I found myself short of breath and having palpitations. I thought it must be the altitude.
I was in Cusco, Peru, about 11,000 feet above sea level, nervously sipping my mate de coca, a bitter tea made from coca leaves that takes a little getting used to but helped us adjust to the effects of the altitude. In reality, I was just excited to be going on a unique travel experience: the maiden voyage of The Belmond Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper train, by Peru Rail. Peru Rail also operates the Hiram Bingham, a luxury train that makes day trips from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
The Belmond Andean Explorer is pulled by two massive Peru Rail locomotives that haul its 18 wagons comfortably across the Andes. The train accommodates up to 48 passengers, providing a personal concierge approach with staff available to handle guests’ needs 24/7.
Passengers have three types of rooms to choose from, each with its own private bathroom and shower. There’s the ultra-spacious Double Bed Cabin (141 square feet), the Twin Bed Cabin (80 square feet) and the Bunk Bed Cabin (60 square feet). Also on the train are two large sit-down dining areas, a boutique, library, piano bar, cocktail lounge and an observation car with open-air seating that makes it easy to mingle, unwind and enjoy the breathtaking vistas and stunning Peruvian Andes.
At the station in Cusco, we were greeted by Lorenzo Sousa, chairman of Peru Rail, founder and major stockholder of Peru Belmond Hotels and my long-time friend, who invited me to take this trip. He made a warm welcoming speech and gave everyone a friendly handshake. Then the festivities began with a group of native dancers and musicians getting everyone in the mood to get aboard.
Inside the train, champagne was served, and we stopped to admire the design by Inge Moore from MUZA Lab of London. The interior was designed to connect with the Peruvian Andes. For example, Moore said, the colors and textures of Peruvian nature are seen in the soft ivory alpaca tones and the Andean slate greys and woven textures and handicrafts.
The train, built in the first half of the 20th century, was brought from Australia to Peru. Sousa had it renovated but kept the style of its early years. The decor, from lamp fixtures to the designs on the ceiling of the cabins, took me back to that era. I was quickly brought back to the present, though, because the Belmond Andean Explorer put every modern amenity at my fingertips — everything except Wi-Fi, but in the end, that didn’t matter.
Then the whistle of the train sounded while its engines roared, and suddenly everything began to move past our eyes.
Finally we were gliding along the Peru Rail, waving goodbye to the dancers and greeting new friends on board, sipping specialty drinks like pisco sours and Manhattan iced teas.
It seemed life could not get any better, but in the coming days, it would.
All the food on the train is gourmet. It is prepared by chef Diego Muñoz, one of Peru’s best, in collaboration with Belmond Hotel Monasterio, in Cusco. “We have taken every precaution to have not only the most delicious food on board, but to also be able to represent each region our guests will travel to,” Sousa said.
“Peru has to be experienced not only visually, but also through the palate. Our menu has been carefully made so that the food is not only delicious, but not so heavy, because when you are traveling to altitudes as high as 15,000 feet above sea level, the last thing you want to do is have your digestion interrupted.”
Its common for many people to feel the effects of the soroche — Peruvian for altitude sickness — because the train travels to such high elevations. For this the Belmond Andean Explorer has outfitted every room with an oxygen tank plus a nurse is on board around the clock as an extra precaution. I personally felt well all the time, probably because I have been crossing the Andes since I was a child.
The train offers several package trips — one-night and two-night adventures. I was on a two-night.
On the first day of our journey from Cusco, our first stop was Raqch’i, with its majestic ruins including the Temple of Wiracocha, which is believed to be the largest single roof structure in the Incan Empire. We were able to walk inside these marvels of architecture and experience how advanced the Incas were in urban planning. I had time to buy souvenirs from local artists and made it back to the train just in time for tea.
Tea was muña, an aromatic selection of Inca herbs that perfectly complemented the variety of sweet cakes that came with it.
Day 2 brought an early-morning call to catch the mesmerizing sunrise over Lake Titicaca before enjoying breakfast on board: two eggs over easy and a selection of local cheeses with Serrano bread. This bread is like the Inca focaccia except in smaller portions, and a bit sweeter and crunchier.
We left the train and took a boat ride to the famous floating islands of Titicaca and its inhabitants. We were greeted on shore by smiles, and the tour guide showed us the fascinating work the Uros (or Urus) do with totora, the grass twigs that are harvested from the lake and served to make the foundation of the islands.
Our journey continued to the incredible island of Taquile, where time has barely touched life. By now, I was really getting hungry, and just in time, we were treated to a typical Taquileño meal at the only restaurant on the island. This was an opportunity to savor fresh trout with home-grown steamed vegetables, fresh cheese, the traditional choclo (Peruvian giant corn), rocoto sauce (hot, very hot!) and the most incredible quinoa soup.
The restaurant is on top of a hill on Collate beach. Traditional dancers performed for the group while we took a short hike across the mountain back to the other side of the island (the walking helped after eating so much). Our boat was waiting, and in half an hour we arrived back at the Belmond Andean Explorer, just in time for tea.
