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The 10 Best Train Trips in South America

Updated on February 26, 2011

Discovering South America by Train

Train travel is an experience. It is often a wonderful way to relax, make new friends and see sights and the local countryside you would have missed if you were traveling via road or by plane. Train travel takes us back to a bygone era when steam voyages whether by land or sea was an event and the height of fashion.

South America offers diverse and interesting train trips through some of the most facsinating and scenic areas on the continent. Discover South America's coasts, canyons, planes, and of course the Andes Mountains along the way - Discover the top 10 train journeys in South America:

El Tren del Vino
El Tren del Vino

#10 - El Tren del Vino

Chile's Wine Train

South of Santiago, Chile's Tren del Vino is a heritage railway that combines the historic train journey with sampling wonderful Chilean wines. You begin your journey when you board the train in San Fernando, approximately 2 hours south of Santiago, where you will set out on board a 1913 coal fired steam train for a fantastic excursion south to the Colchaquac Valley.

El Tren del Vino's cars have been meticulously restored polished wood and velvet interiors indicative of the finest cars of the era. In cars appropriately Cabernet, Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Merlot sommeliers offer tastings of some of the country's finest red and white wines. There are also plenty of cheese, nuts and organic apples to enjoy while listening to local folk musicians and a bilingual narration of the trip.

The train makes its way through the Cachapoal Valley in the heart of the Chilean Wine Region - in 2005 this region was chosen as the best place in the world to make wine by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The route is scenic with the towering coastal mountains in the background and neatly placed rows of grapes in the foreground.

Arriving at the Santa Cruz station the train journey comes to an end. Here local dancers perform the Chilean National Dance then its off to tour a local vineyard, while receiving a lesson on wine making and a buffet lunch.

El Tren del Vino is a wonderful scenic way to spend the day and enjoy some fine Chilean Wine along the way.

Cachapoal Valley Chile

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San Fernando Chile
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B markerSanta Cruz Chile -
Santa Cruz Chile
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Pantanal Express
Pantanal Express

#9 - Pantanal Express

Brazil

A seven-hour, 137 mile train ride through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. The Pantanal Express travels through the largest continuous wetland in the world. The passenger cars feature large glass windows from which travelers can view the wonderous wildllife and birds that live along the way including the bright blue hyacinth macaw the largest flying parrott in the world. Scenic wonders abound with hills, waterfalls and the Aquiauana River along the way.

The route was originated by the Estrada de Ferro Noroeste do Brasil in 1914 and for 81 years, the train connected the remote Pantanal region with other parts of Brazil. During the 20th century the Pantanal's economy boomed and immense cattle ranches were established throughout the region. By the 1950s, there were farms growing rice, soybeans, coffee as well as sugarcane plantations popping up all around the Pantanal's perimeter. To proctect the area in 1981, the huge Parque Nacional Pantanal Matogrossense was established, with the aim of preserving the vulnerable ecosystem. It was declared a Ramsar Site of International Importance in 1993 and in 2000 a UNESCO world conservation site.

The Serra Verde Express which operates the Great Brazil Express stepped in and 2009 began offering the Pantanal Express. Starting in Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul the train passes by the hills and waterfalls of the Maracaju Range, there's a three-hour stop for lunch and sightseeing at Aquidauana, on the shores of the namesake river. The journey ends at the Miranda Railway Station, built in 1912, is one of the oldest in Mato Grosso do Sul.

The Pantanal Express is a journey through Brazil's history, bio diversity and culture.

Pantanal Express

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Campo Grande, Brazil
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B markerMiranda, Brazil -
Miranda, Brazil
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Nariz del Diablo
Nariz del Diablo

#8 - Nariz del Diablo

Devil's Nose - Ecuador

The train ride from Riobamba to Sibambe which includes the Devil's Nose was originally part of the rail line connecting the capital city of Quito located in the Andes with the coastal city of Guayaquil. Considered a major engineering feat at the time of its construction the Devil's Nose was called "The Most Difficult Train in the World". The railway climbs a 1-in-18 gradient from 5900 feet to over 8500 feet. Designed be renowned Polish railway engineer Ernest Malinowski, the train makes its way up the sheer rock face of the mountain in a series of nail biting zigzags where the train goes forward and backwards to climb the near parallel train tracks.

