You don’t get on the train that runs between Huancayo and Lima, Peru for the service, food, amenities, or speed. The train is dirty (even in a tourist class car), staff members are surly, the food is airplane grade, and the journey takes at least twice as long by train as it does by bus or car. However, the scenery on the highest train in the Americas is spectacular, as is the engineering it took to accomplish this feat. Don’t miss our highlight-filled travel video near the end of this post.
This train, operated by Ferrocarril Central Andina, travels 214 miles (346 km) through the Andes past waterfalls, grazing llamas, and, honestly, a few pretty scary-looking giant mining operations. The route goes from sea level in Lima to a maximum elevation of 15,692 feet (4,782 meters) which makes it the highest train in the Americas and the second highest railway in the world. It was the highest train in the world until 2006 when a train to Tibet began operation at slightly higher elevations.
The idea of opening up the Peruvian Andes by train was first proposed in 1851. Construction commenced in 1870 and by 1893 the Galera Tunnel was opened and the line reached La Oroya. After decades of challenging construction, the rail line reached Huancayo in 1908. It was originally pulled by steam engines, but now the train is pulled by diesel engines. The Peruvian Central Railway system was submitted for UNESCO World Heritage Site consideration in 2019.
Between Lima and Huancayo, the train navigates a wide array of engineering marvels including 7 tricky switchbacks, 69 tunnels (one spirals like a pig’s tail and one is nearly 3,400 feet / 1,000 meters long), and 58 bridges. The one-way journey takes about 14 hours, which, honestly is a really long time to be on a train. We know because we did it. Here’s what riding the highest train in the Americas is like.
Lima to Huancayo on the highest train in the Americas
A saxophone player was warming up as we arrived at the Desamperados train station in central Lima. It was 6 am and first light was just breaking through the typical morning fog in Lima. As passengers filed sleepily into train cars, an army band began playing “Marinera Norteña” which is perhaps the most emblematic traditional song in Peru. Then the train slowly pulled out, at 7 am, right on time.
As the train passed crumbling infrastructure and patches of garbage on the outskirts of Lima, locals and tourists mixed in the Classic Class cars and Tourist Class cars on the train, which was far from full with around 80 passengers in total.
The seats in our Tourist Car were well-padded and fairly comfortable (important on such a long journey), there was heating (important at high altitude), and the windows were large (important through such dramatic scenery), plus there were a few electrical plugs for recharging gadgets but they were, oddly, in the ceiling.
It took more than an hour to pass Chiosica Station, at km 54 on the line, where the railway is headquartered. Past Chiosica, we finally left the ugly sprawl of Lima behind and began making our way up, up, up into the Andes following the Rímac River valley. Around 8:30 am breakfast of unripe pineapple, bad coffee, a roll with ham and cheese, and a cookie was served airplane-style all wrapped up in a ton of plastic and styrofoam packaging. The too-loud soundtrack of Enya and the theme from Chariots of Fire didn’t help the cold, uninspired breakfast go down.
Around 10:15 am we reached the San Bartolome Station at 4,964 feet (1,513 meters) and the first of six switchbacks needed to get to the high point on the line.
This first switchback is an unusual single-ended switchback which means that the locomotive had to be disconnected and driven onto a turntable (operated manually) which turned the locomotive in the other direction. Then the locomotive was reconnected to the other end of the train and we carried on. While the rail crew was performing this switcheroo, passengers were allowed out to stretch our legs, enjoy the crisp air, and admire an old steam engine perma-parked at the station before re-boarding.
After successfully navigating this first switchback, the train swept through a few large horseshoe curves and we started climbing in earnest thanks to increasingly impressive feats of engineering. In places, the track ran on a narrow shelf blasted out of cliff faces (don’t look down) and we also passed through many tunnels.
By 11 am, we’d reached the Carrión Bridge at km 84 and 5,900 feet (1,798 meters). The onboard guide (Spanish only but English speakers can sort of follow along using a poorly translated printed version of the information) told passengers that many railway workers died constructing the 750 foot (213 meter) long and 260 foot (80 meter) high span which passes over a deep ravine. Two previous bridges were built here before this steel version was completed by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering company in 1937.
From there the track passed waterfalls, steep Andean hillsides, and small cactus farms where farmers cultivated and harvested cochineal beetles that live on the cactus and are used as a colorant in foods and fabrics because they produce a natural deep brick color. Dogs howled as the train passed by.
Just after 11 am, we reached Balta Station at km 91. Here the train quickly gains elevation, but not via the typical switchbacks. Instead, we undertook a series of maneuvers called the Balta Loop. First, the train passed through Tunnel #7, a thoroughly unusual construction in the shape of a corkscrew or pigtail that allows the train to change elevation as it passes through the hillside. Then the train passed through a series of horseshoe curves. The experience and the engineering reminded us of our journey on the El Chepe Copper Canyon train in Mexico.
