Chilecito

Chilecito was founded in 1715 by Spanish colonizers. the area became prosperous from mining, which reached its zenith at the end of the 19th century. The main souvenir today of the mining boom is the cable-car of the La Mejicana mine built by Bleichert. The project was completed in 1904. Men and supplies were carried to the mine, operated by a British firm, in four hours. WWI put an end to it and the line started to decay, although local miners continued using it until the 1930s.

With the mining boom the story is that there were so many Chileans living in the town that it be came know as “Chilecito”, or “Little Chile”. Today it is the second largest city in the province of La Rioja, with a population of 43,000 people. Much of the modern economy is based on agriculture and wine.

Chilecito has a lovely position among low rocky hills and snowcapped peaks beyond, and is a stop on Ruta 40

Posada del Sondero. This is a part of Argentina where good hotels are few and far between, so this simple country inn may be the best you can find in the area. It is a couple of kms from the centre of Chilecito (not a lot in the centre of Chilecito, but we needed to go there to get a restaurant). And the setting, with a small mountain rising straight up behind the hotel, is spectacular.

I did not go overboard on their pool, it was murky and had slime on the bottom. None of the rooms have a view - they open onto the communal sitting and dining area. And the breakfast was particularly basic. In addition they are building some new units, so the garden is not a particularly convivial place to sit..But for value for money one could not beat it .

We got more help from the local Tourist Board in town about what to do for a couple of days, but the charming hotel owners were happy to give us ideas as well.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

La Rosa Restaurant . Chilecito is not somewhere that many tourists visit, nor is it awash with good (or indeed many) restaurants. However La Rosa stands out as a beacon, as it has been well decorated inside, and has a nice ambience. The staff are very friendly. We ate lunch here one day, and dinner the next.

This is not gourmet food, but is good food. I honestly don't think you will find a better restaurant in Chilecito.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

Built and in its prime in the early 1900s. Few photos seem to exist today of the cablecarril actually in operation.
We started at the Station 1 in Chilecito, drove up to Station 2, the best place to see the cablecarril, and on to Station 3

The Cablecarril has 9 stations and is 34 km in length. It was the longest cable car in Americas and the second longest in the world.. It rises from 1000 m above sea level at Chilecito to 4600 m at the Mexicana Mine.

Following a recommendation from the local tourist board we decided to drive up to see the route of the cablecarril. We had a 4*4, so were able to do the 30 odd km route that follows the cable car. I would recommend it as we enjoyed it, but you do need a 4*4. And without a local guide you are not going to get up past station 3 and on to the top at the Mexicana Mine.

Built by Bleichert, who controlled most of the ropeway business in the world at the time: the company held many patents and built ropeways worldwide.

The presence of rich iron ore deposits had been known for centuries, but originally only small scale extraction was possible. Because the ore was high up in the Andes, it was not only extremely difficult to get it down to the smelteries in Chilecito, but getting mechanised mining machinery up there was impossible as well. Just to get to the mines, one would have to travel over dangerous mountain roads by mule for three days. In 1899, the Argentinean railway had finally been extended all the way to Chilecito, making it possible to economically transport pig iron to the rest of the country. But the problem of getting the ore down from the mines had to be solved first. The mines were about 35 kilometres away from Chilecito, separated by jagged mountain ranges, almost 3500 meters higher than the town.

The Famatina Development Co., a British company, acquired the Mexicana Mine on the condition that a means of transport had to be built to access the mine. A number of companies turned down the project as being too difficult, but Adolf Bleichert & Co. believed they could deliver a suitable cable ropeway

The terrain was difficult and a straight line for the ropeway was impossible. The solution was to build it with nine stations, each situated where the route changed direction. It started off in Chilecito, 1075 meters above sea level, and had its final station in Upulungos 4603 meters above sea level. They used the tried and proven two rope system, with a separate support and haulage cable. The thick haulage cable was anchored at one station while being kept under tension by weights at the opposing station.

In between the stations, the cable was held up by trestles, embedded in support shoes that allowed it to move back and forth, as it had to due to temperature and load variations. The haulage cable was considerably thinner and was used to move the buckets along, powered by stationary steam engines that were installed in the stations.

For its time, this was leading edge technology and included one of the first telephone systems in Argentina, for the stations to talk to each other. Around 1,600 people and 1,000 mules were involved in the construction project.

The buckets were attached to the cable with a suspension that has a two wheeled running gear at the top, and a bit lower, a clamp that can keep a firm hold on the haulage cable, with a mechanism to allow easy separation at stations. There were also special wagons to transport steel beams or similar parts, closed cabins for transporting personnel, or water transporting wagons

Construction only took 15 months, and was completed in 1904. Using little in the way of machinery, it is amazing how they managed it. At several points, they had to blast a path into the mountains, and, at another point, a 300 meter long tunnel was driven through a mountaintop.

Every part of the entire assembly had to be made to fit back in Germany. All segments and machinery were built in Bleichert's factory in Leipzig, transported to Hamburg by rail, shipped to Buenos Aires and, finally, brought to Chilecito. Everything worked perfectly, and the only known death resulted from improper handling of explosives during the building of the tunnel. The transport capacity was even higher than originally planned, making it possible to develop the mines further and extract large amounts of ore. It ran at 9km/h and could move 450 wagons of up to 500kg, transporting around 12,000 tonnes per month.. There was also a cable-greasing car, with space for a person and a manual grease pump. Power came from steam engines located at winding stations. The engines powered sections of cable on either side of them.

The minerals from the mine were processed at a foundry at Santa Florentine, about 1 km from station 2 via a ropeway spur.

WW1 led to many of the British investors withdrawing their money and that started the decline of the mine.

The mine closed in 1920, but the ropeway continued as a tourist attraction. The ropeway was decommissioned in 1929, following a fatal accident. It reopened briefly in 2000, but does not function today. It is now a national monument.

It was interesting day's drive following the path of the mint as far as Station 3. Station 2 was a revelation, with virtually everything still in place and great views up and down the ropeway. However the last bit to Station 3 was very difficult, and we decided not to park and hike up to the distant Station.

When we left Chilecito the next day we headed for Valle Fertil via Talampaya National Park

Holiday in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina