In the busy world we live in, it’s easy to forget to slow down and enjoy the trip. These seven amazing rail journeys in South America are scenic and soothing, providing a relaxing few hours in the middle of an ordinarily hectic schedule.
Nariz Del Diablo – Devil’s Nose
Originally part of the Quito – Guayaquil rail line, Nariz del Diablo was a major engineering feat when it was constructed. It is now one of Ecuador’s most famous tourist attractions. The track climbs from 1,800 metres to 2,600 metres over a short distance, on a 1-in-18 gradient, making for a very steep ascent. In places the switchbacks are so sharp that the tracks appear to be running parallel to the rails you just passed over.
The journey begins in Riobamba, south of Quito and runs through the Avenue of the Volcanoes – the long valley between two mountain ranges – passing small villages and providing gorgeous views of distant, snowy peaks. Enjoy the lazy ups-and-downs of the smaller hills before getting to the rock wall that gives this trip its famous name, Nariz del Diablo. The journey ends at Alausi, a picturesque town where you can gather your courage for the ride back down the mountain.
The train has open seating on top, which is the best way to take the trip for those who have the courage. If taking the train back down is more than you can handle, there is a bus that travels a much less frightening road. The entire nail-biting journey from Riobamba to Alausi on the train takes a little under three hours and covers 12 kilometres.
Tren A Las Nubes – Train To The CloudsCreativecommons.org/Alicia Nijdam
Travelling along the northeastern edge of Argentina to the Chilean border, this the fifth highest railway in the world. As it climbs the Andes, it is not uncommon to see clouds below the tracks, a somewhat disconcerting experience that gives this trip its name. The journey ends 4,220 metres above sea level. Along the way you may see Argentinean cowboys riding through the fields and driving their cattle towards their next destination.
Running from April to November, this 10-car train leaves Salta in the morning and travels over 29 bridges on its way to the top. There are several stops along the way to change tracks and small station stops where you will be met with local artists selling their wares. Meals are served on the train, but the thin air and stomach-clenching heights may dampen your appetite a bit. La Polvorilla is reached at mid day and the train is reversed to head back down the mountain.
The 434-kilometre roundtrip journey takes 15 hours and is mainly used by tourists. Bilingual guides are part of the trip, as are musicians and other forms of entertainment. You return to Salta quite late in the evening and may want to have a hotel already booked and waiting.
Hiram Bingham Train – Train To Machu PicchuCreativecommons.org/David Berkowitz
This trip through the Peruvian countryside is a bit of a splurge, but you will feel the luxury down to your toes as you step into a gleaming, polished Pullman carriage that’s full with rich, plush, velvety fabrics. The dining car will serve you a world-class meal as you relax in comfort and marvel at the ever-changing scenery on the trip to the Lost City of the Incas. For a little more solitude, head to the observation car with its large, cushy seats and enormous windows.
Board the train at Cuzco and enjoy the sight of the snow-capped Andes as you travel along the picturesque Urubamba River. Do a bit of reading about the Incan Empire before you leave as the train passes several lesser-known Incan archeological sites along the way. This trip is all about being pampered on your way to one of the most fascinating sites in South America.
Trains leave in the morning for the four-hour, 86-kilometre journey into the past. The tickets include entry into Machu Picchu and you’ll have about five hours to explore the site before boarding the Hiram Bingham for your well-deserved, relaxing ride home.
La Trochita – Old Patagonian Express
This is a heritage railway that uses narrow gauge tracks and 1922 steam engines to pull its trains. The locomotives are oil-fired and have been in continuous use since the construction of the railway, as have most of the other cars. The old-style passenger cars are charming, and heated with cosy, small wood-burning furnaces.
Two different trips are possible on this line, and both provide delightful rides through the Patagonian plains. If the guanacos can’t hold your interest, hopefully the not-so-distant mountains will. The train makes multiple water stops to replenish the steam power allowing passengers a longer look around the area.
There are efforts ongoing to repair and refurbish the original railways and recreate the original 405-kilometre trip from Esquel to El Maitén. This trip may soon be available and is expected to take around seven hours. The current, shorter trip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan is 36 kilometres and takes about 45 minutes.
Andean Explorer – Cuzco To PunaCreativecommons.org/Kevin
Linking Cuzco and Lake Titicaca, the Andean Explorer uses a fleet of refurbished Pullman cars to take visitors through the Andes to the highest navigable lake in the world. The tourist-class cars are unexciting, but the luxurious first-class carriages offer a three-course meal and an open-sided observation car.
Start in historic Cuzco in the morning to reach the cooler, high altitudes later in the day. The scenery changes constantly, starting with eucalyptus groves and gradually becoming mountainous terrain as the train gently climbs. It slows down at Juliaca to allow the vendors at the open-air market to move their wares off the tracks. From there it’s up to La Raya, the highest point in the journey, and then down to spectacular Lake Titicaca. The 383-kilometre ride takes 10 hours, including several stops along the way for shopping and a bit of a stretch.
Ferrocarril Central Andino - Lima To Huancayo
The highest railway in South America travels from sea level to 4,782-metres, passing through six climate zones in Peru and over 58 bridges along the way. It took 40 years to build and until 2006 it was the highest railway in the world.
The trip begins at Patio Central in Callao, following the Rimac River to Chichan, where it passes through the Galera Tunnel at the highest point of the route. The tracks then head downhill until they reach the Mantaro River, which they follow to Huancayo.
The 12-hour journey includes some fairly remarkable engineering feats along the way: there are 21 switchbacks with 11 turntables to turn the train. The Infiernillo Bridge spans a deep canyon and sits between two tunnels blasted into the rock. Plan well ahead if you want to take this train as currently it is only running once a month.
Mountain Range Train - Curitiba To Paranaguá
The cities on either end of the trip are fun, but the draw for this ride is the beauty along the way. The train travels over 30 bridges, most with open vistas and amazing views. Many visitors do a round trip in one day, but consider spending the night in Paranaguá and trying your hand at surfing or just relax in the sun on a beach. It is Brazil.
Running along the coastal range of Brazil, the trip between Curitiba, the capital of Paraná and the port city of Paranaguá is incredibly scenic. Some of the tracks skirt sheer cliffs and may be frightening, but keep looking – another spectacular waterfall is just around the corner.
Your 110-kilometre trip will last for about three hours, leaving you plenty of time to wander through Paranaguá before returning home. If possible, stay long enough to take a boat out to Ilha do Mel (Honey Island) and treat yourself to a walk along one of the prettiest beaches in the area. Check the schedule carefully as some days the train only goes as far as Morretes.