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.
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 longtime friend, who invited me to take this trip.
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.
All the food on the train is gourmet. It is prepared by chef Diego Munoz, 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.
It’s 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.
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.
Day 2 brought an early-morning call to catch the mesmerizing sunrise over Lake Titicaca.
We left the train and took a boat ride to the famous floating islands of Titicaca and its inhabitants.
A highlight was the incredible island of Taquile, where time has barely touched life. We were treated to a typical Taquileno meal at the only restaurant on the island. Traditional dancers performed for the group while we took a short hike across the mountain back to the other side of the island. Our boat was waiting, and in half an hour we arrived back at the Belmond Andean Explorer, just in time for tea.
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.
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. Sometimes, we don’t enjoy the moment because we feel we have to record it.