Part 11: Nonogasta to Chilecito, Argentina


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The Trip

Our posada near Nonogasta gave us a chance to refresh in a quiet area free from the annoying noise of the motos.  They served a nice breakfast and we headed into Nonogasta for fuel and supplies, then headed north again toward Chilecito.

The Photos

The photos below are what we saw.

Across the round-about from the YPF fuel stop was this classic steam engine.  This was a stationary power unit, but built with wheels so it could be relocated if required.  While not explicitly stated, I believe this unit was part of the Mejicana mine near Famatina.  More on that below.

This area of the Andes hosts a wealth of mineral resources.  Starting with the Jesuits, intrepid explorers have roamed these mountains in search of gold, silver, copper, lead and iron ores.  In the late 1800's the area around Famatina and Chiliceto had developed into an important mining area.  A substantial deposit was found high in the Sierra Famatina.  But, this area is remote, rugged and difficult to access.  A plan was developed to construct a cableway for transport of ore and material, both up and down the mountain to the La Mejicana Mine (The Mexican).  I have a fraternity buddy that has worked in these mountains as a geologist and he provided me with a brochure that described the mine and the construction of the cableway.  I have taken screen-shots of the most interesting photos included in that brochure.  Above, is an elevation profile of the access to the mine.   Due to the rugged terrain, a cableway was to be constructed that would carry ore from the mine (at the top of the mountain) to Chilicito in the flatlands below.  In the end, the cableway, called the "cable carril" (cable highway) was 36 km long and went from the elevation of Chiliceto at 1100 m to the mine at 4600 m altitude.  At one point, this was the largest construction project on the planet.  There were 8 sections using a total of 262 towers and 9 stations powered by 6 steam engines.  140 km of cable was used in the system.  Each bucket could hold 0.3 m^3 of ore.  Over the life of the mine 12,000 metric tons of ore were extracted and processed.  Work product was shipped to the outside world via railway.  Construction was started in 1903.  The photos below were captured using a chemical camera (AKA "film") of course.

"Back in the day", heavy objects were transported by pack animals.  Mules were used to carry heavy loads.  The really heavy loads were reserved for humans.

A trail was established and trains of mules carried supplies and material to the top of the mine.  This was a dry camp, so even water had to be brought up the mountain.  Note that these mules did not have leads, they knew what to do without being led.

The main beams for the cable towers required special treatment and handling.  In addition to being heavy, they were long, awkward and required a human to "steer" the beam during transport.

This is a human transport team.  Note they have straps over their shoulders.  These straps were connected to spars that held the load, in this case a steam boiler.  On command of the leader, the team stands in unison and they start to walk up the hill.  A tower under construction is visible in the background,

Once the lower portions of the cable carril were constructed, it was used to transport materials up the mountain.  Above is a portion of the 140 km of cable that was used in the carril.

For the really intense portions of the construction, there is no substitute for human power and coordination.  Above, a team moves cable.  Each man is responsible for a length of cable and they walk in unison.

Generally, the path of the carril was defined by the contour of the mountain.  In the case above, a trench in the mountain was needed to clear the cable and buckets.  This was performed the old-fashioned way: pick, shovel and wheelbarrows.

A view of a small portion of the access trail to La Mejicana.  This trail crosses slippery scree slopes that were subjected to repeated land slides.

Another passage way for the carril.

A load of materials going up the mountain.  A muck (ore) bucket is visible on the rear cable.

Our travel path took us to Chilecito and the road went right underneath the carril.  One of the towers is visible in the photo above.


The line goes through town and the roadway straddles the carril.  The carril is 36 km long.

On the highway there was a sign for a museum, so we stopped to take a look.

The museum was really just Station Number 1 of the carril.

The station was mostly intact with the cable still present and buckets in place.

A close-up of one of the buckets.

The truck portion of the assembly consisted of two large pulley wheels on a frame.  The truck ran on support cables and were pulled via a smaller tension cable.

A mechanical switching mechanism was used to get the buckets off the support cable and onto a holding track at the station.  The diagonal bar is moveable and rests on the J-hook at the right.

Large pulley wheels, also known as "bull wheels" were at the end of the carril.

Station Number 1 was large enough to have two levels.

A spiral staircase was the path to the upper level of the station.  Workers going up the hill would climb these stairs and sit in buckets for the ride up the mountain.

This shaft, currently with some garbage and debris in it, is the counter-weight for maintaining tension in the carril cable.  The weight is stabilized by the railroad rails on the side of the shaft.

A boom crane at Station Number 1.

A view of tower number 1 closest to the station.  Note that the Sierra Famatina is covered in clouds, as it frequently is during the year.  Wikipedia (in Spanish) noted that the coldest station on the mountain has an AVERAGE temperature of -20 degrees Celsius .

We headed north along the cloud-shrouded Sierra Famatina.

We turned east, crossed several broad valleys and encountered another cloud-covered range of mountains.

I doubt that these clouds were producing any precipitation as there was no runoff in the arroyos we passed.  The arroyo in the foreground of the photo above, for example, is dry.

Following along the foothills of the mountains, we encountered an area that had been ravaged by a brush fire.

We crossed over the pass and descended into the next valley en-route to our hotel for the evening.  We passed a huge cactus next to the road.

This cactus is a dichotomy:  cactus are associated with arid climates; this cactus has been invaded by epiphytes that require high humidity.

The older portions of the cactus appear to shed their spines.

This was a huge plant.

A shot of the cactus with our rental for scale.

Our destination for the evening was the Killa Hotel.  They had rooms available but we had to agree to their terms.  One of the terms read, and I quote: "We also have certain rules of coexistence, no alcohol, smoking or eating meat in the entire venue".  I decided that it would be best to not disclose the emergency beef jerky that I carry in my suitcase for times such as these.  I snuck into the closet, shut the door and put towels under the door jam lest the smell give away my transgressions.

I wish that we had more time for this section of the trip.  It would have been cool to explore the carril a bit more, but we did what we could with the available time.

Tomorrow, we continue north toward Salta.

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