Clinging to the Rails

23rd November 2018

Move over Orient Express… Chris Ambrose boards the PeruRail Titicaca train, to experience one of South America’s most famous and luxurious rail journeys, from Cusco to Puno, taking in the breathtaking scenery of the Peruvian mountains…

We awoke early, a gap in the curtains revealing orange streaks breaking out across the sky. Throughout the valley, flickering lights began to soften, with the silhouette of the mountains coming into sharper focus as Cusco prepared itself for another day.

From our loft apartment overlooking the city it was a struggle to drag ourselves out from underneath the thick woollen blankets of our bed. Mornings up in the mountains are chilly, and after clambering around Machu Picchu, our legs were still aching. The altitude had also been taking its toll, with the thin air consistently catching us off-guard. We would set off enthusiastically to explore the city’s old town and ruins, but within minutes we’d be slumped on a wall or dragging ourselves into a café, desperately trying to catch our breath after climbing a few sets of steps or one of the many steep cobbled streets.

But today promised to be different. We were taking a rare break from our usual budget explorations and indulging in a bit of luxury. After months on rickety buses and temperamental trains, we were going to be spending the next ten and a half hours on what is billed as one of the best train journeys in the world: the PeruRail Titicaca train from Cusco to Puno; a journey that purportedly boasts stunning scenery, combined with fantastic hospitality. We were intrigued, and so had decided to splash out and find out for ourselves...

The streets of Cusco were still quiet as we trundled down the hill towards the station. Passing through a rickety gate, we were greeted by a very smartly attired man with a clipboard, who stood at a little podium on the platform. He welcomed us with a friendly smile, and after checking us off on his passenger manifest, our bags were swiftly taken off towards the luggage car, and we were ushered into a little waiting room, where we were invited to help ourselves to tea and coffee.
After a quick hit of caffeine, it was time to board. We were collected and guided to our carriage – a plush dining room, with smartly covered tables surrounded by homely armchairs in a ‘Pullman’ style coach. It was low season, so despite there being space in each carriage for around 30 people, there were only 14 of us travelling, with the second passenger carriage empty.

After settling in to the comfortable chairs and admiring the pleasant surroundings of the dark wood-clad carriage (fresh flowers, a table lamp and a small plate of chocolate-covered strawberries on each table that we couldn’t quite work out if they were real or not), members of the train staff came around to offer us further drinks, and to ask if wanted anything from the breakfast menu. The train then juddered into life, and we began edging our way out of Cusco.

As we tucked into a light breakfast (aware of the amount of food scheduled for later in the journey), the outer suburbs soon fell away, and we were quickly surrounded by rolling green hills as the morning sun began to burn off the valley mist. We were then invited through to the neighbouring carriage. This carriage was the final one in the train, and was split into two sections. The first had a small bar with lounge chairs set along the sides; the second featured two rows of cushioned bench seats facing outwards from the centre, with an open end looking directly down the tracks in the direction we were travelling away from. It was a fantastic set-up. We stood against the railing at the back of the carriage and took in the expansive views as we carved our way calmly through the valleys; the peaks either side growing in height as we ascended through the Peruvian Andes.

Once we’d spent a significant amount of time gazing out at the mesmerising terrain, we were lured back into the lounge area, where the staff came around with complimentary pisco sours. Next to the bar a band had set up, and they soon burst into some traditional Peruvian music, with a number of fully-costumed dancers skipping their way through the passengers to the lively beat and strong rhythms provided by the drums, keyboard and guitar. Snacks were laid out on the small wooden tables that were interspersed between the chairs, and a man snaked his way along the carriage handing out roses to all the women.

After the early start, the crisp mountain air and that lively entertainment, travellers were flagging. Some retired to the dining carriage where blankets were provided. Most sank back into the comfortable chairs to watch the scenery drift by, while others took it in turns to hold position at the rear of the train, where the hypnotic view of the tracks tumbling out from beneath the carriage generated its own form of relaxing trance.

Then we were informed that we would be making our one and only stop of the journey. We began to slow, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, until finally drawing up alongside an empty platform next to a small white stone church. Here we were given twenty minutes or so to disembark and stretch our legs. We poked our heads into the little church where candles and shrines adorned an altar at the far end, and browsed a makeshift array of market stalls that seemed quite bizarre and out of place in this isolated mountain setting.

I took the opportunity to take a quick jog along the train (in a desperate effort to make space for our impending lunch), before quickly succumbing once again to the effects of the altitude – I was soon doubled over and panting breathlessly as I reminded myself how this railway line was one of the highest in the world at over four thousand metres.

With many of the passengers now stocked up on alpaca jumpers and trinkets, we got back on board to find the tables set for lunch. Once the engine had kicked into gear, we were soon rolling across the plains again, and tucking into three courses of incredibly tasty, beautifully presented food, along with wine.

After a meal spent gazing out across the vast open plains, and in between delicious mouthfuls of Peruvian cuisine (although no guinea pig on this occasion), it was time to stretch our legs once more, and take a stroll into the next carriage. We were treated to another live band performance, this time accompanied by a fashion show, as the entertainment crew paraded through the carriage with their best modelling pouts to show off a selection of locally made clothing items, mostly based around brightly-coloured alpaca ponchos – presumably a subtle hint at how much cooler it was going to be at our destination.

Once we had finished clapping along to this latest display, some of us disappeared back off to the arm chairs for an afternoon nap (although not before another quick round of pisco sours); others went back to the viewing area to breathe in the crisp mountain air and calming desolation of the Altiplano as we rumbled along the rails.

At one point we passed – quite literally – through a town, with the tracks running directly along the main thoroughfare. A plethora of informal shops, cafés and market stalls were tightly compressed along the narrow road, their products and clientele spilling out on to the tracks. This train service only runs a few times a week, so locals are presumably aware of when they have to quickly fold up the rugs with their goods on to make way for the train, before quickly re-instating them directly onto the rails as soon as it passes. Locals waved as we rumbled through, with groups of children (and sometimes stray dogs) giving chase in an attempt to test their speed and endurance.

Before we knew it, we were being politely guided back to our tables for afternoon tea. A slightly less traditional (at least for what we’d come to experience in South America) selection of sandwiches and cakes were presented to us, along with a large jug of coca tea – synonymous with this part of the world, and widely used as a method for helping with the altitude.

Suddenly there was a toot of the train’s horn, and we began to slow as the shoreline of Lake Titicaca drew up beside the tracks. A few long, curving bends around its border and we were once again crossing busy roads as we arrived into the bustling town of Puno, a little resentful that we were soon going to have to leave the train. The journey had passed in a flash and a blur of vibrant colour, stunning scenery, warm hospitality, lively entertainment and wonderful food and drink. It was true what we’d read about this trip – it’s one of the quickest ten and a half hours of travel you can experience, and one we would willingly do again.

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