All Aboard the High-Altitude Express
There is an old railway line that snakes its way across the Peruvian Altiplano. Glinting tracks laid in 1908 cut across golden plains in the shadow of the Andes, curve past tiny settlements and climb to thousands of metres above sea level.
For two decades they have lain abandoned. But since May, three times a week, a sleek train dressed in midnight blue and ivory has rumbled along the railway. It is a sight so unusual that locals farming their small parcels of land still look up in surprise and vicuña camelids scatter as it comes into view.
The train is the Belmond Andean Explorer – the latest project from the company formerly known as Orient Express – and is South America’s first luxury sleeper, rattling along some of the highest railway tracks in the world. It plies the route between the former Inca capital Cusco, the colonial city of Arequipa, and Lake Titicaca at an average speed of just 35 kilometres per hour.
The one- and two-night journeys ensconce up to 48 guests in a world of blonde wood panelling, polished brass and soft Peruvian textiles while whisking them through some of the country’s most spectacular Andean landscapes. The 17 gleaming carriages originally trundled along Australia’s Great South Pacific Express route before they were shipped to Peru and remodelled. They now house two restaurants, two bars, 24 cabins and a spa, keeping original touches such as the parquet flooring in the en-suite bathrooms, the brass luggage racks and even a baby grand piano in the main bar.
My two-night trip began in Peru’s second city of Arequipa, a charming mix of baroque buildings and elegant colonial churches tucked between three majestic volcanoes. Suffused with sunshine and a laid-back atmosphere, it is an ideal base to acclimatise to the altitude before climbing higher into the Andes.
The city’s tiny, restored train station only opens its doors when the Andean Explorer glides alongside its solitary platform. At nightfall, it was abuzz with staff in crisp, white uniforms serving champagne, musicians playing rousing Latino tunes and a sense of anticipation from the passengers.
On board, my en-suite double cabin was a sanctuary of starched sheets, covered with a velvety alpaca wool blanket, and ivory-coloured décor set off by bright Peruvian fabrics. Other cabins were a mix of larger doubles, twin rooms and bunk beds.
As the train pulled out of the station and into the inky night, we sat down to a three-course din ner designed by Diego Muñoz, former head chef of the famed Lima restaurant Astrid y Gastón. Taking inspiration from the landscapes of Peru, his dishes throughout the journey combined the familiar with the exotic – lima bean cappuccino, fresh fish, alpaca tortellini, duck with locally-grown vegetables, a selection of the nation’s 4,000 varieties of native potato, and rice pudding with purple corn custard and roasted strawberries.
The bar in the observation carriage, with its outdoor viewing area, seemed the optimum place to toast the journey with a tangy pisco sour – the national cocktail made with distilled pisco grapes, egg white and lemon – before being rocked to sleep en route to Lake Titicaca.
Day One: Lake Titicaca
In the morning, I awoke and peered out the window to find our elegant locomotive squeezing through the dusty streets of Puno, the biggest city overlooking the highest navigable lake in the world.
The train tracks took us across streets, wound us around buildings and deposited us right at the water’s edge. From there, it was a short speedboat ride to discover the golden-hued archipelago of floating islands constructed entirely from totora reeds where the Uru indigenous people live. They build their islands, houses and even boats from the lake’s reeds and have deftly turned their hand to the tourist trade, selling handicrafts to passing boats.
Their vivid textiles have competition an hour away on the island of Taquile. A sun-baked sliver of land that wouldn’t look out of place in the Mediterranean, it is home to the Taquileños, who are famed for their exquisite woven fabrics. It’s not the women who create the colourful textiles, but the men, who must master the art to be accepted into the community and allowed to marry.
Back on dry land, we were greeted with cold towels, refreshing pisco-spiked drinks and afternoon tea as the train left the lake behind and continued to climb higher into the Andean plains. Wrapped in an alpaca shawl provided by the staff, I ventured to the beautiful outside section of the observation carriage. The open expanses, dotted with the odd adobe house and backed by snow-capped peaks, were slowly replaced with roads so narrow I could almost reach out and touch the buildings in the city of Juliaca.
Day Two: Cusco
Overnight, the train pulled in at the small outpost of Marangani, in the shadow of the 18,000-foot Chimboya mountain, and the familiar rocking motion stopped until daybreak. At dawn, I peered out of my window to see women, swathed in layers of blankets, bent double as they collected the potatoes they had laid out in green, open spaces to freeze overnight – an age-old practice used to dehydrate and preserve the vegetable.
Steep green mountainsides were ribbed with farming terraces created by the Incas and the ruins of villages and settlements could be picked out along riverbanks"
We were at the highest point of our trip, a breathless 15,419 feet, where the air was crisp and the light brought the greens and blues of the scenery into sharp focus. A short journey took us to the Inca ruins of Raqchi, dominated by the soaring Temple of Wiracocha, or what is left of it. A lone adobe wall of the temple to the Inca creator god stands 65 feet above the surrounding huts and irrigation systems that make up what is thought to have once been a religious and administrative centre.
The last stretch of track was a delight. Steep green mountainsides were ribbed with farming terraces created by the Incas, and the ruins of villages and settlements could be picked out along riverbanks and amongst the trees. And at the end of it all was Cusco.
Towering Inca walls created from great slabs of perfectly-cut honeyed stone blended with handsome colonial churches and mansions, the captivating result of a deadly clash between two great empires.
A pair of grand colonial masterpieces have been converted into Belmond’s two hotels in the small city. Dark wood, historic paintings and exposed stone are complemented by flower-filled courtyards at Hotel Monasterio, while the neighbouring Palacio Nazarenas – once a strict convent-like institution for the daughters of Spanish aristocracy – is an all-suite retreat of oxygen-enriched rooms, secluded patios and the city’s first outdoor pool.
Every street seemed to hide another secret of its Inca founders or Spanish conquerors, the very stones of the buildings whispering tales of a tragic history as inevitable as it is heartbreaking.
Beyond the former Inca capital, higher in the verdant mountains, sits the lost city of Machu Picchu, wondrous and beguiling despite its ever-growing fame. In Inca times, it communicated with Cusco via runners, young men who ran perilous mountain paths, covering up to 45 kilometres a day, to carry messages.
Taking a more comfortable route to Machu Picchu, I boarded another train, the Hiram Bingham, named after the American who re-discovered the citadel in 1911, which clattered through gorges and along rivers. For four hours, I dined in style, sipped surprisingly good Peruvian wine and soaked up the scenery – a special way to arrive at one of the world’s most famous sites.
Anyone who has experienced Peru’s awe-inspiring Andean landscapes knows they don’t need any help to dazzle visitors. But there is something about climbing thousands of kilometres into the clouds on a century-old railway that adds a whole new level of romance to a Peruvian expedition.
Pack your bags
Spend 12 days travelling in Peru, including a journey on the Belmond Andean Explorer, from US$7,398 per person. For further information, contact Latin America travel designer Lily Bunker (firstname.lastname@example.org).