The new Belmond Andean Explorer

Andean Adventure

Belmond raises the bar on South American train travel

BY ELAINE GLUSAC | PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD JAMES TAYLOR

The new Belmond Andean Explorer sleeper train isn't just a hotel on wheels - or rails, to be specific. It's an intrepid conveyor, pioneering new routes. Witness one bright morning in Juliaca, a bustling city of about 200,000 people midway between Peru's colonial capitals of Arequipa and Cusco. Here in the altiplano, or high plains, the outdoor market has spilled from track-side stalls to displays - of fat lemons, bags of coca leaves, charred guinea pigs, tight knobs of garlic, children's primers, and rusted bicycle parts - bivouacked atop the tracks, all of which the train clears by inches on a slow roll through town as vendors go scampering. The passage puts me and other passengers within a conductor's arm's length of the goods.

Carrying 48 guests between the two colonial capitals, South America's first luxury sleep train covers roughly 300 miles on two-night itineraries with sightseeing stops at Andes viewpoints, Inca ruins, and Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake. A shorter, one-night journey travels between Cusco and Puno.

For all its color, Juliaca offers few lodgings above backpacker standards, and travel in the surrounding altiplano largely depends on long-distance buses. The train, with 24 cabins, two dining cars, a lounge, and an outdoor observation deck, fills a luxury-hotel void in the high plains and elevates transit options across the sweeping plateau, where Andean farmers in traditional dress herd sheep and thresh wheat by hand.

"I have a hotel in Puno, Cusco, and Arequipa," laughs Javier Carlavilla, the train's amiable general manager, naming the route's principal cities. "But it's more than transportation. It's a tour too."

Formerly known as Orient Express, Belmond has a long history of operating luxury sleeper trains in Europe. Launched in May, the South American train extends the company's network in Peru - where it runs several luxury hotels, as well as trains to Machu Picchu - and expands the popular Lima-Cusco-Machu Picchu tourism circuit to include the altiplano.

On a recent two-night run from Arequipa to Cusco, I join my fellow passengers - Americans, Australians, Brazilians, and Japanese - for a leisurely 9 p.m. dinner of alpaca tortellini and Chilean wines as the train slips into the inky night. After arroz con leche (rice pudding), I wrap myself in a baby alpaca blanket generously supplied in the caboose lounge and step out onto the open-air deck to watch the landscape spool under the full moon, illuminating shallow rivers, snow-draped peaks, and one smoking volcano.

The next morning, our onboard guide for the journey, Americo Romainville, explains, "The altiplano is a chance to see traditional mountain life and how geography shaped those traditions," as he points out black potatoes dehydrating for winter storage and locals loading sheaves of hay on llamas, which withstand the altitude better than horses.

Reaching Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, we disembark harbor-side to board a boat for the floating islands of Uros. Made of lakebed turf and spongy reeds, the community of habitable rafts predates the Spanish conquest. A second stop, on the more distant island of Taquile, introduces indigenous Quechua weavers, men who skillfully knit hats that indicate their marital status. But for the island's ancient agricultural terraces, the panorama of aqua shallows, blond beaches, and distant mountains resembles, on this cloudless day, the Mediterranean.

Aside from its scheduled stops, the train itself is an attraction, decorated in Peruvian textiles, vintage portraits by the indigenous photographer Martín Chambi, and Andean butterflies pinned in shadowbox frames. Spacious by train standards, suites accommodate double beds with room for slippers left at turndown on either side. Smaller quarters range down to bunk beds, and all feature en-suite bathrooms with ample stall showers. A staff nurse rides along to administer oxygen from tanks supplied in each cabin in the event of altitude sickness, a possibility for the unacclimated as the train travels between 7,600 and 14,100 feet.

From private quarters to the quiet piano bar and the convivial observation lounge, panoramic windows frame the moving landscape like an endless National Geographic documentary. Flocks of Chilean flamingos wading in canyon-carving rivers punctuate the ochre vistas of mud-brick houses, shaggy haystacks, and copper-rich hillsides in conspicuous rosy clusters, matched only by bowler-hatted women in vibrant tiered skirts.

Travel in remote Peru can be a gamble, one my party lost when a teachers' strike threatened to close the tracks - protesters often aim to disrupt tourism, one of the country's principal industries, in order to get the government's attention. The potential threat forces us to skip a scheduled stop at Raqch'i, an Inca trading center known for its conical storehouses, but I happily spend the last afternoon snapping shots of llama herds, the snaking Urubamba River, and children eagerly waving to the train en route to Cusco.

There, vans would whisk most passengers, many with onward plans to the nearby Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, to one of Belmond's two hotels. Trips in the opposite direction deposit travelers in colonial Arequipa, an uncommercial version of Cusco, filled with pale stone churches and encircled by snowcapped volcanoes.

But for now, waiters bearing trays of pisco sours make the rounds as the sun drops behind the mountains and the Southern Cross appears in the sky.

"Would you like another drink?" asks one. "Why not? You are not driving tonight."

INFO: Two-night trips aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer start at $1,225 per person, double occupancy, all-inclusive. 800-524-2420, belmond.com

LODGING TIP: WHEN OVERNIGHTING IN THE CAPITAL

Hopping aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer generally requires spending a night in Lima, Peru's international gateway, before heading off to your departure city. A good lodging option in the Peruvian capital: the Country Club Lima Hotel, originally built as a private club, in the leafy San Isidro neighborhood. Newly remodeled for its 90th birthday, the historic hotel offers a chance to mingle with Limeños. The atmospheric, 1927-vintage property, filled with more than 300 colonial-era paintings, has long been popular with locals for weddings and special occasions as well as its pisco sour cocktail hour in the clubby English Bar. Its 83 modernized rooms retain historic touches via period art and woodwork. Guests have access to the private 18-hole golf course across the street. From $224. 011-51-1-611-9000, hotelcountry.com

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