Exploring Peru’s contrasts by train is a compelling way to travel

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The Andean Explorer, a Belmond train, on a remote strip of track between Saracocha and Lagunillas lakes in the Peruvian highlands.Alixe Lay/handout

I stumbled into the cold dark of predawn, still not sure if this climb was a good idea. The air was too thin to breathe properly and tufts of sharp grass and rocky ground made it a tough scramble up to a viewpoint in the Andean Alps. And yet I persisted. In the ethereal early light, the liquid browns, dull golds and deep greens of the brush swirled together as if the slopes were draped in velour.

From this height, I could make out the full length of the Andean Explorer, all 18 cars of the Belmond train on a remote strip of track between Saracocha and Lagunillas lakes in the Peruvian highlands. Sunlight revealed fisherman’s nets, a roofless adobe home that the grasses had reclaimed, and little else. It took my breath away, and not just because we were at 4,258 metres elevation.

As dawn broke, passengers slowly returned to the train for breakfast. But the altitude killed my appetite. All I could manage was cup after cup of coca tea – the local remedy. So I sat and sipped and watched the rise and fall of the dry highlands pass by. The wooziness (or was it the coca?) put me in a contemplative mood.

Train travel, I realized, showcases a country’s scenery at its best but it also takes passengers through the back door, past more sobering urban tableaus. These contrasts make it one of the most compelling ways to explore. Never was this more obvious than when riding the rails in Peru.

I was on Belmond’s Andean Explorer for three days and two nights in December, 2022. The train’s midnight blue and silver livery is striking, and no matter where it goes – from Cusco to Puno and Arequipa, and through many towns in between – the Andean Explorer is an event. As we pass through towns and cities, families bring children to point and wave, almost everyone stops and stares and holds up their phone to take pictures of the only sleeper train in South America.

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We passed older women in shawls of hot pink, vibrating green and shocking blue sitting alone in the wheat-coloured landscape, keeping an eye on grazing sheep or alpacas and llamas.handout/Handout

The Andean Explorer restarted in May after travel in Peru was shut down earlier this year during violent protests that followed the Dec. 7 ousting and arrest of Peru’s president. In the turmoil that followed, at least 66 Peruvians died, airports were targeted and tourism shut down. Now that the protests have quieted and Machu Picchu has reopened, travellers are returning.

On board this luxury train, it can feel like time has stopped. It has been restored with 19th-century design details, a baby grand is played nightly in the bar car where predinner cocktails are served and white linen service in the dining car features exquisite Peruvian fusion meals. Each cabin (my cozy twin berth had a delightful pressed tin ceiling and decorative brass switches) comes with a dedicated purser and a tight but still functional ensuite. There’s an elegant sense of fun on board, too – so I wasn’t surprised when one night a passenger wandered into the bar car to dance in white silk pyjamas. On a Belmond train, this is the vibe 24/7.

Outside, the views are just as unforgettable. We passed startling mountain vistas but also poor farmers working hard, dry ground with pick axes. In many fields, the corn stood dying from a lack of rain in this rainy season. Sometimes the contrast between inside and outside forced me to reflect on my own lucky lot in this life.

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Adobe ruin overlooking Saracocha lake in the Peruvian highlands.Handout

At each stop, Belmond’s organized excursions became highlights of the journey. The train pulled into Puno, the hillside city on the shore of Lake Titicaca, at night. In the chilly predawn, guests were lured out of their berths with creature comforts to watch the sun rise over the largest and highest mountain lake in the world. I wrapped myself in a baby alpaca blanket and pulled my wicker armchair closer to the fire as sunlight shot through the clouds onto the watery horizon. It was one of those pinch-me moments, but it wasn’t even the best part of the day.

In a few hours, we met a local guide to tour the islets of the Uros, an Indigenous, pre-Incan people who live on islands built out of reeds and roots. The thick water-resistant totora reed needs to be constantly replaced in order for each of the 120 or so islands to stay afloat. Our guide charmed us with a lively and informative lesson on the area’s history as our tour boat made its way through the reedy narrows toward the islets.

