The Devil's nose, Ecuador. Courtesy Colin Hodgkinson
Train travel in Mexico, Central & South America
Unlike in Europe, or parts of Asia or Africa, there's no real coherent international rail network, and most journeys must generally be made by long-distance bus or plane.. Indeed, most countries have no coherent national rail network. But here and there you'll find odd rail lines that make an interesting way to travel and are worth knowing about.
On this page...
Train travel in:
On other pages...
Train travel in Peru
About this page...
This page is still being developed. If you have any information, photos, web links, that would be relevant to travellers (not railway enthusiasts, but regular travellers) in South America, please e-mail me.
Europe to South America by sea...
There are no regular passenger ships from the UK or Europe to Central or South America. If you have the time and money, it's possible to cross the Atlantic from Southampton to New York with Cunard, catch an Amtrak train from New York to New Orleans then somewhere like El Paso, followed by buses down through Mexico. See the United States page for more information. Alternatively, some freight ships have a limited number of passenger places, and there may be the occasional cruise especially in spring & autumn when cruise ships relocate across the Atlantic.
For travel by freighter, the best place to start your research is www.geocities.com/freighterman.geo, www.freighter-cruises.com. UK agencies booking travel on cargo ships include www.strandtravelltd.co.uk, CruiseAZ & www.cruisepeople.co.uk.
Train travel in Argentina
There are InterCity services on quite a number of routes, run by various different operators. Trains in Argentina are experiencing something of a revival, since the government intends to re-establish long-distance passenger trains between all major cities. For information, see www.sateliteferroviario.com.ar/horarios/ (in Spanish only), which has info on all Argentinean train services. One of the largest operators is Ferrobaires, www.ferrobaires.gba.gov.ar (in Spanish only, but click 'Horarios y Tarifas for fares & timetables, 'Destinos' for a route map, and get help from Google translate). See map of Argentina.
Train to the Clouds (El Tren a las Nubes) tourist service: This runs from Salta in northern Argentina, see www.trenalasnubes.com.ar and also this report, www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g312822-d313778-r49377372-Train_to_the_Clouds_El_Tren_a_las_Nubes-Salta_Province_of_Salta_Northern_Argentina.html
Traveller's report: Travelling on Argentinean trains...
Buenos Aires - Mar del Plata: For current information, see www.ferrobaires.gba.gov.ar (in Spanish only, but click 'Horarios y Tarifas for fares & timetables and get help from Google translate). In 2013, things have changed for the worse, please consult the official sites for the latest situation on this route.
Local traveller Joel Fernandez reports (February 2010): "Mar del Plata is the coastal city in Argentina, it's the biggest one lying on the Atlantic Coast and every summer (December-March) lots of tourists from all around the world go there. There are two daily train services from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, although there used to be more than 8 a day in the golden years... but governments aren't very helpful, you know... On the other hand, there's a express service (called "El Marplatense", meaning "The one from Mar del Plata") weekly during summertime. It departs Buenos Aires' Constitución Station every Friday at 18:20 and arrives Mar del Plata North Station (the only one still open) at 00:10 on Saturday. The service is non-stop, and there's only one class all over the train called SuperPullman. The seats are very comfortable and offer you a lot of legroom, and every car has its own lounge. There's a Restaurant car which offers sandwiches, beer, beverages and more, along with the dinner which is served on every trip (not included on fare). I've travelled recently back from Mar del Plata to Buenos Aires on this service and I think it was awesome. For only a plus of 20 ARS over the slow "Pullman" train, you get a much more comfortable and reliable service. The return train Departs Sundays from Mar del Plata at 18 10, arriving Constitución at 23:50. The fare is 90 ARS (about £15 or US$25), and the dinner costs (roughly) 33 ARS (about £5.50 or $9). It's a great way to get to the most important Atlantic resort in Argentina, a great alternative against the POOR flights, the BUSES and the 450 km car trip...