The train ride begins in the picturesque city of Riobamba located south of Quito in the shadow of the Chimborazo Volcano the highest mountain in Ecuador. The train passes down the Avenue of the Volcanoes - name by Alexander Humboldt for the long valley between the two mountain ranges in the Andes Highlands passing by small villages and stunning views of the snow capped peaks including Tunguragua and El Altar.

Part train ride - part adventure the Devil's Nose is noted for being the most exhilarating train ride on the continent. Sitting on the top of old box cars exposed to the elements is the best way to experience the ride. With breathtaking views of the countryside the train climbs steep cliffs and makes sudden drops to create one incredible experience.

Devil's Nose Train

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Riobamba, Ecuador
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Sibambe, Ecuador
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Tren a la Nubes
Tren a la Nubes

#7 - Tren a la Nubes

Train to the Clouds - Argentina

The Tren a las Nubes or Tren de las Nubes (Train to/of the Clouds) travels through the northeastern part of Argentina to the Chilean boarder. One of the highest railways in the world, clouds can often be seen under and around the bridges and slopes along the way thus giving it its name.

Considered one of the great railroad engineering works in the world, the train to the clouds is a heritage railway designed by American engineer Richard Fontaine Maury. Departing from the town Salta the line travels to Valle de Lerma and the Quebrada del Toro to reach Puna. Along the way the train crosses 19 tunnels passes over 29 bridges and 13 viaducts there are 9 sheds, several sewers and two disorienting spirals reaching a final elevation of 13,845 feet.

There are stations along the way with stall selling handicrafts, clothing and souvenirs. Travelers are entertained on board with sightseeing and dining cars, folkloric music shows, videos and bilingual guides. The train runs from April to November and leaves at 7:00 a.m., returning to Salta around 10:40 p.m. The Train to the Clouds is a scenic and historic journey into the Argentinean high plateau.

Hiram Bingham Train
Hiram Bingham Train

#6 - Hiram Bingham Train

Train to Machu Picchu - Peru

Machu Picchu is without a doubt one of most fascinating places to visit in South America. Named one of the 7 wonders of the new world, the Lost City of The Incas is an incredible site to behold. For most travelers the way they reach Machu Picchu is via a spectacular train ride.

Departing from either Cusco or the Sacred Valley the train journeys alongside the Urubamba River, passing by fields, snow capped Andes Mountains, Inca terraces and lesser known Incan sites. There are bridges, tunnels, and as you draw near to your arrival the scenery changes to the tropical cloud forest.

There are two railway lines which offer service to Machu Picchu Inca Rail and Perurail. Inca Rail offers service between the Urubamaba Valley and Machu Picchu offering either First Class or Executive Class accommodations.

The Hiram Bingham Train, named for the explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu provides a luxury class travel experience from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Ranked as one of the best journeys in 2008 by the ItalianClass Magazine, the Hiram Bingham Train is operated by a joint venture between Peru Rail and Orient Express. The blue and gold polished Pullman cars are designed to embody the height of 1920’s luxury. Once on board passengers can wander between the bar car where they can enjoy a pisco sour or other drink while listening to local folkloric show or the dining car where they can enjoy world class cuisine while viewing the stunning scenery out the large picture windows.

The morning train service offers brunch while the afternoon service offers wine and cheese. The Hiram Bingham Train is the most elegant way to reach the magnificent citadel of Machu Picchu and is the most popular train ride in South America.

Cusco to Machu Picchu

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Cusco, Peru
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La Trochita
La Trochita

#5 - La Trochita

Old Patagonia Express - Argentina

The most famous narrow gauge railway in the world, La Trochita is best known as the “Old Patagonia Express” the train immortalized in the Paul Theroux novel. A Heritage Railway the train runs on 750 mm 2 ft 5 ½ inch narrow gauge tracks and is pulled by legendary 1922 stream engines. Passenger cars are made from wood and have big windows to view the scenery as well as each has its own each one with its own wood-burning salamande to keep passengers warm.

