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:
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
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
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
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
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
Belmond Andean Explorer
offers one and two-night journeys from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and
Cusco to Arequipa via Lake Titicaca.