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Full Circle

Day 179: Arica to La Paz

Michael Palin - Full CircleWe leave precisely on the hour, though not the hour we were meant to leave precisely on. We have two drivers, a steward and about twenty-five passengers on board, including Linda, the big American we last saw on the MV Puerto Eden and her boyfriend who today sports a 'Name Your Poison' T-shirt with a death's head on it. No one dares ask when we might reach La Paz. The word 'nightfall' is vaguely mentioned.

This could be optimistic, at the rate we're going. The first stop is not for a station, but to change the points, a cumbersome business which requires the assistant driver to climb out, walk up the line, unlock a padlocked lever, change the points and repeat the whole process in reverse after the train has passed.

About twenty miles out of Arica we ride a long left hand bend over the river and are suddenly and dramatically into the desert. The orchards, pastures and maize fields of the Lluta Valley recede below us like a thin, green glacier. The last remnants of the coastal fog are burnt away. The sun glares down. Our little coach, reduced to a speck in a mighty landscape, climbs slowly, with frightening gear changes when we seem to hang on the mountainside in a perilous limbo, as the cogs struggle to sort themselves out. And it is steep. Within a distance of twenty-five miles we climb seven and a half thousand feet.

A thin plastic waterpipe runs along by the line. Without it we probably wouldn't get across the Andes. Wherever there is a spigot the driver stops the train, fills a red plastic bucket and refreshes the engine cooling system, which is working harder as the air gets thinner.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 179
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: Arica
  • Book page no: 236

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