Peruvian Central Railway


Peruvian Central Railway is part of the Tentative list of Peru in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Peruvian Central Railway is a mountain railway built between 1869 and 1908 and connecting the mining towns of the Andes with the ocean. At 4, 853 metres above sea level, this railway was the highest in the world until 2006. Its construction required significant technical prowess and the development of numerous infrastructures, including viaducts and tunnels.

Map of Peruvian Central Railway

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 09-Aug-19 -

Peruvian Central Railway (T) by Solivagant

The inclusion of the “Ferrocarril Central Andino” on Peru’s T List in Aug 19 has led me to revisit my trip on it from Lima to Huancayo made way back in Dec 1973. Doing so has provided evidence of just how much has changed across those 45+ years!

I have looked out my faded diary and discovered that I booked the train at the Desamperados station the previous evening for 70 Soles - the same cost as the night at my nearby, somewhat downmarket, hotel (c $1.60 at the then exchange rate of 43!). The train left on time at 07.40 and chugged into Huancayo 9hrs 35mins later (where my hotel cost me 115 Soles/$2.67!). Starting at c150m/500ft. the journey divided into a number of sections – grotty Lima suburbs which, even in those days, seemed to extend for ever, along the fertile Rimac valley, then the real climb which started at around 54kms at Chosica and continued up to the highest point at Galera tunnel and station (4781m/15681ft/c175kms), followed by a drop to the ugly mining town of La Oroya (3,745m/12,287ft/c200kms) and then a level journey of c120kms wending its way through altiplano landscape to Huancayo (3,259m/10,692ft). The next day I started a 2 day bus journey to Cuzco via Ayacucho over what, in those days, were very rough roads.

The passengers were mainly locals, plus a few "gringos", and in nearly every respect the train provided a "normal" service with no special features for tourists - no observation cars, scenic stops or speaker system narrative etc. There was, however, a guy in a white coat who passed round carrying a large rubber bladder full of oxygen which he would offer to puff into the faces of anyone suffering from the altitude (Photo1 - not of me, as I managed to avoid succumbing to soroche!). I suspect that his white coat was more for show than to indicate a specialist in pulmonary problems! At one point a blind beggar led by a small boy came through the carriage playing an Andean pipe - tragic but also memorable. I remember too the, oh so short, stops at stations and the traditionally garbed ladies selling their bocadillos, carving the meat straight from the roasted carcasses with only a few seconds to do their day’s business! (Though that scene was, of course, repeated across all of Peru's railway lines - Cuzco-Puno-Arequipa etc). Much of the climb was achieved by a series of forward and reverse “switchbacks”. The previous year I had been on the Darjeeling “toy train” - but the “Central” is standard gauge with full size diesel locos so there were no quirky “spiral” sections where one could get off, climb up a bank and (hope to!) get back on, but there were plenty of tunnels, rather “rackety” looking (and sounding!) bridges and amazing scenery. A short stop was made at Galera station (photo 2), then the highest in the World, but overtaken by China’s Qinghai-Tibet line in 2006. Some flurries of snow added to the atmosphere! Maybe I was more easily satisfied in my early days of transcontinental travel, but I still remember the trip as being a worthwhile experience up there with the other highlights of Peru. And where else in the World can one achieve such an altitude gain (4631m/15181ft) on land across such a small distance/time? (Most of the journey is available to view in sections on YouTube!).

The decades after 1973 were not kind to Peru. In 1980 the Sendero Luminoso (SL) commenced their terrorist campaign and the "Central" was a target. In “May 1984 in La Oroya, the railroad bridge, "El Infiernillo," which gives access to the mines along the Ferrocarril Central, was bombed with dynamite charges planted in the bases of the supporting towers of the bridge. Three weeks passed before it was repaired again. Five days later, a train of 29 cars carrying minerals was attacked and the train derailed”. By 1991 the SL controlled much of central Peru. In that year passenger services on the Central ceased, due to both economic and security issues. In 1992 the SL leader Guzman was captured and gradually the government re-established control. My 1995 S American Handbook still cautioned against travel in some areas around Huancayo.

