The Andean Explorer Train in Peru
I am usually not a big fan of train rides, but when I planned my trip to Peru and heard about this ride, I simply had to take it. Since Peru is a rather large country, you will have to fly a lot. Alternatively you can take the rather uncomfortable bus or travel in style on one of the luxurious trains. I would not recommend to rent a car, especially since Taxi rides are very cheap. To maximize my time in each location, I used to fly a lot in Peru, but I could not miss out on a trip through some of the most beautiful scenery in the word traveling first class on the Andean Explorer. We are talking about a luxurious 10-hour ride including full lunch service and more importantly a large window. It was such an enjoyable experience that I was sad when we finally arrived.
The train runs between Cusco (the former capital of the Inca Empire) and Puno, located 4000m high at the highest navigable lake in the world, lake Titicaca. The train takes somewhere between 10 hours to 13 hours, depending on how much cattle is on the tracks.
“The Andean Explorer is exquisitely decorated in the fine manner of the great Pullman trains of the 1920’s and boasts a full fleet of refurbished coaches including dining cars and an open-air observation bar car, which is unique in South America.” – citation from http://www.orient-express.com
Aha. If that means as much to you as it means to me, let me tell you what this means: When we arrived at our train car, a friendly operator showed us to our table. We had a table for two, with comfortable armchairs, a brass lamp on the tablecloth and a nice big window. The interior was nicely decorated with brass lamps and expensive looking wood panels. As I found out later, we had a lounge car (or open-air observation bar car) in the rear. The bar was big and nicely stocked. The car had sofas and armchairs arranged around coffee tables and an observation deck. Part of the observation deck was open, ideal for photography (see photo).
The train has two classes, the Andean Explorer Class and the Backpacker Class. The Andean Explorer Class includes a 3-course lunch. The Backpacker Class does not have access to the lounge car.
As soon as we stepped on the platform, we were asked how many bags we would like to check and received the tickets for the bags. If I think about all the hassle at the airport, this really makes a difference. The bags were then brought to the luggage wagon in the front.
Our ride took us from Cusco (also Cuzco / Qusquo) to Puno via Juliaca. You can also take the journey in the opposite direction. Currently the train runs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Check with http://www.orient-express.com to get the latest information and updated tour schedules.
During the first hours the train continuously ascends. Don’t be deceived by the description on the Orient Express website, the train only stops once at La Raya. The trip description there outlines all the nice Inca ruins and villages along the way. Some of them you see flying by, some of them you don’t. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of things to see. You get a really good look at the life in the Altiplano. You will pass through green valleys surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. During the first couple of hours or so, the train will follow the Huatanay River. There are lots of green fields with farmers taking care of the crops (usually corn). Corn seems to be the most popular crop, so it is not surprising to find that the local home brew (Chicha) is made of corn. Honestly I have never tried it, as it doesn’t look very appetizing. On the train they serve Pisco sour, another Peruvian speciality. It is made of Pisco (Rum), Lime Juice, egg white and Syrup. It is quite good, but not as good as some claim.
There was a couple coming through the train dressed in traditional clothing “singing”. Usually I am quite fond of Peruvian style music with pan flutes and acoustic guitars, but her voice made me want to plug my ears. There should be a law against this kind of torture. Of course she had the obligatory CDs with her, trying to sell them. If you have a torture chamber at home, here is your chance to grab something unique.
Much more interesting were the two pretty ladies in skin tight cat suits selling clothes made of Alpaca wool. Well I don’t pay $300 for a sweater, but thank god the guy on the table next to us bought one. This may have had something to do with him staring. After his lady noticed, he had to buy a sweater for her to make up for it.
After almost 4 hours, the train will arrive at La Raya, a picturesque stop at 4321m (about 14,200ft). Fortunately for some travelers (thank god not me), the train carries oxygen supplies. A lot of people get altitude sickness up here. Some have trouble breathing; get dizzy, nausea or other unpleasant symptoms. Since you are coming from Cusco 3300m (or Puno 3900m), you will probably already be used to some altitude. In any case you should have taken some medicine with you (Diamox or others).
At La Raya, local vendors selling typical Peruvian Style wall carpets, clothing and other things will greet you. There is a charming chapel with snow-capped peaks as a background. The train won’t stop very long (maybe 10-15 minutes) but it is worth getting off to take some good pictures here.
