8 unforgettable train journeys across South America

From Andean highs to coastal lowlands, South America's railroads cross some of the most dramatic scenery on Earth...

7 mins

The train was a boxy grey express that had seen better days, but it pulled out of Oruro on time. I boarded late and breathless, having lost track of the hour in town. Breathlessness was nothing new to me in Bolivia - it being a country where altitudes of 3,500m are routine - but this time it was self-induced. I unshouldered my backpack and collapsed into my seat, clutching paper bags full of half-squashed saltenas (pastries), and looked out of the window. Within minutes the show began.

The train was making its way by bridge across Lake Uru-Uru, a broad expanse of water just outside town. A belt of low grey hills rumpled the horizon. On the water, meanwhile, an unexpected sight: hundreds of flamingos feeding in the shallows. And as we moved, so, too, did the birds. It was gradual at first, with one or two stick-thin flyers flapping above the lake, then great flocks emerged, as a pale blizzard of pink peeled off from the water and followed the train south. I watched the silhouettes of the birds disappear into the distance as the train nosed its way onto the vast emptiness of the altiplano. Our journey was just starting but had already been worth the ticket price.

South America isn't veined with extensive train routes in the same way as Europe or India, but the continent still offers some hugely memorable rail experiences. They range from the no-frills to the luxurious, and from the staggeringly scenic to the boldly ambitious. Here are eight of the best.

Expreso del Sur, Bolivia

Bolivia's salt flats (Dreamstime)

Bolivia's salt flats (Dreamstime)

The south-west of Bolivia is a land of extremes: high altitudes, colossal views and mind-bending landscapes. Little wonder, then, that this rail journey finds its way on to so many travel itineraries. Yet the Expreso del Sur is rather misleadingly named - it takes some seven hours to cover the 300km between mining town Oruro and the salt flats hub of Uyuni. Luckily, its twice weekly afternoon departure (2.30pm Tue & Fri) means you can enjoy the trip during daylight hours, as the views are spellbinding.

Oruro (a three-hour bus ride from La Paz) is best visited at carnival time, when La Diablada sees locals dressed as demons hit the streets in early November for a riotous week-long festival. At other times, a side-trip to the flamingo-frequented waters of Lake Uru-Uru - which you'll later pass - is well worth it as a precursor to the altiplano vistas through which the train trundles.

But the big draw here is the vast salt flats of Uyuni - the largest in the world. It is one of Latin America's most incredible natural spectacles, and often takes on a very different feel between December and April, when seasonal rains can turn its cracked, crusty surface into a giant liquid mirror of the sky.

From here on, it's an overnight trip through the cowboy country of Tupiza (good for treks and horseriding) to Villazón on the Argentine border. But there are no sleeper carriages and it can get cold on board, so pack accordingly.

Duration: 15.5 hours (one-way)

Best for: Altiplano scenery and visiting the salt flats

Route: Oruro - Uyuni - Atocha - Tupiza - Villazon

Bogotá to Zipaquirá, Colombia

Underground chapel in Colombia (Dreamstime)

Underground chapel in Colombia (Dreamstime)

A fleet of five restored steam trains and two diesel locomotives - all of them salvaged from old railroad workshops in the 1990s - plough a route that was once part of the Bogotá Savannah Railway. This line was completed in 1896 but was latterly abandoned as Colombia's state-owned rail company collapsed less than a century later. Thankfully, in 1993 it was resurrected and reborn - like much of the nation's railways - as a tourist train route.

Today, the Tren Turístico de la Sabana (or Turistren) makes the three-hour trip north from Bogotá's historic Sabana Station to Zipaquirá once a day (from 8.15am; Sat, Sun & public holidays). Here, passengers hop off to explore the town's famed salt cathedral.

The site is an extension of the old shrines that the salt miners would carve, long before the first cathedral was built here in 1954. This was closed in the early 1990s for safety reasons, but a second one replaced it in 1995. Naves and chapels have been carved into vast tunnels that extend up to 75m (and 180m below the surface at its lowest point). It can reputedly hold up 8,400 people, with crowds packed in like sardines for its Sunday service.

Before making the return trip to Bogotá, the train stops at the town of Cajicá for a meal. It's by no means a luxurious ride but expect lively traditional music performances once the journey's underway. And last but by no means least, the countryside scenery - all sweeping savannah - is astonishing.

