Pacific Shores From Panama – The Oroya Railway

AND then there is the Oroya Railway. What city in the world can boast such an attraction at its very doors? Where else can you, in the short space of a few hours, ascend from the coast, from palms and mango groves, bananas and tropical gardens, to the snow and ice of eternal winter, to heights above the utmost summit of Mont Blanc?

All this is possible through the pluck, ingenuity, and indomitable perseverance of a certain American promoter, a picturesque figure of the sixties, Henry Meiggs. He it was who conceived this gigantic scheme to scale the dizzy steeps of the Andes, and he it was who carried to execution this first railroad, and the only one that crosses these icy summits at such an elevation, to this day the “highest railway in the world.” No matter what else you may see in this mundane sphere of ours, you will never forget the day you climbed the Oroya Railway.

We made the trip under exceptionally favourable auspices. A private car, most comfortable in all its appointments, was put at our disposal, and in it we lived, with two excellent servants to care for us.

Instead of leaving Lima by the early morning train, as is usually done, our car was attached to the afternoon passenger and left at Chosica for the night, a station about twenty-five miles distant and a little less than three thousand feet above the sea, used as a resort, a sort of cure d’air, by the Limanians. After dinner we walked about its streets, and, in the semi-darkness of the tropic night, enjoyed its villas set in palm gardens, their windows and doors wide open and the occupants sitting upon verandas or chatting in the brightly lighted drawing-rooms.

As I awoke in the early morning I could hear our engine breathlessly climbing from height to height, puffing like a winded horse, and could see in the grey, dim dawn the long fingers of banana-trees swaying in the breeze and the clustered palms rustling their dry leaves. Dark-blue slaty hills shut us in, and at the bottom of the gorge the Rimac stormed along, a roaring torrent.

As it grew lighter we reached the first switchback, the only device used on this wonderful road, standard gauge, to overcome the difficulties of climbing the dizzy heights. Here, too, we came upon the first andenes, those Inca terraces still in use, irrigated with painstaking toil by canals that deflect the waters of the river along the faces of the cliffs. Below us lay the narrow river valley, divided, like a large green relief map, into states and territories by wriggly stone walls, and dotted here and there with cattle, impossibly small.

The vegetation was changing. Along the track grew strange cacti whose long green fingers stood erect and serried as organ pipes. Loquats and figs and masses of wild heliotrope were still to be seen, though we had passed the six-thousand-foot level.

We slowed down at Matucana while the engine took a drink, and we had a glimpse of its clean little hotel and gaily painted houses opposite the station. Two Franciscan friars and a group of serranos, mountaineers, in ponchos, or bright skirts, disappeared within the little pink church for early mass. Early mass! And we had already climbed more than a mile, in altitude that morning.

But we were only beginning our ascent. Our engine, having caught its breath and greased its joints, started again to puff and snort and haul us from switchback to switchback. In the next ten miles we attained the ten-thousand-foot level, and as I looked on the one hand at the dullish purple cliffs with their varied stratifications and at the deep-red ones opposite, I thought of the Colorado Midlands and of the splendours of Marshall Pass, and of the time, years ago, when the crossing of that divide, at the same altitude that we now were, constituted an accomplishment of considerable moment.

From our observation platform at the rear of the train we looked down into giddy abysses where the Rimac now raced in a succession of cascades, while above us towered great crags covered with tunas and cacti. Every now and then a snow-peak would appear, touching the heavens. The sun had burst forth, dispelling the morning vapours. We penetrated into a region of glistening granite and porphyry. The Rimac boiled through a chasm and disappeared into a cave. Between two tunnels we breathlessly crossed the Infiernillo Bridge—well named in this chaos of Hades.

The air became decidedly cooler, not to say cold, after the soft warmth of the coast, and the mountain people that we saw, wrapped in shawls and woollens, showed this change. At the next station we spied the first llamas, those strange Peruvian beasts of burden, with liquid, scornful eyes and ears tipped with red worsteds, silently munching by the track. In an instant they were gone as we sped along upward. What walls to climb, what cliffs ! Switchback and loop, tunnel and bridge, higher and ever higher we go! In the next two miles we climbed five hundred feet; after that three thousand more in but fifteen miles.

We had now ascended to a bleak and stony wilderness. The mighty Rimac had dwindled to a tiny stream, a thread of water but a few feet wide, boiling over the rocks. Vegetation there was none. Soft, fleecy clouds gathered again about us, and here, nearly fourteen thousand feet above the sea, Pedro served us our lunch. It was no common experience, I assure you, to partake of so delicate a repast almost three miles above the sea: alligator pears at the beginning, fresh-picked that morning at Chosica, chirimoyas and wonderful Italian grapes from Ica at the end, and in between fresh green corn, though it was the month of March !

And what a panorama from the window before which the table was spread ! Oh, the grandeur and the beauty of colour of this high Cordillera, its dark greys spotted by golden greens, the gamuts of reds and ochres and chromes of the great coppery mountains that shut us in! The last two hundred feet of altitude was apparently the steepest grade—the greatest strain of all—for our engine snorted continuously and stopped to catch its breath and get up steam again to fight this extraordinary altitude. Again we looked into bottomless pits; again we passed through tunnel after tunnel, and at last emerged upon the verge of Lake Ticlio—a pale-green mirror of murky water, barren as a landscape on the moon. Beyond it rose bald snow-peaks, gaunt and desolate. Breathless, we had reached the summit of the pass up above the clouds, again in the sunshine.

At Ticlio our car was detached and we were switched off on the Morococha branch, to begin to climb once more. Not for long, however; only to Anticona, a desolate spot without a house in sight, but the highest point ever yet attained by any railroad, fifteen thousand eight hundred and sixty-five feet above the sea-level.

The frozen peaks of the Black Cordillera, seamed with greenish glaciers and deep crevasses, encompassed the lakes of Anticona, one green, one purple, below which other lakes in the clouds at times appeared, then hid again in flying vapours. We skirted each of these lakes in turn, one after the other, and, as we crossed the last of them upon a narrow causeway, beheld visions of others still, lower, matchless in colour, about which the ground was scratched and rasped by greedy human hands digging in the copper mines of Morococha.

Morococha lies in a valley between the last two lakes, its yellow-ochre houses scarcely visible, so well do they harmonise with their dark surroundings. We were welcomed at the station by two American engineers—strange to find at this extraordinary altitude. While we were talking to them a loud clap of thunder suddenly broke the stillness, the clouds gathered thickly, and one of those swift Andean thunder-storms, so common at these heights, was unchained about us. What deluges! what a roaring of the elements! For our return journey to Ticlio a transformation had taken place. The snow was falling heavily, the green and purple lakes had now become leaden and angry-looking, and the peaks and their glaciers were enveloped alike in a thick white mantle, only a crag or two emerging here and there, like the black tippets upon an ermine cloak.

In the chaos of snorting engine and warring elements, we were attached at Ticlio to a lone locomotive and proceeded as a special through the long Galera tunnel that pierces an abutment of the Monte Meiggs (named for the builder of the road), the highest point on the main line. It was about four o’clock as we sped down the eastern slopes to the great central plateau of Peru, through a perfect avenue of giant mountains, the snow falling unceasingly until it changed to rain, and green valleys began to succeed the snow-fields. At six o’clock we pulled into Oroya for the night.