Latin America’s Top 5 Most Inspiring Rail Journeys
Correct us if we’re wrong, but there’s little which could ruin a holiday to South or Central America, like a torturous 24-hour bus ride over a treacherous stretch of potholed road. In this neck of the woods, we call local bus riding ‘organ displacement therapies’, as they’re about as enjoyable as root canal therapy without anaesthesia. Luckily, there’s an immensely enjoyable alternative to long-distance bus travel in Latin America, one that doesn’t include expensive flights: rail journeys!
Not just any rail journeys, mind you, but some of the most awe-inspiring journeys you’ll probably ever take. They’ll take you through breath-taking landscapes and gift you the chance to indulge in superb sightseeing, all the while getting you from A to B.
So if you’re planning a Central or South America tour with Chimu Adventures, and want to add a bit of old-fashioned spice and romance to your trip, include one of Latin America’s most inspiring rail journey to your itinerary.
Potholes may not be included….but unforgettable memories certainly will be.
1. The Hiram Bingham Express – Cusco to Machu Picchu, Peru
This ride has all the hallmarks of a timeless black & white film and is rated as one of the most luxurious, romantic and unforgettable rail journeys you could take, anywhere. Relax in the ample comforts of your deluxe table, as your three-course gourmet meal of delectable Peruvian specialties is served by attentive waiters, all the while surrounded in opulent 1920s-style décor. With the added bonus of on-board entertainment – in the form of a folkloric dance troupe – you’ll be serenaded all the way to Machu Picchu, the famous ancient city of the mighty Inca Empire. Your only challenge here will be to remember to look out your window, to take in the insanely beautiful views of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Actually, with a Bar Car and Observation Car on board this magnificent train, your biggest challenge will be to alight at the other end.
Journey Time: Just over 3 hours, one way. Train departs Cusco at about 8 am and arrives in Machu Picchu at about 1 pm.
Availability: From May until December
Insider Tip: Make yours a return, overnight trip. This way, not only will you enjoy the luxury of the train ride twice (geeenius!) but you can visit the Inca site in the evening, and again at first light on Day 2. The latter is arguably the most enchanting time of all.
2. Rail Journeys to the Clouds – Salta, Argentina
This 434km roundtrip journey is a feast for the senses, taking you from sea-level, through ethereal landscapes, up to an altitude of 4,200m in northern Argentina. Literally taking you through clouds and beyond, this rail journey comes complete with medical team and oxygen carriage to treat any potential cases of altitude sickness. Travelling on a railway road built in the 1920s by the British, to reach out of the way mines in northern Argentina, the Tren a los Nubes showcases some of the most outrageously beautiful desert scenery in all of Latin America. With its kaleidoscope of scorched colours and arid landscape at high altitude, and luscious plains and verdant hills below, you really get to an amazing and comprehensive taste of the country in just one single-day trip. Although, technically, this train trip takes you from A to B – and back down to A again – trust us that this is a treat you simply don’t want to miss.
Journey time: Almost 15 hours, from 6.30am to 9pm
Availability: Only on Saturdays from April to December, with an extra run on Wednesdays in the month of July.
Insider Tip: In the months of July and August, this train service books out very quickly, so if travelling at this time, and wish to include it in your Argentina tour, do let us know asap!
3. Old Patagonian Express – Esquel to Nahue Pan, Patagonia
Known in Spanish a La Trochita, or little gauge, the Old Patagonian Express is arguably one of the most historic and dramatic rail journeys in the continent. Running for over 400kms over the base of the Andes in the Rio Negro Province of Argentina, it was immortalized for posterity by American travel novelist Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. Today, La Trochita remains blissfully unchanged, with her heritage-listed steam locomotives from the 1920s and more ‘modern’ dining and passenger cars which date back form the 1950s. She’s painfully slow going, the old girl, but when you’re riding along some of the most remote and spellbinding areas of the Patagonia wilderness, you’d probably wish she’d take forever to arrive. Out here, this historic rail journey is a magic step back in time where the train is a bona fide, travelling piece of Patagonian history.
Journey time: Just under 3 hours to cover some 35-odd kms.
Availability: Frequency is dependent on season.
Insider Tip: Take advantage of the somewhat recurring minor breakdowns to jump out of the train and take spectacular pics of it against the backdrop of the Patagonian mountains.
4. Copper Canyon Railway – Los Mochis to Chihuahua (or vice versa), Mexico
Love canyons? Well, you’ll be in heaven on this trip! Score yourself some first-class tickets on this incredible 655km journey, and you’ll be crossing 20 vertiginous canyons, as you travel from Chihuahua all the way to the Pacific Coast. This is rated as one of the world’s most spectacular railway journeys offering a glimpse of spectacularly epic scenery. Considering this also happens to be the country’s only passenger rail journey, it’s definitely one not to miss! There are plenty of stops in ridiculously charming little towns, and breath-taking viewing stops where you can refill with delectable culinary delights prepared by locals, whilst you admire lakes, waterfalls, cacti and so much more. A very comprehensive Mexico experience, where nature takes centre stage, this is the most spectacular A to B travel experience you’ll probably have in all of Central America.
Journey time: About 15 hours all up
Availability: First-class travel runs daily, economy seats are on sale 2-3 times a week, depending on your chosen travel direction.
Insider Tip: If you can, try to visit this are and do the rail journey around Feb/March, or in October, just after the rains. The lusciousness will astound you. PS. Bring your own toilet paper. Don’t ask. Have more time? Great! Tell us and we’ll organize a bespoke journey that’ll break up the train ride into several days, so you can enjoy the attractions of all the stunning in-between canyons!
5. Wine Train – Colchagua Valley, Chile
Imagine you could combine your love of rail journeys, with your passion for taste-bud-exploding wine? In Chile, you can!
Taking in the best scenery (and vino) of Chile’s Cochagua Valley (just outside the capital, Santiago) the Tren del Vino is a fantastic day-trip excursion where the emphasis is on the splendid Chilean landscape, her excellent wines, delectable food, awesome music and overall penchant for having a good time. On this journey, you’ll be sampling wine on-board, visiting the best vineyards, lining the stomach with mouth-watering empanadas (you know, to absorb the alcohol and make room for more wine) and, in the end, feasting on an amazing BBQ of top-quality grilled beef, chicken and alpaca!
Journey time: 10.5hrs, from 10am to 8.30pm
Availability: Season & booking dependent
Insider Tip: Go hungry and thirsty
Wish to include any of these rail journeys on your Latin America adventure tour? Contact us! We’ll always endeavour to find a way to include a side rain journey to any itinerary. Especially, when it’s as exhilarating as these.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”