Duration: 9 hours (return)

Best for: Underground chapels and travel by steam train

Route: Bogotá - La Caro - Zipaquirá - Cajicá - Bogotá

Tren Crucero, Ecuador

Through the Andes on the Tren Crucero (Dreamstime)

Through the Andes on the Tren Crucero (Dreamstime)

Billed as journeying from 'The Andes to the Pacific', the Tren Crucero goes from the 2,850m heights of Quito to the lowland coastline of Guayaquil. En route, it covers the continent's most dramatic stretch of track: the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil's Nose.

Its fame stems from the complexities of building a railway across the Andes, requiring many dramatic switchbacks. Completed in 1908, the result is an engineering masterpiece - and the views are just as magnificent.

Since 2013, the route has been operated by the high-end Tren Crucero, which runs four-night itineraries in either direction. Between the 17th-century colonial facades of Quito's Old Town and the vibrant metropolis of Guayaquil, you'll pass over a dozen volcanoes, as well as river gorges, cloud forest, fruit plantations and a national park.

It's also possible to catch a shorter tourist service that takes in the Devil's Nose section from sleepy Alausi, a town midway along the line. This is also a good jumping-off point for treks along the old Inca Trail (from Achupallas) or trips out to its many thundering waterfalls.

Duration: 4 nights (one-way)

Best for: Volcanic views and dramatic rail engineering

Route: Quito (bus to Otavalo Station) - Valley of the Volcanoes - Riobamba - Devil's Nose - Bucay - Duran (Eloy Alfaro Station, Guayaquil)

Belmond Andean Explorer, Peru

Cusco train, Peru (Dreamstime)

Cusco train, Peru (Dreamstime)

When the Belmond Andean Explorer service through the Peruvian mountains launched earlier this year, headlines proclaimed it 'the most luxurious train in South America'. And for those keen on seeing the Andes' high altitudes in serious comfort, the hype is justified.

Passengers - up to 48 at any one time - can expect mahogany panelling, chandeliers and plush compartments. There's even an on-board library, for those times when staring out of the window at the cascading highland scenery doesn't cut it. But such moments should prove few and far between.

Starting in the one-time Inca stronghold of Cusco (gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu), the route takes in natural marvels such as Lake Titicaca - the planet's highest navigable body of water - and Colca Canyon, a ravine twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and well primed for spotting Andean condors. It almost goes without saying that the route forges one of the highest railway lines in the world (over 4,250m in places).

The terminus - or start-point, depending on which direction you travel - is Arequipa, a city arguably less well known than Cuzco but just as spectacular on the eye. Ringed by volcanoes, its UNESCO-listed historic core is a vision of baroque buildings created from local white igneous rock. Pay a visit to its vast cathedral, which was first founded in the mid-1600s - even earthquakes and rebuilding work haven't dimmed its glory.

2 days (one-way)

Best for: Luxury travel and ancient Inca heritage

Route: Cusco (Wanchaq Station) - Lake Titicaca - Arequipa (Arequipa Station)

La Trochita, Argentina

The Old Patagonian Express (Dreamstime)

The Old Patagonian Express (Dreamstime)

As Paul Theroux wrote in his 1979 travelogue The Old Patagonian Express: "I wanted something altogether wilder, the clumsier romance of strangeness." Few quotes sum up this part of Patagonia better. The final leg of Theroux's trip was made on the steam train still known locally as La Trochita, or 'The Little Gauge', though the name that he christened it has since entered into common usage, even if the service is a much reduced one these days. However, for rail - and travel - enthusiasts it remains a thrilling prospect.

Today, only the odd charter runs the full 402km route between Esquel and Ingeniero Jacobacci. The most viable option now for travellers is the weekly 20km run between Esquel and the native Mapuche settlement of Nahuel Pan (45 mins), as you ride along in old vintage carriages. Less frequent services cover the 165km journey between Esquel and El Maitén (9 hours), usually coinciding with maintenance work on the engines.

But whichever route you take, it's worth exploring the area. Just south of Esquel is Trevellin, the archetypal 'green valley' sought by Welsh settlers in the late 19th century - Welsh is still heard in its tea rooms and chapels today. To the east lie the steppe-like plains of the Chubut, or head north of El Maitén for the Argentine Lake District - a genteel mix of snow-capped peaks and beech forests flanking crystalline waters. Still, little can compete with the romance of chugging the wild foothills of the Andes.

Duration: 45 minutes or 9 hours (one-way)

Best for: Far-flung wilderness and the romance of the past

Route: Esquel (Esquel Station) - Nahuel Pan - El Maitén (El Maitén Station)

Serra Verde Express, Brazil

Serra Verde Express (Dreamstime)

Serra Verde Express (Dreamstime)

Without doubt, it takes a certain bloody-mindedness to construct a railway through the middle of a rainforest. Indeed, when plans for a route across southern Brazil's Atlantic Forest were first raised more than 150 years ago, several engineers deemed it impossible. Yet by 1885, thanks to the toil of some 9,000 workers, it was complete, and what started as a way of transporting grain to the coast is now one of Latin America's most thrilling journeys.