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The colourful hand-made clothing worn by the Uros Indigenous people.Enrico De Santis/Handout

The islets are often home to four families, and each one takes turns hosting visitors to share their way of life and the importance of the totora plant, which is a building material, medicine and food. The Uros live a tough life made easier, our guide noted, by visitors buying handicrafts and paying for reed-boat rides. Point taken! The island (it’s about the size of a soccer field) bobbed like a floating dock as we stepped carefully on the meshed reeds to explore. Some of us admired the Uros women’s embroidered jackets and pom-poms woven into their braids. This led to a flurry of activity: closets emptied and money and clothing traded hands.

Back on the train, I was reluctant to leave the outdoor sights behind. As we pulled out of Puno, I made the long walk through the moving train, loosening my legs to move with its sway. Past the spa, the piano bar, the restaurant cars, the suites, the bar car until – at last – the outdoor observation deck. It’s a favourite spot and delightfully old timey, with wooden seats softened by Andean throw pillows, iron scrollwork railings, and a striped scalloped awning that ruffles in the breeze. Here, I could lean into the view. The tracks meandered past the lands of Uros families who’d chosen subsistence farming over island life. It didn’t look much easier. We passed older women in shawls of hot pink, vibrating green and shocking blue sitting alone in the wheat-coloured landscape, keeping an eye on grazing sheep or alpacas and llamas. We passed unfinished cinder block homes and kids playing soccer in the dirt – they’d wave back if the game was slow. It was another lesser-seen local view – far from the tourist markets we’d just left behind near the docks.

North of Lake Titicaca, the Andean Explorer passes through the mining city of Juliaca. I missed it when we passed through this industrial area the night before: life in the bar car – live music, the non-stop chatter of cocktail shakers and dancing fuelled by exquisite pisco sours – kept passengers focused on onboard delights. But returning through Juliaca later in the trip gave us an incredibly close view of its market. We crawled past enormous legs of meat that swung just out of reach in the butcher stalls, I could make out the weave on piles of alpaca blankets and touch the tin roof of huts full of farm tools and another that sold only rope. Not for the first time, I became all too aware of the affluence I travelled in.

Vendors watch closely as the train rolls over goods that lie between the tracks. If I’d thought of it, I would have bought some fruit from my perch on the observation deck. Many locals crane their necks to glimpse this blip of wealth moving through their space. I wave occasionally. Not everyone waves back. Once the train passes, shoppers flood onto the tracks and business resumes. I’ve never seen anything like it and I am not sure I would have explored this area on my own but seeing it from the Andean Explorer was an experience I won’t soon forget. (Later, I was cheered to learn that Belmond makes an effort to give back to the communities it passes through, by hiring and training locals, purchasing grains and produce for its restaurants and offering artisans a place to sell their work.)

On this trip, I’d see fine things in the cities – such as Cusco cathedral’s Peruvian interpretation of The Last Supper, where Jesus dines on guinea pig and pan chuta bread – but it was from the train itself where the life and landscapes of Peru unspooled before me. I may have been travelling in Champagne-soaked splendour, but the train gave me a look at a world I didn’t know in a country I want to learn more about. Isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

If you go

To meet the Andean Explorer, first, fly into Lima (there are no direct flights from Canada), then book a regional airline, such as LATAM, into Cusco. Cusco sits at an altitude of 3,399 meters (11,152 feet), consider arriving a day or two early to allow the body to acclimatize.

In Cusco, Belmond’s two hotels have transformed a monastery and a convent into palaces of art and hospitality. The Monasterio and Palacio Nazarenas are side by side and around the corner from Cusco Cathedral. Rooms from US$420 a night.

Andean Explorer: A Belmond Train, one and two-night journeys leave from Cusco, Puno/Lake Titicaca and Arequipa. Meals, drinks, entertainment and excursions are included. A nurse travels on board with portable oxygen. One-night journeys start at US$2,400 per person based on double occupancy and US$4,000 per person for a two-night journey.

The writer was a guest of Belmond. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

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