For motorists, bikers, and cyclists really intent on getting off the beaten track, there’s no better alternative than the old highland railroad route that, until the Panamericana opened in the early 1950s, connected the Chilean heartland  with the Norte Chico and the Norte Grande. Passing through five former train tunnels, with countless ups and downs along the isolated Andean foothills between La Ligua  and Ovalle, it’s one of the country’s unappreciated gems for Chileans and foreigners alike.
From the city of La Ligua , in Region V ( Valparaíso), a paved road heads east to the town of Cabildo, where the Túnel las Grupas continues north toward Petorca; a semaphore regulates the traffic through it, as Las Grupas is the only tunnel in a well-populated area. At Pedegua, 10 kilometers north of Cabildo, the main road continues northeast to Petorca, but the former rail route heads north-northwest as a paved road to the Region IV (Coquimbo) border.
Perhaps the most scenic segment is Cuesta las Palmas, about 20 kilometers north of Pedegua, passing newly planted avocado and citrus orchards. At the Region IV border, it passes through the Túnel las Palmas, surrounded by mature palm trees in the valley, and continues as a gravel road (four-wheel drive is unnecessary) toward Salamanca and Illapel.
About 35 kilometers north of Túnel las Palmas, the largest settlement until Illapel is the strangely named Caimanes — there are no large aquatic reptiles here — where Diego de Almagro passed in 1536. Just north of Caimanes, in quick succession, the road passes through three tunnels; the longest is the Túnel las Astas, dating from 1912, whose ceilings drip with groundwater. Its length makes it the likeliest in which to encounter a vehicle heading the other direction.
At Limáhuida, the turnoff for the old road to Salamanca about 30 kilometers north of Caimanes, the last standing station building on the line serves as a small grocery. Along the route, huasos in their characteristic flat-brimmed sombreros are a common sight, as are flocks of goats on the dry hillsides, but Salamanca inhabits a lush green valley. From Salamanca, a paved highway heads northwest to the city of Illapel.
From Illapel north toward Combarbalá, evidence of the rail route is rare, though the gravel road north through Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas passes the foundations of the station at Aucó, but from here the road diverges from the rail embankments, which are often visible in the distance. At the reserve, a newly paved road cuts northwest to a paved highway from the coast to Combarbalá.
From Combarbalá, another paved road goes to Monte Patria and Ovalle, while a slightly shorter alternative takes a gravel road to Punitaqui and paved road to Ovalle.
Along the entire route, keep an eye out for condors — that enduring symbol of the Andes that serves as a reminder that the erstwhile route was, first and foremost, an Inka road.