Riding the Ramal

There’s just something about trains, especially the old ones, those back-in-time local engines that ka-chug their way through remote country villages…

Boys at window / Ramal / Chile © Margaret Snook

Summer memories in the making

I just started reading  Ramal, Chilean author Cynthia Rimsky‘s latest novel, and am vicariously riding the rails with and sharing the memories of her characters, the Bórquez family, who I will soon know but never meet. The book is inspired by the Ramal de Maule, the rural branch-line train that runs 80 km (50 mi) from Talca to Constitución, from the foothills of the Andes to the shores of the Pacific.

The setting is familiar–I’ve taken this trip–and my own memories illustrate her words as the story unfolds. You’ll have to read the book for yourself, but the trip (and the view) go something like this:

Waiting for the Ramal in Corinto, Maule, Chile

8:11 AM. Waiting for the Ramal in Corinto

January 2011: The train is already close to full when the five of us–3 Chileans and 2 gringas–board the two-car local “Ramal” train in Corinto, a tiny pueblito in the Maule Valley, where we are staying with friends.

Conductor / Train / Ramal / Chile / © Margaret Snook

Of the ten small, narrow-gauge trains that once connected many of Chile’s remote areas to the major railway that ran down the north-south backbone of the country, the “Ramal Talca–Constitución” is the only one left. Urban migration and modern highways have done away with all but this final holdout of a line that follows the east-west course of the Maule River between the regional capital and the coast.

Reflections on the train. Ramal Talca–Constitución, Chile

Today the line’s two-car trains do a double-daily run, morning and afternoon, taking rural residents inland to do their business in Talca (the regional capital) or coastward to Constitución, the no-longer-important and once-upon-a-time-elegant seaside resort town.

Man, flowers on Ramal de Maule, Chile

Once each morning and again in the afternoon, one trains pulls out of Talca and the other leaves from Constitución. The two must (really must) meet in the center, at the Estación González Bastías, the only spot on the route where the tracks double so that the two trains can pass each other.

Pastries Est González Bastías / Estación Poeta

8:45 AM. Estación González Bastías. Passengers hop off the train to stock up on home-made baked goods.

The westbound train is already at the station when we reach González Bastías, originally called Infiernillo (little hell) for the suffocating summer heat and the dismal winter isolation. The town was later renamed in honor of a local poet, which is why the station is also known as Estación Poeta.

Buying homemade bread (pan amasado) at Estación Poeta

Baskets of fresh-baked bread empty in minutes, leaving no doubt to the origin of the common expression "se vende como pan caliente" (literally "sells like hot bread," which is the equivalent of "going like hotcakes").

Local vendors are waiting for us when we get there, and passengers from both trains hop off to stock up on hot pan amasado (homemade bread), pastries, soft drinks, and hard-boiled eggs for the remainder of the trip.

Man on train, Ramal del Maule, Chile

Boy on the train, Ramal, Maule, Chile

Fifteen minutes later the two trains head off in opposite directions.

Leaving Estación González Bastías, Ramal, Chile

9:00 AM. Pulling out of the station. (Estación del Poeta González Bastías).

Time passes… and we watch…

Pensive woman at the window, Ramal de Maule, Chile

Pensive at the window

We watch out the window…

Boy in red cap on Ramal. Maule, Chile

We watch each other…

Men at station. Ramal del Maule. Chile

And people watch us as we roll by…

Girl on train. Ramal, Maule, Chile

My new friend

We chat…

Train conductor. Ramal, Chile

Driving that train.... (looking over the engineer's shoulder)

And finally, we arrive…

Abuelo en la estación Constitución. Ramal de Maule, Chile

10:45 AM. Last stop: Constitución. Greeting abuelo at the station.

We spent the day wandering around Constitución (those photos will eventually appear in another post), and got back about 15 minutes before the train was due to leave. Big mistake! It was already full and we had to stand for most of the 3.5-hour trip back–so if you take the ride yourself, be sure to get to the station well ahead of time.

