Latin America's railways, many of which are British built, have always played a vital role in transporting the valuable minerals, gold, silver or food produce from the heart of the continent's vast countries, to its various ports, from where they are shipped across the world. Throughout history, the rail network has facilitated the sudden wealth of many different regions, but much of it has since fallen into disuse with the rise of air and road transport and the collapse of various industries.
However, the ability to traverse Latin America's huge distances by train was demonstrated by American Paul Theroux in his 1979 book The Old Patagonian Express. The famed travel writer journeyed by rail from his home in Massachusetts, all the way down to the southern reaches of Patagonia, visiting ten Central and South American countries en-route. In his much more recent television programmes, presenter Chris Tarrant rode the rails in Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Cuba, whilst in 2013 Michael Palin delighted in his journey on the Serra Verde Express in Brazil. What remains clear therefore, is that Latin America's rail system is alive and well, today just as likely to carry intrepid travellers as it is to transport valuable cargo.
We have chosen our ten favourite train journeys in Central and South America, each slowly leading passengers through scenic, varied and remote landscapes, eagerly appreciated through the panoramic windows of a fully-refurbished vintage train carriage, to some of the most interesting destinations on these two great continents.
Tren Crucero, Ecuador
The crown jewel in Ecuador's magnificent rail system, the luxurious Tren Crucero moves slowly between the capital Quito, nestled in the foothills of the Andes, and the city of Guayquil on the Pacific coast, departure point for Galapagos tours. The four day journey is a truly memorable experience, offering exploration, cultural discovery, relaxation and luxury in equal measures.
The track passes through glorious mountain scenery, mysterious cloud forests, verdant banana plantations and the cinematic Avenue of the Volcanoes. On frequent stops travellers are introduced to remote communities, indigenous markets, artisan workshops and even Ecuador's last ice merchant, offering a unique insight into rural life here. One of the undoubted highlights of the journey is the chance to experience the awesome Devil's Nose pass, an epic series of switch-backs, which represents one of the continent's greatest feats of engineering.
As you might expect, the train itself is as welcoming and sumptuous as the journey is rich and varied. Two boutique carriages seat no more than 50 guests, which are attended to by the on board guides and bartenders, who keep you informed and refreshed as you go. There are also two observation lounges with open-air terraces and part of the journey is made with an antique steam locomotive at the helm. Local cuisine, made with ingredients sourced along the route, is served regularly, either on board as part of the excursions, including lunch in an opulent hacienda.
Journey: Quito to Guayaquil
Duration: Four days
Where Next: Fly to the Galapagos Islands for an unforgettable cruise of the archipelago
Andean Explorer, Peru
Launching in May 2017, the Belmond Andean Explorer train will be South America's first sleeper train. It will carry passengers in complete luxury between Peru's two most beautiful cities; Arequipa in the south and up onto the Peruvian altiplano to the former Inca capital Cusco.
The three day journey serves as a wonderful introduction to Peru; as well as the chance to explore two magnificent cities, you will also visit the traditional islands of majestic Lake Titicaca, gaze out at the elegant beauty of the Peruvian countryside and get closer than you ever thought possible to the legendary condor at the breathtaking Colca Canyon (an optional extension). As if that's not enough, there are also visits to see the rock art of the first humans to inhabit Peru and one of the country's most important Inca sites at Raqchi, as well as sunset over La Raya mountain pass.
Of course the journey isn't all about exploration and there's plenty on offer inside the train. The relaxing lounge bar, with its baby grand piano and welcoming seating areas, is a great place to make new friends and exchange travel stories. The two observation carriages and open-air terraces provide the perfect vantage points from which to watch Peru roll by and contemplate the adventures that lay ahead. Two classic dining cars serve up delicious meals, crafted by skilled chefs and made using fresh Andean ingredients, whilst the bedrooms are inspired by Peruvian fabrics and alpaca wool, and each has its own private en-suite.
Journey: Cusco to Arequipa
Duration: Three days
Where Next: Continue your journey by train from Cusco to Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham, Peru
Aside from hiking, the only way to arrive at the world famous archaeological site Machu Picchu is by train, from either Cusco or the Sacred Valley, on one of three services; the Hiram Bingam, the Vistadome or the Expedition train.
