Peru specialists, Totally Latin America, which creates custom-designed luxury vacations, continually seeks out new adventures for its clients, only recommending what it has experienced first-hand. When the new Belmond Andean Explorer overnight sleeper train began operating in Cusco in 2017, Jason Kearney of Totally Latin America decided to check out the travel experience for himself. Here is his report.
Traveling from Cusco to the provincial city of Puno has multiple options: a flight takes an hour, plus transfer; a tourist bus takes 10 hours; and the train takes twenty-one hours. The logical choice is to fly. Or is it? The Belmond Andean Explorer provides a new option, where guest take a train that meanders across the high altiplano plains, nestled under the majestic Andean Mountains.
The Andean Explorer route from Cusco to Puno is called "The Spirit of the Water," as the final destination allows for guests to awaken aside Lake Titicaca. My journey begins in Cusco: an 11 a.m. departure to Puno with the train looking resplendent in its navy blue and grey livery, complimented by impeccably presented staff members. Prior to boarding, an Andean Huayno dance group performs much to the admiration of the 26 passengers. The train has a capacity of 48 travelers, set to increase to 60 next year, and comprises 16 carriages, which will increase to 21. Staff outnumber passengers, and this is a reflection of the emphasis on consummate customer service and attention to detail. Upon boarding, we are treated to a champagne reception and introduction by Javier Carlavilla, chief of luxury trains at Peru Rail.
Belmond Andean Explorer's De Luxe Cabin // Photo by Belmond
First impressions are one of Old World charm and decadent opulent surroundings. A brief inventory of the train reveals a rear open-air observation deck, a piano bar lounge, and two restaurant cars; all complemented by an array of carriages dedicated to four categories of accommodation. These range from two sumptuous double bed De Luxe Suites, six double bed Junior Suites, eleven Twin Cabins, and five Bunk Bed offerings. The interior décor is inspired by colors drawn from the Incan heritage of the region.
I chose the twin bed option, which comes furnished with two small beds and an en suite shower washroom. By day, the beds fold to a couch arrangement and at 7.30 p.m. staff perform their turndown service, transforming the cabin to its sleeping arrangement.
We depart Cusco and roll down the Huatanay River Valley through sprawling suburbs and steadily the momentum builds to that familiar and captivating clickety-clack clickety-clack sound. Traveling through the heartland of Peru, each glance from the cabin vista catches microcosms of daily life. Both people and nature combine in a foreboding but equally enchanting landscape that gradually changes to a more rural agrarian panorama.
From the outset, staff greet each traveler by name and attend to their needs including Pisco sour; a refreshing Peruvian cocktail of Pisco liquor, lime juice, egg white, syrup and Angostura bitters. Pastiches of food are also regularly offered, all crafted by the influence of chef Diego Muñoz. In the lounge and observation car travelers begin to converse with their newly found friends and some choose to share lunch at 12.30 p.m. in the restaurant carriages.
The first day's lunch is one of giant corn with Andean cheese, seared sea bass, and a dessert of poached cara cara with cardamom and thyme. Everyone aboard shares a common bond: they love train travel and it is an immediate conversation starter. Travelers are here not to get from one place to another but to enjoy the journey and human interaction by sharing their life stories and learning from new acquaintances. Nobody has anywhere to go, no appointments. Train travel exudes soul, elegance, and charm, which is why I feel the Belmond Andean Explorer will contribute to the renaissance of rail travel.
After lunch, we disembark to visit the ruins of Raqch'i; David, our guide, takes us back in time to appreciate the purpose of this Inca sanctuary built circa 1439. The site is spotted with 156 Colca store houses and Ushnu ritual houses, in addition to a remaining Wiracocha Temple wall towering 60 feet in height.
As the evening sun fades, the train in all its grandeur rumbles along into a mystic where the Incan altiplano rolls away to a rendezvous with the Andean sky. We are now at La Raya, some 14,150 feet high, a valley with snowcapped peaks, and we venture out to visit a small market and an austere-but-charming church. The Andean people sell beautiful colorful garments and trinkets in this remote haven.
Back on board we are treated to cocktails and settle down to dinner of Alpaca tortellini, duck breast, and Urubamba Valley beetroot served glazed in elderberry sauce. The final stages of the journey see us descend to the city of Puno at 11 p.m. The train rumbles to a halt and passengers gradually make their way from the lounge to their cabins to slumber.
The next morning, sunrise at 5:15 a.m. can be witnessed over Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on our planet. Breakfast is served from 6 a.m., and, after dining tours to visit the reed islands of Uros and Taquile are offered.
Alas, my journey ends here and I bid farewell but feel enriched by this experience. Rest assured with the Belmond Andean Explorer Train, you, too, can live a Peruvian odyssey; the allure of a new marvelous journey awaits.