Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tunnel Vision: Driving Northern Chile's Longino

About a decade ago, in the northern Argentine city of Colón, I encountered a pair of US cyclists who had traveled through Chile using my recently published first edition of the Moon Handbook to that country. They were especially enthusiastic about my recommendation about cycling the old railroad route through the Andean foothills, where slow-moving trains from Santiago’s Estación Mapocho once chugged all the way to the nitrate ports of the Norte Grande, including Iquique and Pisagua. The station, pictured below, is now a cultural center.
For motorists, bikers, and cyclists really intent on getting off the beaten track, there’s no better alternative than the former Ferrocarril Longitudinal (Longitudinal Railway) that, until the Panamericana opened in the early 1950s, connected the Chilean heartland with the Norte Chico and the Norte Grande. Passing through five former train tunnels, with countless ups and downs along the isolated Andean foothills between La Ligua and Ovalle, the Norte Chico sector is one of the country’s unappreciated gems for Chileans and foreigners alike.
In the 1930s, Chilean dictator (later elected president) Carlos Ibáñez del Campo outfitted his 1928 Packard limo (pictured above) with wheels that could ride the rails between Santiago and the southern city of Puerto Montt. I’ve never done anything quite like that but, several times, I’ve driven segments of the former northern railway, popularly known as the “Longino.” Along the entire route, keep an eye out for condors--that enduring symbol of the Andes reminding us that the route was, first and foremost, an Inka road.
Last April, for the first time, I drove the Longino’s Norte Chico segment north to south (rather than south to north), from the weathering foundations of former station at Auco, near the city of Illapel, to the town of Cabildo – a full day’s drive. At Auco, a bridge (pictured above) still spans the normally dry bed of the Río Illapel, but walking across it requires caution, as it’s missing many ties.
At Limáhuida (about 20 km south of Illapel), the line’s oldest surviving station (pictured above) is now a small grocery. Along the route, huasos in their characteristic flat-brimmed chupallas (sombreros) are a regular sight, as are flocks of goats on the dry hillsides. Between Limáhuida and the oddly named town of Caimanes (there are no large aquatic reptiles in this desert landscape), the road passes through three tunnels; the longest is the Túnel las Astas (pictured below), dating from 1912, whose ceilings drip with groundwater. Its length makes it the likeliest in which to encounter a vehicle heading the other direction.
Perhaps the most scenic segment is Cuesta las Palmas, about 20 kilometers south of Caimanes, passing newly planted avocado and citrus orchards. At the regional border, the gravel road penetrates the Túnel las Palmas, surrounded by mature palm trees in the valley, and continues as a paved road toward Pedegua and Cabildo. A short distance north of the tunnel, a roadside café selling fresh juices is one of few businesses catering to the handful of travelers who pass this way.
Approaching Cabildo, a semaphore regulates traffic through the Túnel las Grupas (pictured below), the only tunnel located in a populated area. From Cabildo, there are paved highways west toward the coast and south to Santiago.

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