Looking into South America train travel? Let Jessie Kwak take you through the Andes on this adventure train journey.
We wedged ourselves and our luggage into the cheap “clasico” seats just as the train began its halting journey out of the station. It whistled its way through Lima’s shoddier suburbs, greeted with excitement by kids in school uniforms and grandmothers leaning out of windows. After all, this historic train only runs twice a month.
The Central Andes Railway was completed in 1909 to link Andean mining towns with the port at Callao, and it held the title of world’s highest train until 2005. Shut down in the 90s because of terrorist activity, the mountain train line was finally reopened as a tourist attraction in November 2000, providing the perfect train vacation.
Building the line had been an impressive feat: it traverses six climatic zones, 58 bridges, 66 tunnels and nine zigzags, and it climbs 28 meters for every kilometer of track to reach its highest point at 4781 meters. The numbers, however, say nothing about the beauty of the ride itself.
The route follows the Rio Rimac past small towns and fields through an ever-narrowing valley hedged in by bare, brown mountains. After an hour or so of gentle climbing the train track reaches San Bartolome, where we passengers were invited to step out and watch the locomotive being reversed on a manually-powered turn table.
This was my first view of the Andes, of the precarious terraces and mud-brick homes clinging to the hillside. As we gained altitude past where even terraced farming can be sustained, the earth turned a bloody shade of red, and the grasses grew short and spiky like deep-green sea urchins. Neon-yellow lumps of moss carpeted the empty spaces of this surreal sea-scape, and there were hints of snow on the ground and in the air.
At the highest point of the mountain train’s route — the passenger station of Ticlio — we stopped for a photo of the lake and the grazing llamas. Our breath swirled out white as we posed, grinning, in front of snow-capped peaks. For many it was the first experience at such a high altitude, and by the time we climbed back onto the train we were all exhausted. The entire car was subdued for the next few hours as we gently dropped back down, aiming for 3,254 meters at Huancayo.
The Andes train journey today is highly geared toward tourists: informational literature is provided, as well as announcements in Spanish, English and French at all points of interest. An attendant fluent in all three languages brought us breakfast, lunch, and coca tea for the altitude, and nurses stood by to help those suffering from altitude sickness. For anyone bored by the relentlessly beautiful Andes mountain scenery, there is also a bar located in the last car, blaring dance music and serving up pisco sours.
The journey takes about 11 hours, and tickets are S/.100 (US $35) for “clasico” and S/.200 (US $70) for “tourist.” Tickets can be purchased at the Teleticket office in any Wongs Hipermercado in Lima. Incas del Peru has a schedule on their website.
More train stories
- Train travel New Zealand: the Overlander
- Love on the rails
- An interview on train travel with Mark Smith of Seat61