The train has to make some unscheduled stops now and then if there is something on the tracks. Every time the train stops near a village, it will attract the attention of local children. One woman in our car came prepared for this. She had candy bars, pens and other small items that she threw out of the window, much to the pleasure of the children. They use the pens in school, which are otherwise hard to get out here.
Shortly after leaving La Raya, lunch will be served. The three-course lunch is somewhat of a ceremony. The waiters will walk in a row; stop at each table and as if an officer told them through an ear-microphone turn simultaneously to their respective tables and drop the food. Everything is organized so well, that I had the feeling being served by a military trained group. I wonder if they have to go to boot camp to learn these skills. All of this was exercised with precision and timed perfectly. They moved in perfect harmony, not even talking to each other. It takes quite some time until the whole train has had their three courses. It was close to two hours until the last desert plate left the tables.
So you may be wondering what was on the plates. For the appetizer you had the choice between a salad with Alpaca-Steak strips and a Tomato Cream soup. Even though the salad sounded good, I was warned not to eat salad and drink tab water in a foreign country to avoid food allergies. The tomato soup was pretty good.
For the main dish you could choose between Chicken, Tuna or Vegetarian. The Chicken came with spinach leaves in some whine sauce and some sort of hard backed risotto (see photo). The Tuna Steak was served on some green sauce (it was so green it almost glowed in the dark) with some orange mashed potatoes (I think they were sweet potatoes) and the Vegetarian food was some sort of potato casserole. Everything was arranged very nicely on the plate, but the taste was just average.
For desert they had some sort of cheesecake with a really good tasting melon sauce-jelly on top. It was the highlight of the lunch.
Later during teatime (around 5pm), they served some snacks and coffee or tea. Everyone got a mini-sandwich, a mini-cupcake and two cookies.
The second half of the trip
During the second half, the landscape changed. We were now in the Altiplano (Highlands). The mountains have receded farther away and the land is flatter. The farms also changed from crop farms to animal farms. You will see herds of Alpacas, Llamas and Sheep. Most of the time those are mixed herds. Every now and then there are a couple of cowherds.
After lunch people started to visit the lounge wagon more often. In the rear a group of photographers started to gather and gasp at the landscape while snapping away like crazy competing for space.
(When you are photographing sideways at close range, you need to use Shutter-Priority with 1/800s or less.)
The train suddenly started to slow down on a small bridge. After it picked up speed again we watched a guy crawl out from underneath the bridge with a bike on his shoulder. Everyone was puzzled how he pulled off this stunt and managed to hold on to the bridge as the train rolled over it.
One hour before arriving at Puno the train passed through Juliaca. Juliaca does not have much to offer for tourists. This area is much poorer than Cusco or Arequipa. It is kind of interesting though to watch the busy life from the comfort of your train, although it made me feel a little uncomfortable to drive through these areas in luxury.
In Juliaca the train was actually driving trough the middle of a busy market. People moved their stands aside for the train to pass through and immediately moved them back once the train passed (see picture). On this market they had everything. One of the hot items was used car parts. Rickshaws are a common form of transport here. We did not see them in any other area of the country.
The people were very cheerful and waved to us when we passed by, which proves the point that money does not buy happiness. I am just glad tea time started when we left Juliaca, as I would have found it decadent to drive through here while nibbling on cookies and sitting in my armchair.
Juliacas airport serves the whole area, including Puno. We had to return to Juliaca when we left and got stranded here after Lan Peru cancelled our flight. The night in Juliaca will always be in my memories, but not for its comforts.
After we left Juliaca we got one final glimpse at the Andean Cordillera. A busy road ran next to the tracks, leading from Juliaca to Puno. As everywhere else in Peru, collection taxis ran up and down the road. These taxis have a fixed fare and pick up people along the way. They are usually mini vans or busses. A driver and a “brawler” operate them. The latter tries to announce the destination and grab as many people as he can.
We arrived in Puno about one hour later at around 6pm. We waited until the bags were unloaded, grabbed them and were met at the train station by our ride to the hotel.
Puno is located at the wonderful Lago Titicaca. It lays 3900m high, so watch your breath. When I saw the skinny guy going for my bags in the hotel I showed mercy and shouldered the heavier bag myself. After running up the stairs I remembered the altitude as I got a little light headed and dizzy. I won’t make this mistake again.
If you decide to travel by bus you can save a lot of time and money and if you fly you will be much faster (and probably cheaper too), but you will miss out on a great adventure. If you want to see as much as you can of the country and the people of wonderful Peru, I highly recommend this train ride.
Article and Images by Andre Gunther.
Check out his Peru Photo Gallery.