The old Patagonian, La Trochita (Gustavo Perretto)
List Words : Anthony Lambert | 01 April

The last great Latin rail journeys

While European trains are rattling along new high-speed routes, many of South America's are heading for the sidings, but they are classics

1. Brave the Death Train, Bolivia and Brazil, Santa Cruz to Corumba

The name 'Death Train' refers more to the feeling at the end of the journey than a serious risk of meeting a premature demise – though the name was bestowed after a spate of derailments.

So why do travellers subject themselves to a journey of 12 to 40 hours? It offers the chance to appreciate the wilderness of the Amazon lowlands between the cities of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Corumba, across the border on the edge of the Pantanal in Brazil. For the authentic experience of sharing your coach with goats and anything else heading to or from the market, third class in the Regional train is the place to be. There are two faster trains, the Expreso del Oriente and the Ferrobus, which are more comfortable and with more amenities.

Because this railway is a lifeline for the communities it serves, the train is nearly always full so to secure tickets get there early.

2. Head into the south, Argentina, Buenos Aires to Bariloche

Sleeping-car trains once left Constitucion station in Buenos Aires and deposited their refreshed passengers on the platform at Bariloche - a gateway to Patagonia. Today it's not quite so easy. Only two trains a week run to Carmen de Patagones, and you then have to walk or take a taxi across the Rio Negro to Viedma to catch the Tren Patagonico bound for Bariloche.

This isn't a tourist affair, but an authentic train for local people – it just happens to traverse steadily more beautiful scenery to arrive on the edge of a national park and the glorious Lake Nahuel Huapi.

3. Make it through the Sierra Madre, Mexico, Los Mochis to Chihuahua

This is one of the most successful tourist trains in Latin America and, with its 653km of immense and varied scenery, it's easy to see why. Two trains a day run in each direction, taking 14 hours. The line climbs from sea level at Los Mochis to 2,460m at Los Ojitos. It passes through astonishingly diverse country – prairie-like fields of grain and maize, apple and peach orchards farmed by Mennonites, tree-shrouded valleys, stupendous bridges and the Copper Canyon.

The canyon can't be seen from the train, which stops at Divisadero station for 15 minutes to allow passengers to walk to a viewing platform and gaze 1,000m down into the chasm. Creel is a good place to break the journey; near the historic mining and logging town are some spectacular waterfalls.

4. Down the Devil's Nose, Ecuador, Riobamba to Sibambe

If you've watched films of hobos riding the roofs of boxcars, you can get close to the experience on this hair-raising ride. It's a measure of the physical drama of the railway that it took 37 years from 1871 to finish the full 452km link between Quito and Guayaquil. The main obstacle to completion was the part that now gives the railway its principal attraction: El Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose) – the only section currently in operation.

Switchbacks traverse impressive landscapes; all around are desolate, grey-brown slopes of rock and mountain vegetation reaching into the clouds. The spectacle of watching a steam locomotive struggling up the fearsome gradients is something never forgotten, but today most passengers make the journey in an autoferro (a bus mounted on railway bogies) with space for 34 inside and 20 on the roof-mounted benches.

Many passengers travel from Riobamba down the Devil's Nose to Alausi – and take the bus back. Buy your ticket at the station the day before so you can bag the best seats (right-hand side).

5. Hop on the Old Patagonian, Argentina, Esquel to El Maiten

A journey on this narrow-gauge line helps explain how 19th-century Welsh immigrants came to feel at home in the rugged wastes of Patagonia – it is as desolate as parts of the Brecon Beacons. Small wonder Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid felt safe holing up here.

La Trochita – the train that gave Paul Theroux the title of his book The Old Patagonian Express – used to run for 402km between an isolated junction at Ingeniero Jacobacci and what has now become the ski resort of Esquel; now it infrequently chugs between El Maiten and Esquel only, across an endless cordillera covered with thorn bushes and coarse grass, with snowy peaks looming beyond. Ancient German and American locomotives drag venerable carriages heated by wood-burning stoves on which a kettle simmers for mate, the local herbal tea.

