All aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer, one of the highest train routes in the world that travels through the Andes

 
Lizzie Pook

South America’s first luxury sleeper train traverses Peru’s high Andes along one of the highest train routes in the world. Lizzie Pook packs her altitude sickness tablets and checks in.

It’s 2am and there’s a loud, metallic clank outside my train cabin.

I’d be alarmed, but I already know what it is: oxygen tanks. The on-board nurse, Mary, is hauling them from room to room, filling the lungs of those travelers who are finding the crushing headaches and abject dizziness that come with altitude sickness a bit too much to handle at this time of night. We’re 13,000ft up in the high Andes.

At this elevation, skittish camelids are preyed on by elusive mountain lions and giant condors glide effortlessly on thermals. Even in the middle of the night, the thought of what might be just outside my window is exhilarating.

I boarded the Belmond Andean Explorer at a tiny, restored station just outside of Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. Under the cloak of darkness, and to a fanfare of jaunty panpipes, I entered the liveried carriages, moonlight bouncing off their midnight blue and brass exterior.

The journey, from Arequipa to Cusco – the former capital of the Incan Empire – would take almost three days, winding through craggy canyons and vertiginous mountain paths, climbing to a staggering 14,000ft; an altitude that can floor some Olympic athletes.

Inside, the train – which used to barrel along Australia’s east coast, before it was shipped across the Pacific to be refurbished by Peru Rail – comprises 24 cabins, a piano bar, two dining carts and a soon-to-be-added spa carriage.

The décor is, of course, luxurious: brass luggage racks, art nouveau detailing and creamy leather, topped with locally-inspired dangly pom-poms and neon rainbow textiles. Cabins come in four denominations, from bunk bed rooms to deluxe cabins, all with bijou, parquet-floored bathrooms.

On board, I spend mornings and evenings being attended to by the train’s 50 staff – a perky, professional lot who wear Wes Anderson-style uniforms and serve up intriguing local dishes, from river trout ceviche to alpaca tortellini (all washed down with lashings of coca tea, a brew made from the raw ingredient in cocaine, which helps ward off altitude sickness, or ‘soroche’).

The journey, from Arequipa to Cusco – the former capital of the Incan Empire – would take almost three days, winding through craggy canyons and vertiginous mountain paths, climbing to a staggering 14,000ft; an altitude that can floor some Olympic athletes.

My first night’s sleep onboard is, let’s say, ‘fitful’ (as well as stonking headaches, soroche causes dehydration and, as I realise in the small hours when I go to the bathroom for yet more water, disconcertingly blue lips). Still, there’s something intrepid about being in the mountains in the darkness, so I make a point of sleeping with the blinds open.

At around 3am, I stir from sleep and I’m greeted by a Narnia-esque vista, as high winds whip soft billows of snow around the inky outlines of white-capped mountains, presided over by a dense blanket of stars. It feels like a dream.


A cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer

The next morning I wake up at the foot of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. I say “foot”, because locals say the lake is formed in the shape of a ‘fearsome’ puma pursuing a rabbit, and we’re parked up somewhere near the rear left paw.

I disembark and take a boat to the floating reed islands of Uros, built and still inhabited by a civilization that pre-dates the Incans. We’re greeted with cheery, traditional song as the Uros’ technicolor outfits shine against straw huts and totora reeds. I’m given a hut-building demonstration, before tentatively passing around one of the rusty hand-made rifles they use to ‘make dinner’ (i.e. shoot a nearby heron, cormorant or flamingo for the pot).

We leave to a parade-route of warm handshakes and it strikes me that the Uros really do have the best kind of private island: buoyant, so if a pesky neighbour irritates them, they can simply cut off their patch of reeds and float off down the lake.

We spend the afternoon feasting on pico de gallo, cocktail potatoes and fresh river trout on Taquile Island, a picturesque birdwatcher’s paradise that looks out over Lake Titicaca to the huge glaciers of Bolivia. Here, petroglyphs dating back to 1000BC nestle in the mountains (brilliant, if you have the constitution for the hike), and there are the remains of a pre Inca temple on the island; if you look hard enough you’ll find tiny shards of pottery, gold and lapis luzuli strewn across the ground.

Later that evening, the train rumbles boisterously through market towns and street parties. At one point, I notice the feathers from a man’s traditional hat bobbing up and down outside my window, followed by the instruments of a seven-piece brass band.

As night falls and streetlights dwindle, we start to descend through alpaca farmland and I watch in awe as electrical storms play out dramatically in the distance. (The Andes has some of the most unstable weather on the planet, meaning storms and blizzards can erupt, in magnificent fashion, at any time).

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By bedtime my headache has reached ghoulish proportions, but the train is blissfully stationary from midnight. When dawn breaks, the sun illuminates a breathtaking misty valley, filled with sheep, chicken and alpacas. From here, I disembark to explore Raqchi, a towering Incan temple. Around here, sitting high up in the mountain crags, you’ll find sites of human sacrifice and deep holes that pockmark the cliff faces – old looted tombs where the Incans used to store their mummies.


The Belmond Andean Explorer

On our final afternoon, the train snakes lazily alongside the top end of the Amazon river, as it rumbles towards Cusco. While the Andean Explorer is undeniably luxurious, really the best thing about it won’t cost a thing: the view.

The best way to take it all in is just to stand in the breeze on the observation deck as the train winds through the Andean paths, past fast flowing rivers, soaring eagles and snow-topped mountain peaks shining in the sun. There really is no better way to travel.

The Belmond Andean Explorer (belmond.com) two-night ‘Andean Plains and Islands of Discovery’ journey from Arequipa to Cusco costs from $1,405 (approx. £1,070) per person based on two sharing a cabin on a full board basis including activities, tours and an open bar.

British Airways (britishairways.com) offers flights from Gatwick to Lima from £658 return.

For more information on Peru go to peru.travel

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