The journey travels though the barren Patagonia plains, passing heard of sheep, guanacos, and flocks of ñandúes (large Rheas similar in appearance to the Ostrich) with mammoth snow covered mountains in the background. Along the way there are frequent water stops to produce the steam necessary to complete the journey. Traveling through remote Patagonia La Trochita is a scenic journey back and is one of the most unique and historic train rides in the world.

Andes Explorer
Andes Explorer

#4 - Andes Express

Puno to Lake Titicaca - Peru

The second highest railway with regular scheduled service in the world - the Andean Explorer links Cusco and Lake Titicaca. This spectacular 10 hour journey through the Andes Mountains is operated by Peru Rail/Orient Express. The Andean Explorer is operated with a fleet of refurbished 1920s Pullman cars. The bar car offers passengers the chance to stretch their legs on board and purchase snacks and drinks while the stunning glass and open air observation car provides both a local for the on board entertainment and a place to see the ride.

Leaving Puno (Lake Titicaca) the train travels to Juliaca where an open air market is located along the train tracks. The merchants quickly temporarily relocated their stalls just long enough for the train to travel through the middle of the market. As the train passes by the stalls are quickly moved back into place on the train tracks.

The train continues up to La Raya the highest point of the journey at 14,150 feet (4313 meters) it is the highest point in the journey. The train stops allowing the passengers to take photos, stretch their legs and purchase souvenirs from local vendors.

The journey continues towards Cusco through the Rio Hutanay and Urubamba River Valleys where small towns, farms and stunning mountain landscape dominate the scenery - vicuña and alpaca are often seen. There are several archaeological sites along the way as well including Racqui and the Temple of Wiracocha.

Andes Express

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Cusco, Peru
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Puno, Peru
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Train to the End of the World
Train to the End of the World

#3 - Southern Fuegian Railway

Train to the End of the World - Argentina

The Southern Fuegian Railway or the End of the World Train is the southernmost train in the world. Located in Tierra del Fuego, southern Argentina this is a bitter cold land with sub-polar climate and 200 days a year of light rain and snow. It was here that the indigenous Yámana made their home and were encountered by the Captain Fitzroy and the HMS Beagle during its maiden voyage in 1833.

The railway's history dates back to the end of the 19th century and the prison built here for Argentina's most dangerous criminals. The original train was constructed in 1902 to transport materials to construct permanent prison. Labor was provided by the convicts themselves. A XILOCAR, a train that ran on wooden rails, was set up to transport the materials. Its gauge was less than a meter in width and its flatbed wagons were pulled by oxen along the crude rails.

In 1909 the prison governor called for improvement of the railway line and 60 cm gauge were laid and in 1910 a steam engine was brought in. The train line connected the prison camp with the forestry camp and the town of Ushuia. The original train ceased operation in 1952 after the prison was closed and an earthquake severely damaged the track. In 1994 the railway was refurbished and a new steam locomotive was brought from England which operates along with several diesel locomotives made in Argentina.

The small trains leave from the End of the World Station west of Ushuaia and take passengers along the Pico Valley and Toro gorge, to the Macarena Station where you can learn about the Yámana, stop at a vista point to view Waterfalls before continuing into Tierra del Fuego National Park.

If the Southern Fuegian Railway was located in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern hemisphere it would most likely be a "Santa" themed train ride. Instead the small heated cars transport visitors incredibly 365 days a year through history and beauty of Tierra del Fuego.

Tren to the End of the World

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Ushaia, Argentina
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Great Brazil Express
Great Brazil Express

#2 - Great Brazil Express

Brazil

Our number 2 selection for the best train journeys in South America is a journey that combines trains, flights and side bus tours to create one of the best experiences in South America -The Great Brazil Express.

This rail package begins with your stay on the Copacabana Beach in infamous Rio where you will take in the sites including the Sugar Loaf Mountain famous statue of Corcovado. Departing Lima a brief flight takes you to Curiba where you board the train.

