Tuesday, 22 March 2005

The Amazing Race 7, Episode 4

Mendoza (Argentina) - La Lunta (Argentina) - Buenos Aires (Argentina) - Tigre (Argentina) - Vicente Casares (Argentina)

Photo of train station
Train to Tigre at Retiro station (photo by Ruth Radetsky)

Argentina is a huge country — the eighth largest in the world in land area, larger than any country in Africa — with the best infrastructure of any major country in South America, including what was once the largest and best network of railroads on the continent, extending from the subtropical southern edge of Amazonia far down into Patagonia. This was the setting for much of one of the best selling of modern train travelogues, Paul Theroux’s “The Old Patagonian Express”.

The Amazing Race has visited Argentina in three seasons, spending as much time or more time there as in any country other than the USA. And the race has been all over the country by almost all possible means: 3000 km (2000 mile) domestic flights, 1500 km (1000 mile) 24-hour bus rides, and hundreds of miles of driving in rented cars through all sorts of terrain from the tunnel through the Andes near the Chilean border to the wine country around Mendoza to the flat “pampas” in Buenos Aires Province, where they finished this leg at the Estancia La Martina polo ranch.

So why was this week the first time we saw the racers set foot on an Argentine train? And that only for an hour’s journey to Tigre on the Mitre Line commuter train operated by Trenes de Buenos Aires .

Retiro (train) Station in Buenos Aires was once the transportation hub of a subcontinent, but today it’s overshadowed by the vast Retiro bus station next door, where “The Amazing Race 5” arrived from San Carlos de Bariloche . (Bus timetables and departure boards throughout Argentina are more likely to list “Retiro” than “Buenos Aires” as the the terminus of their routes.)

The unfortunate (for those who love train travel) fact is that the modes of transport chosen by the television producers of the race reflect the contemporary reality of limited and rapidly disappearing options for long-distance train transportation in Argentina, throughout Latin America and Africa generally, and even in the USA (where the Bush administration has proposed to eliminate all Federal funding for Amtrak in a deliberate and explicit attempt to force it to shut down most of its service) and Canada.

The city of Buenos Aires still has an excellent Subte (subway) system which reaches within walking distance of most tourist destinations (although not to either of the city’s airports). Other than that, passenger trains are limited to a few commuter lines around Buenos Aires, and a few vestigial or restored long-distance services underwritten by tourists and/or provincial governments. This is very much like the situation for Amtrak, which owns the trackage on the densely populated and well-served “Northeast Corridor” between Boston and Washington, but operates only a skeletal national passenger rail network, underwritten by tourist traffic and state governments, over tracks owned by freight railroads, in the rest of the USA.

When “The Old Patagonian Express” was first published 25 years ago, it was still possible, with difficulties (which formed a major theme of the book) for Theroux to cover most of the distance from Boston to Tierra del Fuego by train. But even then, long-distance rail services throughout Latin America were already deteriorating, as both governments within the region and external providers of “development” aid shifted their priorities to highway construction from railway maintenance. Today, that process is largely complete: the remaining long-distance trains are the exceptions, destinations in themselves for railfans rather than a means of transportation one can normally count on existing, even in places where the map shows a railway line.

There’ve been a number of queries posted recently on the Internet, for example, from people planning to attend the meeting of ICANN (the global governing body of the Internet, although it is actually a private California corporation) next month in Mar del Plata , Argentina. No international flights go directly to Mar del Plata, and there are only a few scheduled flights each day from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata.

So is there a train to Mar del Plata? No, not any more. The only alternatives to the plane are a private car (somewhat expensive, and pointless unless you want to visit some out-of-the-way place in between) or the variety of classes of bus service I discussed the last time the race was in Argentina.

For those going to the ICANN meetings, or to Argentina or Chile for other reasons, the best resources in English are the series of Moon Handbooks by Wayne Bernhardson . Useful excerpts on Mar del Plata are available online, but I’d recommend buying the relevant books from this series before your trip, since they aren’t readily available in Latin America.

Photo of cats on train tracks
Waiting for the “Tren de la Costa” to Tigre (photo by Ruth Radetsky)

[Addendum, 18 April 2005: I got the big picture right, but the details wrong. Wayne Bernhardson (“back in California after four months in Buenos Aires and a few weeks in Chile including Antarctica” and Rapa Nui/Easter Island) advises me that there are still passenger trains operating between Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, among other regional routes in Buenos Aires province. You can’t follow the whole route of “The Old Patagonian Express” any more, but you can still take a train to Mar del Plata.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 22 March 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

That's, "Waiting for the Tren de la Costa". The Tren de la Costa is the special tourist (as opposed to commuter) train to Tigre. One changes to or from the Tren de la Costa about halfway from Retiro to Tigre.

Posted by: Ruth Radetsky, 29 March 2005, 17:55 ( 5:55 PM)
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