The Best Train Trips Around the Planet


The Ferrocarril del Estado, from Santiago to Puerto Montt in Chile, runs for 700 miles along the Andes, passing snow-covered peaks and volcanic cones, and through towns settled by groups as dissimilar as Temuco Indians and fifth-generation German immigrants.

Compartments in the 75-year-old coaches are masterpieces of faded elegance: brown velvet seats, carved wood furnishings, and etched glass. For a comfortable private seat and cozy berth with crisp linen, the overnight trip costs only about $35.

In Peru, heading east from the city of Arequipa, the tracks pass volcanic cones whose snowmelt gives birth to the Amazon River and flows all the way across the continent to the Atlantic Ocean.

Marvel of the Railroad World
In lonely shepherds' villages on the altiplano, the high desert, fur-wrapped children wave in excitement as the train passes. Sturdy alpacas, unsettled by the labored breathing of the near-antique engine, stretch their necks and flair their nostrils before loping away to regain their privacy.

The conductor sways down the aisle carrying a black rubber balloon filled with oxygen for passengers unused to travel at 14,000 feet. After hours of breathtaking scenery, the train pulls into Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the legendary birthplace of the first Inca.

Another Peruvian train, considered by many to be a marvel of the railroad world, runs from Lima to Huancayo, a town located high in the Andes. The tracks cross more than 60 viaducts spanning black-walled gorges and tunnels through the hearts of frozen mountains.

At times, the track is chiseled into a cliff so close to vertical that even the most intrepid passengers avert their eyes from the edge. Reaching 14,800 feet, it's said to be the highest passenger train in the world.

Now let's switch continents. In North Africa, a fine track loops from Tangier, Morocco, down to Casablanca, on to Marrakesh (a travelers' mecca in the 1960s and 1970s and still fascinating) and back to Tangier. On this trip, like many, your traveling companions may be almost as much an attraction as the destination.

Choose Your Class
I shared a compartment with a woman who wore a royal blue gown, gold-embroidered veil, mesh stockings, and ornate gold rings on eight of her fingers. Next to her, her young daughter wore scuffed blue loafers, white leggings, a pink T-shirt, a scarlet sweater, and a short-sleeved black leather jacket. What a contrast in generations.

On Africa's east coast, the track takes you from Nairobi, located on a cool mile-high plateau, down to the stifling heat of the ancient port of Mombasa. In second-class cars, passengers are segregated by gender. That's why many travelers happily pay a higher fare for a first-class compartment. It's still only about $25.

The highlight of the trip begins after the tracks enter Tsavo National Park. Passengers lean out the windows to watch antelopes, giraffes, ostriches, and elephants grazing peacefully against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro's snowy summit in the distance. It's an experience you deserve.

Well, that's it from your Traveler's Tool Kit. Remember. The world is waiting. See it for yourself.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »