Having crossed the seas from Australia to Peru, the Belmond Andean Explorer has settled in as South America's first luxury train. Rosh Mahtani hops aboard for its maiden voyage, journeying from bright-white Arequipa to the culturally rich city of Cusco. This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 20: Homelands.
I am about to go to Peru…for four days," I announce to my friends. I am met with incredulous looks and a couple of eye-rolls. They ask how I can possibly expect to experience such a rich country in such a short amount of time. The looks of disbelief only intensify when I tell them my plan. Travelling from the "white city" of Arequipa to Puno, I will float on the mystical Lake Titicaca, breathe in the high altitude of La Raya, meet alpacas and vicuñas, before confronting a melting pot of architecture in Cusco. I will be on board South America's first luxury train, which will allow me to cover many of Peru's rich landscapes and cultures without ever having to choose a base. The looks are silenced and envy ensues.
A few days later and the train stands majestically on Arequipa's flat terrain. Blue and white carriages glisten in front of the backdrop of the Altiplano, a series of plains so high that only tough wild grass can survive. Anticipation is building at the train station - which is mustard-yellow, picture-perfect, and looks as though it has come straight out of a Wes Anderson film.
This is the Belmond Andean Explorer, a train that channels the glamour of 1920s travel, which has been brought out of retirement in Australia and given a new home in Peru. I have journeyed from London to experience its inaugural voyage, which will take me across a staggering variety of scenes - from the Incan terraces carved into the mountains to the baroque Spanish architecture of Cusco. For three days and two nights the Explorer will be my home.
Like a wide-eyed child I hop on board and head towards the sound of the baby grand in the piano bar. It is the first day of the trip, and I am entranced by the magic of it all. As the train pulls out of the station, gracefully weaving its way in and out of the etched hillsides, we are welcomed by the train manager, Christopher. The smell of the muña tea (known for its ability to ease altitude sickness) surrounds me as we are escorted to our bedrooms.
As I walk through the carriages - each one named after Peruvian flora and fauna - I see miniature mosaic mirrors reflecting the oscillating landscape outside, black-and-white portraits of Incan traditions hung on alpaca-white walls, fluorescent butterfly specimens encased in cedar frames, and maps that attempt to chart the beauty of our surroundings. Five carriages later I arrive at my bedroom door, the entrance to my own secret world.
There's an armchair by the large window next to a table with a simple vase of flowers - an invitation to sit and be still while you move, to think and rest while you explore, to discover the world of a novel as the Andes unfurl around you. The 1920s accents are a nod to the glamour of train travel from days gone by, and I can't help but smile to myself at the crisp white sheets and the concept of a proper bed on board a moving train. Lunch is about to be served, and I enjoy fighting the forward-direction of the train to arrive at the smart dining car.
Typically, when a train departs in Peru, it is accompanied by groups of vendors tapping on the windows to sell roasted choclo (giant corn, a staple of the country) for passengers to eat on their journey. The Explorer makes reference to this custom at lunch - kernels of crunchy yellow choclo con queso land on our plates, as though they were blown straight out of the vendors' hands.
Created by the executive chef Diego Muñoz, the plates of food mirror the yellows and greens of the landscape rolling by. Desert is a frothy apple foam, referencing the snowy peaks up in the sky, and we experience glimpses of an always-moving landscape as we glide towards Puno. "This is adventure…with champagne," I hear someone say amidst the chatter of new friends and the melody of the train.
In the afternoon I allow my mind to wander. Watching the moving scenes outside makes me feel as though I am reading a history book. The agricultural terraces etched into the mountains are almost like handwriting from the past, creating a story of survival amidst the changing altitude and volatile volcanoes.
Suddenly the world outside stops moving and we disembark. On the tracks, Chef Muñoz is gathering the ingredients for a ceviche. The fish is diced and accompanied by salt, then chilli, followed by lemon. We watch as the guests casually come together, and the surreal day continues as we find ourselves feasting on the train tracks in front of Lake Lagunillas and a few friendly alpacas.
Back on the Explorer there is something mesmerising about watching the mountains through the panoramic lens of the window frame, until the greens and blues are dragged into deep oranges and purples as the sun begins to settle for the night. A fellow traveller from Brooklyn bids us goodnight, eager to finish the last chapter of her book. We ask what she's reading, and she smiles wryly as she answers: "Murder on the Orient Express."
When we wake up we are in Puno. Eyelids and curtains open in tandem and we are greeted by gleaming morning light bouncing off the water of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake. For a fleeting moment we step off the train on to terra firma, before boarding a boat bound for the floating Uros Islands. These islands were built by the Uru people with reeds, packed layer upon layer, and are home to four or five families each. It was only in the 1960s that the Uru - believed to be one of the first ethnic groups to populate the Andean region - began to build these islands, choosing to remain isolated from mainland civilisation. Dressed in scintillating pinks, yellows, oranges and blues, they generously welcome us to their home with traditional songs. The small houses are built out of the reeds that make up the land-mass, as strong as they are pliable. The president narrates the history and customs of the island, which rises and falls gently with the natural movement of the lake. I realise that the motion of Uros is not unlike the comforting rhythm of the train.
Our odyssey continues on a different island. Taquile is inhabited by the Taqueliños, who greet us with their own songs, dressed in white embroidered shirts with billowing sleeves. The men are dressed in red waistcoats and sash-belts, and the women wear layers upon layers of skirts, their hair plaited to their waists. Not far from the floating Uros, Taquile is yet another microcosm, with its own language, tradition and history. These pockets of civilisation exist alongside each other, like multi-coloured jigsaw pieces that slot together.
Back on board that night the locomotive dances as we snake our way from our bedrooms to the dining car. Dinner is a moment to absorb the many cultures that we encountered during the day, and we trade stories before travelling to the observation deck for pisco sours and dancing at 4,200 metres, to the tune of the band, until tomorrow morning is closer than yesterday night. Our eyes succumb to slumber as the Explorer goes forth for the final night, and La Raya's white mountains greet us in the morning at our very highest point. The train drifts towards Cusco, pensive and melancholy, almost as though it is just as sad to end the journey as we are.
Peru is a tapestry of a country, a home made up of different homes, ingeniously crafted and woven into the land over centuries by many hands. The Belmond Andean Explorer faithfully guided me through it all - slipping through stitches in time and transporting me into a rich kaleidoscopic past, one magical moment at a time.
Belmond Andean Explorer offers one and two-night journeys from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Cusco to Arequipa via Lake Titicaca.