The Old Patagonian Express, in southern Argentina -- almost at the end of the world -- was the last train Theroux took. Months before, he had set out from Boston one wintry morning, boarding Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited for the first leg of his trip zigzagging through the Americas. Ahead lay more trains, over a score -- The Lone Star, The Aztec Eagle, The Balboa Bullet, El Pariamericano, La Estrella del Norte, and even the Buenos Aires subway, El Subterraneo. Ahead lay Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, the Andean high plains of Peru, the Argentine pampas. Ahead, above all, were people -- extraordinary, eccentric, boorish, exotic. There were the “Zonians” in Panama and the horrendous soccer fans in El Salvador. There was the bogus priest in Cali, the American woman in Veracruz looking for her lover, and the monologuing Mr. Thornberry in Costa Rica. And -- very different-- there were the confidences of the near-legendary writer Borges in Buenos Aires.
The journey from Boston to Patagonia was one of startling contrasts --in culture, climate, landscape, in altitude and attitude. Some of the trains were splendid; most were deplorable. Scenic magnificence vied with squalor and corruption, and the hilarious alternated with the horrifying.