Train Trip Through Chile
by John Waymire
South America abounds with great railroad journeys. One of the best is the Ferrocarriles del Estado and its 600 mile train trip from Santiago, Chile south to Puerto Montt. For those wanting to travel to Chile's lake country the train and its sense of mild adventure fits the bill.
Chile being the string bean country, one usually travels north or south. North is where the deserts are and that's ok, but south is really where it's at. Down around Puerto Montt, a town settled in the 19th century by German immigrants, the land fragments into islands, glacier choked fjords, and some of the mightiest snow-capped volcanoes anywhere.
Traveling south from Santiago is a little like traveling from central California to Alaska. You start out in wine country and end up in a Latin Skagway. Like Canada, Chile even has an inland passage. At Puerto Montt you can board a steamship and thread your way through the islands to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan. From there you can cross to Tierra del Fuego and down to Antarctica if your budget and goose down hold out.
The best time to go to travel south is in the Chilean summer when daily trains go to Puerto Montt. Tickets can be secured through any agent or travel desk in Santiago. Travelers who care to can go to the city's Central Railroad Station and try their hand at purchasing their own tickets.
After a ten minute journey, Santiago's well maintained metro surfaces in front of the Estacion Central, a great iron girdered terminal of dubious architecture. After pushing through the gaggle of trinket stalls in front, one discovers Ana Quiroga behind the information desk in the waiting room. "Your train will leave daily at 6:15 pm. and arrives at Puerto Montt at 2:00pm the next day," she tells anxious travelers.
Those who have ridden trains in Latin America know schedules can be a little flexible. Figure a 2:00pm arrival time in Puerto Montt could stretch out to late afternoon, still leaving plenty of time to find a good room and explore the town.
Senora Quiroga goes on to explain how her train offers three kinds of accommodations: A salon car with reclining seats, a pullman car with berths, or an apartment car with enclosed compartments. The ticket prices for the 600 mile trip range from $24 to $40 with the enclosed compartment, of course, being the most expensive.
Promptly at 5:45pm on the day of departure someone swings open large iron gates and hundreds make their way to the yellow and blue train. After matching tickets with carriage numbers, all scramble aboard and are welcomed by lovely attendants in snappy uniforms. Inside one can't help noticing the decor -- mohair and wood veneer. The effect is a Diamond Jim Brady look in a fairly modern rail car. The decor not unpleasant.
All compartments in the apartment cars seemed to be occupied by families or groups of foreign travelers. In the salon cars people stow their baggage overhead. No chains or locks truss the baggage to the racks. Chile is a relatively crime-free country and private property is respected. Soon whistles blow, metal scrapes on metal, and the train pulls away.
Now the start of any train trip is not a pretty thing. Santiago's gas works, tire heaps, and rebar rod factories fill the windows. Soon, though, industrial Santiago is replaced by well scrubbed suburbs which in turn into Chile's famous vineyards. The train makes its way south of Santiago and skirts the Maipo River valley, the heart of Chile's wine country. The setting sun plays magic with gold light on the vineyards and olive groves. To the east and away from the city haze, the great Cordillera of the Andes hoves into view. The volcano Tupungato with its snow fields overlooks the valley.
At nine o'clock the dining car opens for business. "Whiskey sour?" the waiter inevitably asks as he offers the menu of steak or a chicken and rice combo. Foreigners usually opt for a local wine with their meal. It's curious that even though Chile produces excellent wines, most of the population would just as soon sip soft drinks.
After dinner one may choose to explore the club car. There the arrangements are typical -- a wet bar and individual tables. In addition, someone has walled off a quarter of the car into a movie theater. Inside, a Kung Fu video grunts away. Outside behind the bar, the waitress snaps a cassette into a boom box. The tables fill and travel stories are exchanged.
The next morning, one can sit in the dining car, sip coffee, and watch the land change into something like Wisconsin. Gone now are the mesquite and scrub oak of central Chile. Here black and white Holstein cows munch rain softened grass. Fog surrounds a well-kept dairy farm, then soon dissolves into sunlight.
The Ferrocarriles del Estado is no bullet train. Instead it rolls along slowly and steadily with a certain Latin majesty. At each station it discharges the odd backpacker or two intent on trekking to their favorite park. At Temuco it is the Parque National Conguillio and its Volcano Llaima. Here are protected forests of the Araucaria pine, a tree who's umbrella-like silhouette against a snow-topped volcano is synonymous with Chile. Further south the right of way passes near Volcano Villarrica, mighty enough to have its own national park.
Then in the early afternoon, it's time for the main event; Volcano Osorno begins to rise above the rolling hay fields. For hours its white cone plays tag among the hills. At Lake Llanquihue it bursts into full view. On the near shore lay the town of Frutillar with its flower boxes and German houses. On the opposite shore stands Osorno. Frutillar is so inviting that at its station, many passengers grab their bags and step off the train on a hunch of finding lodging.
Two hours later the train arrives at Puerto Montt. There, travelers sense a different hemisphere. Ice covered mountains thrust through a cloud bank. A low tide has left fishing boats on their sides. Fishing nets are everywhere. Steaming clams beckon. The Hotel Vincente Rosales and its four-star pleasures are a taxi ride away. In the evening one prowls the waterfront, sampling curanto, Chile's special meat and seafood stew.
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