The 10 best train journeys in Latin America - Part II
In part one of The 10 best unforgettable train journeys in Latin America we looked at some incredible journeys in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Panama. We conclude the adventure with five more trains, which take you to the heart of two of Latin America's biggest and most important countries; Brazil and Mexico. Plus there's also a surprise bonus from Bolivia...
Serra Verde Express, Brazil
There is no better way to see the verdant, mountainous and largely untouched interior of Brazil than by riding the Serra Verde Express from the modern city of Curitiba, to historic Morretes. The three hour journey cuts through the tropical Serra do Mar, part of the Atlantic Rainforest Biosphere Reserve, crossing 30 bridges that represent mind-boggling feats of engineering, especially in such a remote place.
The luxury train carriages are furnished with large armchairs and sofas and travellers are served a delicious breakfast and sparkling wine. Billingual guides are also on hand to explain the huge diversity of flora found along the route and tell of the history of the railroad and the two cities.
Curitiba is a modern metropolis of sparkling skyscrapers and large perfectly manicured parks, it is famed for being environmentally friendly and progressive, a model city and one of Brazil's great success stories. There is a museum here dedicated to Oscar Niemeyer, the architect behind the carefully planned capital Brasilia, a city which draws many parallels to Curitiba, but which perhaps lacks its history and sense of identity. At the other end of the line is a place very much at the other end of the scale. Morretes is a small, traditional tow,n surrounded by forest and known for its historic buildings, tropical scenery and local handicrafts and cuisine. As part of Veloso's itinerary you will also visit the interesting Germanic town Blumenau, as well as enjoying a tour of Florianopolis.
The Serra Verde Express also operates the enticingly-named Wine Train, taking visitors to the charming Araucária vineyard, close to Curitiba.
Journey: Curitiba to Morretes
Duration: Three hours
Where Next: Relax at the Ponta dos Ganchos Resort in Florianopolis
Pantanal Express, Brazil
Visiting the Pantanal is, without doubt, one of the world's great wildlife experiences. In comparison to tropical rainforests, the wide-open expanses and relative lack of thick vegetation here means that there is a lot less to obscure the view. This allows for frequent sightings of caimans, capybara, monkeys, deer, butterflies, ibis, storks and colourful birdlife. It is also one of the best places to spot the majestic, yet reclusive jaguar.
Visitors arrive at the Pantanal by travelling from Campo Grande to Miranda, either by road or, for fans of slow travel, aboard the Pantanal Express, which glides through the Brazilian savannah to the biggest wetlands in the world. The journey takes substantially longer by rail, seven hours in total, but affords the chance to gaze out at the passing scenery in complete comfort. The large panoramic windows provide wonderful views of the ever-changing scenery; the vast wetlands of the Pantanal, the hills and waterfalls of Piraputanga and the jungle-fringed Aquidauana River. It is also possible to spot birdlife along the route, including blue macaws. Upon arrival at Miranda, you will be met by local guides to transport you by road to your lodge.
Formally one of Brazil's most important trade routes, linking Sao Paulo with the coastal port of Corumba, the line is now operated by the Serra Verde Express. The fully-refurbished and air-conditioned trains feature an on board restaurant and the option to travel in premium class, for complete luxury and comfort.
Journey: Campo Grande to Miranda
Duration: Seven hours
Where Next: Explore the Pantanal then head north to visit the Amazon Rainforest
Vitoria-Minas Railway, Brazil
This is the only passenger train in Brazil which carriers travellers between two state capitals; Vitória in Espirito Santo and Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais. For those looking to visit exotic Salvador de Bahia and the historic cities of Minas Gerais, it is an interesting alternative to flying directly to Belo Horizonte.
The reason for making this detour and riding the Vitória-Minas Railway is the chance to witness the vast tropical rainforest of the Brazilian countryside, interspersed with remote towns, expansive lakes, chocolate rivers, and shadowy blue hills. On the way, the train also passes over some awe-inspiring bridges and viaducts and cuts through narrow gorges, down which run gushing waterfalls.
The trains, refurbished in 2014, are air-conditioned, comfortable and sport the obligatory snack bar and restaurant. There are also 10 executive class cars for further comfort and convenience. Upon arrival at Belo Horizonte you will be transferred to your hotel ahead of your visit to Ouro Preto and the other beautiful cities of Minas Gerais state.
