- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia Billed as a romantic jaunt through a bygone era, the ride over emerald savannahs on Colombia's last operating steam train is actually a raucous journey.

Tipsy passengers dance to live bands in the aisles. Waitresses weave through the mayhem while balancing beer cans and loaded trays of tamales. The train rocks from side to side along shaky, ancient rails.

All that before 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning.

Bogota's Tourist Train of the Savannah one of this city's more charming and beloved tourist attractions is like putting booze and mariachis aboard the Little Engine That Could.

Prudes and train purists might take offense. But Eduardo Rodriguez, the president of the tour company running day trips out of the Colombian capital, says he is only giving the people what they want.

"Colombians love music and partying and drink," he said. "When we don't bring the band along, folks get angry."

But the days of this mobile "fiesta" may be numbered, the trumpets and trombones silenced as well as the train whistle, a signature sound in Bogota on weekend mornings.

Mr. Rodriguez, a former government railway engineer who started the venture in 1993 with equipment bought from the bankrupt state railroad, says he may have to shut down.

The number of riders has plummeted amid a recession that makes the ticket prices $8 for adults and $5 for children too steep for many Colombian families. Few foreign tourists come to Colombia because of its 37-year-old civil war, although the train passes through an area where leftist guerrillas are not active.

Boarding the train at a downtown rail yard one recent Sunday were mostly families and Colombians on company outings, plus some U.S. diplomats taking the nine-hour round trip to brush up on their Spanish. The day includes a three-hour break for lunch and side trips.

The coal-black locomotive lurched into motion with a deafening whistle blast and a billowing plume of steam, slowly pulling seven red passenger cars out of the station.

Waitresses came around with a hearty Colombian breakfast of steaming tamales corn and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves hot chocolate, bread and sliced cheese. For those wanting a nip and there were more than a few takers the bar offered "aguardiente," Spanish for firewater, a schnappslike liquor.

The train drew crowds and admiring waves as it lumbered through the city on its way north into the countryside. Children smiled broadly from their parents' arms. Even more people were out to watch in the afternoon, welcoming the train back to Bogota like a returning war hero.

The route traces the Andean capital's expansion from its colonial downtown over a fertile plain, where it gobbled up villages in its path. Once out on the savannah, the views are of equestrian schools, low green hills, cow pastures, vegetable farms and rose plantations.

The train clacked along at less than 15 miles per hour. Anything faster would risk a derailment, Mr. Rodriguez said, because the rails haven't been replaced since the 1930s.

Bands entertained the passengers, who grew rowdier as they depleted the stocks of beer and aguardiente. Andean folk musicians in ponchos took turns with a seven-piece "Papayera" ensemble, which played upbeat songs from the Caribbean coast on an accordion, snare drum and brass instruments.

In Zipaquira, a town about 30 miles north of Bogota, the train stopped for a water refill, a process that brought great snorts of steam from the coal-fired locomotive, which was built at Philadelphia's Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1947.

Tour buses pulled up alongside the train, offering a visit to the town's unusual main attraction, a cathedral carved into an underground salt mine.

Cajica, another town on the route, offered restaurants, pony rides and shops selling handcrafted wool rugs. Passengers were invited into the locomotive cab for a lesson on steam locomotive mechanics and a chance to blow the mighty whistle.

Spanish tutor Pilar Blanco said she brought the U.S. diplomats on the train as way to teach them about Colombia and to increase their vocabulary.

"It's a cultural exchange," Mrs. Blanco said with a serious tone, then added: "We have some fun, too."

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