MACHU PIC­CHU: A FUN TRAIN

A luxury train jour­ney re­calls the ad­ven­tures of a fa­mous ex­plorer

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Sharon Verghis

Amer­i­can ex­plorer Hi­ram Bing­ham vividly re­counted his first sight of Machu Pic­chu in his clas­sic 1922 book Inca Land: Ex­plo­rations in the High­lands of Peru. Strug­gling through thick jun­gle with a young na­tive guide, Bing­ham came across a flight of beau­ti­fully con­structed ter­races: “It did not take an ex­pert to re­alise, from the glimpse of Machu Pic­chu on that rainy day in July 1911, when Sergeant Car­rasco and I first saw it, that here were most ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­ter­est­ing ru­ins.”

Bing­ham would go on to in­tro­duce this an­cient In­can won­der to the world. “What­ever name be fi­nally as­signed to this site by fu­ture his­to­ri­ans, of this I feel sure — that few ro­mances can ever sur­pass that of the gran­ite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Pic­chu, the crown of Inca Land,’’ he wrote.

On a crisp Oc­to­ber evening more than a cen­tury later, the Belmond Hi­ram Bing­ham train is alive with song as it chugs slowly up through the Urubamba Val­ley from Aguas Calientes, the hub for Machu Pic­chu, to Cusco’s Poroy Sta­tion.

Out­side, the lush, sub-trop­i­cal land­scape tra­versed long ago by Bing­ham slips by in a misty blue twi­light (“In Inca Land one may pass from glaciers to tree ferns within a few hours,” he noted later in his mem­oirs). In­side, our car­riage is rocking on its wheels as we howl and yo­del and clap our way through Guan­tanam­era, the Span­ish-lan­guage clas­sic made fa­mous by Amer­i­can rocker Pete Seeger in the 1960s. A trio of mu­si­cians strum gui­tars, egging us on. The whole car­riage erupts in roars and wolf whis­tles as an el­derly Amer­i­can cou­ple jump to their feet, grab tam­bourines and mara­cas, and start gy­rat­ing their hips to the plain­tive Jo­seito Fer­nan­dez melody.

This im­promptu jam be­gins in the train’s lav­ishly ap­pointed bar car soon af­ter din­ner, per­haps fu­elled by the ex­cite­ment of a day at the fa­bled Inca site cou­pled with the many bot­tles of fine Peru­vian wine and trays of pisco sours — the coun­try’s na­tional cock­tail — that travel the length of the two dining cars over an in­dul­gent four­course din­ner ser­vice.

My fel­low pas­sen­gers, a well-heeled, Panama hatwear­ing, cos­mopoli­tan bunch, had showed no signs of flam­boy­ance when we first met in the pri­vate Hi­ram Bing­ham wait­ing room back at Aguas Calientes. Then, it was all de­murely sipped aper­i­tifs as we availed our­selves of the hot tow­els served on trays, and traded quiet chit chat, wait­ing to em­bark on what’s been billed as one of the world’s great train jour­neys.

Its four blue and gold wag­ons, dec­o­rated in the style of 1920s Pull­man car­riages (the train also fea­tures the dining cars and an ob­ser­va­tion/bar car, and car­ries up to 84 pas­sen­gers), are a wel­come sight as I clam­ber on­board for my one-way, three-hour trip to Cusco.

There is luxury in the small­est de­tails: the silky pol­ished woods used in the el­e­gant in­te­rior pan­elling, the shiny brass fit­tings, the crisp white table­cloths, sparkling crys­tal wine glasses and heavy sil­ver cut­lery. Gen­er­ously laid out for us hun­gry trekkers, tonight’s din­ner menu in­cludes a leek and potato emul­sion, caviar de Ki­wicha, grilled trout with a Maras salt crust and ten­der­loin beef from the Sa­cred Val­ley, fol­lowed by or­ganic choco­late from Quil­l­abamba.

It’s deca­dence all the way for the daily ser­vice, se­lected the best train in the world by the read­ers of Conde Nast Trav­eller UK in 2011. A round-trip ticket in­cludes aper­i­tifs on ar­rival at Cusco’s Poroy sta­tion, brunch or gourmet din­ner, on-board en­ter­tain­ment, a tourist guide for big­ger groups, tick­ets and trans­porta­tion to Machu Pic­chu, tea at Belmond Sanc­tu­ary Lodge and a gourmet An­deanin­spired din­ner.

It’s a feast in four di­vine cour­ses, and we tuck in heartily while our guide en­ter­tains us with sto­ries of Bing­ham’s ex­ploits. And then, af­ter end­less rounds of pisco sours, the mu­sic be­gins: “Guan­tanam­era ... gua­jira Guan­tanam­era ...” It’s easy to imag­ine the ghost of the in­trepid Hi­ram hov­er­ing over­head, clap­ping along in time.

Clock­wise from top, dancers give the Belmond Hi­ram Bing­ham a colour­ful send-off; the train en route; Machu Pic­chu; one of two dining cars

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