TRAVEL Across the Andes

Peru boasts one of the high­est and most spec­tac­u­lar rail routes in the world. And the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence it? On board South Amer­ica’s first sleeper train, writes Em­i­lie Yabut-ra­zon

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents - Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer of­fers sev­eral one- to two-night itin­er­ar­ies start­ing from US$1,405 per per­son (twin room), in­clu­sive of meals and bev­er­ages on the train. Itin­er­ar­ies can in­clude guided day trips to Colca Canyon for con­dor watch­ing and ex­plor­ing t

Peru boasts one of the high­est and most spec­tac­u­lar rail routes in the world. The most lux­u­ri­ous way to ex­pe­ri­ence it? On board South Amer­ica’s first sleeper train

The asphalt dis­ap­pears be­hind a cloud of dust as our mini-van leaves the Chivay high­way to turn onto a dirt road. From a dis­tance, we see a white, one-storey build­ing and hear the faint strains of a sax­o­phone, so un­ex­pected in the mid­dle of this vast tun­dra that makes up this re­gion of Are­quipa, in south­west Peru. My trav­el­ling com­pan­ions (a se­lect group of jour­nal­ists from all over the world) and I are here to ex­pe­ri­ence the maiden voy­age of the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, the first sleeper train to run along the Andes moun­tain ranges. The itin­er­ary ex­plores less tourist-worn trails on a rail route that reaches heights of up to 5,100 me­tres (16,000 feet), be­tween the coun­try’s an­cient cap­i­tal of Cusco, the snow-capped peaks of La Raya, and Lake Tit­i­caca, one of the largest el­e­vated lakes in the world.

Our at­ten­tion is cap­tured mo­men­tar­ily by a flock of lithe, wild vicuñas graz­ing nearby— they are prized and pro­tected for their wool, which is softer and finer than cash­mere. And then it’s back to the soul­ful sax­o­phone play­ing as the sleek, el­e­gant lines of our mo­bile home for the next three days come into view. It’s dif­fi­cult to see where the train starts and ends, as each of its 16 cars is at least 20 me­tres long, brightly painted in white and blue and dec­o­rated at ev­ery end with a chakana cross, a holy In­can sym­bol of life.

Smart-look­ing uni­formed staff lead us into the small build­ing, where we are met by a wel­com­ing com­mit­tee of wait­ers of­fer­ing cham­pagne, wine—and for the non-drinkers, cups of coca tea, a pop­u­lar herbal in­fu­sion made from the coca leaf be­lieved to help cure al­ti­tude sick­ness and stave off hunger.

Step­ping onto the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer is like go­ing back in time. With its ma­hogany pan­elling, in­tri­cate mar­quetry on the floors and art nou­veau-in­spired ceil­ings, it’s hard to be­lieve the car­riages were only built in Queens­land in the 1990s. The front sec­tion of the train houses all the cab­ins, which are all painted white and taste­fully dec­o­rated, in light cream tones save for the bright blues and reds of the Peru­vian fab­rics that adorn the pil­low­cases and bed­spreads. All the car­riages are named af­ter lo­cal flora and fauna, and each cabin has an en­suite bath­room with a shower, wa­ter closet and van­ity—a true lux­ury for sleeper trains. The largest rooms fea­ture a plush dou­ble bed, a cosy seat­ing area with two cush­ioned chairs, a small ta­ble (for jour­nalling, per­haps?) and mas­sive win­dows to en­sure max­i­mum ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the rolling hills, glis­ten­ing lakes and herds of al­pacas and lla­mas that all play their part in mak­ing this trip mem­o­rable.

A slight lurch of the en­gine, and we’re off. The train, which can carry up to 48 pas­sen­gers, has been built for en­ter­tain­ing, with a lounge car com­plete with grand piano and live mu­sic in the evenings, a fully stocked and al­ways-manned bar for that never-end­ing sup­ply of pisco sours—or its lo­cal it­er­a­tion, the san­cayo sour, made from the fruit of a type of cac­tus. There’s also a small li­brary with vol­umes on Peru­vian cities to visit, a gift shop and a spa. The ca­boose, an open-air ob­ser­va­tion car, is where you can ap­pre­ci­ate breath­tak­ing, 230-de­gree views of the var­ied An­dean ter­rain, which en­com­passes vol­ca­noes, grass­land, desert, lakes and for­est.

Im­per­cep­ti­bly the train builds up to top speed, and as the moun­tain ranges roll past, we are herded in one of the two din­ing cars to be served din­ner, a flavour­ful spread con­cocted

by none other than Diego Muñoz, one of Peru’s most ac­com­plished chefs—who ear­lier that af­ter­noon had en­gaged us in a cook­ing demon­stra­tion show­ing us how to pre­pare ce­viche, Peru’s na­tional dish. As ex­ec­u­tive chef of the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, Muñoz has de­vel­oped a colourful menu to highlight the dishes and lo­cal pro­duce of each area the train passes through. For the first night, we start with con­sommé with al­paca tortellini, move on to duck breast with val­ley beet­root, and fin­ish with ar­roz con leche (Peru­vian rice pud­ding) with mazamorra (pur­ple corn pud­ding) in baked straw­ber­ries and pineap­ple for dessert. Even petit fours were on theme, with can­died con­coc­tions like coca leaf mac­a­roons and chest­nut brown­ies.

