Tragically, there are only three remaining long-distance passenger trains that can take you across Brazil’s spectacular landscapes. Sam Cowie took a ride from the middle of Minas Gerais to the coast of Espírito Santo.
By Sam Cowie
Maybe it’s a British thing, but I’ll take a train journey over a plane any day. Passing through the countryside and small towns and cities by train and taking in all the details – landscapes, buildings, and people – means you get to see a different side of a country, a side that might otherwise go unnoticed. A shame then, that Brazil – with its vast natural splendor and quirky regional differences – has such a joke of a train network.
So when I heard about the “Vale Trem” between the state capitals of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, which traverses historic coffee, coal and iron regions along the river Rio Doce, I was hooked on the idea. The Vale Trem is one of just three remaining long-distance passenger trains in Brazil and the only train between state capitals.
No other country of similar size and importance lacks trains like Brazil. From the middle of the 20th century, successive governments failed to invest in railroad transport, seeing cars and highways as the future. The military regime put the final nails in the coffin by privatizing and dismantling all but the most profitable lines, and the process continued as democracy returned and economic crisis subsequently unfolded. Today, trains are used almost exclusively for cargo, and only around 1.5 million Brazilians use passenger trains each year, compared to 100 million in the early 1960s.
The Vale Trem – operated by the mining company of the same name – leaves Belo Horizonte at 7.30am each morning and arrives in Vitoria 13 hours later. For weekends it’s wise to buy in advance. I paid R$91 for a seat in the “executive” carriage which turned out to be a bit of a let-down – no cabins, just rows of tacky bright blue seats crammed together, all facing the same way, pretty similar to a budget airline. Flat screens that read “Vale – para um mundo com novos valores,” hang from the walls and freezing air conditioning replaces open windows. No wifi either.
Still, my initial disappointments began to fade once we got rolling. After passing Belo’s downtown malls and favelas on the city’s periphery, we quickly entered Minas’ red earth countryside as the morning sun beamed down. I had to escape the silent, stale and stuffy executive carriage and headed to the restaurant which actually affords much better views. My breakfast of water, coffee and a salgado was R$7. Later in the day I paid R$11 for a plate of roast chicken, rice, beans and salad.
“We don’t serve alcohol,” Carlos, the restaurant waiter, who has worked the train for six years, told me. “We used to, but it was muito bagunca. – (too much trouble) So we had to stop.” Luckily I’d prepared adequately with a bottle of cachaça bought in Belo, though bringing alcohol on board is also officially forbidden.
The first stop, about an hour into the journey was the town of Dois Irmaos. Later we passed the sliding red mud banks of the river Rio Piracicaba before arriving at the city of Nova Era, Brazil’s emerald capital. The train stops at each station for just a few minutes to let passengers on and off. I got talking to a young couple Junho and Anna Beatrice who had been in Belo for a cousin’s birthday. They told me that they’d been using the Vale Trem for years and they found it the most enjoyable way to travel between Belo and Vitoria – as well as the quickest and cheapest.
Soaring through the interior of Minas really hammered home the disappointment of Brazil’s poor train network. The views really are spectacular. The route changes from greenery to scorched earth then back again. There are canyons, dried out lakes, man-made forests and enormous weathered rock faces, interspersed with throwback industrial towns, coal-laden cargo trains, iron works and factories – some in operation, some crumbling and abandoned.
As well as being the best part of the train for taking in the scenery the restaurant is also the most social area and the only place you can get a proper long-distance train trip experience. People sit facing each other, talking loudly and laughing, taking selfies, butting into strangers conversations and passing joint commentary on the changing landscape. It’s a nice reminder that you’re in Brazil, which could be forgotten if you remained cooped up in the dull executive carriage.
The route along the river Rio Doce on the approach to the city Aimorés, which lies on the border of Espirito Santos state, made for some of the best scenery as the sun was going down. Rio Doce winds along the foot of several large mountains, one of which, we were informed by a young snack vendor who wanted to practice his English, was called “Pao de Queijo.” “Rio has Pão de Açúcar, we have Pão de Queijo,” he said.
Once it gets dark and the views are gone, there’s not much going on. The restaurant closed and I was sent back to the executive carriage. Green uniformed Vale workers, who seemed to be everywhere, checked tickets about once an hour, which after a while became rather tedious. We arrived in Vitoria at 20.30h.
With roads becoming increasingly congested, the railway debate in Brazil has recently come back to the surface. Brazil still has the world’s tenth largest rail network and 21 new lines are planned by 2020, one of which is Goiânia and Brasília. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that these projects come off sooner rather than later and I look forward to seeing more of Brazil by train.
Brazil’s two other remaining passenger lines are Curitiba to Paranaguá in the South and the Estrada de Ferro (also operated by Vale), which travels between Carajás Parauapebas in Para and São Luis Maranhao in the North East.
Despite the disappointing executive carriage and the lack of booze and wifi, the Vale Trem was highly enjoyable, and is even better in a group. Just don’t forget that bottle of cachaça.