Amtrak Across America: Journey on the California Zephyr

There are no neutral responses when you tell someone you’re taking an Amtrak train across America.

“You’re crazy!” was the standard reply, followed by, “You’re never going to want to take a train again after this.”

This was a bucketlist item, and as a graduate student, with a more flexible summer schedule, I thought, what better time to slow travel across America? So I bought a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

The Trip Basics:

Depart: Emeryville, CA

Arrive: Philadelphia- 30th Street Station

Total trip time: 74 hours, 45 minutes

Total Trains: 2- California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago and the Cardinal from Chicago to Philadelphia.

Cost: $232

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Traveling Coach

On the long haul trains, you can reserve one of two tickets:

  • Reserve Coach The most economical option. You get a seat on the upper or lower level of the train. Meals and showers are not included, but you get access to the dining car and awesome observation car, with ceiling windows.
  • Superliner Roomette For a big jump in price, you can get a private room with a couch that turns into two beds. Showers and meals in the dining car are included.

What to bring:

This is for if you have a Reserved Coach ticket. One of the first questions people asked me was: Is it comfortable? Fairly! And definitely more so than an airplane’s economy seating. The seats are big, recline, and include a foot rest.

Here’s what to bring to make it more enjoyable:

  • A pillow
  • Earplugs 
  • Eyemask
  • Light travel blanket 
  • Fresh fruit and snacks – This made a huge difference in the quality of my experience! While you can get food on the train (we’ll cover that later), it’s pricey for the actual quality, and there’s a lack of fresh fruit and more healthy snack options. I brought instant oatmeal, oranges, apples, Kind Bars, dried cheese, crackers, and supplies to make PB&Js when I wanted a quick bite.
  • A good book – There’s no wifi onboard, so get ready!
  • Baby wipes – To replace showers
  • An open mind – You’ll meet all different types of people, from the retired couples to families (more on that later).

The Journey on the California Zephyr

The train began moving at 9:10am. The guy in front of me was absolutely bewildered. “Damn, they don’t mess around!” he laughed as our train departed exactly as promised by our ticket.

As we passed through Martinez, a booming voice filled the room: “Welcome aboard everybody. Looks like a beautiful day for a train ride!” It was our cafe-car attendant.

During this part of the train, I chatted with a sign-language teacher from Petaluma, CA. and her friend who were heading to Reno for vacation. Her friend was deaf, and her friend translated my words to sign language. When they heard I was studying education, her friend said, “Ohhh, you’re going to have your work cut out for you with Betsy DeVos…” I agreed that U.S. public education was under threat.

Next, we stopped in Davis. A woman got on the train carrying a giant yellow “Minion” toy.  She had won it at a fair. She laughed: “Great. Now what am I gonna do with this?” Someone pointed her to the luggage room, and the Minion stayed there until Denver.

After Sacramento, we climbed into the mountains, following the American River.

With all of the 2017 rainfall, the mountains were glimmering with runoff streams and snow.

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We climbed higher in elevation, passing Donner Lake at 5,935 feet.

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We made it to Truckee, CA.

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I settled into the observation car. It’s the social hub of Amtrak double-decker trains, with glass windows extending to the ceilings. I spent a lot of my time here, gawking at the scenery and chatting with other passengers. In these trains, you’ll meet a lot of different people, and it’s interesting to hear everyone’s stories and reasons for taking the train…

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After Truckee, we got into Reno, NV around 6pm. After a quick break, we were off to the Nevada Basin.

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It was vast and beautiful.

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So much salt…

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We stopped in Winnemucca, NV for 10-minute break. “Don’t get any ideas about wandeing off too far…” the train announcer joked, “Or else, the train may leave you…”

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The train lulled me to sleep as the sky turned orange, and then dark.

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I woke up in Provo, Utah around 6am. We were 2 hours past schedule. I found out that in the middle of the night, our train was sidelined as we gave the right-of-way to freight trains. (Amtrak rents the rails from these companies, so priority is given to the freight).