Unsurprisingly the experience to be obtained in 2019 looks to be rather different. Regular passenger services never recommenced and the railway is operated primarily for freight to/from the mines of the area. The main town of La Oroya has “earned a place on the Blacksmith Institute's 2007 report, "The World's Worst Polluted Places"” (Wiki). But Peruvian mining is booming and China has opened an enormous mine near the Galera summit. As a result, significant upgrading investment is taking place  to handle the amount of freight traffic, and there are even plans for a tunnel to by-pass the switchbacks etc.

There is now no real need for a passenger rail service on such a crowded freight line - a coach takes around 7 hours to reach Huancayo from Lima on a well-engineered and surfaced road (albeit with occasional landslide blockages!), following much the same route as the railway and actually going slightly higher than it does at Ticlio Pass (4.818m/15,807ft)! If you just want to see the railway and the scenery, then the road should provide a perfectly satisfactory experience (some of us have already commented that the road alongside the Rhaetian railway actually provides better views of the railway and the countryside than the railway itself!).

However, there is an irregular “Tourist train” which operates a small number of trips (“9 times per year” according to the UNESCO T List description). This rather clunky web site contains most of the information. The current stand alone "up" ticket costs 500 Soles (c US $150) for foreigners in the cheaper “Clasico” class but less for the “down” trip (elsewhere I have read about difficulties buying one-way tickets as the operating company really wants to sell all inclusive round trip packages). It now seems to take around 13 hours departing at 07.00 and arriving at 20.00 – this presumably to allow for various scenic stops, traditional dancing displays, “shopping opportunities” etc. The fine Beaux Arts/Art Nouveau Desamperados station, from where I started all those years ago, has officially been “closed” and converted into the city’s “Casa de la Literatura Peruana", but apparently is still used as the starting point of the tourist train. This Web site, selling the all-inclusive return trips, provides a fuller description of what it is like. Note “The train offers two types of train carriages: classic and touristic class. A seat in the classic car includes breakfast, lunch, while the touristic car, in addition to breakfast and lunch, includes more comfortable seats, windows on the roof for a panoramic view, a bar, and an open air compartment (plus a complimentary pisco sour!)”. That “complementary Pisco sour” makes all the difference to this so called “old-style, authentic Peruvian travel experience”! Apparently “oxygen” is still on offer – but now from 2 "trained nurses” with “tanks”.

Whilst preparing this review, I came across an article in Spanish by a Peruvian who remembered his regular trips on the "Central" as a kid between 1988 - 91. He also describes a revisit in 2010 using the Tourist train. I loved his description of Gringos falling ill to altitude sickness on the old train and how “estos eran asistidos por el camarero y los controladores quienes hacían de improvisados enfermeros llevando oxigeno en una bolsa de goma que extraía de una botella ubicada cerca del vagón “Buffette” (“they were assisted by the waiter and the drivers who made makeshift nurses carrying oxygen in a rubber bag that was extracted from a bottle located near the “Buffette wagon”). But he also comments of the later journey on the tourist train - “ha desaparecido todo aquello que para mí lo hacía interesante: las paradas en todas las estaciones, la venta ambulante de comida y bebida, el contacto más cercano con la gente del lugar y mostrar un modo de vida de una zona del Perú tan variada como difícil y hermosa a la vez” (“everything that made it interesting for me has disappeared: the stops at all the stations, the street food and drink sales, the closest contact with the locals and showing a way of life in an area of Peru as varied as it is difficult and beautiful at the same time”). I too am grateful to have experienced the “Central” in its earlier manifestation!

Which takes us to whether the railway justifies inscription. There are currently 3 “railway line” WHS (entire lines only - not including sites of partial infrastructure such as stations etc) - Semmering (1998), 3 different Mountain Railways of India (1999, 2005, 2008) and the Rhaetian Railway (2008). More recently there has been a rush of T List additions - 2 more Indian railways (2014), Hejaz Railway (2015), Cultural Itinerary of Ecuador's Trans-Andean Train (2016), Trans-Iranian railway (2017) and now of course the Central Railway of Peru (2019). How many more can there be and how many are likely to be successful?