6. Ride into thin air, Peru, Lima to Huancayo

You know you're on a rather unusual railway when you see the men in white coats come round – not to take you away but in case you need a restorative shot of oxygen. To go from sea level in the Peruvian capital, Lima, to 4,781m La Galera – formerly the world's highest station until the building of China's Beijing-Lhasa line – taxes some passengers' respiratory systems. But it's worth a bit of wheezing to experience this phenomenal railway.

The FC Central Andino's (Andean Central Railroad) mountain crossing is a miracle of engineering perseverance – an awe-inspiring succession of tunnels, viaducts strung across chasms between sheer faces of rock, and a remarkable zigzag, at which trains reverse and charge up a steep section of track before again changing direction and resuming the climb facing the right way.

It wasn't just the builders who had a tough time of it: the son of the explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett, who inexplicably disappeared in the Amazon in 1925, was an engineer on the railway, and his stories about the struggle to keep the railway operating speak of a fortitude rare in our pampered times. So it's little wonder that the train service on this most challenging of lines petered out until its recent revival. It's still not the most dependable of timetables, but a train at weekends from mid-April to the end of November was scheduled in 2006.

7. Put your head in the clouds, Argentina, Salta to La Polvorilla

It must seem a barking idea to some, operating a train over 217km and  stopping at a viaduct in the middle of nowhere – especially to those who were stranded for hours in 2005 at 4,200m in sub-zero temperatures. They really understood the meaning of its name – Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds). So although this is an operation that would probably not run without tourists, the 15-hour round trip is not without its risks and excitement – and locals do use it to reach their isolated villages.

The weekly train leaves from the historic colonial town of Salta. It then climbs the eastern flank of the Andes, crossing 31 bridges and 13 viaducts, negotiating spirals and zigzags, and diving through 21 tunnels. The climax of the journey is the curving, 224m-long, 70m-high viaduct in a stunning setting at La Polvorilla. Try to sit on the left-hand side.

8. Chug to the Pacific, Chile, Talca to Constitucion

This can't compare with the wonders of the Andes, but a ride on this branch line provides a good introduction to Chile and its courteous people. At weekends this is the nearest thing in South America to Cornish branch lines crammed with families armed with hampers, and bucket and spades.

Talca is a junction on the main line that runs down the spine of Chile, and there are normally two return railbuses a day over this 88km line down to the sea. It's quite civilised, often with someone selling light refreshments while you watch people working in the market gardens and vineyards beside the track. During the leisurely stop at the halfway point of Gonzalez Bastia, where the trains pass, passengers take the chance to get off and chat to friends.

The engineering highlight of the journey is the spectacular Eiffel-designed steel viaduct across the Rio Maule, 5km before Constitucion, where the train runs down the middle of the street – a once common sight in South America. Sadly a paper mill has sullied the air in the resort, so its famous black-sand beaches are not as appealing as they once were; a much less enjoyable bus journey back to Talca might seem preferable to a wait for the evening train.

9. Ride the rainforest railway, Brazil, Madeira to Mamore

"One for every sleeper", was the morbid saying of the day. During the building of this isolated railway on a tributary of the Amazon, 5,000 workers lost their lives through disease, attacks, accidents and disappearances during the early years of the 20th century.

It took 40 years to build by labourers drawn from Britain, Denmark, Germany, Spain, China, Portugal and the US, finally opening in 1912 at Guajara-Mirim, the southern terminal. The rubber and river rapids above Porto Velho, which made navigation impossible, were the reasons for its construction, and its unique place in Brazil's history has earned it National Monument status. The 7km of line as far as Santo Antonio are being restored so trains can run again, but the remaining 359km have been taken over by the jungle since the line's closure in 1971. The first revived train ran in 2005 using an old steam locomotive, chugging from Porto Velho to the mass grave where many of those who died building the line are buried.