Argentina was once a country with many railways and you could cross the country by train. Nowadays, it is hard to find any train routes in Argentina. But there are some left. Most of them exploited by commercial companies, making the train trips a tourist attraction.
The “Tren a las Nubes” in Salta is exactly such a train trip. The “Train to the Clouds” in Argentina was high on my train travel bucket list so I just had to take it.
Continue reading for my experiences on this train journey in Argentina. I show you what the Train to the Clouds is like and how to arrange tickets yourself. And make the best of your time on the train.
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Train to the Clouds from Salta – Argentina
What is it like?
What is the Tren a las Nubes?
The Tren a las Nubes is the Spanish name for the Train to the Clouds. As most information online is in Spanish, many people refer to this train journey by the Spanish name. In this article, I will use both the Spanish name and their English translation.
The train to the clouds is the name of a tourist attraction. It consists and can be booked in 2 parts:
- Tren a las Nubes day trip from Salta, Argentina
- the Tren a las Nubes train ride from San Antonio a las Cobres
Tren a las Nubes from Salta, Argentina
Salta, the capital city of the Salta region is located in northwestern Argentina. It is the starting point of a full-day trip from Salta.
The train to the clouds day trip includes:
- Pick-up from your Salta hotel (optional)
- Journey by coach through the valley
- Drop off at San Antonio de los Cobres train station
- Return train journey on the Tren a las Nubes train
- Return trip by coach to Salta
The train to the clouds from Salta is a full day trip. Expect an early morning rise (6 am) and return back in Salta at the end of the day (6-7 pm).
Tren a las Nubes train journey from San Antonio de los Cobres
The actual trip by train is not from Salta. The day trip includes transport by coach to San Antonio de los Cobres where the actual train departs.
If you’re in the area, or like me, road tripping in the Salta and Jujuy area, then it might be easier to stay overnight in San Antonio de los Cobres and take the train from there.
What makes the train to the clouds such a special train trip?
Do you have a moment? This is where I bombard you with data, facts and mind-boggling’ statistics.
- Work on the railway started in 1921. The Polvorilla Viaduct was completed in 1932 but it wasn’t until 1948 until the first train ran across the railway.
- The route from Salta to La Polvorilla is 217 km (130 miles) but the train now only runs over the last 18 km.
- La Polvorilla Viaduct is the highest point of the Train to the Clouds. At 4,220 meters (13,850 ft) above sea level, it makes this route the 5th highest railway in the world.
- La Polvorilla Viaduct is a curved bridge. It is 220 meters (735ft.) long and measures 64 meters (210ft.) tall.
- The Tren a las Nubes is operated by privately owned Sociedad del Estado Tren a las Nubes.
Places on the Tren a las Nubes train route
The different names and places can be a bit confusing, so let’s break down the main points on the map that are of interest to you.
Salta is the capital of Salta province in North-West Argentina. Dominated by colonial architecture, a vibrant square in the center of town and the main hub for all adventures and travels in Salta and Jujuy area, the city of Salta deserves some time on your itinerary.
The day trip on the Tren a las Nubes starts from Salta. The departure point for the bus from Salta is at Plaza Antofagasta in Salta (opposite the Salta train station).
Salta is easily reachable by plane from Buenos Aires. The airport is located a few miles outside the town of Salta and for example, Aerolineas Argentina serves Buenos Aires daily. I flew in on a direct flight from Iguazu and rented a car.
San Antonio de los Cobres
San Antonio de los Cobres is one of the highest cities in Argentina. It is located at 3,775 meters (12,385 feet) above sea level and the start point of the Train to the Clouds.
San Antonio de los Cobres can be reached by the (in)famous Ruta 40 or the regular route 51 if you have your own transportation. If you book the day trip from Salta, you’ll get off the bus in San Antonio de los Cobres and board the train here.
The train station is located on the southern edge of the town. A 10 -minute walk from downtown but you can also park (for free) at the train station if you have your own car.
La Polvorilla Viaduct
La Polvorilla Viaduct is literally the highlight of your trip on the Tren a las Nubes. The Train to the Clouds will cross the viaduct and after a short stop, commence the return trip back to San Antonio de los Cobres.
The bridge itself is only 64m high, but the six pillars are placed in a curved line, making for epic pictures of the train crossing the bridge. Due to the high altitude, when you cross the bridge, you’re actually at 4,220 meters (13,850 ft).
Why is it called “Train to the Clouds”?
It does have a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? In the past, like 1972 the train was a steam locomotive. Together with the vapor of the train and the condensation of the clouds, it looked like the train was always surrounded by clouds and mist.
But actually, at such a high altitude, the chance of crossing the Polvorilla Viaduct in the clouds is very limited. And I quite enjoyed the view of the bridge below us, so I was glad we didn’t have our heads in the clouds!
What is it like to take the train to the clouds in Argentina?