I went and sat in the observation car and met a couple, Alex and Yvonne, from Taiwan.

Right when I sat down, the intercom clicked:

“Wake up, wake up, wake uhhhhh—-upppp……”

The familiar, cheery voice of the cafe car attendant filled the air. “We got coffee folks, it’s ready in the cafe car.” Alex and I jumped up before he even finished his sentence. I had a coffee and some hot water for my instant oatmeal that I brought on board. I threw in a banana and walnuts, and called it a morning.

Suddenly, we were surrounded my massive cliffs. Utah was incredible….

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More people trickled into the observation car. I met a Dad and his 15-year-old son who were traveling to Chicago. The son was obsessed with train travel , and combined with a slight fear of flying, they decided to train 52 hours to Chicago.

We pulled into Helper, Utah next.

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“You Are Here.” in case one forgets.

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I settled into my seat and watched the most epic landscape unfold.

The Wild West.

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Before we entered Colorado, I decided to have lunch in the dining car earlier rather than later on this day. Colorado’s canyons are some of most famous sections, starting right after the Glenwood Springs stop. It’s smart to get a good seat in the observation car by around Grand Junction, CO.

Dining on Amtrak:

What kind of food options are available on the California Zephyr?

Cafe car Essentially a snack and drink bar. You can get coffee, tea, and some light breakfast food. They also serve alcohol.

Dining car Serves the meals. In order to utilize space, you’re always seated with another party (unless you have 4 people) at a table. This ensures some good mingling and crossed life paths.

As for the food quality? It’s like a baseball game’s but with slightly higher prices. For that reason, definitely bring your own snacks and food if that’s important. I am so glad I brought fresh fruit!

I was seated with a couple from England on holiday in the U.S., and Claudette, a woman in her late 60s, from Chicago. Claudette told us how she worked at Xerox for over 25 years, and had to fly constantly for business. After she retired, she now prefers to take the train and enjoys  slow travel. (This is a common sentiment amongst Amtrak riders, I’ve discovered.)

With no wifi on the California Zephyr, and social seating situations like this, it’s wonderful to just slow down and connect with people from all walks of life.

As we ate lunch, the topic of politics emerged. We discovered we were all on the same page. At one point, we all paused, in thought, and looked at the great landscape passing us by through the windows. Claudette broke the silence. “We need to protect this.  This isn’t forever if we don’t protect it.” We all agreed.

It’s easy to have one’s dedication for environmental conservation renewed or instilled during a train ride across America.

After lunch, we went to take seats in the Observation Car, ready for the epic-ness of Colorado.

After the Grand Junction stop in Colorado, we got ready for 12 miles of sheer Glenwood Canyon awesomeness…

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We followed the Colorado River for miles, as rafters waved at us…

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The train slowed down significantly here to snake along the cliff overlooking the Colorado River.

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Rocky Mountain National Park…

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A rest stop in Fraser, CO…

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It started raining as we departed.

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Someone’s got a nice house on the hill..

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As we neared dusk, we saw the end of the Rockies, and the great, flat planes ahead of us…

Denver was below…

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We got into Denver around 8pm. I  figured I better hop off and took a photo. 21 more hours till Chicago!

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I fell asleep to Rogue Wave’s latest album, and watched the sun set behind the Rockies.

The next morning, I woke up with cornfields outside the window. We passed a sign: “Stanton. Population 689.” Green lawns, church steeples, and brick houses broke up the fields.

Suddenly I felt very far from the West Coast.

In a few hours, we stopped in Ottumwa, Iowa.

There was not much around, so I took a photo of this station. One guy put on his lime green running shoes and did laps around the station on our 7-minute break. Soon we heard the whistle, and the “All aboard!” call.

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As we trained through Iowa, I heard a woman say to her friend, “There are so many more windmills than when I was here last time!” That was reassuring.  Then, a young boy walked through our car in a bright orange shirt that said: “Next gen climate.org. 100% renewable energy.”

Go Iowa. Here’s their website: https://nextgenclimate.org/

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After endless fields, we suddenly crossed a mighty river.

