Train travel is getting a lot of attention right now. Some of us are looking for ease, affordability and slow travel. Many look to lower their carbon footprint. Little trips by train do it all for me. For example, I don’t have the patience, budget, or time to slow travel across Canada but, I would love to fly into Vancouver for railway adventures through the Western Canadian Mountains on the Rocky Mountaineer. Have you ever planned a trip like that?
Across the world railway adventures have long been both recreational as well as a necessity. In the last century, when the US backed away from a transcontinental passenger rail system in favor of shipping, most tourist train travel outside of northeastern commuter routes ground to a halt. The experience of special dining and well-appointed cars was derailed. Investment went into roads and car travel. However, as the pandemic eased, a few private rail lines have taken up some of the slack and are flourishing around the country. (See my previous post about short rides around the U.S.)
Here are a few of my favorite international railway adventures with a bonus pair that I hope to make one day. If you don’t have time to read through, check out the takeaway tips at the end of each section.
1. Japan – Little Trips from Hakone
Twenty years after my first trip to Japan I returned to show my sister some of the greatest hits. On the first trip, our hosts in Tokyo took us to the mountain village of Hakone, a two hour drive from Tokyo and I’ve wanted to return ever since.
When I returned I couldn’t wait to retrun to the Hakone Tozan Route, Japan’s oldest mountain railway over the mountain. Tourists can ride over the historical route, change to a sleek gondola and ride down the other side of the mountain to the lake district below. I remembered buying eggs cooked in the sulphuric springs at the top of the mountain but recent volcanic activity has make them have become toxic. It was still a thrill to peer through steamy windows at the hillside plumes if even a bit spooky. The mood lightened as we changed onto a gondola and began to swing down the other side of the mountain. Where we disembarked and strolled onto a Pirate Ship!
Lake Ashinoko was once part of an ancient trade route into Tokyo but today it’s a tourist destination with several fanciful ships traveling the calm waters. From the gondola we walked onto a swashbuckler-themed ship to cruise the lake over to a bus plaza for lunch. (The Hakone Free Pass is valid only on the pirate ship.) Later, using our Hakone Free Pass, we caught a bus back to our Hakone hotel. Even though we arrived during the rainy season that excursion became one of my sister’s favorite memories from the trip.
Tip: Hakone is a popular local playground with international art galleries and many Ryokans (Inns with traditional baths.) Reserve your lodging well in advance of arrival. There’s a wide variety of modern hotels as well.
2. Sri Lanka – Columbo to Kandy
I went backpacking as far as possible over six months in 1974. My travel buddy and I found a cheap flight from London to Sri Lanka and soon I was looking out the window of our Aeroflot airplane watching heat waves floating up from the tarmac. With our blood thickened from living in Juneau, Alaska, that heat became an issue. A few days in the mountains near Kandy was our remedy. It’s one of the little trips we took across the country.
Tip: Trains and buses link the villages and cities across the island nation. Scooters and motorcycles vie for road space. Book according to your comfort level. Recent economic traumas after the pandemic have put Sri Lanka on a travel advisory list. Travel with caution.
3. The Paris Metro
I loved how easy it was to travel through Paris by Metro train and double-decker buses. Those railway adventures were part of a family vacation and the last big trip I took with my parents before they passed away. I came home with many dear memories and a few cautions. The Metro Stations are sleek tubes of beauty and comfortable, however, as in any city, unsuspecting tourists can be targeted by unscrupulous pickpockets, as my father unfortunately found out. Read the story in this earlier post. Still, I highly recommend exploring the City of Light by public transportation and look forward to doing so again.
Tip: When visiting any major city landmark be sure to secure your wallet and passport diligently, especially in crowds.
4. Peru – Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente
The most popular destination in Peru is the citadel city of Machu Picchu. Hearty and fit travelers hike the ancient Inca Trail. The rest of us have other options. My railway adventures started in Cusco where a comfortable air conditioned bus brought us to Ollantaytambo, a wondrous Peruvian village set into the Sacred Valley. After a bit of hiking and shopping, we boarded the train for our next base, Agua Caliente, the closest you can get by train to Machu Picchu.
Much has been written about the old, government train service vs. the newer more expensive to highly luxurious private trains, but I remember the budget ride fondly for the views and music as locals entertained us in full costume. Once in Agua Caliente, we left the heaving engine to check into a hotel close to the transport uphill to the ruins. The village, set along the river is full of international energy with a relaxed vibe. Perhaps it’s the aura of the sacred ruins.
