South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Round and About the Inca Country

We start from Antofagasta to make our second trip across the Andes by train. The route is strikingly different from the last one we traversed, for the Trans-Andine line between Argentina and Chile climbs and drops between mountains as though ascending and descending the steep sides of a triangle, whereas that between Chile and Bolivia makes a steep ascent and then crosses a tableland.

A train de luxe leaves the Chilean terminus at night, and, passing through an important nitrate district, does half its climb whilst we are sleeping in comfortable beds. At five o'clock in the morning the express makes its first stop at Calama, and we look forth upon a panorama of mountains with magnificent snow-capped peaks.

Calama was a copper-mining centre in the time of the Incas; the mines are still rich enough to have called into existence a modern smelting establishment, whose power supply is furnished by the neighbouring River Loa.

A few miles farther on we pass the junction whence a short branch line runs up to the copper mines at Chuquicamata. Proceeding to Conchi, we come upon a masterpiece of engineering, the Loa Viaduct; in crossing the viaduct, our train is nearly 10,000 feet above sea-level, whilst its height above the surface of the Loa River is more than twice that at which trains are carried over the Firth of Forth via the Forth Bridge. From Conchi a branch line leads to some more famous copper mines, at Conchi Viejo. We are nearly two hundred miles on our way when we reach San Pedro, where are situated the reservoirs which supply Antofagasta with pure snow-water from the Andes. Just beyond San Pedro station the railway skirts the bases of the snow-capped, smoking volcanoes of "San Pedro "and "San Pablo," and cuts through a lava-bed that is nearly a third of a mile wide. The summit of the main railway line is reached at Ascotan, 223 miles from Antofagasta and 13,000 feet above the sea.

We are dropped a few hundred feet between Ascotan and Cebollar, where the train runs alongside the lake which furnishes a large proportion of the world's supply of borax.

We are close to Ollague when we make our first acquaintance with llamas; a number of these very graceful-looking beasts of burden are having packs balanced across their backs in a farmyard. Llamas are used for the transport of silver, tin, fruit, vegetables, bales of cloth—and, indeed, of everything that is found, grown, or made in and near Bolivia. Each animal carries a weight of 100 pounds.

Also, we are beginning to make the acquaintance of Inca Indians, and to see that they have inherited many good and useful qualities from their famous ancestors. By patience and painstaking, and with the help only of primitive agricultural implements such as were used by their forefathers, the present-day natives have dotted the desert with productive fields. They raise good crops of many kinds of cereals, fruit, and vegetables. They shepherd large herds of llamas. They make the material for their clothes from the wool of the tame llamas and of the wild vicunas and alpacas.

Just beyond Ollague station we cross the boundary between Chile and Bolivia, then onwards for more than 300 miles the line runs along a tableland that is between 12,000 and 13,000 feet above sea-level. From Rio Mulato station, situated on this tableland, a branch line goes to the ancient city of Potosi, famous for its silver mines.

Near Viacha, the junction with the line to Lake Titicaca, we get our first view of the magnificent peak of Illimani, the "Fujiyama "of South America. A short run brings us to the Alto station, whence our train is taken down to La Paz by the aid of an electric motor.

The sudden appearance of a big city makes us feel that we are in an enchanted land. I wonder, how would you try to help friends at home to picture the marvellous situation of the highest capital city in the world? This is the only way I can suggest: Ask them to imagine that for seventeen hours they have been hauled by train up a steep incline to the top of a very high and large table, and that they have spent twenty-eight hours more on a railway going across the table, when suddenly they find themselves looking down into a shallow bowl, such as might be let into a giants' smoking-table to serve as an ash-tray; in the hollow of that bowl, and at a height of nearly 12,000 feet above the sea, they behold a fine city, with farm-houses and fields spreading upwards to the rim, whilst behind the surprise-bowl rises a magnificent amphitheatre of mountains, from amongst which one snow-capped peak, Illimani, towers to a height of 21,182 feet.