Traveling on board a luxury Pullman train the railroad journey takes you through the largest remaining Atlantic Rain forest. Surrounded by lush green forest on all sides the train clings to the side of the mountain as it travels through tunnels and over viaducts. There are a number of side trips including Vila Velha National Park to see the fascinating rock formations created by the wind and Guartela Canyon, the sixth longest canyons of the world.

The Great Brazil Express continues across the great grass lands crossing through the heart of Brazil to reach its final destination of Iguassu Falls. Cut into 275 separate falls and large islands Iguassu Falls has the second greatest annual flow of any waterfall in the world.

These impressive waterfalls are often noted as a larger and more inspiring than either Niagara Falls in North America or Victoria Falls in Africa.

The Great Brazil Express is an amazing luxury journey through the very best of Brazil.

Great Brazil Express

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Lima to Huancayo Train
Lima to Huancayo Train

#1 - Train Lima to Huancayo

Peru

Our best train journey in South America is America's highest railway and the second highest railway in the world - the train journey from Lima to Huancayo. This 12 hour journey takes you through central Peru traveling from sea level to reach a staggering elevation of 15,869 feet (4,782 meters) passing through 69 tunnels, over 58 bridges and 21 switchbacks.

In 1851 Polish engineer Ernest Malinowski (the same engineer who built The Devil's Nose in Ecuador) began plans to build the railway line. Malinowski began choosing the route and American railroad builder Henry Meiggs was contracted to complete the job. Construction began in January of 1870 it was anticipated it would take 6 years to complete the job. However due to the difficulties including a war with Chile, neither Malinowski nor Meiggs would live long enough to see the train completed. It is estimated the final work was completed by 10,000 men over a period of 40 years. The train from Lima to Huancayo constructed without the aid of modern machinery or technology it remained the highest train in the world until the construction of the Qingzang railway in Tibet was completed in 2006.

The journey begins at the Patio Central in Callao and follows along the Rimac River until it reaches Chichan, then passes through the Galera Tunnel (the highest point on the route) then it continues down following the Yauli River until La Oroya and then the Mantaro River along the way the train passes through 6 climate zones.

Highlights of the trip include

- 21 zigzag switch backs

- The Infiernillo Bridge at 10,820 feet elevation spanning a canyon with two vast rock tunnels at each end

- The Bridge over the Verrugas Canyon at a height of 253 feet and 574 feet in length is one of the biggest in the world

- The Balta Tunnel which travels ¾ of a mile underground

- The Galera Tunnel which was bore at the route's highest point

- 11 special turntables allowing the train to change directions

As well as beautiful scenery including breathtaking rock cliffs of the Andes Mountains to accompany you along the way.

It is incredible to think about the creative effort to design this route or the amount of effort to build the railway line over 100 years ago without the aid of any modern day equipment. Traveling into the remote central Andes of Peru the railroad journey from Lima to Huancayo is the highest railroad in the western hemisphere and is the #1 Best Railroad Journey in South America.

Lima to Huancayo

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Lima, Peru
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    • Jicotea Kinsella profile image

      Jicotea Kinsella 2 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      I'll be looking into South American train adventures for my next trip! Thanks for the great article!

    • profile image

      miaponzo 4 years ago

      Traveling in South America sounds like a blast! :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great article! Can't wait to check out one of these train rides!

    • top101 profile image

      top101 5 years ago

      very nice ;)

    • KellydeBorda profile image

      KellydeBorda 6 years ago

      Great Lens - blessed by an Angel!

    • profile image

      LegalDog 6 years ago

      Great information, Can't wait to visit.

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image

      Bellezza-Decor 6 years ago from Canada

      Great lens and very information. Angel Blessed.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 6 years ago

      Great lens, I like tripe by train because we can see a lot, on the plane...

      I also like that you put the maps for all the trips, it really is a good resource lens.

      Thanks

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Excellent lens, and I would love to take all of these train journeys. I have wanted to go to Machu Pichu for years, I know several people who have been and it sounds amazing. I am fascinated by ancient history. I did spend several days in Rio some years ago and then several days in Iguassu, which I highly recommend. Keep this quality up and you should do well on Squidoo. Blessed by an angel.