Traveling around South America by train is a unique way to discover this fascinating continent and learn about its various regions and peoples. This article focuses on travel via regular trains (not tourist trains) used by locals and travelers alike. Be advised that it is not always easy to get train tickets and seat reservations on such trains.
South America no longer has a coherent international rail network. Long ago it was possible to reach La Paz in Bolivia, Santiago de Chile, or Bariloche—all by train from Buenos Aires. But no more.
Most South American countries still have a few active railroads with regular passenger rail services. However, most of the classic railroads stopped operating one or two decades ago, after they had ceased to be a fundamental element of the local economies.
Below is a selection of local, non-tourist passenger train services with at least one weekly departure.
Travel in Argentina by train is difficult today. During the early 20th century, Argentina had one of the densest railway networks in the world. Today, Argentina still has some regular long-distance trains and regular local trains traveling to and from towns near large cities. However, it is difficult (though not impossible) for non-residents to get train tickets for some of the long-distance trains.
One exception to this—and an exciting journey if you plan to travel to Patagonia—is the "Tren Patagonico" from Viedma to Bariloche via San Antonio del Oeste and Ing. Jacobacci. The "Tren Patagonico" departs on Fridays from Viedma, arriving Saturday in Bariloche, and returns from Bariloche on Sunday, arriving on Monday in Viedma.
On this same railroad an early morning train runs every Wednesday from Ing. Jacobacchi to Bariloche. The train returns to Ing. Jacobacchi on the evening of the same day.
For the trains from Buenos Aires to Cordoba and Tucuman, it is very complicated (though again, not impossible) to obtain train tickets and reservations if you do not reside in Argentina.
At the Buenos Aires Plaza Constitucion Station you can board the train to Mar del Plata, the beach resort on the Atlantic Coast. This train runs daily, but check departure times before traveling and buy the tickets in advance.
The train to Bahia Blanca also departs each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from the Plaza Constitucion Station. This overnight train is convenient if you plan to travel to the south. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no passenger train connection between Bahia Blanca and Viedma.
Travel in Chile using trains south of Santiago is easy. Chilean trains are both efficient and comfortable.
From Santiago's historical Alameda Station, you can travel daily to Chillan, 398 km (247 miles) south of Santiago.
Between Santiago and Chillan, the train stops in Talca, from which a scenic branch line goes to Constitucion on the Pacific Ocean. Between Talca and Constitucion run various daily "Buscarrils." The 88 km- (55 Mile-) trip by "Buscarril" takes nearly three hours.
West of Santiago, you can make the train journey from Limache to Valparaiso. Limache is only 100 km (62 miles) west of Santiago. The train journey from Limache to Valparaiso takes about an hour by way of Viña del Mar. Valparaiso is a Chilean ocean resort town with a large port, definitely a place to visit when you are staying a few days in Santiago.
In Bolivia, trains are still vital to the local economy, and various exciting passenger train journeys are available. There are two independent railway networks: Ferroviaria Oriental, which runs trains in the eastern lowlands, and Ferroviaria Andina, which runs trains on the Altiplano. (These two lines do not connect.)
Ferroviaria Oriental operates trains out of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia's largest town. Some trains travel westward to Puerto Quijarro, a border town with Brazil. Another railroad from Santa Cruz goes southward to Yacuiba at the border with Argentina.
There are various weekly passenger trains between Santa Cruz and Puerto Quijarro. This line passes through the "Chiquitania" region with its famous Jesuit Jungle Missions (UN-World Heritage Sites). San Jose de Chiquitos and Roboré are both excellent places to leave the train to see the missions.
From Puerto Quijarro one can cross the land border to Corumba, Brazil, but be warned that the border crossing can be cumbersome. The Pantanal Cruises depart from Corumba. The Pantanal is the world's largest swamp and one of Brazil's major natural sites.
The other passenger train from Santa Cruz travels to Yacuiba at the border with Argentina. This train runs once per week and is a rather uncomfortable train ride. I recommend this journey only for railfans; other travelers would do better to take a public bus or arrange for a private driver.
Crossing the border between Yacuiba in Bolivia and Salvador Mazza in Argentina is usually not a problem.
Ferroviaria Andina operates passenger trains between Lake Titicaca and Villazon, across the Bolivian Altiplano. The train from El Alto to Lake Titicaca runs only once a month and is therefore not very useful for travelers. Important trains for tourism are the Wara Wara Express and Expreso del Sur, both of which run several times each week between Oruro, Uyuni, and Villazon at the Argentinean border.
Another fascinating railway journey goes from Viacha to Charaña. Unfortunately, the border between Charaña in Bolivia and Visviri in Chile is closed; therefore, this journey is just a scenic train trip. The train returns from Charaña to Viacha the next day and, as far as I know, in Charaña there is no accommodation available. Therefore, be sure to arrange private transportation for the return journey to Viacha or La Paz.
The train from Tacna in Peru to Arica in Chile is a short international rail journey that crosses a sandy desert. Depending on the affluence of the road border post, it can take time to get through the border formalities; not so by train. Train passengers pass through the Peru border check at the Tacna Station and then the Chile border control one hour later when arriving in Arica. The rail vehicle is a ferrobus, so there will not be many passengers traveling, and the border formalities go quickly.
In Brazil there are two long-distance train journeys. Vale S. A., one of the world's largest mining companies, operates both of these passenger trains.
For a traveler, the train between Belo Horizonte and Vitoria is an attractive option. The train takes an entire day to travel over 664 km (412 miles) and is quite comfortable, with various travel classes available. There is restaurant car for snacks and light meals. Tickets can be bought on the day of departure, but be sure to arrive early at the railway station.
The other Vale train runs once per week between Sao Luis and Parauapebas in northern Brazil, a distance of over 861 km (535 miles). Sao Luis is a beautiful colonial city well worth a visit. Don't forget to spend a day at the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses with its tall white dunes.
If you don't want to travel all the way to Parauapebas (the train arrives just before midnight), you can leave the train in Maraba. There the train crosses the Tocantins River. Maraba has suitable accommodations and an airport with regular flights to Belem, where the Amazon River enters the Atlantic Ocean.
Paraguay has an international train going from Posadas to Encarnacion in Argentina. Various trains run between the two cities each day from Monday to Friday. The train does not operate on weekends.
At the moment, Ecuador and Colombia have no regular trains operating.