Beautiful Train Rides and Railroad Routes
Central and South America are not exactly considered continents crisscrossed with rails. Actually, people travel here mainly by bus. But some railroad lines have been preserved and are still open to tourists today. Here are the most spectacular ones:
1- Tren Crucero with the “Nariz del Diablo”, Ecuador
The train line from Ecuador’s capital Quito to Guayaquil, 480 kilometers away, has only been reopened since 2013, after Rafael Correa’s government commissioned the complex and expensive restoration. Right in the first year of the reopening of the complete route, it was named the best tourism product outside of Europe at the World Travel Awards; the effort was apparently worth it. And it was also quite necessary for a reopening of the line, as tourists or workers have lost their lives here time and again. The most impressive part of the four-day trip is the section near the Nariz del Diablo (“Devil’s Nose”), a huge, rocky hill on whose slope the train has to zigzag (even backwards) 400 meters in altitude within three kilometers.
2- From Puno to Cusco in the “Andean Explorer”, Peru
Between Cusco in the Sacred Valley and Puno on Lake Titicaca there are about 380 kilometers and the 4,313 meter high mountain pass La Raya, which has to be overcome on the scenic route. You mainly drive over altiplanos, i.e. high plateaus always above 3,000 meters, so that the altitude can be quite a strain at times. But it’s worth it: while at first you drive through lush green forests, the scenery changes more and more in the direction of rugged highlands until, after you’ve made the U-turn halfway along the route in La Raya, you’re chugging through a constantly flat country toward your destination of Puno.
3- “Tren a las Nubes”, Argentina
The journey with the “train to the clouds” begins and ends in the north of Argentina and leads through an Andean landscape of mountains and high plateaus. It usually travels at an altitude of over 3,000 meters between the starting and ending points of Salta and the small town of San Antonio de los Cobres, where it turns around and travels exactly the same 217 kilometers back to Salta. The highlight of the train ride is the crossing of the La Polvorilla viaduct at an altitude of 4,188 meters, a bridge 224 meters long and over 60 meters high, where it is better not to add altitude sickness, which can often occur here among travelers.
4- “El Chepe”, Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico, Mexico
The Mexican “El Chepe”, the abbreviation for the train that runs twice a day between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, makes its way through gorges, valleys and canyons past waterfalls, lakes and rivers and through countless tunnels, including the 1,800 meter long “El Descanso”. The train ride leads through different vegetation zones, on the one hand you experience the fruity plains of the Pacific coast, but on the other hand also cactus steppes and mountainous highlands, finally “El Chepe” overcomes about 2,400 meters of altitude on the 653 kilometer long trip.
5- Serra Verde Express, Brazil
The “Tren da Serra do Mar” starts in Curitiba, the capital of the state of Paraná. It then winds at moderate speed 110 kilometers along a tropical landscape, past green hills, rocky hilltops, lush forests and the glittering Atlantic Ocean, through tunnels carved in stone and over spectacular rail bridges. The railroad ends directly at the sea, in tranquil Paranaguá, from where a detour to the wonderful Ihla do Mel is worthwhile.
6- “La Trochita”, El Viejo Expreso Patagónico, Argentina
Nowadays the total length of a little more than 400 kilometers is not used by the “Old Patagonian Express”, but only partial routes between Esquel and the settlement of Nahuel Pan as well as between the villages of El Maitén and Desvío Thomae. The journeys with these trains are particularly attractive, since they are pulled by old steam locomotives along a beautiful Patagonian mountain landscape. “La Trochita” is thus the most nostalgic train in our list.
7- From Panamá Ciudad to Colón, Panamá
80 kilometers of land mass separates Panama City on the Atlantic Ocean from Colón, the larger city on the Pacific Ocean. At this thinnest point of the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Canal was built, the link between the two oceans that has changed the transportation of goods throughout the world. It takes eight hours to pass through, and most of the time tourists are not allowed to do so. A good alternative is the first-class train, which runs once a day between the two major cities and takes less than an hour. It passes through tropical rainforest, which sometimes offers a view of Lake Gatún, where the huge container ships glide along. It is particularly impressive when the train travels over a dam directly on the lake, allowing you to enjoy a sensational panorama.
8- From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu), Peru
The comfortable drive from Ollantaytambo at an altitude of about 2,600 meters to Aguas Calientes (at 2,040 meters at the foot of Machu Picchu) is 28 kilometers long and takes about 90 minutes. You get a good impression of the narrow but spectacular Urubamba Valley, through which the restored trains wind. You often pass traces of an Inca trail or ruins from the Inca era in lush vegetation, so the view from the extra panoramic windows is very rewarding. Despite often overpriced tickets, especially for the best travel class, you should not miss the ride on your way to Machu Picchu.
9- Tren turístico “La Sabana”, Colombia
Also called the “Turistren,” this train runs between Colombia’s capital Bogotá, the salt mining town of Zipaquira, and the small and very unassuming village of Cajicá. The landscape on the short route is quite nice, but not a real highlight. Rather, the atmosphere on board, fueled by a band, and the typical food at the destination make the train ride an overall experience not to be missed.
10- El Tren del Fin del Mundo, Argentina
The “Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino” is considered the southernmost passenger train in the world and covers a distance of only 25 kilometers. In the past, the line was used mainly for transporting materials and for a prison and a naval base, but neither exists anymore. The start and end points of the route are now located on a national highway, making them easily accessible by bus for interested tourists. An extension to the larger city of Ushuaia is also planned, further increasing accessibility. The journey leads through a mountainous and often snow-covered landscape in the Tierra del Fuego National Park.