Thursday 28th February 2002
Riding the Blue Vixen
Viacha to Comanche and Return

The Andina Railway line from Viacha to Charaņa has not been used much in the last year because of a washed out bridge on the Chilean side.  At Charaņa the Andina railway interchanges with the Arica – La Paz railway for the movement through to Arica.  The Chilean side had just been repaired and a trial train had run through.  In making arrangements to look at part of the line the Track Maintenance Supervisor at Viacha said “You can take the zorra”.  A zorra is the name given to a small track maintenance vehicle.  In Spanish, a zorra is a female fox or vixen.  In many parts of  South America the word can also mean, a bitch, witch or even a woman of ill repute!

The zorra at Viacha

The zorra had a small gasoline engine which made fumes in the cabin which seemed to be hermetically sealed.  A policeman accompanied us to open the gate out of the railway yard and immediately we could see a crowd of people standing and blocking the tracks.  My thoughts immediately turned to the bloqueos but my fears were quickly allayed as it turned out that this was where the cleaning women gathered.  This was a cheerful group of women in Aymara costume.   They were trading insults with a couple of policemen but there were obviously no hard feelings as several of them were pushing the police car to jump start it!

We were quickly on the Altiplano which is about 4,000 metres above sea level..  There are few trees up here, just low grass.  The flowers grow low to the ground and if you look carefully you can also find some mushroom type fungi.  This is cold country and yet people live up here in adobe dwellings.  The sun is hot when it shines, especially now, which is the Bolivian summer but it can get pretty cold at night.  This is also the rainy season when the normally dry water courses become raging torrents and cause nightmares for the track maintenance crews.

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The maximum speed of the zorra is around 30 kmph so we made our way slowly past herds of cattle, sheep and llama.  The few crops were almost ready to be harvested and people were ploughing with two cattle hauling a single bladed wooden plough.  We made slow progress, stopping frequently to examine the track.  A partridge took off and there were a few small birds in the low grass.  Each farmstead had a dog and each dog tried to outrun the zorra.  They handed off from one to another so that we seemed to be perpetually outrunning wild barking dogs with large fangs.

We finally reached Comanche, km. 44, and decided to have lunch.  A few people were living in the stone station building.  It was a decided improvement on the average mud brick accommodation.  Comanche has a hill behind it upon which grow the large bromeliads, puya raimondii.  I tried to climb up to a large one but the altitude began to get to me and I ran out of time.  They are magnificent plants, said to take up to a hundred years to grow to full height.


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Puya raimondii

We had to turn the zorra by hand - turned out to be surprisingly heavy.

We returned to Viacha in order to take a look at the many small bridges on the line.  Although it had been a short trip, the zorra was quite tiring and we were glad to arrive at Viacha.  The sun had shone brightly all day but is was a different matter in La Paz which had had a torrential downpour which had brought many small stones and rocks on to the city streets.

An interesting end to a fascinating series of trips in this remote country.


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