Train travel is often a mode of travel ignored by visitors to Latin America, who normally get about by bus or plane. This is a shame - there’s plenty of useful train routes, and it’s often a comfortable and exciting way to travel overland. Plus, you don’t have to put your life in the hands of a lunatic bus driver who enjoys overtaking other vehicles on blind bends (an all too common problem in most countries). So here’s some tips on travelling by train in Central and South America.
If countries are not mentioned below, it’s because I am not aware of any useful train routes in those countries that are worth mentioning (let me know if I’m wrong of course!)
Argentina has by far the most extensive network of trains in South America and capital city Buenos Aires is the hub. There’s useful tourist routes available to a host of place near Buenos Aires, in addition to a range of services to destinations farther afield including Bariloche in Argentina’s Patagonia region, the beach resort of Mar del Plata, plus places in the North West of Argentina such as Cordoba and Tucuman. Remember also the Tren de las Nubes journey near Salta - this is one of South America’s most scenic touristic train journeys. More info can be found on www.sateliteferroviario.com.ar/horarios/ or see the website of Argentina’s largest rail operator www.ferrobaires.gba.gov.ar - both sites are in Spanish.
Bolivia’s train network is concentrated in the Western, highland part of the country. Considering how bad the roads are in the country (almost all are unpaved), taking the train is usually far more comfortable. For tourists, the most useful route is the line from Oruro via Uyuni and Tupiza to Villazon on the border with Argentina. It’s also possible to travel by train to Calama in North Chile. See www.fca.com.bo (in Spanish) for more info.
In the East, Santa Cruz is the hub, with trains to the borders with both Argentina and Brazil. See www.ferroviariaoriental.com (Spanish language) for further details.
There is one main line running South from Santiago calling at various towns in the lovely wine growing region en route to Concepcion. See www.efe.cl.
The Chiva Express
Ecuador has an old train network running South from Quito through the scenic “Avenue of the Volcanoes”. Parts of the track are in use, other not - it’s all very disjointed (though in the process of being improved and extended). Try contacting Metropolitan Touring to book a rather disjointed Chiva Express tour southwards from Quito (as pictured in the photo above - watch your heads for the dangling power lines!), or simply arrange things locally by booking the local trains (and travelling with locals not tourists). The most scenic part of the journey is known as the “Devils Nose” train journey.
There is a short service operating only on weekdays that connects Panama City (Pacific coast) to Colon (Caribbean coast). See www.panarail.com, which is in English.
There’s a few very useful train services available to visitors to Peru, and the journeys are often fascinating and very scenic. The train from Puno (Lake Titicaca) to Cusco is often used by tourists, and departs about every other day. Cusco is also connected to Aguascalientes, the town nearest to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu - travelling by train is by far the most common method of reaching the spectacular ruins. Peru Rail (or Orient Express) operates these services, many of which are rather luxurious - see their website in English to book.