The International Steam Pages

Steam in Guatemala, 2004

Henry Posner III of RDC ( which operates Ferrovias Guatemala (the private company which restored Fegua, Ferrocarriles de Guatemala, to partial operation after its 1996 abandonment) organised a special steam run on 16th January 2004 to entertain the railway's customers and friends and generally raise the profile of its operations in the interest of promoting steam charters.

 I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to participate. Since joining a regular tour here is way beyond my pocket and all I would need to pay would be the airfare and local expenses, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. Guatemala is one of the cheapest countries to stay in the region and has plenty else to see apart from the railroad which is, of course, simply the best three foot gauge working railway in the world. This was my new steam country for 2004 (2002 was Eritrea and 2003 North Korea - any suggestions for 2005?).

Click here for Guatemala's railway heritage.

Click here for stationary steam engine machinery around Guatemala's railway. 

Click here for an account of a trip on the slow train to Puerto Barrios.

I had a couple of days before the rest of the visitors arrived and armed with no more than the Rough Guide, an appropriate Spanish phrase book and a couple of recommendations, I settled into the Hotel Ajau in Zone 1 in Guatemala City. Zone 1 is the 'old city', real character, real people and the hotel is just 5 minutes walk from the station although it has to be said that the guide book says of it 'not safe out after dark'. At U$ 12.50 it gave me all I needed, a clean comfortable bed, en suite facilities with hot shower and internet access in the lobby, most of all 'ambience', something which would be sadly lacking in the international plastic and concrete hotels of Zone 10....

I took advantage of my extra time here to visit the old capital, Antigua, a world heritage site just an hour away. Potential tour operators and participants should view my report. Guatemala is 'unspoiled' Central America at its best, there is plenty more to be seen in this country.

The current operation of Ferrovias Guatemala is best described as 'lean and fit', approximately one train a day of mainly flat cars with container wagon runs to and from the coast (split in two on the mountain section), the operation is totally orientated towards keeping costs under control and the railway competitive. The yards around the station are a potential scrap merchant's delight, it is like a model railway gone to seed. The workshops are a relic of the 1950s or maybe sometime before. Steam in the form of post-Second World War Baldwin 2-8-2s 204 and 205 is available 'on demand' for charter, attempts to offer a regular tourist operation having been judged to have run ahead of the market.

Here is the star of the show, 204 on shed and on the turntable at HQ:

204 at HQ

204 at HQ

On 15th January we visited Zacapa and rode a Ferrovias Guatemala freight north to Gualan. But the main business was the next day, where 204, surrounded by admirers, was ready to leave Rancho at 09.00. From here to Guatemala City (60 miles, 100 km) is some of the most challenging three foot gauge railway in the world today. This was not a conventional enthusiast special, we knew from the start that photographic opportunities would be limited.

204 at Rancho

Within a short distance is the first major viaduct where we dismounted for a run-past on a horse-shoe curve:

Rancho viaduct

Of course the curve allowed '2 for the price of 1'.... The land here is very dry with many cacti.

Rancho horseshoe

A technical stop at Sanarate offered a further opportunity with a false departure. Note the remains of the signal and a well disciplined photoline albeit in the wrong spot as seemed to happen all day.... 

 Sanarate departure

At Cucajol we traded our empty auxiliary water tank for a full one. As always seems to be the case, the small children found the steam locomotive more interesting than the visitors:

Cucajol attraction

For most of the journey, the passenger cars were almost empty, everyone was crowded on to the empty freight car to enjoy the sight and sound of 204 at first hand. Note also the bench on the tender for up-close sight and sound. Here host Henry Posner III points out one of the line's many attractions:

HPIII in action

At Agua Caliente, we all piled out for a runpast. For some reason I cannot fathom I was all alone on my corner of the hillside. I am sure I had showered the previous night... 

Agua Caliante viaduct

There was one further photographic opportunity, where I failed to repeat my previous coup as I had the company of my host: 

Yet another viaduct

204 had performed in an exemplary manner up till now, but our eventual arrival was delayed by a blowing gland which caused a shortage of steam and consequent overuse of water. Once this had been sorted we were back to base only slightly late, the darkness allowing us a closer view of the interior of Guatemala City's rock bottom red light district which lines the tracks.

Rob Dickinson