Evening en­ter­tain­ment on the train can go on ‘til the wee hours, but sleep can come quickly for those lulled by the train’s con­stant rhythm.

The next day we find our­selves in Puno, the start­ing point for our ex­plo­ration of Lake Tit­i­caca: the high­est nav­i­ga­ble lake in the world. Our ex­tremely knowl­edge­able and poly­glot guide, Wal­ter, ex­plains that we’re there to visit the Uros peo­ples, who’ve be­come fa­mous for cre­at­ing man-made is­lands on the lake when they were driven out of their homes many years ago.

Our boat cuts across chan­nels de­fined by to­tora reeds, a plant the Uru com­mu­nity con­sid­ers its life­line. With its tall reeds and deep roots, they use it to build their float­ing is­lands, their teepee-like huts—and they cook it for food.

A group of Uru women and girls, all wear­ing brightly coloured skirts and em­broi­dered vests, wave to us from afar. Don­ning large straw hats and braids adorned with colourful tas­selled yarn, their wel­com­ing smiles shine through their sun-baked faces.

We step off our boat and land on what feels like a wa­terbed made of reeds. The is­land moves with the lake, but is an­chored in place by sev­eral large branches that are at­tached to nearby reed plan­ta­tions. There are about five fam­i­lies liv­ing in this 600-square-foot space, shar­ing four sin­gle-room houses. We meet Javier, the ap­pointed leader of this is­land, who talks about life on the lake. The men fish while women and chil­dren cre­ate crafts and han­dem­broi­dered fab­rics to sell. Spin­ning yarn and weav­ing in­tri­cate pat­terns thou­sands of years old are as im­por­tant to ev­ery­day life here as farm­ing and cook­ing.

We travel fur­ther along the shore­line, and af­ter an hour reach Taquile, a nat­u­ral is­land first in­hab­ited by the Ay­mara tribes of the main­land, even be­fore the In­cas. We dock on a pri­vate, sandy cove where we are met with a group of lo­cal Taquile tribesfolk, dressed in their for­mal wear. They’ve trav­elled from the other side of the is­land to greet us, the men in white long sleeved tops and cropped red vests, with colourful wo­ven belts and bags that con­tain coca leaves, while the woman with them is in black, her neck­line and waist dec­o­rated with colourful wo­ven pat­terns. On her neck and arms are glit­ter­ing pa­per fans, and her mul­ti­tude of skirts form a puffy pet­ti­coat around her. All of them wear hats made of large feath­ers in the colours of the rain­bow, the same hues that rep­re­sent the In­can em­pire. As the men start play­ing a tune with drums and small wind­pipes, the group starts to dance.

While we are mes­merised by the per­for­mance, the train staff who joined us on this ex­cur­sion are busy set­ting up for our meal. They’ve brought cham­pagne and wine, cheese from Puno, fried bread matched with a dip of onion, toma­toes and Peru­vian green and red chilis called salsa de ro­coto; oca, a va­ri­ety of potato; and habas, like over­sized edamame beans.

We walk a short way up to a small, clay house, where we’re served a lunch of grilled trucha, a trout found in the wa­ters of Lake Tit­i­caca, with a va­ri­ety of veg­eta­bles and vi­o­let pota­toes. It is a delectably sat­is­fy­ing lunch, and we were loath to leave. But af­ter the con­ver­sa­tion dwin­dles and we’ve downed our cups of muña and coca tea, Wal­ter an­nounces sadly that we have to head back. It starts to rain and as our boat docks in Puno, but the chill is warded off by a lake­side bon­fire the train staff has set up, along­side warm­ing cups of hua­js­ap­ata: a hot drink of red wine, pisco, herbs and or­ange. A vi­o­lin­ist plays in the back­ground as we stare out onto the lake wait­ing for the sun to go down, ea­ger for an­other en­chant­ing evening trav­el­ling through the Andes.

HIGH­LAND DE­LIGHTS Clock­wise from top left: The ru­ins of Sac­say­hua­man, an In­can cit­del on the out­skirts of Cusco; the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer of­fers a gourmet menu de­vel­oped by Peru­vian chef Diego Muñoz; an llama looks up from its pas­ture be­low the snow­capped La Raya moun­tains—the high­est point of the jour­ney; a starter of lo­cally sourced corn and cheese; a girl from Uros is­lands; Muñoz demon­strates how to make ce­viche; the cab­ins, dec­o­rated mostly in earth tones, are ac­cented with colourful Peru­vian fab­rics

The view from a rus­tic hill­side stop on Taquile is­land, over­look­ing Lake Tit­i­caca

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