Buenos Aires - Cordoba: Traveller P. Gale reports from a journey in December 2010: "Cordoba railway station is a gem and gives so many memories of northern UK stations. The twice weekly train was full. My berth in the sleeping car was more than adequate as the track is broad gauge and clean with washing facilities, good bed-linen and plenty of baggage space. No English spoken. The track is abysmal and for the seven hundred odd kilometres to BA, the journey took 17.5 hours. The dining car offered excellent meals but curiosity like the only drink on offer was either Coke or Red wine. Prices are still ridiculously cheap. Retiro station is still a gem and looks no different since the 20 odd years, I was last there. Argentineans think people mad to still go by train but one journey is still an experience."
Traveller Ian Hunter reports: " In October 2006 I made several long train journeys in Argentina and Chile. Argentinean trains are a superb way to get to know the country and its people. It's not the third world but don't expect European standards of comfort, but something in between.
Buenos Aires - Bahia Blanca - Carmen de Patagones: The train leaves B.A. at quite respectable speeds but becomes progressively slower as the track deteriorates! Most of Argentina is very sparsely populated and there is an amazing sense of space and distance, of travelling to places uncontaminated by mass tourism. The different classes of car have similar seats of acceptable quality though often a bit shabby. Plenty of legroom and better than buses, but if you ride in the non air-conditioned cars the main problem is dust. South of Bahia Blanca the track is very rough. There is a reliable supply of coffee, beer and sandwiches for most of the journey. Important update: As of 17 March 2010, all train service between Bahia Blanca & Carmen de Patagones was cancelled, due to frequent sandstorms damaging the track - Trains may resume at some point, indeed in September 2013 a test train with new carriages was run, and service may resume in 2014, see this newspaper report: www.diarioandino.com.ar/diario/2013/09/07/el-tren-completo-con-exito-el-viaje-experimental-buenos-aires-bariloche. If you have any more info please email me.
Carmen de Patagones - Viedma - C. de Bariloche: Viedma is across the river by small ferry from Carmen de Patagones, but no same day connection is possible so you need a night in a hotel. The 'tren patagonico' from Viedma to C. de Bariloche is tremendous fun and thoroughly recommended! Comfy secure sleeping cars (solo travellers are given a compartment to themselves and a key to lock it), excellent dining car serves steaks and wine, good company and wonderful Patagonian scenery in the morning. Excellent value, and you can buy the tickets in advance in Buenos Aires at Gallerias Rio Negro on Reconquista.
Onwards to Chile: It is easy to travel by day from Bariloche by bus to Osorno or Puerto Montt in Southern Chile. Passenger trains only operate south of Santiago but the quality, frequency, and speed of Chilean passenger trains is very good. Comparable with Western Europe, in fact most of the rolling stock is imported from Spain, clean, modern, well maintained......and probably the only really good track in South America! At the time of my visit services were suspended between Victoria and Temuco due to storm damage but there were plentiful buses covering this section in a couple of hours.
Buenos Aires - Cordoba: I returned from Cordoba to B.A. by train on a route over which passenger service has recently been restored. The usual awful Argentine track, but another nice train with good service, sleeping and dining cars, quite acceptable seating cars and friendly crew and passengers.
"As in North America, people travel on the long distance trains in Argentina because they like travelling by train and dislike buses or flying. This creates a very convivial atmosphere in which the journey becomes a worthwhile experience for its own sake. It means the trains are busy so buy your ticket a day or two in advance if possible, especially if you want a sleeping car berth. The trains are cheaper than buses, so popular with students and young people. After years of decline, decay and neglect there is a political initiative to restore long distance trains, but progress is slow in rehabilitating track and rolling stock. There are reports that the 'Trans-Andino' line between Mendoza and Santiago de Chile will be operating again by 2010. I f this happens I would love to return to travel on it. The experience of train travel is unique in each country, and somehow manages to capture so much of a nation's character, but buses and planes are the same everywhere!"
Traveller Stephen Hugget reports from 2008: I travelled on the Viedma to Bariloche train 'tren patagonico' in January on a ticket I bought locally, which involved a great deal of pot luck... There is no mechanism for online ticket purchase and any emails to the website result in asking for payment for reservations by Western Union. I resisted the temptation to part with £25 plus an additional £12 for the pleasure of transferring the money and was rewarded by an outstanding 18 hours in economy for £4. The experience was no worse that getting a train into Cannon Street in the rush hour, it just lasted longer! However, your webpage suggests that the above Camen de Patagones to Bahia Blanca line is closed. The tourist office in Viedma where I managed to get my ticket in January 2008 insists you can still get from Buenos Aires to Carmen by train along the line via Bahia Blanca.... although I didn't ultimately use the line the lady in the shop was adamant that it is open.
