, 2008 (AFP) – With the global slowdown threatening tourism, Argentina is banking not only on its budget status to woo visitors, but also a newly reopened attraction that it can bill, quite literally, as breathtaking.

The Train to the Clouds, El Tren a las Nubes in Spanish, takes its passengers high into the Andes in the country’s north – so high, in fact, that oxygen bottles are a feature in every carriage, to help those left lightheaded by the journey.

The train, which leaves the town of Salta for a 400-kilometer round trip into the South American mountain range, reaches an altitude normally reserved by helicopters.

“It’s totally different from what I’ve seen before. It’s high – we’re about 4,000 meters. And it’s very warm – about 20 degrees centigrade. You don’t feel cold. And it’s great,” said Roswithr Brueder, a 48-year-old German tourist.

She was one of around 200 people peering from the windows of the train as it sauntered leisurely across an arid plain and up barren slopes on its 16-hour trek.

They paid upwards of 100 dollars a ticket for one of the trips which are conducted three times a week.

Despite the length of the voyage, the passengers seemed transfixed by the landscape – especially the highlight of the tour: a long curving viaduct straddling two peaks.

“It’s amazing when we see the people crying at seeing the viaduct, crying at seeing people who live in this area, seeing the landscape. It’s amazing to me,” said Caterina Salcedo, one of the train’s guides.

The train line was built in the 1920s and 1930s as a freight service for mines in the region. It was designed by a US architect, Richard Maury, who is considered something of a hero in the locale, and who has a station named after him.

More than a thousand laborers strived in the thin atmosphere to lay the track. Many died.

After being closed down in mid-2005, the tourist train has re-opened under new management and has quickly again become a draw for foreigners and Argentines alike.

One of the trips in October even attracted a minor British royal, Lady Gabriella Windsor, the 27-year-old daughter of Princess Michael of Kent.

Despite being a self-styled freelance journalist, she avoided other passengers carrying cameras and spent most of the trip in the dining car with friends.

The Tren a las Nubes today ranks as the third-highest railway in the world, after one in the Peruvian Andes, and another higher one in Tibet.

A team of three nurses and a doctor are on hand to treat those suffering from altitude sickness.

Of the 200 people on each trip, “there are 30 to 40 passengers who need care. The main thing they need is oxygen,” said nurse Lorena Torres.

Symptoms from the altitude can include headaches, stomach pain and nausea.

Many passengers are prepared, though – and a few prefer to turn to the traditional remedy used by the Andean locals: paste or tea made from coca, the plant that can also be processed to produce cocaine.

“I feel a little sick, but it’s OK. That’s why I have coca,” said one Argentine tourist from Buenos Aires, Laura Carta, as she showed the green gum in her teeth.

Maire-France Mayet, a French tourist from Bordeaux in the same carriage, said she had been taking coca tea since the morning. “And it’s really effective,” she said.

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