Journey: Vitória to Belo Horizonte
Duration: Thirteen hours
Where Next: Explore the historic cities of Minas Gerais
Copper Canyon Train, Mexico
The Copper Canyon Railway, or El Chepe, as it is also known, has all the ingredients for the perfect railroad experience; comfortable and spacious modern trains, delicious regional food, friendly local people, plenty of history and local culture and, most importantly of all, a thrilling journey through breathtaking scenery to one of Latin America's greatest natural wonders.
The train journey is a wonderful way to see a very different side to Mexico, a million miles from the beaches and Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. Along the route you will encounter the towering Tarahumara mountains, narrow ravines, numerous impressive bridges and viaducts, as well as lakes, rivers, waterfalls and large stone formations. What's more, you will have the chance to meet the indigenous people, who descend from the Aztecs and continue to eke out a living and keep alive their ancient traditions and crafts in the remote surrounds of the Copper Canyon. You can also purchase some of their local handicrafts should you wish.
The journey takes you from Los Mochis, a small city near the Pacific coast, all the way to the state capital Chihuahua. But of course the main purpose of the journey is to explore the magnificent Copper Canyon National Park, a collection of huge canyons, who's red- hued walls give it its name and which is both larger and deeper than the more world-renowned Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Our five day itinerary, which breaks up the journey over the tour, affords plenty of time to explore the Copper Canyon with expert guides and immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions.
Journey: Los Mochis to Chihuahua
Duration: Thirteen hours
Where Next: Fly south to Mexico City or to Guadalajara to take the Jose Cuervo Express
Jose Cuervo Express, Mexico
Our final entry on the list of the 10 most unforgettable train journeys in Latin America is a second offering from Mexico. We've already taken you on a four day journey through volcanic Ecuador, experienced South America's first sleeper train, visited the world's most famous archaeological site and cut through the remote Brazilian interior. We've ridden the world's southernmost railway, followed the course of its most famous canal and visited remote communities living in the caves of an enormous canyon. So to finish it all of in style, we are opening a bottle of Mexico's finest tequila and toasting the Jose Cuervo Express.
Whether you are a connoisseur of tequila or not, this one is a corker. This two hour journey starts at Guadalajara, home of the aforementioned drink and the mariachi music with which Mexico is synonymous, and carries passengers to the country's oldest tequila distillery - La Rojeña.
The experience starts with a warm welcome, of which mariachi performers and dancers in colourful dress quite literally make a song and dance of. You then board perhaps the most stylish train on this list, with its sleek black livery and grand golden signage. It's a similar story inside, with an interior inspired by the Orient Express; classic wood panelling, vintage lampshades and large comfortable chairs in which to sink back and enjoy the ride. Many carriages also have their own bar and table staff and there are three different classes, offering increasing amounts of luxury.
Along the route you are treated to fresh fruit, traditional cocktails and local snacks, with tequila tastings led by a Maestro Tequilero. Upon arrival at the distillery, you will be taken on an in-depth guided tour of the facilities and the reserva cellar, before enjoying some spare time in the beautiful "magic town" of Tequila. The day is rounded off with a traditional Mexican folklore show, before you return via road to Guadalajara.
Journey: Guadalajara - Tequila
Duration: Two hours
Where Next: Explore the hillside colonial towns near Mexico City
Bonus: Uyuni Train Cemetery, Bolivia
Uyuni is known the world over for possessing the world's largest and highest salt flats, a surreal place of astonishing beauty and one of the continent's defining travel experiences. What many might not know though, is that just a couple of miles out of town sits the emotively named Uyuni Train Cemetery.
Following the disastrous loss of their coastline to Chile in the Pacific War of the late nineteenth century, the Bolivian government came up with a plan to create an ambitious railway network, that would allow them to transport the valuable minerals extracted from around the Andes mountains to the (now Chilean) ports. Uyuni was to be one of the epicentres of the system, acting as a key distribution centre for the region. Unfortunately for the government, they hadn't foreseen the huge problems the project would entail, not least the sabotage wrought upon it by local indigenous communities, who saw it as a threat to their way of life. The final nail in the coffin was the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940's, rendering the railway completely redundant.
Today the trains, mostly imported from Britain at the start of the twentieth century, remain abandoned and exposed to the elements, ravaged over decades by the salty blasts of Uyuni's winds. They are a rather melancholy, though undeniably poignant and still powerful monument to a tumultuous period of Bolivian history, full of despair, hope and, ultimately, bitter disappointment.
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