The 30-minute train ride from the Estación al Atlántico in downtown San José to Heredia Centro is no Polar Express, but it is a quick journey through beautiful, lush scenery that gives a picture perfect view of Costa Rican life and culture.
Owned by Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles, the train only operates during commuter hours, leaving the Atlantic station from 5:30 to 8 a.m. and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Trains leave in 30-minute intervals. This week as mid-year vacation ends and public school resumes, the schedule is being extended slightly.
A line of parents, children, students and professionals wraps around the station building between departures. All these persons have the goal of making it to their daily destination in a timely manner. During peak hours most arrive an hour in advance to secure a seat at the time they want.
Tired, one woman leaned against a post and complained about the wait. Yet, when asked if she liked the train, she responded, “Yes, it’s nice and fast.”
Travelers file into four 48-seat cars. It is not uncommon to hear children chattering about things they find interesting or coworkers giving updates from the day. In seats, couples share enamored looks, university students study from their books or lecture notes, and tired workers catch a nap.
Employees at the station fill the train with passengers, first starting with the seats. They then fill the connector parts and aisles with people standing. The worn seat cushions and spots on the carpeted aisle show the car’s age. The railway has been around since the 1870s, but was damaged in the 1991 earthquake. The institute, known as Incofer, worked to make the line operational again, and brought the commuter line back in 2009. Despite all, the cars are still in good condition and provide a comfort level to patrons better than the bus. And there are some new cars purchased from the Spanish narrow-gauge system.
Operating at street level, the train crosses busy intersections and coasts through neighborhoods. Unlike the United States, there are neither flashing lights nor moving white arms that come down to form a barrier between the tracks. Only a simple warning sign exists to instruct residents and motorists of the possibility of an advancing train. As an extra precaution, trains blast loud horns the whole trip. According to staff, the horn has decreased the amount of accidents.
Passengers say they hear the horn all the time so it doesn’t bother them. However, those not used to the noise receive a blaring headache before the ride is over. One hotel owner in north San José hired crossing guards so his guests would not be jolted from their bed by the nearby train.A look outside the window may afford travelers the opportunity to see walkers along the track or school children dressed in their uniforms who congregate in tunnels. People sit on their porches, converse and share dinner while children play in the yard as the train passes. The train goes over bridges and reaches elevations that supplies a view of houses and buildings located on mountains. Vegetation provides a beautiful scenery complete of tall trees and crops complete with tiny creeks.
Many people hold their camera phones and digital cameras up to the windows in hopes of capturing the view. It’s a difficult feat for the bumpy and jerky ride, Unless the person has a fast shutter speed, the pictures end up blurred.
The roughness of the ride comes from the uneven rails. The line is a narrow single tracks, which becomes a problem when two trains that are going in opposite directions meet. One train has to back up to the a siding where the track splits and wait for the other train to pass. Afterwards, the train takes time to gain momentum again and progress forward.
There are three stops between San José and Heredia: Cuatro Reinas de Tibás, Santa Rosa de Heredia, and Miraflores. None of these stops has a station but are unmanned, elevated platforms with a tin roof in case of rain. The whole thing resembles a bus stop, and those awaiting the train crowd together in the small, cramped space.
The final stop is the downtown of Costa Rica’s smallest providence, Heredia. The train lets passengers off right outside of the central market filled with butchers offering fresh meat. The streets are lined with buses and vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Also, in the area are multiple shops, hair salons that offer a variety of styles including braids, and restaurants. For a quick snack, fried chicken store fronts and ice cream shops are available too.
Tourists wanting to travel to this location may find a train only operating in early mornings and late afternoons to be inconvenient. But for those with a little time to wait, the trip is worth it. The best part is it’s only 420 colons, a little less than a dollar, and the trip travels a route in half the time as a car or bus.