Tip: The train ride from Ollanttaytambo to Agua Caliente is only an hour and a half. It’s a lovely ride through the valley whether you go by budget train or luxury coach. Know what makes you happy and can afford comfortably when you choose which company to travel with.
5. Switzerland: Interlaken to Jungfraujoch
The Swiss invested into rail travel early and run their system like clockwork (pun intended for the most famous watchmakers in the world.) While I spent a week traversing the country on Swiss Rail, my favorite little trips were on smaller routes. The town of Interlaken was my base for the journey up to the ‘Top of Europe,’ Jungfraujoch. It’s a stunning day trip with train and funicular changes as the route moves up and through the mountains. Riding into villages dotted with bright skiers was a treat. Make time for a meal at the top and pick up some chocolate too!
Tip: This is a high altitude adventure. It’s also a slow journey up, which makes it a bit easier for those of us susceptible to altitude sickness to adjust. If you or your travel buddy has heart conditions, it might not be the best part of Switzerland to explore.
6. Mexico: Tequila Express to Guadalajara
There’s a tequila pilgrimage into the hill country west of Guadalajara and getting there is simple aboard the Tequila Express. The ‘magical village’ of Tequila is worth exploring over a few days with art galleries and over 150 registered distilleries along La Ruta!
The village station is little more than a series of small buildings. With several different classes of tickets, passengers break into groups to board the different cars.
My ticket was for the premier coach. Instead of benches, we sat at small tables and were invited to sip tequila. As the steam train sprang to life, we toasted and played drinking games, like Lotteria, a brightly illustrated version of bingo using dried corn kernels. On we rode past hills full of blue-green agave and finally into the grand city of Guadalajara. (Read more about the village and ride in this earlier post.)
Tip: Budget for first class train tickets at different points of your trip. I would’ve missed this delightful afternoon ride if my go-to-get-the-cheapest-ticket habit had overridden my curiosity.
7. Spain – Barcelona to Montserrat
Barcelona can be over-whelming. It’s a huge metropolis and after a few days wandering neighborhoods on my own, I choose a day-trip to countryside and the mountain monastery of Montserrat. There are many tour options but the challenge of getting there independently by train appealed to me. The España rail station is on the green and red metro lines making it accessible from any part of the Barcelona city center with a metro stop. I spent some time deciding whether to take the funicular or the gondola up to the top. It’s important to decide before purchasing a ticket as the options narrow once you’re underway! The tickets cost the same but can’t be changed.
Montserrat has been a monastery refuge for over a hundred years. The buildings, museums and cathedral were painstakingly hewed into the landscape. What drew me most were the spectacular views, omnipresent from the cable car windows and from trails across the hillside. The cathedral is a historic monument and I was thrilled to arrive as the choir practice began, flooding the vaulted caverns and courtyards with glorious harmonies.
It’s a full day trip from the city but satisfying from the cafes to the artwork, architecture to plazas. Plan your route with this link. I was able to leave after the morning rush hour and return to the city in time for dinner. The sense of accomplishment made this one of my favorite international railway adventures.
Tip: Paring down any trip in a major urban city takes patience. I spent three days wandering Barcelona and never stepped into the tourist mecca, the historical, gothic and historic center. Can’t do it all, I remind myself often and then relax to enjoy all I can at a leisurely pace.
International Railway Adventures for the Future
Any world traveler can confess to near-misses as they navigate the world. I have two little trips that poor timing cancelled but they still call to my wanderers heart.
8. India – New Delhi to the Taj Mahal
I’m not inclined to traveling by group tour but felt that India would be overwhelming for a solo woman without contacts. So, I signed on to a trip to see the greatest hits of the Golden Triangle, with stops in New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Unfortunately, the day we were to ride the train from New Delhi there was a strike, so a bus was chartered. If I ever return it would be to ride the Gatimaan Express, India’s first semi-high speed train and an immersion into local railway adventures. The train was launched in 2016 and runs between the Nizamuddin Station in New Delhi to Agra Cantonment in less than two hours.
9. Jordan Historic Train through Wadi Rum
The reaches of the Wadi Rum desert are legendary. Its monolithic rock formations and sandy expanses populate movies and novels. Train lines once plentiful still lightly trace the country’s history from the Ottoman Empire to battles with Western forces. I was lucky to stop at the Hejaz Wadi Rum station, to wander the displays, and take pictures of the trains. Riding the train is a huge endeavor but a private outfit, the Jordan Heritage Revival Company, only runs re-enactment rides complete with ‘Arab Revot fighters’ who ‘ambush’ the train. It’s all in good fun and sounds like one of the most thrilling little trips.