Riding Latin America’s Five Greatest Railways
No-one talks about great coach journeys of the world.
Whether it’s due to the technical feats involved, the fact you can get up and wander around or simply the sight of beautiful scenery jerking rhythmically about, train travel has something uniquely special about it. Perhaps it’s just the inherent fun of accidentally scalding your loved one when you return to your seat with hot drinks – train travel is romantic, too.
Whilst many of Latin America’s railways have gone the way of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, the region can still proudly call itself home to some of the world’s greatest train journeys.
Here are five excellent opportunities to see tortuous mountain passes, wide open plains and the various creatures that inhabit these places all jerking about rhythmically for your entertainment.
Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (Chihuahua-Pacific Railway) (Mexico)
Also referred to as the Copper Canyon railway, this treasure of northern Mexico links the country’s mountainous spine with its Pacific coast.
In tracing a path through the rugged folds of green and copper, the track enlists the help of 86 tunnels and 36 bridges, and takes at least 16 hours.
A real highlight is the station at Divisidero from where you can see three awe-inspiring canyons converge with each other. You can also see succulent ears of corn caramelising on grills, for sale by enterprising locals. Which sight you find more breathtaking probably says a lot about you.
The area is inhabited by the Tarahumara, a people famed for their long-distance running ability, though they probably just take the train like everybody else when there are no anthropologists around.
When this train isn’t clinging to Andean mountainsides or rattling through orchards, it’s hustling its way down the streets of pastel-shaded settlements as though it has jumped the tracks. Which it’s also prone to doing for real occasionally.
The most famous section traverses the monstrous rocky obstacle known as the Devil’s Nose (El Nariz del Diablo) – it wouldn’t be Latin America without a casual reference to the devil’s anatomy.
Said appendage is dealt with by doings lots of advancing and reversing, which would just look indecisive if there weren’t also sets of points and zig-zags of track (‘switchbacks’) involved.
Thankfully there’s no Devil’s Adam’s apple to negotiate: if the technical issues don’t sound bad enough, just imagine the theological ones.
La Trochita (‘The Little Narrow Gauge’) (Argentina)
Immortalised in Paul Theroux’s 1978 book The Old Patagonian Express, this railway is not just a journey through the wild treeless scrub of Patagonia: it’s a trip back in time. Fortunately, it’s only back to the era of steam travel, rather than that of armed railway banditry.
Enjoy the view from your tiny carriage as the train rattles past dotted masses of sheep and the occasional guanaco. Ostrich-like rheas are even known to run alongside the train at times, although they’re not usually packing guns.
The diminutive trains are made up of rolling stock from the 1920s with a wood-fired stove in each carriage for warmth. These are passenger-fed, so the temperature depends entirely on the whim of those sat near the stove. Thankfully, the driving of this vintage train isn’t done by the same system.
Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) (Argentina)
Do people accuse you of having your head in the clouds? Well here’s your chance to prove them right. Strictly speaking, you’ll only prove you’ve got your train in the clouds, but no matter.
This is a high-altitude romp through the gorges, dried-up riverbeds and bunchgrasses of northwest Argentina. The train starts high and goes higher, gaining over 3,000 metres in altitude in its ascent to the Andean altiplano (high plain), ending at a breathless 4,200 metres above sea-level near to the Chilean border.
As with other routes in Latin America, the train has to trick its way across difficult terrain using sleight-of-hand like switchbacks, viaducts and even 360 degree spirals. There are no loop-the-loops, but you can’t have everything.
Panama Railway (Panama)
If you’re not satisfied unless your train journey was founded on a legacy of death and misery, then the Panama Railway is the one for you.
Construction of the original route claimed thousands of lives, many of which were to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever at a time when mosquitoes had yet to be identified as the cause.
The railway, completed 60 years before the canal, suddenly transformed crossing the Americas into a feasible proposition, it being quicker than sailing round Cape Horn and safer than hydrogen-filled trousers.
Though the journey takes less than an hour it effectively spans the entire continent, giving great views of the canal as well as the jungle and swamps that made the project so horrendous. For added realism, pretend to swat things on your skin whilst affecting liver pains.
Published in Shoestring Issue #3