The Mississippi!

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A few hours later, around 4:45pm, we reached Chicago!

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The next train, the Cardinal, would depart in an hour. I grabbed my things.

It was time for the second part of the journey East…

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Who Inspired Me To Travel

It’s interesting to stop and think about what initially sparked the desire to travel often. Was it a semester abroad? Childhood travels? A book?

For me, it is my dad: The person who introduced me to language barriers and foreign roads. Taking our family on work trips when I was a kid, we went off-the-beaten track as much as possible, staying in remote villages in Liechtenstein and finding tiny restaurants along the Costa Brava.

I remember our rental car pulling up to a small farm house in Peratallada, Spain, and wondering “How does he FIND these places? Does he just Google ‘farthest town from nearest road’?'”

The woman who ran this little farm guest house was named Daniella. She didn’t speak English, but we didn’t need a common language to communicate, and I’ll always remember her as one of the most hospitable people I’ve met on the road.

It’s in these places my dad took us- the hills of western Ireland or kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, that I learned how to really connect with a place. When I travel now, I find myself looking for those hidden corners, and wanting to learn the stories of the people who live there. Thanks to my dad, these “off-the-beaten-path” experiences have become my foundation. They’ve shaped me into who I am now, and I can only give thanks.

Cheers to the all of the people who inspired us to travel!

Dad

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Valparaíso

Valparaíso… a coastal city about an hour and half from smoggy and congested Santiago. It’s Chile’s cultural center, an eclectic mix of crooked streets, bright walls, and cafes .

Cerro Alegre, one of the two main hills in Valparaíso. Cerro Concepcíon is the other.

Valparaíso used to be one of South America’s biggest and most important ports, and its crumbling facade represents this era gone by. Despite this, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.

Mural of late President, Salvadore Allende.

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“El Desayunador” cafe

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Where’s your mama?

Perú

I scribbled more phrases, the pages becoming chicken-scratch notes to anyone but us.  “I’m going to Lima,” I wrote, is, “Yo voy a Lima.” 

Next, the past tense.

Our lesson sprawled across two pages.  When there was no more room, I ripped  out the pages for her to keep. One page tore, leaving behind a piece containing a few sentences. She delicately extracted the missing piece.

“I studied English, but not too much,” she smiled.

Giving an impromptu English lesson in Cusco’s San Pedro Market was one of the moments I’ll always remember. She helped me with my Spanish, and we talked about what it’s like learning a language.

Apart from Cusco’s markets, the streets are full of people selling Chica Morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn, sunglasses, paintings, roasted cuy (guinea pig) and coca toffees. Then there are the drums thundering from the Plaza de Armas, where everyday seems to bring a new festival or gathering. Last night was Carnival de Cusco, with elaborate dancing and masks. The next morning, police lined the steps of the church as teachers staged a peaceful protest for higher wages.

Like most others here, we came for the new Seventh Wonder of the World: Machu Picchu. It started with a two-hour bus ride to Ollantaytambo, a town in Peru’s Sacred Valley. From there, we caught the train to Agua Calientes, the last town before Machu Picchu.

Making lunch at the train station.

Peru Rail, which of course isn’t owned by Peru, but by the Orient Express.

Agua Calientes, the last town before Machu Picchu.

The next day, Cami and I woke up at 4 am to begin the hike to the top. Flashlight in hand, we began the ascent at 5 am. Two hours later, we reached the top, where the fog and silence were overwhelming.

Sunrise

Every day, over 3,000 people visit Machu Picchu. As the morning continued, so did the flow of tourists. Big, noisy tour groups, pairs of backpackers, children, old, and young couples mixed in the Inca ruins.

No matter how many people arrived, you can always find a quiet spot in this stone labyrynth.

Desert sun and cliff roads

I’m writing from Arica, Chile, a surf town 12 miles from the Peruvian border. I’ve embarked on a 3 week solo trip to the north of Chile and Peru.  I’ll meet up with a friend in Cusco, but until then, I’m traveling solo.

