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Favorite Train Trips Abroad

Travel Slowly and Close to the Land

From the window of a train the world is a visual banquet, one you taste and inhale as it flows past your window. People catch your eye and smile, imagining themselves sharing your journey.

Sadly, passenger trains have almost become an anachronism in America. Fortunately, trains remain part of daily life in the rest of the world. On the trains I describe below you travel close to the land and you travel slowly enough to absorb the life and the landscape. You have as much privacy or contact with other people as you choose. You sleep deeply, rocking along to a soothing rhythm, waking to a new vista with each dawn.

My favorite trains are the old-fashioned ones that maintain the style of a half-century ago. Some of them depart from stations that are remarkable works of art, such as the soaring iron masterpieces designed by Gustave Eiffel. Since South America is featured this time, let’s start there: The Ferrocarril del Estado, between Santiago and 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 asTemuco Indians and fifth-generation German immigrants.

Compartments in the 60-year-old coaches were once masterpieces of elegance: brown velvet seats, carved wood furnishings, and etched glass. The furnishings may be a bit faded now and somewhat threadbare but for a comfortable private seat and cozy berth the overnight trip costs less than $100.

In Peru, heading east from the city of Arequipa, the tracks pass volcanic cones whose snow melt gives birth to the Amazon River and flows 2,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean.

In isolated shepherds’ villages on the high desert, fur-wrapped children wave in excitement as the train passes. Sturdy alpacas, disturbed by the labored breathing of the near-antique engine, stretch their necks and flair their nostrils before loping away. The conductor sways down the aisle carrying a black rubber balloon filled with oxygen for passengers unused to train 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 a wonder of the railway world, runs from Lima to Huancayo, a town high in the Andes. The track crosses 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 some passengers avert their eyes. Reaching 14,800 feet, this is said to be the highest passenger train in the world.

Then there’s the very popular 3 1/2-hour canyon route between Cuzco and mysterious Machu Picchu. The price marketed to tourists is $249 roundtrip, but you will pay far less if you travel with local people. As for lodging, it’s initially tempting to spend the night at the "Sanctuary," the only hotel located on the Machu Picchu plateau. Since that would cost more than $500 a night, why not stay just a short distance away in Agua Caliente for a fraction of the cost? Or, for a truly memorable experience, hike in from Cuzco on the Inca Trail.

In Zimbabwe in Southeast Africa the 10-car train chugs out of the small town of Bulawayo bound for Victoria Falls. A steward in a crisp white shirt, gold cuff links, and a homey blue cardigan shows us to our comfortable compartment. Just as darkness closes in, the train enters Hwange National Park, renowned for its black leopards. It’s not hard to imagine slitted yellow eyes watching as we pass through the forest. In the morning, we hop off the train on the front lawn of the famous Victoria Falls Hotel, immediately energized by thunder and mist from the mammoth cataracts.

In South Africa the internationally famous Blue Train covers a thousand miles from picturesque Capetown to Johannesburg in 26 hours. However, the hand-painted china and sparkling crystal come at a fairly high price. A ticket costs $700 and up—plus you’re expected to dress for dinner, and I don’t mean Levis. Despite the price, the Blue Train is often sold out six months ahead. But there’s no need to be disappointed. A ticket for a berth on a normal train, running on exactly the same track, is yours for less than $100.

In New Zealand, the Overlander (if you take the Northerner, the night train, you’ll miss the scenery) heads south from Auckland past ski resorts on the steep slopes of steaming volcanoes, turquoise mirror lakes, and rivers bursting with trout. After a stop in "Windy Welly," as the capital Wellington is known, the train coaches are loaded aboard a ferry to cross the Cook Strait. Leaving from Picton on the South Island, the Tranz Coastal continues south along the seashore to Christchurch.

After enjoying that resolutely English town, board the Tranz Alpine for a half-day trip across the Canterbury Plains amid flocks of sheep that crowd the landscape to the horizon. Arthur’s Pass leads you through the Southern Alps, the mountainous spine of the South Island, alternating between spindly viaducts and pitch-black tunnels to emerge on the craggy west coast.

Europe offers a plethora of fine train trips. Except for interruptions due to occasional regional disturbances the royal blue coaches of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express have transported passengers in luxury across the continent since 1883. Passengers enjoy such luxuries as fine Lalique lamps, Wedgwood china, French soap, and Irish linen. After dining on caviar, duck breast, foie gras, Dutch cheeses, and cherished desserts, they relax in the bar to the music of a tuxedoed pianist.

The evening continues with champagne and fine brandy as it did for passengers such as Winston Churchill, Mata Hari, and Princess Grace. The price, though, is higher than you expect, and that’s before adding the cost of formal attire.

Other excellent European routes include a train named the Chopin from Vienna to Moscow. Then there’s the Remus from Vienna to Rome, the Rembrandt from Amsterdam to Stuttgart, the Citalia from London to Rome, and, one of my very favorites, the trip from Bergen to Oslo, Norway. Don’t miss the short trip on the Brunig Panoramic Express from Interlaken to Lucerne, Switzerland that passes through an enchanted land of lakes, forests, and alpine peaks.

Trains in Eastern Europe are a little threadbare and the landscape is sometimes industrialized and polluted. On the other hand, you have the a chance to pass slowly through countries not overrun with travelers. For a pleasant afternoon just outside Budapest, board one of the red and silver cars of the Pioneer Railway for a 12-kilometer trip through a peaceful forest. This little railroad is staffed almost entirely by children dressed in blue uniforms with red epaulets.

We’ll end with a 15-hour trip on the Chihuahua al Pacifico between Chihuahua, Mexico and Los Mochis near the Sea of Cortez on the west coast. Because the tracks follow the stunning Copper Canyon across 39 bridges and through 86 tunnels, this may be the most spectacular train ride in North America.

You can enjoy it all the way through in the comfort of the three passenger cars and a dining/lounge car or you can disembark at Cuauhtemocto to visit a community of German-speaking Mennonite ranchers and again at Divisadero to hike down into the canyon. Along the way, you meet Tarahumara Indians, renowned for their endurance as long-distance runners.

The trip begins at semi-tropic sea level on the west coast and rises through the most scenic part of the trip between Divisadero and El Fuerte to the cool air at 8,000 feet.

Wherever in the world you board a railroad coach, the rhythmical beat of iron wheels and the gentle sway of the coach calm your mind, center your thoughts, and recharge your battery.

Train Touring Info

Trains worldwide: www.seat61.com.

Peru: www.peru-hotels.com/trainsked.htm (the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu).

New Zealand: www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz (long distance passenger train services); www.taieri.co.nz (Dunedin's Taieri Gorge Railway)

Europe: Orient Express; Rail Europe.

Mexico's Copper Canyon Roundtrip Train