Words and photos by Dan Milner
‘Death has a face’ reads the slogan daubed above a solemn skull and crossbones, emblazoned with a US dollar sign. Stencilled onto the stonework of an old building in Humahuaca’s central plaza, I read this graffiti as an open warning about the darker side of US imperialism, which has long been entangled with Latin American politics.
As I repeat the words to myself, a short, indigenous Andean woman scurries past, head down, eyes averted, oblivious to the sloganeering. She has work to do, tourist trinkets to sell. And who can blame her: life isn’t easy here, it never has been.
I wonder if the woman is aware of the graffiti, if she agrees, what she thinks. I wonder what she makes of us — four dusty, grimy, sunburnt gringos straddling state of the art mountain bikes, or even if she cares. And for a moment I’m uneasy. After all, it is this region’s economic hardships that gave birth to the basis of our bike adventure: the Belgrano Norte Railway, a once thriving industrial masterpiece that money turned its back on.
"Life isn’t easy here, it never has been…"
We’ve rolled into Humahuaca after three days spent riding along this railway line, converting the metre-gauge railway track into adventurous singletrack. It sounds like an unlikely mountain bike ride — something that should probably be relegated to the ‘biggest mistakes in mountain bike history’ file, but for the most part it’s worked.
For 100 kilometres we’ve traced the course of this rusting remnant of yesteryear as it cuts its beeline across an arid landscape dotted with cacti. We’ve steered wheels around a thousand thorny bushes and treated the railway’s decrepit iron bridges as just another ingredient in a recipe that already includes 35 degree-C heat and a lung-crunching 3500m altitude. And now, arriving in Humahuaca, our chosen end point, we have time to reflect on our adventure.
Rewind five years and you’ll find me peering from the window of a rental car as we speed across this same desert. The back seat is awash with disassembled bikes, the dashboard displaying a hand-drawn map of possible trails, scribbled by the car-rental guy, who apparently, was ‘into’ mountain biking. Back then I was on my way to Iruya, a tiny village tucked away at the end of the road on the other side of a 4000m pass.
But as with most adventures, while we ticked off our trip’s objectives, others rose to replace them on the list ‘for next time’. I knew then, while peering through the window at a couple of iconic and rusty old railway bridges that flashed by in a blur of riveted architecture, that I’d be back, lured by the most unlikely of mountain bike adventures I have ever thought of – to ride a century old, abandoned railway.
"I knew then, while peering through the window at a couple of iconic and rusty old railway bridges that flashed by in a blur of riveted architecture, that I’d be back…"
Five years later it’s all fallen into place and here I am, tiptoeing across those same railway bridges, while trying not to look down between the sleepers at the fifty-metre deep chasm beneath my feet. Behind me I can hear shouts of encouragement from my fellow riders Tibor Simai, Hans Rey and Rob Summers. And ahead of me — if I make it that far — is solid ground and safety. “I’ve never been one for heights," I mutter grimly and tread carefully onwards, trying to control my trembling knees while retaining a vice-like grip on my bike.
I have no one to complain to — this adventure is my idea, and my idea alone. But it seems, there are others that share my warped sense of what makes an interesting bike ride, and for that I’m thankful. At least as a group we can leapfrog the bridges and take turns in who goes first to cross the next. It doesn’t sound much like peace of mind, but when you’re riding a railway that was built in 1908 and hasn’t had a sniff of repair for the last quarter of a century, it’s nice to not always be the guinea pig.
We make it across our pair of seventy-metre long bridges and regroup, as much to gather our breath as be thankful for our continued survival. By virtue of it being a railway, our ride is about as flat as mountain biking can be. But rolling out of Abra Pampa on day one we ride straight into a gentle but unrelenting uphill gradient that joins forces with a strong headwind and combined with our lack of altitude acclimatisation has us dropping through gears by the dozen.
It was the simple concept of the railway cutting the shortest route from A to B while following the line of least resistance that had attracted me to the idea of riding along it. But now I feel short changed. Our first two hours become a punishing grind.
Adventures are often such a whirlwind of non-stop surprises, rewards and physical beat-downs that the emotional punch of what you’re attempting doesn’t usually strike home until afterwards. The sense of achievement and realisation of what, where and how comes later, when you have time to reflect, usually sitting with tired legs and a beer in hand. And so it is with this adventure too.
"Our first two hours become a punishing grind.…"
Even riding along a railway line, something so apparently undemanding, simple and flat that most mountain bikers would sniff at the idea, our adventure quickly becomes a full body immersion in a sea of physical and mental challenges.
As we stop to pass our bikes over the first of many wire fences that have been strung across the now redundant track, the idea of what we’re doing seems so detached from normality that it is hard to take in. We have no recognisable reference points — no alpine singletrack, no switchbacks, no chairlifts. Instead before us a metre-wide line continues unabated in its steady crawl across a treeless landscape, until it disappears over the horizon. While to our left and right we are dwarfed by enormous outcrops of red rock. This rugged landscape is inspiring but at the same time humbling.