To me, taking this train trip was a no-brainer. Actually, I carefully planned my itinerary, just to make sure I would be in San Antonio de los Cobres on a Saturday and could take this trip. But then again, I am a huge train enthusiast.
To give you some more insights into my experiences, I’d like to tell you about my day on the Tren de las Nubes.
The night before, I arrived in San Antonio de los Cobres by car and checked into the Hotel de las Nubes in town. It was a long day of driving and I was exhausted. I didn’t explore the town but just relaxed at the hotel, had dinner there and called it an early night (and enjoyed super-fast internet at the hotel).
The next morning, I took things easy. I had to arrange some things with the car rental company and waited until it was time to head to the train station of San Antonio de los Cobres. The train leaves at noon and it was a 10-minute walk so I left quite early.
Train to the Clouds from San Antonio de los Cobres
As soon as I arrived at the train station, I could see the train. Ready for departure. The first coaches pulled up into the parking lot and local women tried to sell their crafts and souvenirs. There was plenty of time for me to look around, take pictures of the train and just wait until it was time to board the train.
Once the train steward opened the carriage, read my ticket, I could take my seat. All seats are 4-seats compartments, on opposite sides of the aisles. Sadly, I was allocated a seat at the aisle. As I traveled solo, there was no option to switch seats.
But… I was super lucky. At the very last minute, a family sat down opposite me and they were a family of 4. They told me, they had 5 tickets, but the 5th person didn’t want to come and I could take his seat. The window seat!
San Antonio de los Cobres to Polvorilla Viaduct
Finally, after what seemed to be waiting forever for the last coaches to arrive, we departed San Antonio de los Cobres! The train slowly left the station and soon we were crossing the deserted backcountry of the altiplano.
I sat on the right side of the train, but most of the views were on the left side. But don’t despair, the train takes the exact same route back, so once you’ll arrive at the bridge, everybody is asked to swap sides.
It was clear that the Tren de las Nubes is a tourist train, as the commentary on the train was in 3 languages, Spanish, English, and French. The video displayed the stops en-route, the sights to see and some facts. This made the whole train journey really interesting.
We passed deserted salt mines, a black volcano, and other mining areas. But finally, after 1.5 hours, the first excited shrieks reaches our compartment as the Polvorilla Viaduct came into sight.
Polvorilla Bridge Argentina
The Train to the Clouds slowed down and carefully passed a wall of stone. On the right side, you couldn’t see that much, but we were moving really slowly and the other people on the train were crazy excited.
Patiently, I waited until the whole train crossed the bridge. Once on the other side, everyone swapped sides and the train slowly crossed the bridge again, now going back.
And yes, the excitement is real! I was ecstatic! Luckily, the train goes really, really slow, so you have all the time in the world to look out of the window, down at the gorge, take selfies from the train window, photograph and make videos.
The curve in the bridge is surreal and because of the length of the train, you really get an amazing view of the high steel bridge and the train on top of it.
Crossing the Polvorilla Viaduct on the Tren de las Nubes really is the highlight of the day!
Once we crossed the bridge for the 2nd time, we all disembarked the train for 45 minutes.
Stop at Polvorilla Bridge
Although the train stops briefly at other points on the route, you’re not allowed off the train. But there is a stop at the Polvorilla Viaduct and this is the one you want to take.
I have to warn you though: it is very touristic. Not sure how they got there, but all local saleswomen from the area set up their shops to sell alpaca sweaters, ponchos, and knick-knacks. If you’re hungry you can buy empanadas or tortillas, water or other snacks.
At the higher level, the Argentinian flag was raised and the National Anthem was played. Most people on the train were Argentinian tourists who teared up at this moment. From this side of the canyon, you have a good view of the bridge and the area beneath it.
Local dancers boarded the train in San Antonio de los Cobres and dressed up in traditional clothes and performed for us. Very touristy but that doesn’t make it less fun to watch (or participate).
The return journey back to San Antonio de los Cobres
After the performance, everyone was ushered back onto the train. As it was my turn to sit by the window on the interesting side of the train, I was excited. The rest of the passengers on the train dozed off or watched the trip back on their smartphones or cameras.
In the end, I was quite happy that everyone swaps seats and sides of the train, so everyone gets to see the amazing views, but it is different to see it on the return journey.
The excitement of the train journey had faded somewhat, as it was a long day for many of the passengers. But for me, it was excellent because I got to hang outside the train’s windows as much as I’d like, and not that many people were in the way of my pictures and videos.
At 3 o’clock, we returned to San Antonio de los Cobres train station where the day-trippers went back to their busses and I returned to my hotel and my rental car.
Return to Salta
After the train to the clouds reached San Antonio de los Cobres again, the people on the busses went to the center of town for some sightseeing and shopping. I picked up my car and followed highway 51 to Salta. The people on the bus and the day-trippers would follow the same route.
