Author of Southern Stories



The Old Rail Station in Tacna, Peru


The one addiction in my life that I will readily admit to is travel.  Friends and acquaintances ask, “Why would anybody want to spend time in strange parts of the world that no one has heard of?”   They just don’t understand.  It’s not the number of pins you can stick in a map, or the right to say that you’ve visited places that most folks would find unpronounceable.  The beauties of travel—and the essence of its addictive nature—are those special moments when you discover something totally unexpected and wonderfully unique.  I want to share one with you. 


I spent the first couple of weeks of this past April in northern Chile.  I’d enticed two friends into going with me on a journey that I’d wanted to take for years.  We spent most of the time in the high altiplano near the Bolivian border reveling in the sights of the Lauca National Park and the vicuña reserve just to the south.  Exhausted from the altitude, we lingered a few days afterwards relaxing in the Chilean seaport of Arica, about 20 kilometers from the Peruvian border. 


In many respects, this area of the South American Pacific coast is a desolate part of the world.  Sandwiched between the sea and one of the world’s driest deserts, you wonder why anyone would choose to live here.  But it wasn’t always this way.  If you could go back in time a century and a quarter, the land from Iquique in the south to Tacna in the north was the rough equivalent of today’s Middle East.


Just as the world’s economies today are dependent on oil, in the late 19th century, the world’s great powers were dependent on the vast nitrate deposits found in this desert landscape.  Mention the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) to any American college student and you’ll come up with a blank stare.  This conflict pitted Chile (backed by financial interests in Europe and North America) against Peru and Bolivia, resulting in a Chilean land-grab that still chills relations among the three countries.  It was nearly 50 years before a final treaty was signed, ceding Tacna to the north in Peru, giving Chile control of Arica and Iquique, and completely isolating Bolivia from access to the sea. 


These cities, now minor dots on the map when compared to today’s world centers, boast ornate neoclassical buildings, at least three structures designed and built by the firm of Gustave Eiffel whose famous tower is now Paris’s noted landmark, and evidence of a once thriving commerce of which mere vestiges remain. 


One of these is the Arica-Tacna Railroad, a 60 km. stretch of track through the desert connecting the two cities.  It boasts of being “the world’s shortest international railway.”  Once a bustling rail link with ornate stations at either end, it has been reduced to a single shabby rail car making a daily trip back and forth.  We had some time to kill, so we decided to take it—after all, the one-way fare of $2.20 was a bargain.


Arriving in Tacna, I noticed several old steam locomotives nearby, and a small dusty sign that suggested that visitors might wish to visit the museo.  The rest of the passengers—a combination of youthful backpackers and grandmothers day-shopping in Tacna—left while we searched for someone to give us permission to visit the museum. 


We found Kareen Rios who, among her other duties, is the director of tourism publicity for the Tacna-Arica railway.  She gave us a private tour of the station and museum.  The station itself was built in 1857, for the most part prefabricated in Liverpool, England, and shipped around the world to be erected on site. Only when you look at photos taken in the 1880’s do you realize that almost nothing has changed.  The offices, waiting rooms, ticket windows, car sheds, etc. are there, just as they were more than a hundred years ago. 


The dry desert air, combined with an economy that didn’t allow for modernization, has beautifully preserved this treasure hidden away in this small Peruvian town.  The engines are still turned around for their return trip by a hand-powered roundtable.  Steam engines sit idle under car sheds whose beams are labeled “Hemming & Co., Liverpool, 1854.”   A Ford Model-A equipped with railroad wheels can be hired for a private trip to Arica and back.  1880’s carriages, with first, second and third class compartments gather dust as they wait for passengers that will never come.  A complete foundry and blacksmith’s shop with its carved wooden forms stand ready to fabricate new parts for the steam engines. 


We were overwhelmed at this incredible find.  I asked Kareen why this amazing bit of history was just sitting here, almost totally unknown to the world.  With a sigh, she gently talked about politicians without vision, about those who’d rather spend money on projects and public works than try to preserve irreplaceable artifacts.  She showed me how the burled wood of the old passenger cars was slowly being lost to wood boring insects, and how time was taking its toll on the old engines.  So I took a few photographs, promising her that I’d share them with the world.  Here they are.


This article appeared in a 2008 issue of Splash magazine.