With soaring temperatures and nothing but dust-filled creeks below each bridge, this isn’t a place to get caught out. Somewhere off to our west lay Route 9, along which diesel-smoke spewing buses ply to and fro between Jujuy to the south and the Bolivian border, just to the north. This asphalt lifeline, having replaced the railway in importance, would be our escape route if it all got too complicated or the railway disappeared altogether. It was something we hoped wouldn’t happen, but couldn’t be sure about.
"With soaring temperatures and nothing but dust-filled creeks below each bridge, this isn’t a place to get caught out…"
Complications and unknowns are what adventures are all about. It’s the uncertainty of outcome that turns a mere mountain bike ride into an adventure. And our adventure was full of unknowns. I’d spent months researching the railway, plotting its course on GoogleEarth, calculating its viability on the ground. I scoured the internet for hints of what to expect, trying to gauge whether we’d be successful, whether the land it crossed had been devoured by farmers and we’d be turned back by the first pack of angry farm dogs we encountered.
But I’d come away empty-handed. None of my expensive high tech gear back home could prepare me for what we would find. It seemed no one had anything to report on the current state of the Belgrano Norte railway. But if nothing else, we’d be the first people to try to ride along it, at least if the silence of the internet was to believed.
As we make headway along the line the once but now forgotten grandeur of this railway dawns on us. After its construction, and long before a road was created, it represented the fastest and only safe way to travel through these bandit-infested hills. Trains represented progress, and according to Argentina’s president Avellaneda, under whose 1870s watch the railways got a footing, a lot more besides, including “industry, commerce, art, science and poetry".
In the late 1880s a sprawling network of railway lines had begun to spread across Argentina’s northern provinces, working their way steadily north to the Bolivian border. Some were sold to the British, others bought from the French in a frenzy of ownership changes and nationalisation programmes. At the turn of the century, the railway was big business.
But time moves on. Now the sun-bleached bones of another unfortunate llama-like vicuna lie littered across the tracks — another victim of this unforgiving landscape. We pedal past abandoned stations, their weather-boarded exteriors now a mosaic of peeling paint. Slowly the desert is swallowing up our short-lived stab at taming it. Sleepers have disappeared under drifts of sand and telegraph poles have become nesting sites for weaver birds.
In the tiny village of Tres Cruces, the station’s water tanks, once used to refill the steam locomotives remain, but now stand idle and dry. The station’s platforms are silent, victims to changes in economics, the people having turned their focus to a grimy bus stop on the highway instead. The railway is all but forgotten and we have the line to ourselves, sharing it only with herds of llama. Unaware of how they will react to four mountain bikers, at each encounter we are forced to dive off the track, descend the rocky embankment and rejoin the line fifty metres on. Our adventure is filled with unexpected treats.
For three days we thread our front wheels through an axle-high forest of brush that conspires to take back this sliver of desert from the once powerful clutches of the railway. We zigzag between the undergrowth finding our own version of singletrack, pumping every undulation in the sun-baked, hard-as-concrete, dirt for extra momentum.
For hundreds of metres at a time the railway sleepers have gone — re-purposed by locals as building materials in an impoverished area scant of trees. We roll across wide plateaux and past remote, hilltop cemeteries. We climb gentle gradients and descend through the spectacular UNESCO Heritage Site of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a rugged valley whose hillsides are a blaze of red and orange hues.
And finally we roll into Humahuaca, a small but vibrant town that brings us back to reality. Here we glance back at the railway that has been our home for three days; that has given us an insight into another era.
Boom and bust, nationalisation, privatisation and economic collapse has been the story of our railway, and of the region as a whole. Cash crops, tobacco, sugar cane and petroleum have played their part in shaping the lives of locals here and their economic successes and woes too. But as we freewheel through Humahuaca’s cobbled streets, we realise that around us life goes on: people hurry to the market, others chat idly on corners.
"Boom and bust, nationalisation, privatisation and economic collapse has been the story of our railway, and of the region as a whole."
We check into a small hotel and order yerba mate tea followed by beers in a town that has seen more than its fare share of boom and bust. The streets are busy with backpackers and tourists buying trinkets and booking jeep excursions to see the colourful Quebrada. Tourism offers some hope for the economic future of the town, but its railway is a forgotten chapter in history.
There’s talk of reviving it, of rebuilding its embankments, of sure-ing up its collapsed bridges, but having seen its state of disrepair we agree it’s a very long shot. We raise our glasses to this now relic of a bygone era in Argentina’s history. All it can offer now is the most unusual mountain bike adventure any of us will possibly ever do.
DO IT YOURSELF:
You can fly to San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of Jujuy Province, from Buenos Aires. Aerolineas Argentinas operate regular flights from £250 return.
TAM Airlines fly from London to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo from £680 return or British Airways fly direct from £1,081 return.
Bikes & Guiding:
As the first to ride the railway line, Dan's group was self-guided but received assistance from Jujuy en Bici (jujuyenbici.com.ar) who can organise multi-day guided bike tours in the area, including bike rental, safety gear and accommodation.
For the latest tours and pricing check jujuyenbici.com.ar/en/precios