Train travel in Bolivia
The WaraWara slow train from Tupiza to Oruro. Photo courtesy of 's'
There are a few train services in Bolivia, operated by two train companies, eastern (www.ferroviariaoriental.com) and western (www.fca.com.bo). The western network is more tourist-orientated, with trains from Oruro to Tupiza. There are two types of train, the expresso and WaraWara (the slower train makes more stops). There are 3 or 4 classes, 'ejecutivo' being the best. It can get very cold in the train, with trips in both directions mainly made at night. There is also a working branch line to Calama in Chile but this only runs rarely perhaps once a week. The main line form Oruro to Tupiza runs almost daily. See map of Bolivia.
In the east of Bolivia, the rail hub is Santa Cruz, and trains go east to the Brazilian border and South to the Argentine border. There is a train every day from Santa Cruz east to Puerto Suarez. However, there are a mix of services. There is a normal train that locals take and takes the longest. There is an express train. And there is an expensive and fast ferrobus which is a modern railcar, fare about 150 bolivianos per person. Different services go on different days but every day there is some service eastbound. Tickets can only be bought the day of departure at the train ticket counter (train and bus stations are together), which opens at 08:00 but the queue starts to form earlier. The service south to Villamontes has similar service and a complicated schedule and goes almost every day. The train is comfortable and for the eastbound journey pretty much the only way to go overland. There is no website or anything else pretty much you just find things out when you arrive in Santa Cruz.
Train travel in Brazil
Vitoria - Belo Horizonte: Intercity train services operate on one route, from Vitoria to Belo Horizonte (see map). This train is cheaper and more comfortable than a bus. It leaves daily at 07:00 from Vitoria and 07:30 from belo Horizonte, arriving at its destination around 19:30-20:00. The train has two classes, Executivo is the best with AC and aircraft-style seating with a decent amount of legroom, fare R$70 (£25) or Econômica which costs R$46 (£16). There's a restaurant car, although the food does not get good reports. Operated by the most prosperous freight railway in Brazil, the journey is very scenic and it's a pleasant way to spend a day. The most scenic section is towards the Belo Horizonte end of the trip, so you'll see more of this in daylight if you start at the Belo end, travelling in the Belo to Vitoria direction. The train information part of their website is www.vale.com/brasil/pt/business/logistics/railways/trem-passageiros/paginas/default.aspx (the English version appears to omit the train info, so stick with Portuguese and remember that 'preços' is prices and 'horarios' means 'timetables').
Cafe car on the Vitoria-Belo Horizonte (Minas) train. Photos courtesy of Jorge Degrazia Sarturi
View from the train... Photo courtesy of Pietro Ferreira.
Photo courtesy of Pietro Ferreira.
Photo courtesy of Pietro Ferreira.
Traveller Pietro Ferreira reports: "The Vitoria-Belo Horizonte journey is indeed a wonderful way to spend the day. If you are travelling on weekends, it is highly advisable to buy your ticket two or three days in advance, as they may sell out quickly. Executive-class cars are comfortable and silent, although somewhat cold. Meals are charged separately and can be served at your seat. Drinks trolleys are frequent and are available on both classes. A great way to spend your time is to stand in the smokers area, where large windows are kept open throughout the journey. It is also a nice place to engage in conversation with other travellers."
The other operating train is a steam tourist oriented train but it offers transport in between two important Brazilian tourist towns, Sao Jao del Rei and Tiradentes. The steam train makes a nice alternative to the bus. The trip takes an hour and is about 20km. It runs daily leaving Sao Jao del Rei at 10:00 and returning in the afternoon. The train ticket gives free entry to the train museum at the station in Sao Jao del Rei. Internet info: www.antt.gov.br/destaques/anexos/TremDelreiTiradentes.htm.
There is now no train service at all between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. There's a list of all Brazilian train services (regular and tourist-orientated) at www.antt.gov.br/destaques/TrensDePassageiros.asp.
