South America offers very little in the way of long-haul rail trips linking the major cities and visitor centers. You find no trains on the routes where you might expect trains the most: Rio to Sao Paulo, for example, or Bogota to Medellin. You find no trains linking either of the continent’s two top blockbuster attractions, Machu Pichu and Iguassu/Iguazu/Iguacu Falls, with major gateway cities, although several trains go to Machu Picchu from Cuzco.
What you find is a handful of spectacular tourist trains. Most involve running to or through the Andes, but a few serve other areas. In addition, many of the biggest cities provide some combination of suburban rail, metro, and light rail for local travel.
Argentina, which had completely abandoned passenger rail in 1993, is again operating. Current schedules link Buenos Aires with Cordoba, La Pampa, Mar del Plata, Rosario, Rufino and Tucuman, along with a few shorter lines. Although trains operate all the way from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche, there are no through trains and schedules are not coordinated. You can check schedules and other details at sofse.gob.ar/portal/index.php (Spanish only). Be sure to check the interesting interactive map at sateliteferroviario.com.ar/horarios/mapa_argentina.htm. Have Google translate it.
The tourist train Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds) operates seasonally from Salta up to a point near the Chilean border at more than 13,000 feet altitude. See the details at trenalasnubes.com.ar/noroeste_argentino/default.aspx
Robust metro and suburban rail systems serve Buenos Aires and environs. In addition, Mendoza has one light rail route.
The most important trains in Bolivia run twice weekly from Oruro to Villazon, on the Argentine border, and monthly from El Alto, near La Paz, to Guaqui on Lake Titicaca. Check fca.com.bo/ for details.
Like Argentina, Brazil operates only a few long-distance passenger trains. Vale (vale.com/brasil/EN) operates daily 13-hour trips linking Vitorio and Belo Horizonte and three weekly trips between Parauapebas and Sao Luis. Serra Verde Express (serraverdeexpress.com.br/site/index.aspx) runs excursions from Cordoba to a rainforest as well as a few other trips.
A combination of metro and suburban rail systems serve Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Porto Allegre, Recife, Rio, Salvador and Sao Paulo.
Chile’s rail system (trencentral.cl/link.cgi) operates trains on the main line from Alameda (near Santiago) south as far as Chillan and one weekly tourist train on to Temuco (but the line that once went on to Puerto Montt is closed). A combination of metro and suburban lines serves the Santiago and Valparaiso areas. Unfortunately, the former cog railway crossing the Andes to Argentina has fallen into disrepair. Although some people talk about restoring it there are no funds available for the work.
A tourist train links Bogota with nearby Zipaquira; the salt cathedral there is a don’t-miss highlight (turistren.com.co). Medellin has a small metro system.
The tourist Tren Crucero (trenecuador.com/crucero/en) traverses one of the world’s most spectacular stretch of railroading, linking coastal Guayaquil through the Andes to Quito in a four-day, three-night excursion. Train cars, in colonial style, are outfitted for day use, with overnight stops at hotels along the way. A vintage steam locomotive pulls some legs. You reach as high as 12,000 feet; Quito is at 9,350 feet.
Perurail (perurail.com) operates several trains between Poroy, near Cuzco, and Machu Picchu, including a range of options from the deluxe Hiram Bingham to the backpacker’s Expedition. Perurail and Incarail (incarail.com/index.html) also operate shorter shuttles between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. In addition, Perurail runs all-day trips on the luxury Andean Explorer from Cuzco to Puno, for Lake Titicaca.
Another tourist-oriented train into the Andes, the Tren de Sierra (ferrocarrilcentral.com.pe/en_index_.php), runs all-day trains infrequently from Callao/Lima to Huancayo, passing through La Cima at 15,800 feet elevation (fugeddaboudit if you have altitude problems).
Lima is served by a metro system.
— Ed Perkins, editor