While we're mostly known as the hotspot for finding bus schedules and tickets across South America, AndesTransit also has lots to shout about when it comes to trains!
For as little as $10, you can ride the rails to incredible places you won't see from the road; mountain landscapes, desert outposts, country vineyards, and inaccessible beaches. Some trains in South America are designed strictly for tourism, and they throw in fun stuff like onboard live music bands or complimentary museum entrances, and just make for a great fun-packed day outside of the main traffic corridors.
Other South American trains are more oriented to metropolitan commuters, going from large cities like Buenos Aires or Santiago, but still allow you to take a day being an "incognito commuter" to see bedroom cities and their unique offerings, and return the same day to the big city.
Then there are the luxury liners, if you will, for those that want to ride in elegance and class like the old railroad days of white tablecloths and fine china. Take for instance the Hiram Bingham line in Peru that will take you to Machu Pichhu like Ali Baba on a magic carpet ride. But don't sweat, there are economy trains to the same destination – it's totally up to you!
Let's take a virtual tour into a few of my favorites:
Mar del Plata, the famous Argentine beach resort is a much sought-after destination for the cosmopolitan crowd of the capital city, looking to get away for a fun-filled weekend of glamor and sand.
Trains leave Constitutión station daily and will arrive in Mar del Plata in the evening. Therefore, you're committed to stay overnight no matter what. Go early in the week to escape the beach-crazy Argentine crowds. (They'll be working!) The landscape in between is calming flat pampas, dotted with farms here and there, ending at the beach on the South Atlantic seaboard. Return trips are also daily. Tickets can be arranged through AndesTransit. Of course, you can also take the bus if you want a different itinerary or you want to head elsewhere after Mar del Plata instead of returning to BA.
Travelers complain that Chile is expensive, but honestly one of the best trips for the dollar is this literal ride back in time from Talca to the Chilean coastal beach town of Constitución, aboard the 1915 Ramal, that some would say looks like something from a 50's B-rated martian flick. But what's even more remarkable is going through an area of the country that has remained unperturbed by the modern progress of other parts of Chile, and seeing how Chilean villagers still make their daily life from the Maule River the same way they have for generations. The river is your constant companion, and in 4 hours tops (as few as 2.5) you'll be in Constitución, which was hit by the 2010 tsunami, but still receives travelers looking to have fun on its sandy white beaches and surf. This is a great pick for those that love something away from the tourist track, but also want to combine leisure, cultural encounters, and at less than $4 one-way, something very inexpensive.
Ecuador's train network is coming back from the grave in a big way, thanks to massive government investment. It still is not something you can use to get to every part of the country, but plans are underway to get there. In the meantime, several disconnected routes are designed mostly for tourists to see spectacular parts of Ecuador otherwise inacessible. One of the least appreciated and undertraveled is a bird-watcher's coup, and starts in Durán, just across the river from Guayaquil. The newer model train was designed to preserve the charm of older models, and takes you on a lovely ride out through wetlands, where you can see countless species of large and small birds coloring the sky and trees, so by all means bring binoculars!
The train stops in Yaguachi, home to one of the oldest shrines in the country and the destination of many religious pilgrims, and then continues on to Naranjito where you will be treated to a presentation of cultural dances. Then you return the same way back to Durán by train or bus.
This is a trip I loved not so much for places to get off the train, but I can't think of an easier way to see so many birds without the need for hiking, mud, or mosquito repellent. Prepare for an all-day round trip, at prices around $30 (round trip).
Departures from Durán can only be had once a day at 8 a.m. Fridays through Sundays and holidays, and you'll return to Durán by late afternoon.
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Kali Kucera is President of AndesTransit and also known as "the bus guy" for his adventures across South America by bus. He is co-author of "South America Borders" and "365 Days of South American Festivals."
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