Train travel in Chile
The Chilean state railways official website is www.efe.cl, although for passengers trains use www.tmsa.cl . Several Terrasur trains per day link Santiago's Alamada station with Curico, Talca, Linares and Chillan on the electrified main line. The trains are air-conditioned, one class only, and have a refreshment car. Three of these trains have a bus connection from Chillan to Concepcion. Sadly, the rest of Chile's main line south from Chillan towards Temuco and Puerto Montt is currently not working, though there are plans afoot to restore service in the future. There are odd trains on a few other routes, such as Valparaiso to Limache (which crazily no longer goes on to Santiago). See map of Chile. If you have any feedback, please email me.
Train travel in Colombia
There are few working railways in Colombia, after the State rail operator went bankrupt a few years ago. However, a useful tourist train links Bogota with Zipaquira, where the salt cathedral is not to be missed. The train makes a daily round trip at 08:30 from La Sabana station in Bogota, with time in Zipaquira and Cajica. For times, fares & online booking see www.turistren.com.co.
Traveller Sebastien Ferenczi reports: "It's a touristic
train, but aimed at tourists, not railway buffs, as it's the
best way to visit the tourist attractions of Zipaquira,
famous for its salt cathedral listed as "not to be missed"
by Lonely Planet, which is how I found the existence of the
train. All information is on their website
www.turistren.com.co. I used the train in June 2013. With
only a short week-end in Bogota, I tried the online booking
but they refused my credit card. So on saturday afternoon I
rushed to La Sabana station where I grabbed one of the last
seats, not on the steam train which was already full, but on
the Autoferro they put as a relief train (technically, a
two-car dmu pulling two more cars, quite comfortable).
Touristically, this was even better as it left Bogota later
(9.15) and left more time in Zipaquira. The train was full
of local families, the trip was pleasant and Zipaquira is a
very nice place, otherwise reachable only by crowded local
buses or expensive taxis.
In Bogota, La Sabana station is close to the district of La Candelaria where all tourists stay, and served by the Transmillenio express bus network; a stop is also made at Usaquen to serve the "beaux quartiers" of Bogota."
The famous 446 km Guayaquil to Quito railway was completed in 1908, and was described even then as 'The most difficult railway in the world' in terms of the Andean landscape through which it passes. The line rises from around sea level at Duran (across the river from Guayaquil) to over 2,500 metres above sea level at Quito, with parts of the line above 3,000 metres. Landslides blocked the line in the 1990s, and at present the line is no longer operational from end to end. However, parts of this route are open with occasional train services designed for tourists. In summer 2013 it's reported that the whole line has finally been reopened and a 4-day 3-night cruise train has started operation end-to-end, see below. If you have any feedback, please email me.
Train times, routes, prices: See www.ferrocarrilesdelecuador.gob.ec .
The route: The main line runs Quito (0km) - Machachi (45km) - El Boliche - Latacunga (110km) - Ambato (149 km) - Riobamba (223 km) - Palmira (298 km) - Alausi (321 km) - (Devil's Nose) - Sibambe (334 km) - Yaguachi - Duran (446 km, just across the Guayas River from Guayaquil).
The trains: Until the whole line reopens, operational sections in 2013 include:
The Machachi Festivo from Quito to Machachi & Latacunga (110 km), leaving Quito at 08:15 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays with same-day return; Fare US$11 return.
The Camino Al Boliche from Quito to Boliche, also leaving Quito at 08:15 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays & holidays, changing at Machachi for Boliche. Fare US$15 return.
The Surcos Andinos from Riobamba to Palmira at 06:30 every day (the next section of line on to Alausi is under reconstruction and may open in 2011 or 2012)
The Sendero de Arrozales from Duran (= Guayaquil) to Yaguachi at 09:00 & 13:15 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays & holidays.
