by Mark C.O'Flaherty, The Telegraph, November 16, 2018
For too long, there’s been a significant gap in my personal map of South America. I’ve covered most of it by plane, coach, ferry and horse, but never Peru and never anywhere by train.
At the start of the year, a friend was touring the country, documenting it constantly on Instagram. I found myself checking impatiently for fresh posts, newly obsessed with scenery that I still, frustratingly, had yet to see for myself.
At the same time, everywhere I looked, Peru was calling: its cuisine had taken over from pulled pork as the in-thing, and South American chef Virgilio Martínez was now the pin-up boy of international fine dining. In Soho and Shoreditch, you couldn’t move for ceviche.
I had also become fixated with the fancy new sleeper train that was running in Peru. Last year, Belmond launched the Andean Explorer, bringing plush, boutique-hotel tropes, South American handicraft and a grand piano to the rails running through the high-altitude landscape that stretches from Arequipa to Cusco.
To mark its first anniversary, Belmond added a spa car to the train, so you could be massaged while passing fields full of pretty vicuñas and llamas.
I love luxury trains with the same passion that I hate airports. In the midst of a dark London winter, it was all adding up. Before my friend had got over her jet lag, I’d splurged on a return ticket to Lima. Tourism in Peru, as I discovered when planning my journey, is getting slicker by the minute and Belmond – the brand formerly known as Orient Express – has much of it sewn up, with its own five-star hotels almost everywhere you would consider visiting.
A specialist tour operator for the country, Aracari, recently launched a tour that takes the Belmond Andean Explorer as the core experience for a broader two-week trip. You start off rebooting from jet lag by the pool at the super-chic Belmond Miraflores Park in Lima – where you periodically find yourself swimming in a cloud that’s rolled in off the sea – then fly to Cusco. You visit Machu Picchu, explore the city and landscape, then spend two nights on the sleeper train to Arequipa, going deep into the Colca Valley.
In 20 years of travel writing, this is a fortnight that went straight into my top three experiences of all time. No photograph could ever do the landscapes justice.
When I was working on my itinerary, a friend who had been to Machu Picchu recently suggested I consider skipping it. “You have to ask yourself,” he said, with raised eyebrow, “do you want to be anywhere with 2,500 people?” As it turned out, I did. I was blessed with a perfect day: blazing sunshine, dramatic ever-changing cloudscape, and a low turnout. But even in horizontal rain surrounded by hordes, the impact of this Inca summer palace, with its dreamlike terraces and vertiginous tropical mountains, wouldn’t be diminished.
On an Aracari itinerary, you spend three-and-a-half hours on the Belmond Hiram Bingham train, which is set up for lunch and pisco sours in the bar car, following a route along a cascading river to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the ruins. The scenery on that trip is some of the best you’ll experience, ever, and then you hit Machu Picchu in the afternoon.
There’s not much to see in the town itself, but an overnighter at the Sumaq hotel close to the station is a must, for no better reason than you can have a bedroom with a whirlpool tub that looks out to that wild river across the street, and you can also get another stab at the ruins, and mountain climbing, first thing in the morning.
After Machu Picchu, I returned to Cusco and was taken by my Aracari guide Leo to the salt pans of Maras: a silver and clay-coloured valley with giant flooded cells used to harvest the finest quality of salt. It looked like a biblical patchwork quilt, with only the tiny figures working in the pans to give a sense of its scale. We explored the ancient circular Inca terraces of Moray, where a much younger Leo once camped overnight with friends and a shaman who prepared psychoactive flora to conjure up visions of giants strolling across the landscape.
Peru might be the only place in the world where man’s intervention has made the landscape even more profoundly beautiful. The stepped ridges cut into the mountainsides by the Incas and pre-Incas make the landscape painterly and magical. While you can no longer camp out at the sites, you can eat at Mil, Virgilio Martínez’s new restaurant and food research facility, overlooking the sculpted basins of Moray. I went after one of my day tours with Leo.
You won’t have heard of half the ingredients at a Martínez restaurant, and with everything here being high-altitude in origin, you’re unlikely to eat anything like it again. The rooms – set around a courtyard – are chic and monastic, while the food is a wild mix of tubers, flowers, corns and proteins. It’s intellectual and arresting rather than delicious, but still an ultra-modern cooking.
The most unexpectedly thrilling experience at the Cusco end of my rail journey was when I toured the museum of Machu Picchu artefacts at Casa Concha in Cusco, accompanied by Leo and our guest star guide, the professor of anthropology, Dr Jean-Jacques Decoster.
