Honey Island, Curitiba, Brazil: A one-way ticket to paradise

The last train out of Curitiba isn't much use to locals. The Serra Verde Express is not quick, is not cheap and doesn't run frequently. Buses are more efficient, more reliable. No, if you're from Parana State, the 8:15 to Morretes isn't much use at all.

"Nobody on this train apart from me is from Curitiba," says Joao, the bilingual guide on board. "It's a tourist train." It wasn't always like this. In the middle of the 19th century the government had big plans for a Brazilian rail network – the idea of a substantial track running from Curitiba out to the coast was first floated in 1865. After plenty of hard work and almost as much bureaucracy it was finally inaugurated on 2 February 1885.

But it wasn't long before cars came along. Joao believes that since then, the economy has been rigged against train travel, even though it's cheaper and greener than driving. More roads mean more cars are sold, more tyres and fuel too. Between that and the plummeting cost of air travel, the rail industry in Brazil never really stood much of a chance.

So the Serra Verde Express is a memory of what could have been, kept alive by the interest of strangers, domestic and foreign. Today 108.2 kilometres of track remain, falling from a high point of 952 metres above sea level, to just 4.66 metres near Paranagua on the Atlantic Coast. But only 68 kilometres of that, this first stretch to Morretes, is used by the passenger train.

I'm on board because, ultimately, I want to get to Paranagua to catch a boat to Ilha do Mel, Honey Island, where there are sea forts, long beaches and, best of all, no cars.

However, for the first hour out of Curitiba, I fear I've made a terrible mistake. The bus would have been cheaper and it's hard to imagine the views would have been any worse than those on offer through the dull pastoral land outside the city.

In the second hour, boredom gives way to annoyance as I suspect I've been swindled. Before departing I'd been advised to sit on the left side of the train, so when the doors opened I made sure that's where I sat, perhaps a little too competitively.

But now all the action is on the right. There's a sweeping view of a reservoir in the middle of a valley where a chimney rises from the middle of the water, the remnants of a workhouse which disappeared beneath the flood when the reservoir was created. Atop the stack sits a tree, rising up like a victorious green Santa. I want to take a photo, but it'd require putting at least two Chinese tourists in a sleeper hold – and by the time they'd be subdued the chance would've gone. Instead I feign interest in what's happening on my side.

The undergrowth is thick with trees, some indigenous, some imported by colonialists. The origin of the genus makes little difference to the tapirs and capybaras that gnaw on them all the same, nor to the ocelots and leopards that would gnaw on those vegetarians. "We also have howler monkeys," says Joao as though trying to raise my mood. "If they feel threatened by a menace, they will defecate in their hands and throw it. They will even pee on the menace. If that does not work, they will run off, but only as a last resort."

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Joao is full of little, well-oiled anecdotes, like the one about tunnel 15 - which also acts as a cellar for 50,000 bottles of sparkling wine - or the six revolutionaries who, in 1894, were put on the train to face trial in Rio, only to be taken off, shot and thrown down the ravine.

But by the time those stories come round most people have stopped listening entirely. A couple of bends are turned and the countryside to my left collapses into an ocean of rolling green, huge karst peaks and a valley that stretches to the horizon. It is quite probably the most sensational view I have ever seen from a train. As the Serra Verde Express chunters across rickety bridges, people lean almost too far out the windows to take photos and, for a while at least, everyone wonders why you don't find more trains in Brazil. 

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION

serraverdeexpress.com.br 

GETTING THERE

Curitiba is connected to several cities in Brazil, including Rio and Sao Paulo, by Azul, Gol and TAM Airlines. To get to the country fly east with Qantas or west with Emirates or Etihad. For combination flights, see skyscanner.net. It's possible to buy tickets for the train on its occasionally unreliable website, or directly at Curitiba's train station. Most hotels and hostels in Curitiba will have the latest information.

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