Riding the Serra Verde Express: World's Only Train to Cross the Atlantic Forest

© Paula Alvarado

"(To be a tourist) is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."

The words of the great David Foster Wallace in the poignant "Consider the Lobster" (a must read for environmentalists) are brutal, but make quite a point, one that I find myself dealing with every time I travel or every time I need to write about so-called 'sustainable tourism.'

© Paula Alvarado

© Paula Alvarado

Although we could all argue that getting in touch with the world is a necessary part of loving nature and thus a step towards taking care of it, and that as green travelers we try to be respectful in our approach, the feeling of being an intruder comes up eventually in certain places, especially in the environmentally pristine or in communities that have not become touristically-overdeveloped. (We could bring up the issue of tourism being a great tool for development and economic growth that doesn't necessarily collide with conservation, but the question of whether or not towns that worked just fine before need the development tourism brings is a much deeper, ideological one).

But traveling is part of the XXI century, a joy as well, and like it or not it's not going to stop.

In finding a way out of the contradiction, I like activities that let you experience nature without over-intruding: a slow moving cable car in the Costa Rican jungle, a train in the Atlantic Forest.

© Paula Alvarado

© Paula Alvarado

When the plan to build the Serra Verde Express came up in the 1860s, it was the most complex work of engineering in Brazil, considered impossible by European professionals at the time.

But the train was necessary: not only to connect cities in the Brazilian seaboard, but also to move the grain production from the south to the Paranagua Port for exportation (the main function why many railways were built in Latin America and a function this train still fulfills).

Plans began in 1870 but construction started in 1880, with the work of 9,000 men in three different fronts. To everyone's surprise, it was completed in only five years.

© Paula Alvarado

© Paula Alvarado

Connecting Curitiba with Paranagua in the state of Paraná, the railway the train travels on is 610 kilometers long (380 miles) and goes through 13 tunnels and 30 bridges, one of them -the Ponte Sao Joao- 55 meters high, and another -the Viaduto do Carvalho- which sits on five pillars of masonry on rock slope.

Of the five stations the train initially had, three are active today: one that leaves you at the Marumbi State Park (below), another that takes you to the historical town of Morretes, and the final stop at Paranagua, on the coast. It's a three-hour, unique trip to appreciate some of what's left of Brazil's Atlantic Forest.

© Paula Alvarado

© Paula Alvarado

Since it's a tourist train, its speed is easy enough not to plow animals; and since it's noisy, most of them stay away. Which makes you feel better about approaching this area without annoying too much.

The train leaves daily from Curitiba to Morretes, with tickets starting at a very accessible 57 Reais (28 US Dollars). After arrival, you can come back with it, get a cheaper ticket and a faster ride on a bus, or stay in Morretes (above) to enjoy the sleepy streets surrounded by green hills and the grass by the river. Possibly, trying not to consider whether or not the town would be better and realer without you.

Tags: Brazil | Curitiba | Forestry | Tourism | Trains

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