At 12:10 pm we stopped briefly on a siding at Matucana Station at km 102 at 7,837 feet (2,389 meters) to allow a freight train to pass. These sidings are rare because the rugged Andean terrain means that most of the rail line is geographically limited to a single track. Other clever workarounds are also needed to facilitate freight and passenger train traffic on this line. For example, many of the switchback sections have very short runoffs (the space for a train to back up so it can change direction and continue on the next leg of the switchback).
Five dead-end tunnels have been constructed to add length to some of these switchback runoffs, but most are still too short for freight trains. The max train length on this line is 17 cars, but even with this limited length many freight trains need to be broken up and brought through the switchbacks in sections before being reassembled after the switchback has been navigated.
Complicated logistics like that mean that freight trains take more than 20 hours to travel between Chiosica and Galera covering just 73 miles (118 km) but artfully achieving a change in elevation of 12,863 feet (3,921 meters). Thankfully, the special tourist excursion we were traveling on is only run a few times a year and it has priority over the freight trains for much of the journey, so we traveled between Chiosica and Galera in just shy of seven hours, not the 20+ hours that freight trains are faced with.
From Matucana Station the grades became very steep (up to 4.6% which equals one foot gained for every 21 feet traveled) and the rock walls became very sheer as we entered the spectacular Rímac Gorge. Over the next 43 miles (70 km) between Matucana Station and the Galera Tunnel, the line gains an astounding 7,849 feet (2,392 meters) with the help of five switchbacks. *You can see some of the dramatic Rímac Gorge in our train video.
This rapid elevation gain resulted in predictable altitude headaches. We were disappointed to see that passengers had to pay for hot water and coca tea bags, a common and effective remedy for side effects caused by altitude when they should have been offering hot coca tea to all of the passengers all of the time. There was a supplemental oxygen bottle on board as well as a nurse and a few passengers took advantage of both as the train climbed higher and higher.
Shortly after leaving Matucana Station, we climbed through the 3-level Visio Switchback, followed by the Taboraque Switchback which includes a series of tunnels as well.
After navigating the two switchbacks through a windy section with many tunnels, we crossed the ominously named Puente Infiernillo (Hell Bridge) at km 129.5.
Puente Infiernillo is probably the most photographed spot on the line because you can see it from the highway below as it dramatically spans the empty space between tunnels 35 and 36 partway up the steep canyon walls with both ends of the bridge connecting the tunnels.
Around 1 pm, just after crossing Puente Infiernillo, we entered the Cacray Switchback at km 131. The lower segment of this switchback ends in a dead-end tunnel that allows for a longer runoff.
At this point, we’d reached 11,000 feet (3,352 meters) and the onboard dance troupe was deep into a performance in the train’s Observation Car. The traditional clothing and choreography were almost as impressive as the dancers’ ability to exert so much effort at that altitude.
The higher we climbed through zig-zagging sections of switchbacks the more we were reminded of our trip on the Devil’s Nose train in Ecuador. At 1:45 pm we left the Rímac Gorge behind and arrived at Chicla Switchback. This is the longest of the switchbacks on this line and there is another dead-end tunnel to increase runoff space for longer trains.
Watch the train navigate part of Chicla switchback including a dead-end tunnel in our train video.
At 2:15 pm we arrived at Caspalanca at km 153 and an altitude of 13,630 feet (4,154 meters). Here the environment became more alpine and the valley opened up. We saw alpacas, guanacos, and foxes in the grassy areas and passed small lakes that attracted ducks and Andean gulls.
We soon entered the heart of Peru’s high altitude mining region and the scenery took a turn for the worse with huge mineral processing facilities, large dams holding back polluted tailing ponds, and sprawling dormitories for mineworkers dominating the landscape.
Copper, lead, and zinc is extracted from the mining areas we passed and then moved by freight train to the port of Callao in Lima. This is what makes up the heart of Ferrocarril Central Andina’s business.
The final switchback on the line is located within the industrial complex of the Compaña Minera Yauliyacu at Caspalanca. At 2:30 pm, after completing that switchback, we arrived at Chinchan at km 160.
Here the valley curved to the right toward snow-capped peaks and the Ticlio Pass. As the train rounded a large horseshoe curve we could see a giant dam and mine tailing pond before starting the spectacularly steep climb up the other side of the valley as we made the final climb to the Galera Summit Tunnel.
As we climbed, the landscape changed to a high alpine environment and we passed through seven tunnels in just 2 miles (3 km) between km 166 and 169, before passing below Mount Meiggs which was named for Henry Meiggs, a Californian who was hired to build the railway in 1869.
The next engineering highlight of the journey came around 3:00 pm with our arrival at Galera Summit Tunnel which was completed in 1893.
The Galera Summit Tunnel is at the highest point on the rail line at 15,692 feet (4,783 meters). To put this elevation into perspective, it’s 1,198 feet (365 meters) higher than Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the United States) and 89 feet (27 meters) lower than Mount Elbus (the highest point in Europe).
After passing through the Galera Summit Tunnel, which is 3,355 feet (1,022 meters) long, we had crossed the Continental Divide and reached the Eastern side of the Andes Mountains.