And the route was spectacular. It twisted and turned and then hit the valley floor, where the road follows the river, passing the cute town of Santa Rosa de Tastil and dramatic and colorful rock formations.
Closer to Salta, you could see the old railway tracks, bridges, and tunnels of the old railway route. Unfortunately, the train tracks are no longer in use and the bus ride to San Antonio de los Cobres is much more comfortable, but I can envision what a spectacular train trip it once was.
After quite a long and tiresome day, it was nice to be back in warm and busy Salta. Although I didn’t take the full day trip from Salta, I did follow the same itinerary and saw the same things.
In the end, I thought the whole day was well worth it and I recommend anyone interested in this region and trains to book it well in advance!
Tips if you wish to take the Tren de las Nubes
If you too want to experience the Train to the Clouds, here are some useful tips about this day trip from Salta:
- The Train to the Clouds and Tren de las Nubes are the exact same thing
- There is oxygen on board and the staff has trained paramedics. You do not need to worry about the altitude but it is always wise to take things easy.
- It doesn’t really matter on what side of the train you’re seated. The seats are assigned anyways, so you can’t really choose.
- The train leaves San Antonio de los Cobres at noon and returns at 3 pm
- The full-day trip from Salta starts around 6 am and returns around 6-7 pm
- The Train to the Clouds only runs on certain days of the week, and not all days are the same each month. So carefully check the calendar if you’re able to go.
- The Tren a las Nubes is immensely popular, also due to the limited days it runs, so buy your tickets well in advance.
How to book your Tren a las Nubes tickets in advance (online!)
As the train only runs a couple of times a week and only once a day it is very popular with tourists (locals and foreigners). The tickets sell out quickly and just turning up at the train station will not guarantee a ticket on the train.
I booked my trip a couple of months in advance and did it online, from the comfort of my home. Here is how you can do it too.
You can purchase your tickets yourself via the official website of the train company but most of the detailed pages are in Spanish. Paying was a bit of a nightmare and it wasn’t 100% clear what to fill out. I’d recommend booking via a tour company.
You can book in advance with a tour company online.
There are 3 different tours, they all are more or less the same, with some minor differences. Click the links below to see prices and options and what is included in the tours.
- This tour leaves later in the morning but has fewer photo stops
- This tour leaves early and includes breakfast and a ton of photoshops
- You can also book a private tour with a driver, instead of the bus.
If you book a tour, you have the option to take the full day-trip from Salta or only the train journey from San Antonio de los Cobres.
If you book the train journey, you need to arrive at San Antonio de los Cobres yourself.
What to bring on your day trip on the Train to the Clouds?
As you might have picked up by now, if you take this day trip to the clouds, it will be a long day. Leaving Salta at 6 am and returning after 6 pm (probably 7 pm) is a full-on day trip. If you book the full day trip, you’ll travel on comfortable coaches and trains, so you can bring some stuff to make the long day more comfortable. Here are my recommendations for stuff to bring on your day trip.
- A windproof jacket. It can get really windy and chilly up at the Polvorilla Viaduct, the highest point of the train, I had the Columbia windbreaker jacket with me.
- Take an extendable selfie stick or a 3-way GoPro stick so you can stick your camera out of the train’s window.
- Make sure to secure your phone or camera with an extra lanyard or a ring holder.
- Take some smaller bills of Argentinian Pesos with you if you can. To buy some water, or some tortillas or souvenirs.
- You can bring drinks and food, but you don’t have to. The train has a catering service aboard and the empanadas were among the best I’ve tasted in Argentina.
- Bring your passport. You need identification for the trip, the train, and any roadblocks or police controls en route.
- Get your passport stamped on the train. They have the option to have a postcard stamped, or your passport if you like.
- Bring your maté set. Plenty of options to refill with hot water and you can look like all the Argentinian tourists on the train.
Should you take the Train to the Clouds?
For me, as a train enthusiastic traveler, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to take the train ride, I loved being on the train, the anticipation, the excitement, and the high altitude travel. I was absolutely ecstatic crossing La Polvorilla Viaduct.
It was a long journey. I only traveled on the Tren a las Nubes for 3 hours and I can imagine it is a very long, long day trip from Salta. And for foreign tourists, it is very expensive. So, I can imagine, if you’re not that much into trains, and you’re not fascinated by the high-altitude puna, then the trip might be a bit boring with not that many highlights.
The family with 2 young children next to me were only looking at their phones and not the least excited, while another family with small children were bouncing off their chairs for the whole journey. So, who am I to judge if you should take the Train to the Clouds?
I hope my story will help you decide if this is a day trip from Salta you’d like to take and will enjoy. I only hope you give the area around Salta a chance and explore beyond the well-trodden path and go explore. Why not by train?
Have you taken the Tren a las Nubes? Did you love it? Are you a train enthusiastic traveler like myself? Share your experiences with train travel and the Train to the Clouds in the comment section below. I’d love to read it!