The International Steam Pages

The Slow Train to Puerto Barrios

It is 04.15 and I have dragged myself out of my comfortable warm bed to exchange emails with a loved one on the other side of the globe over a quick cup of coffee. A few minutes later, outside, those inhabitants of Zone 1 of Guatemala City who make it 'dangerous after dark' have long since gone home and I see almost no-one as I head for my rendezvous. The previous day, Ricardo Giron, Operations Manager of Ferrovias Guatemala had looked at me with the faint amusement of a man offered a U$9 note as I explained that I wanted to ride one of his trains the 300km to Puerto Barrios. This is a railway where to drive at 20 km per hour is to risk setting up the kind of rocking and rolling that derails you and to go at 30 km per hour is a dismissible offence. The journey would take at least 20 hours, he suggested, was I really sure I wanted to do this. In other words this might just be the kind of railway where the only way to make a small fortune from it is to start with a very large one (except that Henry Posner III is in the process of turning conventional transport economics on its head).

I persisted. What time would a train leave in the morning? He offered 06.00. Any time you like I said knowing that the earlier I started the earlier I would finish and we agreed 05.00. Obviously the train crew didn't believe me either as they turn up just after 05.30 and it is 06.00 before we leave. Dawn is just breaking as we slip along the edge of Zone 1's red light district where the doors of the cubicles are now firmly shut against the morning cold, even a 'working girl' has to sleep some time. We ease our way over the 'Bridge of Cows', a mere 100 metres above the valley below and leave the city behind. With my command of Spanish barely able to summon a cold beer, communicating with the crew was never going to be easy but we break the ice over a shared breakfast as we wait for an up train at a station whose name Paraiso simply translates as Paradise - aptly named if you had just brought a steam loco up the gradient to here in the old days.

The view from the front of the diesel loco more than makes up for the absence of steam.  Soon we are far from the main road passing through isolated small villages. People ask me why I am fascinated by trains. Frankly, I don't know, but the fact that no-one ever came out of their house to wave at a bus or truck might be part of it. Everyone here comes out to wave and if I smiled at children like this back home I would be banged up for the rest of my natural existence. Here, it's a way of life. We are retracing my previous day's ascent with 204, but since we make relatively little sound, there is every chance to observe the wild life most noticeably a one metre long lizard with a long crest which scuttles across the track in front of us.

All too soon we are in Rancho, where the steep section ends and trains can be combined for the relatively flat run to the coast. The locals stare at me, obviously they think I have come a day too late for yesterday's steam special. I have left my treasured Indonesian Forestry Commission hat on the loco and the crew drive all the way up from the far end of the station to return it. For obvious reasons, the track on the mountain section gets top priority on a railway where cost control is paramount and the section on to Zacapa is severely restricted for speed. The fact that the Canadian diesel was probably designed for operation on something a bit wider than 3 foot gauge may have something to do with it of course and it seems to take forever before we get there. Fortunately, I have already had a chance to view the 'steam fossils' in the shed before rejoining the train with another fresh crew and kicking the shoes off again.

Here the railway runs alongside the river and the full range of bird life is visible, herons in the river, egrets in the fields, long tailed black birds following the cattle, an endless variety including a green parrot like creature and any number of a beautiful orange and black bird which never settles near the line. But no kingfishers like in south-east in Asia. In a strange portent of things to come, a stench of death heralds a large gaggle of grey hooded black vultures gathered in a tree recovering from a feast. The river is a constant threat to the railway, in places only the strategic positioning of life expired box vans in the river bed keeps it at bay. Worried about me, Ricardo phones in to check I am OK. With a vista like this, it is a silly question. 

By now the sun is setting and I will not see the final section in daylight but it is clear that the area is flatter and more luxuriant. The lineside vegetation threatens to envelop the train and constantly brushes against the side of the loco, explaining the almost complete lack of paint down the side at the front end. The bird life vanishes to be replaced by bats swooping across the line and even a small tree frog deposited on the cab window. At this speed the impact does it no harm and it climbs up the window and vanishes into the night. Cattle and horses appear grazing from time to time and we are reduced to a crawl until they finally condescend to move aside.

By now, I have to admit that the pleasures of the journey are beginning to pall as I have been travelling for nearly 18 hours and I doze fitfully as the motion of the loco allows. As we near Morales, we see a stationary headlight from a car on the dirt road alongside. As we get closer, the loco's headlight momentarily picks out an immobile figure lying on the ground in front of it. The shirt is bloodstained, spreading from a single bullet wound to the back. It is like a frozen frame from a film as we pass by. 'Dead' say the loco crew without trace of emotion, life is cheap in Guatemala. Good man or bad man? Armed robbery or trigger happy police? I will never know. Compared to the 5 chickens, 2 dogs and the snowy white rabbit dazzled in the train headlights we have already dispatched, it is a real shock to the system. The railway may have refused to die, but around it life goes on as 'normal'.

Some joker has put mile posts out on the line, so as the night goes on I can work out just how late we are going to be and it is 04.30 before we crawl into our destination. A mere 22 hours since we left. Puerto Barrios is famous for two things, firstly the wooden 'Hotel de Norte' and secondly for its 'chicas' as the crew have explained to me at great lengths with appropriate hand signals. Fortunately or unfortunately, they also tell me it is far too dangerous to go out and look for either at this time of night and they find me a bed to crash out on in the crew quarters. I am travelling extremely light, everything except the cameras is back in Guatemala City and when nature calls, necessity is the mother of all invention.    

At 08.00, the insistent hooting of the yard pilot wakes me up and I have a chance of a quick look around town but almost everything is closed up early on a Sunday morning. Incongruously dressed, the dusky chicas are on their way home after their night's work. "Do you want it straight or with extras?" asks the lady at the bus depot in English as I order my tortilla and coffee.

The luxury bus back up the Carreta Atlantico is a revelation; for a country that values life so little, I am pleased to be offered the best seat in the bus - the suicide seat behind the driver. The second man obviously knows a 70's rocker when he sees one and with CCR, Clapton and Queen on the sound system the journey flashes by. I can see the countryside I missed in the dark - lush cattle ranches, small rubber smallholdings to make me homesick and enough fruit for sale on the roadside to justify the country's reputation as a banana republic. The turnings to the towns of Morales, Gualan, Zacapa and Rancho that took so long to pass by come up in quick succession. Like a video tape being rewound rapidly, the countryside goes from dark green to light green to brown and back to green again. We are delayed for a few moments as somebody has parked his pick-up under a tree without bothering to apply his brakes first, but the hill climb hardly causes a drop in speed. 5 hours, U$5 and a couple of beers later we are back in Guatemala City, and here I am again in the early afternoon exchanging emails. Nothing changes, was it just a dream? 

Another story like the chance encounter on the lineside of a Manchurian logging railway which led to a much needed change of my life style? Or a story concocted in a sleazy Bangkok bar like a Paul Theroux travelogue? If you stay cocooned in the comfort zone of a group tour, you will never find out if such things happen for real ....

Rob Dickinson