We emerged from the darkness inside the Galera Summit Tunnel (after what felt like an hour but was really only a few moments) and arrived at Galera Station at km 172. For 113 years this station, at 15,681 feet (4,781 meters) was the highest railway station in the world, then the Tibet Railway began operation in 2006 and surpassed it.
At Galera Station, passengers bundled up (bring layers including hats and gloves) to explore this high point before re-boarding.
After pulling out of Galera Station we continued through a wide gently descending valley surrounded by beautiful jagged peaks and not so beautiful giant mining operations including the enormous Minera Chinalco Perú, a Chinese-owned copper mine near Galera.
Just past the Minera Chinalco Perú the train traveled through the Toromocho Switchback which is the sole switchback on this side of the Galera Summit Tunnel.
A lunch of mashed potatoes with a bit of shredded chicken and a few peas in a very salty sauce, cold pasta salad, and a piece of cake was served. Then, at 4:00 pm, we saw the dancers take a hit off the supplemental oxygen bottle before their final performance in the Observation Car.
Then we began descending, passing the town of La Oroya at km 222. We had seen dismal evidence of mining along other sections of track earlier in the journey but La Oroya has the dubious distinction of being named one of the most polluted places in the world in the 1980s thanks to the giant smelting operation that existed here for decades. It’s thankfully now closed.
As darkness descended, we continued descended the Mantero Valley slowly making our way to the city of Huancayo. By 7:30 pm it was time for a passenger party in the Observation Car complete with balloons, glittery masks, and a conga line all of which we watched from a safe distance. We chose not to use our complimentary pisco sour tickets after seeing the sweet cocktail mix languishing in a blender behind the bar.
Around 8:15 pm passengers were given crustless white bread sandwiches as a snack before our 9:00 pm arrival in Huancayo at km 346 and an elevation of 10,699 feet (3,259 meters). We had descended 4,993 feet (1,521 meters) from the highpoint at the Galera Summit Tunnel.
More dancers and blasting music greeted us at the Huancayo Station, but most passengers (including us) were more interested in getting their luggage and finding a hotel than appreciating another cultural display. Fourteen hours after departing Lima we disembarked but even back on solid ground we felt the rocking and rolling of the rails, like the phenomenon of “boat legs” after a long journey on the water.
Many people just take the train in one direction, and either return to Lima via the faster highway or carry on into the Andes from Huancayo. It is possible to drive the 187 miles (302 km) between Lima and Huancayo in about seven hours on the paved Carretera Central highway that connects those two cities. However, when we were able to see that highway from the train we often witnessed a 20 vehicle backup behind a slow-moving 18-wheeler and we were grateful that we were on the train where traffic jams are not much of an issue. To maximize our photo opportunities we opted for the return trip via train to Lima the following day.
Ferrocarril Central Andino by the numbers
Distance traveled: 214 miles (346 km) each way
Duration of journey: about 14 hours each way
Number of switchbacks: 7 including 6 between Lima and the highpoint at the Galera Summit Tunnel
Number of tunnels: 69
Numbers of bridges: 58
Max elevation: 15,692 feet (4,782 meters) at the Galera Summit Tunnel
See the switchbacks, tunnels, and scenery during a journey on the Ferrocarril Central Andino highest train in the Americas for yourself in our travel video, below.
Where to sleep in Huancayo, Peru
Once you reach Huancayo, the fifth-largest city in Peru, you’ll be ready to rest. We stayed at Hostal Embajada Wanka where about US$24 got us a clean, small, private room with Wi-Fi and a private bathroom with hot water. It’s located about a mile from the center of the city in a commercial area which is not lovely, but the slightly inconvenient location is what makes this hostal cheaper. If you want to say closer to the center of town, we recommend La Casa de la Abuela which is not far from the train station.
Want more time on the rails?
In Huancayo, you can get on the Tren Macho (Macho Train) for the five-hour, 80 mile (128 km) journey to the high mountain town of Huancavelica. Along the way, you’ll experience 38 tunnels, 15 bridges, and more Andean scenery. Or you can choose to take the train back to Lima, repeating the route in reverse.
The Ferrocarril Central Andina tourist train between Huancayo and Lima is only run a handful of times a year. The schedule can be checked and tickets purchased on the very terrible Ferrocarril Central Andina website. Because this is a special excursion on a unique and world-famous rail line, tickets are expensive. Tickets for Classic Class in older cars are 235 soles (about US$63) one-way and 350 soles (about US$93) round-trip. Tickets in slightly more comfortable Tourist Class cars cost 500 soles (about US$132) one-way and 700 soles (about US$185) round-trip.
We took this train in both directions and we can tell you that the one-way return from Huancayo to Lima is slightly less expensive because there is no traditional dance performance, no party, and no free pisco sour (as far as we’re concerned, that’s all no great loss). If you are only going to travel on this train in one direction, we recommend the leg from Huancayo to Lima to maximize views because in this direction you will travel in the dark during the final few hours into Lima which passes through ugly urban sprawl that no one really wants to see anyway.
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Train Travel in the Americas