The journey follows the Urubamba river, passing ancient Inca terraces, roaming livestock and dramatic mountains, which tower high overhead. As you approach the ruins, the landscape becomes more verdant and tropical, hinting at the cloud forest that awaits beyond and in the final stretch before reaching Machu Picchu village, it is possible to spot colourful birdlife darting between the steep wall of trees which lines the path of the river. Some eagle-eyed passengers might even catch a glimpse of the distinctive red markings of the male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru's national bird, as it heads for the berries growing in the gardens of the Inkaterra hotel on the other side of the tracks.
The luxury Hiram Bingham train, named after the man who brought Machu Picchu back into the public consciousness in 1911, is inspired by the vintage 1920's Pullman cars and features exquisite decor, a stylish dining car, an on board bar and an observation carriage. A personal service starts with a welcome cocktail and continues throughout the journey, serving gourmet meals, wine and refreshments and offering live traditional Peruvian music. A VIP lounge awaits at the station and then, after exploring the citadel with an expert local guide, tea is taken at the Belmond hotel just outside the archaeological site.
The Hiram Bingham service travels between Machu Picchu village and Cusco (Poroy) station only, taking just under four hours, whilst the Vistadome and the Expedition trains also depart from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley - a journey time of one and a half hours. From the station it is a 30 minute bus ride to the entrance to the ruins and the start of one of the world's most beloved travel experiences.
Journey: Sacred Valley or Cusco to Machu Picchu
Duration: Three hours fifty minutes
Where Next: Continue your journey through Peru's Inca heartland to the majestic Lake Titicaca
The End of the World Train, Argentina
Also known as the Southern Fuegian Railway, in a previous life this line was used to carry prisoners back and forth between the city jail and the forest to collect wood to be used to construct buildings and fuel fires for heating and cooking. Today it provides a wonderful way to see Tierra del Fuego, from the comfort and warmth of the world's southernmost railway, pulled by a magnificent steam locomotive.
The adventure starts at the End of the World station in Ushuaia, leading passengers past scrub woodland, verdant hills, snow-capped mountains, and the meandering River Pipo, showcasing otherwise inaccessible and typically Patagonian landscapes. There is also a cultural and historic element to the journey, as you alight at the Macarena Waterfall Station to see an ancient reconstructed campsite of the Yamana people, one of the native tribes that settled in the area thousands of years ago. From here, you can also enjoy views of the waterfalls itself and across the Pipo River Valley. The train continues past the tree cemetery, an eerie collection of stumps where prisoners toiled all those years ago
There are four different classes, starting at tourist, then first class, premium and special service. All of these provide comfort, panoramic views and running historical commentary in English, but with increasing levels of luxury, convenience and individual service and with ever-more exotic cuisine, for an even more memorable experience.
Journey: Ushuaia round trip
Duration: One hour (each way)
Where Next: Take a boat trip to the Lapataia Bay then visit the immense Perito Moreno Glacier
Panama Canal Railway, Panama
The Panama Canal Railway runs parallel, as the name suggests, to the famous canal and its many docks, filled with brightly coloured shipping containers. The journey provides an excellent vantage point from which to see the huge ships ploughing a course through the vast expanse of one of the world's most important waterways.
Also know as the Interoceanic Railway, the one hour ride takes passengers on a scenic trip between Panama City and the Pacific coast, to Colón and the Caribbean sea, travelling through the tropical jungle vegetation and cutting through the beautiful Lake Gatun on a narrow causeway.
The carriages are a distinctive yellow and red on the exterior and light and airy inside, with panoramic and overhead windows from which to appreciate the ever-changing scenery outside. The decor of the train was carefully designed to capture the romance and excitement of the golden age of train travel, whilst viewing decks allow passengers to breath in the tropical air outside.
Our Panama Canal tour offers the chance to experience the rail journey in conjunction with a visit to Portobelo. The sleepy fishing village is famed for the ruins of its colonial era fortifications, its laid-back Caribbean vibe and sweeping views of its glorious bay. There is also a visit to the Soberania National Park, one of the very best places to see the colourful birdlife of Latin America and Panama City, with its intriguing mix of modern and historic districts.
Journey: Panama City to Colón
Duration: One hour
Where Next: Visit the Soberania National Park, for unparalleled access to exotic birdlife
Continue to part II of the 10 best train journeys in Latin America