Schedule: The Ramal runs twice daily, every day of the year:
Leaves Talca to Constitución: 7:15 AM & 4:30 PM
Leaves Constitución to Talca: 7:00 AM & 4:15 PM

Fare: Talca–Constitución (1-way): $1400 CLP (About $3 USD)

Best to call ahead and check hours & fares:
Talca Station: (71) 226254
TerraSur: 600-585-5000

For more information see:
Ramal del Maule
: www.ramalmaule.cl
El Último Ramal
: www.elultimoramal.cl
: Amigos del Ramal


24 responses to “Riding the Ramal

  1. I see my next in the list must see places of the world! I almost could feel the place true your entry! Great!

  2. Can’t wait to do this! I wish there were more trains left here in Chile. Traveling by train beats the bus.

  3. @Marija-Thanks! I’m not sure I’d put this trip up there with the great trains of the world, but it’s certainly an interesting ride for anyone here in Chile. I also like that it’s not touristy… most of the passengers are just going about their everyday business.

    @Thorny- yes! do it! It would probably be better in the spring, but it is definitely worth doing! We had tit on our “gotta do someday” list for years. It stopped running for a while after the earthquake and we thought we’d missed our opportunity, but fortunately they got it up and running again–just goes to show that it still really IS important to the people along the line.

  4. Thanks Margaret. Once again you’ve been able to capture the essence of what is truly “Chileno”. I am so homesick I’ll probably have to go through a second box of tissues, 😦 Give me the country anytime, the more rural, the more authentic the better. Oh, before I forget, gotta have an internet connection though so I can find how the rest of the world is going to hell in a hand basket, 🙂

  5. Thanks John! Happy to oblige on the homesick front! And I agree- I’ve always been more attracted to rural areas than cities… and Chile’s countryside is just plain gorgeous! I should probably go back and add some shots of what we were looking AT out the window! (maybe I’ll make that a Ramal post part 2?)

  6. Pingback: Chile: ‘Riding the Ramal’, a Photo Essay · Global Voices

  7. Pingback: Chile: ‘Riding the Ramal’, a Photo Essay @ Current Affairs

  8. Isn’t this the train in Concha y Toro’s Frontera ad? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drdypuxSOZQ

  9. No- that train has to be in the north somewhere. Definitely not in the Valle Central!
    It does look spectacular though!

  10. Pingback: Χιλή: Ταξιδεύοντας με το ‘Ramal’, ένα φωτογραφικό δοκίμιο · Global Voices στα Ελληνικά

  11. It´s a sad thing the end of the trains in Chile. When I was a kid, trains reached as far south as Puerto Montt, and they were really good for people like my grandma, in long distance trips.
    Here in Temuco there´s a Museo Ferroviario, (like a Railroad Museum), and all over the Araucanía region you can visit the old, abandoned train stations. A specially beautiful ride was the Tren de la Araucanía, from Temuco to Lonquimay, in the middle of the Andes mountains, through the Viaducto del Malleco, http://www.flickr.com/photos/flodigrip/3203828174/
    (the tallest railroad bridge in SouthAmerica, build by Eiffel) and Tunel las Raices, http://chile.rotasturisticas.com/visitV.php?id=15371&op=Chile&op1=Temuco
    (for many years the longest tunnel in SouthAmerica, another forgotten record). I can even smell the coal and steam right now… Oh wait, it´s just Temuco´s pollution xD.

  12. Hi Marmo-
    Yes, I think people all over the world regret the decline of trains. We all seem to love them, and yet they keep dying off!
    I’ve DRIVEN through the Tunel las Raíces–what an experience!! A truly memorable experience and highly recommended for anyone visiting Conguillio and vicinity!

  13. Yes, driven. Some years ago, local government put the tombstone for the railroad in that zone in the form of a driveway in the tunnel.
    Not everything is so sad though, now to pass the tunnel you have to wait your turn, (it can only be driven in one way at a time) and in both sides of the tunnel lives a family that sells great sopaipillas with pebre and piñones for the waiting drivers xD Mmmm!

  14. It’s quite an experience! The long tunnel is very narrow and very dark. The roots dangle down from the ceiling, dripping water and brushing against the windshield. The car behind me turned off its headlights and I could hear the young woman inside screaming as her boyfriend laughed his head off!
    And I still remember those sopaipillas on the other side–enormous and SOOO good!

  15. Excellent story Peg – whether by photo or words, you’re the best!

  16. Hy Margaret! Guess why I didn’t come to visit your blog these last two months? I did nothing else than work and work from dawn to evening: I had to write a paper in english. And I finished yesterday, waou! Do you notice how I significantly improve my level in this (difficult) language, after this Herculean task? ;-)). Tren is a nice and important topic, since it has to do with a lot of different matters, one of which being the share of a public space (in many sense) . Unfortunately trains are now rare in South America (due to some economical ultra liberal choices, which aimed at promoting cars’ industry instead of railway, although these latter severely damage environment). To come back to train, I must say that I love train too. I also took the train when I was in Chile, from Chillan to Santiago. I have had many very nice experience when travelling by railway. In Turkey, where I go almost every summer, there remain a few railway line. They are very slow: three days to reach the extrem east part of the country from Istanbul. I usually take the night train (sleeping car) from Istanbul (in the beautiful Haydarpasa railway station, near Bosphorus) to go to Denizli, and then reach Egee sea. (My sohn loves it). Tchikatchouk, tchikatchouk… in the night. And at dawn before to arrive, the breakfast in the buffet car (tea, olives, ewe cheese, tomatoes, honey…), looking the landscape… Tren in Italia: the line between Firenze and Lucca (luminous remenber). Long time ago, I was used to travel by night from Paris to Berlin: departure time: 11 p. m. from Gare du Nord, arrival at noon at Berlin Zoo. May I recommand here a nice tour? In south west of France, a beautiful area with nice little ancient villages, take the railwayline between Toulouse and Figeac.. (Some of your pictures are very nice, for example the one of the ticket collector)

  17. Hi Pascale- Glad to see you back–and hope all your paper-writing efforts went well!
    Thanks for all the wonderful train itineraries! In addition to Chile, we’ve enjoyed trains in Germany, Spain, and Italy, as well as the unforgettable trains in Perú, of course. Just love ’em! Will put that southern France train on y list!

  18. carlos lara picart

    Querido amigo , te felicito por mostrar nuestro país , de alguna manera también eres chileno . este es el ultimo ramal de Chile y creo que en el se han vivido muchas alegrias . te cuento que el conductor es mi primo . somos de una familia de ferroviarios , un abrazo

  19. Hola Carlos-Gracias por escribir y dejar tus comentarios. Sí, andar en el ramal es una experiencia linda y un elemento del patrimonio chileno sin igual. Saludos y felicitaciones al su familia de ferroviarios–¡una actividad muy noble!

  20. Alejandro Acevedo P

    Bien!!!! el querido Ramal Talca-Constitucion!!!.. tambien he viajado a la playa en el, tan tipico como todo lo nuestro… Saludos, Alejandro de Pencahue (bien cerquita del Ramal)

  21. Hola Alejandro- y gracias por tus comentarios. Sí! Conozco Pencahue! Ahí está la viña Botalcura y unos olivares. También fui a una trilla por ahí cerca–puede, incluso, haber estado dentro de los límites de Pencahue. (tema pendiente para Cachando Chile!)

  22. Que bonito trabajo Margaret,siempre nos acordamos de ti y de ese bello viaje… te esperamos siempre en Corinto…

  23. Hola Paola!! Nosotros también recordamos con mucho cariños nuestra último visita a Corinto! y para Kathleen, fue uno de los altos de su viaje a Chile! En algún momento me gustaría hacer algo sobre el proyecto de ustedes y de la Corporación Cultural de Corinto!

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