On my own I’d probably have whizzed through this in five minutes, but Dr Decoster – straight out of Indiana Jones – made the whole thing a memorable long-read of international intrigue. Here was, he explained, a miscurated collection of objects – reluctantly returned from Yale after 100 years – as part of which arrangement the museum staff here are contractually unable to edit and relabel for accuracy. History, as demonstrated at Casa Concha, is entirely subjective.
The two fanciest hotels in Cusco – fashioned from a former nunnery and monastery – sit next to one another on Plazoleta de las Nazarenas and are as integral to sightseeing as much as sleep. Every detail of each, from their colonial-fabulous inner courtyards to the baroque chapel with bewigged icons at Hotel Monasterio, to the prices in their restaurants, has wow factor. I’d go so far as to call them two of the best hotels in South America, although it was also here, at the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, that I felt my sanity slip away.
As sophisticated as Peru is, panpipes are deemed a necessary accompaniment to every experience, from the Inca ruins of Raqchi to poolside here at the Palacio Nazarenas. If I ever hear an Andean folk cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence again, I will offer violence.
At this point I had to rejig Aracari’s normal itinerary, because there was no space on the Andean Explorer from Cusco to Arequipa while I was there, so I did the reverse trip, and double-backed on myself for the off-rail stuff.
The train was as lavish as I had hoped, but on my route, the bulk of the best scenery passes by under cover of darkness, apart from on the last morning, that is, when all is wondrous, and passengers pack into the observatory car. If you want more visible landscape, go for the Arequipa-bound route. Either way, you’ll get the romance of a moving luxury hotel with impressive fine dining, albeit with a menu you might not fully appreciate because of altitude-related appetite loss.
There’s also, of course, the new spa carriage, offering an 80-minute Andean Ritual, featuring a clay wrap using local flowers and coca leaves although, on my itinerary, I couldn’t fathom when anyone would actually be able to book it, without missing cocktails, sleep or any of the planned excursions.
Travelling in either direction, you get a day at Lake Titicaca, the highest large lake on the planet. The local Uru people have built floating islands on the lake, and were taught to monetise almost every aspect of their lifestyle to tourists by the Seventh Day Adventists, back in the Eighties. It was fascinating, but the day involved hours on a ferry that I would have rather spent being massaged.
At the other end of the Andean Explorer’s route, I was deposited within the most incredible scenery I think I’ve ever set eyes on. My Arequipa-based guide, Mauricio, took me first to the city’s central market, to get to grips with thousands of potato varieties, hand-churned cheese ice cream – queso helado – and fabulously weird, brightly coloured household “stuff”. I live for the everyday as much as for the extraordinary, and the market combined both.
I spent two nights at very different rural hotels: the Belmond Rio Sagrado felt a little motel-like, but had grounds – complete with cuddly alpacas – that were spectacular.
The Belmond Las Casitas in Colca Canyon had elements that made it feel out of season: the pool wasn’t clean enough to swim in, nor the private hot tubs free of bug life, but the bedrooms, which felt like Marmontesque chalets in the Hollywood Hills with open fires, four-poster beds and huge bath tubs, were superb. There were early starts from each hotel, for horse riding and trekking.
For all the glamour of the dining and sleeper trains I encountered during my two weeks, it was this Colca Canyon element of my trip that stood out for me, featuring one of those all too rare elemental experiences that makes you feel humbled and alive. Mauricio took me on a spectacular drive, past roadside stalls selling butterflied, barbecued guinea pigs (a weekend treat for locals) to volcanic hot springs where I bathed and lunched on grilled alpaca.
Then we went to Condor Cross to see giant, white-collared, juvenile carrion-eaters circle around the landmark crucifix. It was great, for sure, but the real wonder was to come 10 minutes later.
We were back on the road towards my hotel when we saw a couple of full sized condors flying nearby. We stopped the car on an isolated outlook and walked out to where we were soon being circled by seven of the giant birds looping around us in formation. They came so close that the wind beneath their wings sounded like a plane descending. The loops went on and on, as if they knew each deeper pass was making our hearts beat faster.
I tried photographing it, but it was pointless. You had to be there. You have to be there.
How to do it
Aracari (020 7097 1750; aracari.com) offers a 14-day “Highlights of Southern Peru” itinerary from £5,030 per person excluding flights.
Belmond (0800 237 1236; belmond.com) offers a two-night Belmond Andean Explorer “Andean Plains and Islands of Discovery” route from Arequipa to Cusco from £1,050, while the “Peruvian Highlands” itinerary from Cusco to Arequipa is priced from £1,240 per person based on two sharing, full board.
The “Hiram Bingham” return service to Machu Picchu from Cusco starts at £355.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies direct three times a week from London to Lima from £659 return.