The Tren de la Libertad from Ibarra to Salinas at 08:30 on Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays (this is a separate line, not part of the Quito-Guayaquil route);
There are also now 3 daily tourist trains from Alausi over the famous Devil's Nose switchbacks and back to Alausi. Trains over the Devil's Nose leave Alausi at 08:00, 11:00 and 15:00 every day. They take an hour to travel over the Devil's Nose (including 15 minute photo stop), there's a 1 hour stop for a picnic, then 45 minutes back to Alausi. Fare US$20. See the photos below. Until the Palmira-Alausi section of line is restored, you'll need to reach Alausi by bus (2 hours from Riobamba).
New Guayaquil to Quito cruise train: In June 2013, Ecuador Tren starting a cruise train operation, see www.ecuadorbytrain.com/trainecuador/crucero/web/#/homepage. Quito to Guayaquil or vice versa takes 4 days, 3 nights and costs around $1,270 per person.
For background information on the amazing Quito-Guayaquil railways, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empresa_de_Ferrocarriles_Ecuatorianos. For a route map, see http://railroadinthesky.com.
The 08:00 and 11:00 tourist trains from Alausi over the famous 'Devil's Nose' consist of wooden carriages hauled by a locomotive (pictured above left). The 15:00 train may also be like this, but if there aren't enough passengers it may be an 'autoferra', pictured above right. Photos courtesy of Colin Hodgkinson.
Going over the Devil's Nose on the tourist train in Ecuador. Photos courtesy of Colin Hodgkinson.
Above left, the train stops at a Devil's Nose viewpoint. Above right, Sibambe station. Photos courtesy of Matthew Perret.
Train travel in Mexico
Mexico used to have a good train service linking all major cities, using restaurant cars, sleeping-cars and observation cars, many inherited from the USA. Sadly, the Mexican government pulled the plug on almost all long-distance passenger train service some years ago, and buses and planes are now the only way to get around Mexico. A couple of very minor service exist in certain areas, including the famous scenic 'Copper Canyon' service. For a summary of remaining Mexican train services see www.mexlist.com/pass.htm.
Mexico's Copper Canyon Train from Chihuahua to Los Mochis
The famous Copper Canyon train from Los Mochis to Chihuahua deserves a special mention. In fact, there are two trains, the daily first class train with reclining seats, bar & restaurant car leaving both Los Mochis and Chihuahua at 06:00 and arriving around 20:45 that night, and the 3-times-a-week economy train leaving Chihuahua at 07:00 on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays arriving Los Mochis at 21:58, and leaving Los Mochis at 07:00 on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays arriving Chihuahua at 22:42. The fare is 991 pesos (£53/$77) on the economy class train, 1,981 pesos (£107/$140) on the 1st class train. The distance is 653km 408 miles. For information on the Copper Canyon train service see www.chepe.com.mx. There's no online booking, but their website gives phone numbers and email addresses.
Above: An armed guard on the Copper Canyon train... Photo courtesy of Graham Norman
Copper Canyon: Superb scenery on Mexico's Copper Canyon train.
Photos courtesy of Graham Norman.
Traveller Graham Norman reports: "We took Amtrak's Sunset Limited from Houston to Tucson and then a bus down to Los Mochis. Although the Copper Canyon train starts there, we took a taxi to the next stop at El Fuerte and stayed the night. We joined the Primera Express at El Fuerte at about 9am and travelled to Bahuichivo, where we spent a night at a lodge on the Canyon’s rim. We picked up the train the following day at 1pm and travelled to Creel where we spent two nights (there’s plenty to see). We took the last stage of the train from Creel, at 4pm, arriving in Chihuahua around 9pm. Many people use the bus from Creel as it’s quicker and the scenery from the train not so spectacular. We took a bus back to the US border at El Paso and travelled on the Amtrak train back to Houston. I used a local agency called 3 Amigos (www.amigos3.com) to book the train for us (although there are other agencies), but we paid for the tickets on board. They also booked the Copper Canyon hotels for us and the taxi from Los Mochis to El Fuerte. I booked the Amtrak (www.amtrak.com), hotels in the US and Chihuahua on the internet. The Copper Canyon train was a very memorable experience and the scenery was spectacular. Although most passengers on the Primera Express train were tourists, it doesn't feel like a tourist train and I assume the other daily train, the Clase Economica, is more for local people. There were armed guards on the train and in Creel but we never felt threatened at any stage.