Buses in Chile are safe and very comfortable, but I just got off a creepy one. The 12-hour overnight trip from San Pedro was eerie.

We left at 8:30 pm, driving into the Atacama desert with nothing but sand dunes under a full moon. We were on the Panamerican Highway, which goes up the coast of South America. And this seemed to be it’s most desolate part.

Sometime during the night, I looked out the window and that saw that the bus was hugging a cliff with no gaurd rail. I was on the second story, and below me was a canyon, hundreds of feet below. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but something about being on a top-heavy bus didn’t sit well. The bus began taking the turns, as we drove past white crosses scattered across the cliffside in memory of others who’d gone over the edge. It was hard to sleep that night.

Apart from the bus ride, the San Pedro de Atacama part of the trip was great. San Pedro is a touristy town in the middle of nowhere in Chile’s Atacama desert. It’s a popular jumping off point for exploring the surrounding area, where the borders of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina intersect.

Here is a bit of life in the driest desert in the world…

One of the main streets in San Pedro

Chile’s is divided into 15 regions. We’re in region 2

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Photo by Karin Kleine

The first day I arrived in San Pedro I joined some people from the organization StartUp Chile. We all went to swim in Laguna Cejar. The only person who stayed in the water for more than 15 seconds was the Finnish guy we were with. The water was freezing, but floating is easy since it’s so salty.

The Scandinavian braves the ice water. I swear it’s in their DNA.

Salt

Laguna Cejar

Valle de la Muerte.

Valle de la Luna

Chile’s El Tatio geyers are one of the region’s main draws. Along with New Zealand, Iceland, and the USA, Chile has one of the world’s biggest geyser fields.

Since they’re most active at dawn, it meant waking up at 3:30 am to go see them. After the van picked us up at 4 am we began the two hour trip into the Andes mountains.

We’d been warned about how cold it would be up there, so Karin and I joked that we would just wear every piece of clothing we had. (We came pretty close.) My three pairs of socks and seven layers still didn’t keep out the freezing morning.

Once at the geyers, our local guide warned everyone to stay clear from the geyser named “The Killer”, which got its name after several people got too close and fell into the boiling water. (We steered clear.)

But we were tempted to jump into the hot springs with the loads of other tourists. It was such a relief from the cold, and it was funny watching everybody scramble for their clothes after getting out into the cold air. (It wasn’t funny when we had to do it.)

Wearing every layer of clothing possible at El Tatio geyers

9am back down the mountain

Llama crossing on the way back from the geyers

Vicuña sightings!

Stopped in this tiny town on the way back from the geyers.

Coca tea, the local remedy for altitude sickness.

Tomorrow I’m crossing the border into Tacna, Peru. Next up: Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

FAQs about going to Chile

Why Chile?

I want to completely immerse myself in a Spanish-speaking country. I’m half Mexican, but never learned Spanish growing up. I considered heading to Mexico or Argentina, but Chile came through with a program that I liked, and it felt like the right choice.

However, leaving behind my group of friends, a job, my family, and the Bay Area was not an easy decision.

So…What am I doing?

Teaching English through government’s English Opens Doors.

The program is run by the Chilean Ministry of Education, with support from UN Development Program. The goal is to make English language learning more accessible to all of Chile’s communities.

I’ll either be in a public or semi-private school, teaching alongside a local Chilean teacher. I’ll be teaching different levels, ranging from grade 5 through high school seniors.

Where am I living? 

I’ll be living right above Puerto Montt on the map, in Regíon de Los Ríos. I’ll be living with a host family. I won’t meet them or find out the exact town or school I’m teaching in until I arrive for orientation in Santiago.

How long am I staying? 

Good question. My contract is officially up in July, but I plan on renewing this. (You can for up to a year.) My goal is to stay in Chile until I learn Spanish, however long that takes. We’ll see what happens!

More on Chile:

•President: Sebastian Piñera

•Population: 16 million (Over 2/3 live around the capital, Santiago.)

•Over 620 volcanos.