The so-called Serra Verde (or Green Saw) Express operates a daily there-and-back route between Curitiba and Morretes. Take time to stroll both, with the former famed for its eco-minded layout - its pedestrianised downtown was one of the first big streets in Brazil to ban cars. Visit the eye-shaped Oscar Niemeyer museum, a fascinating insight into the architect who designed much of the country, or stretch your legs on the 15km trail to Paranaguá through Marumbi NP. Meanwhile, the whitewashed Portuguese houses of Morretes are surrounded by forested hills and plenty of trails leading to a series of waterfalls amid the Serra da Graciosa range.

The train departs Curitiba at 8.15am and returns by 6.30pm each evening, with around 3.5 hours of journey time in each direction. Along the way, you'll skirt bridges, mountain canyons and plenty of lush rainforest. But it's definitely worth booking ahead, particularly between the summer months of December and February, with the best views on the outbound trip found on the left-hand side.

Duration: 10 hours (return)

Best for: Riding through Brazil's wild rainforest

Route: Curitiba (Curitiba Station) - Morretes

Sabores del Valle, Chile

Colchagua Valley (Dreamstime)

Colchagua Valley (Dreamstime)

Aimed squarely at the thirsty end of the leisure market, this day-long rail-and-bus trip starts and ends in the Chilean capital of Santiago, making it an easy addition to any travel plans.

The Tren del Vino departs shortly after 9am and heads south for two hours, as far as San Fernando, crossing the region's main wine-producing valleys. Live music and - even at this early hour - wine tastings provide plenty of on-board entertainment.

When the engine stops, passengers head by bus into the nearby Colchagua Valley for a winery tour, lunch and a 90-minute visit to the renowned Colchagua Museum - a truly fascinating collection of pre-Columbian artefacts, Mapuche silver and cowboy gear. From then on, it's back to San Fernando for the return rail journey to the capital, during which (surprise) there's the chance to sample more of the local wine. Happily, it's a mighty pleasant drop - the reds from the region are especially well thought of.

Departures on the service are sporadic, running two or three times a month, usually on Saturdays. It's a tourist train plain and simple, but the fact that it attracts so many locals tells its own story. Plus, it'll leave time to test out your new tasting skills in the wine bars of the capital's Lastarria and Bellavista areas, or at least walk off your hangover the next morning in Cerro Santa Lucía, the city's green lung and a good spot for a wander.

Duration: 12 hours (return)

Best for: Wine tasting and captivating valley views

Route: Santiago (Alameda Station) - San Fernando - Santiago

Tren a las Nubes, Argentina

Tren a las Nubes (Dreamstime)

Tren a las Nubes (Dreamstime)

Since being inaugurated in the late 1940s, Argentina's famous Tren a las Nubes - or Train to the Clouds - has been regularly ranked among the world's top rail adventures. It's also been frequently out of action, hampered by everything from financial problems to a derailment, and it's impacted on the route.

The service is currently running as a bus-and-train combination journey (Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday), with only the most westerly section between San Antonio de los Cobres and the Polvorilla Viaduct covered by rail. This is likely to remain the case until around 2022, when the full line is due to reopen.

It remains, however, one of the simplest ways of witnessing the country's towering north-west. Buses connecting with the train depart the attractive colonial city of Salta at 7am, though it's worth arriving here a day early to explore. Wander the crumbling 17th-century buildings or visit the curious Museum of High Altitude Archeology, where you can see mummified remains found in an Inca burial site on nearby Mount Llullaillaco.

The bus makes multiple photo stops en route as it snakes west through the tobacco fields of the Lerma Valley, passing forests of red-blossoming ceibo (the national flower of Argentina). From there, it rises into the brightly coloured rocky ravines of the Quebrada del Toro, slowly twirling up into the high-altitude desert plains of La Puna and - five hours after leaving Salta - the old mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres. This is where you'll board the train and set out across the high plateau to reach the Polvorilla Viaduct, a structure that sits at an atmospherically thin 4,200m above sea level, seemingly on top of the world.

Duration: 13 hours (return)

Best for: High-altitude scenery and dramatic ravines

Route: Salta (Salta Station) - San Antonio de los Cobres - Polvorilla Viaduct

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