The inscription of Semmering in 1998 refers to the preparation of a report “Railways as World Heritage sites” . It tried to establish principles for evaluating railways and emphasised the need to see beyond the purely technical and look at a wider range of factors. However, of the 8 case studies in the report, only Semmering and Darjeeling have gained inscription and none of the others are even on a T List. Although every inscribed railway so far has been inscribed on both Crit ii and iv (generally - “Technology” and “Social impact”) each has emphasised different aspects. Semmering was primarily about being technically the “first”. The success of the Rhaetian nomination in 2008 moved matters on since it gained its inscription rather more from its social impacts and the Cultural Landscape it “created”/developed rather than from its technical innovation. Where might the Central Railway make its pitch for OUV?

The lengthy Rhaetian Railway nomination file contains a 100 page “comparison” section which lists c173 railways around the world attaining at least an altitude of 1000m and then chooses 9 of them to compare in detail. From S America it prefers the Guayaquil - Quito line to the Central Railway for that purpose. Peru certainly recognises the Ecuadorian line as a “competitor” and spends much time within its T List description trying to establish the superiority of its candidate in terms of altitude, length, tunnels, viaducts, length of operation etc etc! It is significant that Ecuador has titled its entry “Cultural Itinerary of Ecuador's Trans-Andean Train” - if it can’t “win” on technical superlatives (it is also no longer functioning across its original length) perhaps it will be able to demonstrate greater social and economic impact? Ecuador even appears to be intending to try for Crit v (“example of human interaction with the environment”) as well as for the “standard” ii and iv! But, perhaps, as with cathedrals, there is room on the “List” for multiple railways and there will be no need for “competition”!

The story of the Central Railway’s construction by the “driven” US entrepreneur Meiggs (“I will place rails there, where the llamas walk"!) and the Polish engineer Malinowski, encapsulates much about 19th C railway development around the world - tackled with great self confidence, overcoming previous technical barriers at the cost of much human effort (and lives - some 4-7000 Chinese and other workers died in an epidemic of "Oroya Fever" which was named and its causes identified after its occurrence during construction - the "Puente Verrugas" was also so named in commemoration and is now officially the "Puente Carrion" in honour of the Peruvian who died of the disease whilst investigating it), leading to the migration of peoples, the development of new industries and changing the destiny of countries. It certainly seems to “add” at least as much history to the "List" as do all those “duplicate” Indian mountain railways or the Rhaetian. But

a. How much of the route does Peru intend trying to inscribe? The UNESCO description includes reference to the line's extremities at Cerro de Pasco, Huancayo and Callao but the 2 coordinates provided are for Desamperados and La Oroya (and Cerro de Pasco's "Province" isn't mentioned). Even though the tourist railway continues to Huancayo it appears that only Lima to La Oroya (i.e concentrating on the main "technically special" section) is to be pursued. But even within that stretch one wonders if a number of smaller sections, selected stations and Cultural Landscape areas might be a better choice. 

b. What might be the impact of the major developments planned to support growth in mining-related freight - if new tunnels and other developments get rid of switchbacks and the current summit, what is actually left in “preservation” beyond a few stations and the surrounding "Cultural Landscape"? And is it really in Peru's interest to allow itself to be constrained at all in developing such a major part of the nation's infrastructure by having UNESCO/ICOMOS looking over its shoulder all the time?

Full Name
Peruvian Central Railway
2019 Added to Tentative List

Unesco Website: Peruvian Central Railway

The site has 6 locations

Peruvian Central Railway: Desamperados Station Lima (T)
Peruvian Central Railway: Chosica Railway Station (T)
Peruvian Central Railway: Puente del Infiernillo (T)
Peruvian Central Railway: La Galera Railway Station (T)
Peruvian Central Railway: La Oroya Railway Station (T)
Peruvian Central Railway: Puente Verrugas (T)
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