I met many interesting people and had wonderfully engaging conversations. One was with Jorge Chavez, a famous economist from Peru; another was Augusto Larco, who was the life of the party with his great sense of humor and wit. I also met a young couple, Juan and Alexa, who not only danced but played instruments with the band.
We had a delicious dinner, local clay-baked pork over a bed of sweet applesauce, a delicious combination matched with a glass of Cabernet and capped off with ice cream made with lucuma — a Peruvian fruit — and served over a bed of melted chocolate. My day complete, I went to my cabin for a warm shower and some much-needed sleep.
Day 3: It was a 5 a.m. call for the brave ones among us who were willing to get out of bed, jump off the train and hike to Lake Saracocha to be completely blown away by the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever seen. This surreal living painting lasted only 20 minutes, but the colors and reflections were unforgettable.
After breakfast, we went to the Sumbay Caves. The weather was dry and hot, so I took a water bottle and prepared to hike down a canyon with our tour guide to visit the 8,000-year-old cave paintings.
Slowly walking back up, resting at times to catch my breath, I made it to the train for our final destination: Arequipa, called The White City for its enchanting white-stone buildings, antiquities and romance. Arequipa is one of the most important cities in Peru, known for incredible cuisine. One of the dishes I highly recommend is their traditional crawfish gumbo called chupe de camarones. It’s huge, so one regular portion can easily serve two people.
At Arequipa, the Belmond Andean Explorer came to its final stop. Our luggage was waiting for us at curbside. Sorry to go, we disembarked while musicians and dancers performed.
Hugs and exchanges of contact information were occurring when it suddenly hit me: All this time, I never thought about picking up my phone; there was no need for it. Sometimes, we don’t enjoy the moment because we feel we have to record it.
I would like to experience The Belmond Andean Explorer again. I will remember the images out my window, the colorful moving tapestries of land, meeting humble people who were warm and loving, enjoying the company of new friends, being pampered in every conceivable way by an attentive staff.
Here’s my advice: Use your phone only to take photos on the Belmond Andean Explorer. Keep everything else to yourself.
Marco Ruiz is an illustrator and infographics designer at the Miami Herald. A native of Lima, Peru, he has visited more than 50 countries.
If you go
Getting there: Book a 5-hour flight to Lima, Peru, the gastronomical capital of the Americas, and stay in the Miraflores District overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This city of 11 million people has many fantastic neighborhoods to explore, including the bohemian Barranco district, the residential and financial San Isidro district, and the restaurant-heavy Miraflores District, where you will find many of the famous Peruvian cevicherias.
If time permits, dive into Lima’s historic center. It is very compact, which makes it great for exploring on foot. Plaza de Armas is the beating heart of the downtown, and within a two-block radius you’ll find enough sites and attractions to keep you busy for the whole day. You can start off with Lima Cathedral, which dates back to 1535. From there you can walk to the Government Palace, which is the official residence of Peru’s president. If you time your visit just right, you can watch the changing of the guard, which happens at noon. Just a few blocks from Lima Cathedral you’ll find the Monastery of San Francisco, which is one of the coolest sites with its catacombs in the historic center.
Then take a 50-minute flight to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire and UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can see Inca sites and colonial Spanish architecture.
Andean Explorer Journeys: Peruvian Highlands (Cusco-Lake Titicaca-Arequipa): 2 nights; departs Thursday mornings from Cusco. Andean Plains and Island of Discovery (Arequipa-Lake Titicaca- Cusco): 2 nights; departs Saturday evenings from Arequipa. Spirit of the Water (Cusco-Puno): 1 night; departs Tuesday mornings from Cusco. Spirit of the Andes (Puno-Cusco): 1 night; departs Wednesdays midday from Puno. Prices range from $380 to $2,065 per person double occupancy.
Train contact info and reservations: www.perurail.com/trains/belmond-andean-explorer/
When to go: The Belmond Andean Explorer train does not run in February. Peak season is from June to August, which is during the dry season (April to November). The Peruvian Andes experience mild winter weather. It is warm during the day, dropping to the low 50s or high 40s at night. During the Peruvian summer (December-February), you can expect warm weather and occasional cloudiness and rain.
Where to stay: In Cusco, try the legendary Belmond Hotel Monasterio (www.belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco), which was built in the 15th century and houses an impressive art collection, or the adjacent Belmond Palacio Nazarenas (www.belmond.com/palacio-nazarenas-cusco), a former convent with impressive views and an incredible pool and spa. Both hotels are equipped with oxygenated rooms for you to sleep comfortably at 11,000 feet above sea level. You should also take a 45-minute car trip from Cusco to the Sacred Valley to visit Inca historical sites like Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Pisac. Don’t forget to take the Hiram Bingham train to visit Machu Picchu.
In Arequipa among the best hotels are the Casa Andina Premium, located at the heart of the city in a sixteenth century colonial mansion (www.casa-andina.com/en/destinations/arequipa/hotel-arequipa-peru_casa-andina-premium/), the Casa Andina Select at the main plaza (www.casa-andina.com/en/destinations/arequipa/casa-andina-select-arequipa/) and the Hotel Libertador (www.libertador.com.pe/en/hotel/libertador-arequipa-hotel/).