Train travel in Panama
The Panama Canal Railway provides one daily train between Ciudad Panama and Colon on Mondays-Fridays. It leaves Ciudad de Panama at 07:15 on Mondays-Fridays only, arriving Colon at 08:15. It leaves Colon Mondays-Fridays only at 17:15 arriving back in Panama City at 18:15. It has air-conditioned Executive class coaches with refreshments available. The new station for Panama City is in the northern suburb of Allbrook, not far from the domestic airport - the old station in Panama City is now a MacDonald's..! The distance is 77 km (48 miles). See www.panarail.com for info.
Train travel in Paraguay
There are no passenger trains in Paraguay, other than a tourist steam train on Sundays from Asunción botanical gardens station.
Train travel in Peru
See the Peru page.
Train travel in Uruguay
There are few operational trains in Uruguay, and a suburban service has restarted in Montevideo.
To get the most out of your trip to South America, you'll need a decent guidebook. For the serious independent traveller this means either the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide. Both guides have everything you need - plenty of background historical and cultural information, plus practical information.
Hotels & accommodation in South America
◄◄ Hotel search & price comparison.
www.hotelscombined.com checks all the main hotel booking sites at once to find the widest choice of hotels & the cheapest seller. It was named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013 and I highly recommend it, both to find hotels in even the smallest places and to check that another retailer isn't selling your hotel for less!
www.booking.com is my favourite booking site. It's really clear and you can usually book with free cancellation and so confirm your accommodation at no risk months before train booking opens.
Other hotel sites worth trying...
www.tripadvisor.com is the place to find independent travellers' reviews of all the main hotels.
www.booking.com is my own preferred hotel booking system (Hotels Combined being a search/comparison system). It has a simple interface, a good selection in most countries worldwide, useful online customer reviews of each hotel, and decent prices, usually shown inclusive of unavoidable extras such as taxes (a pet hate of mine is systems that show one price, then charge you another!).
www.hostelbookers.com: If you're on a tight budget, don't forget about backpacker hostels. Hostelbookers offers online booking of cheap private rooms or dorm beds in backpacker hostels in most cities at rock-bottom prices.
Flights to South America
Overland travel by train & bus around South America is an essential part of the experience, so once there, don't cheat and fly, stay on the ground! But a long-haul flight might be unavoidable to reach SA in the first place. For flights to South America, start with Skyscanner.
Get travel insurance, it's essential...
Never travel overseas without travel insurance from a reliable insurer, with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover. It should also cover cancellation and loss of cash (up to a limit) and belongings. An annual multi-trip policy is usually cheaper than several single-trip policies even for just 2 or 3 trips a year (I have an annual policy myself). Here are some suggested insurers. Seat61 gets a small commission if you buy through these links.
If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over 65 (no age limit), see www.JustTravelCover.com.
If you're resident in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or the EU, try Columbus Direct's other websites.
If you're resident in the USA try Travel Guard USA.
Get a spare credit card, designed for foreign travel with no currency exchange loading & low or no ATM fees...
It costs nothing to take out an extra credit card. If you keep it in a different part of your luggage so you're not left stranded if your wallet gets stolen, this is a form of extra travel insurance in itself. In addition, some credit cards are significantly better for overseas travel than others. Martin Lewis's www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-travel-money explains which UK credit cards have the lowest currency exchange commission loadings when you buy something overseas, and the lowest cash withdrawal fees when you use an ATM abroad. Taking this advice can save you quite a lot on each trip compared to using your normal high-street bank credit card!
You can avoid ATM charges and expensive exchange rates with a Caxton FX euro currency Visa Card, or their multi-currency 'Global Traveller' Visa Card, see www.caxtonfx.com for info.
Mobile phones can cost a fortune to use abroad, so consider getting a global pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone which can cut call & data costs by up to 90%. At the time of writing, www.roamsure.com claims a definite 25% saving within the EU and up to 90% saving in the rest of the world. Incoming calls are free in 73 countries, including the USA, Australia, South Africa and EU. There's no contract or commitment, and at time I write this Roamsure is offering a global SIM card for free when you buy £20 of call credit. Seat61 gets some commission to support the site if you buy airtime from Roamsure.