Note: This is an account of a journey on the Andean Explorer in August 2015. In 2017, PeruRail introduced a luxury train with sleeping cars called the Belmond Andean Explorer on a Cusco-Puno-Arequipa route. The daytime route described in this article was renamed Titicaca.
Around 1:30pm, PeruRail’s northbound Andean Explorer coming from Puno pulled into La Raya Pass. At 4,319 m or 14,170′ above sea level, this pass through the Andes was the high point of the rail journey (not to mention the trip as a whole, flights notwithstanding).
Although I’d been disappointed that this section of the Andes was less spectacular than the Cordillera Real visible from Lake Titicaca, La Raya did feature one impressive snow-capped peak, Chimpulla. Actually, I don’t recall being especially captivated with it. Ranges like the Andes and Himalayas are in a class all their own. In my experience, visiting the Andes quickly numbed me to mountains that I would have found jaw-dropping anywhere else in the world. If it were located in North America, Chimpulla—towering about 5,489 m or 18,009′ above sea level—would be tied for the rank of fourth highest mountain on the entire continent. In the Andes—a range with more than one hundred mountains exceeding 6,000 m in height—Chimpulla is small fry; Wikipedia ranks it 242nd.
An old church sat just above the tracks. The crew announced we would have ten minutes to stretch our legs and browse wares at a small market run by local artisans. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was even worth their while setting up for the brief visits of six to eight passenger trains a week; a road also spans the pass, so I suspect they may have moved up to the road once the Andean Explorers departed.
The train got underway again around 1:45pm, making a fairly steep descent from the pass.
Once at a slightly lower elevation, the terrain was noticeably different than during the first half of our journey. The land seemed generally more lush, with occasional stands of trees. Settlements were also more common, many surrounded by agricultural fields.
The train arrived in the large town of San Pedro around 2:45pm. Children cheerfully waved to the train as we pulled into the town’s rail yard. The yard hosted a number of PeruRail railcars. There was even an old turntable, something I’d only seen before in rail museums in the United States. Like many towns in Peru, people had arranged rocks into letters on hillsides. Oddly enough, San Pedro’s read “USA”. Another curious detail were the Olympic rings mounted on a large building near the yard. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask the train crew if they could shed any light on these mysteries.
The scenery after San Pedro was quite nice, with a dramatic interplay of sun and shadows on the surrounding mountains.
The excellent light was perfect for both color and infrared photos; below are two taken within moments of one another.
Around 3:30pm the rail line pulled alongside a small river. I didn’t realize it at that time, but this was my first view of a river that would become quite familiar during our Inca Trail trek. The river is known by many names—Willkamayu, Willkanuta, río Vilcanota, río Urubamba—depending on the observer’s location and choice of Quechua, Aymara, or Spanish names. The Quechua name translates as “Sacred River” and it flows through the Sacred Valley of the Incas past Machu Picchu.
The railroad followed the Urubamba for a considerable distance, the river getting wider as it wound through the mountains. Around this time, in a reversal of the situation atop cerro El Calvario, a group of French-speaking tourists asked me to take their picture.
“Say cheese,” I said. Rachel gently chided me for my cultural imperialism. I thought for a moment.
“Dites fromage,” I said (actually, I think I screwed up the conjugation and said “dit”). Whether amused by my literal translation or my butchering of their language, they laughed. Mission accomplished.
The PeruRail crew did their best to keep the passengers entertained during the long afternoon. At one point they brought a mini cake out to celebrate a young girl’s birthday. There was a bartending class for making the pisco sour, a fashion show (the crew modeling fine woolen goods which were available for sale afterward), and a performance by another group of entertainers (presumably from Cusco, since they made fun of the morning’s Puno group).
At one point their dancer made a round through the lounge car inviting men and the birthday girl to dance. With most of the men she was doing the leading. I’m actually a salsero myself and succeeded in leading her through a couple of turns.
Around 5:30pm, northwest of Caicay, the railroad parted ways with the río Urubamba. Most of the valley was already in shadow as we returned to our coach seats for tea. On the outskirts of a small village, a family was flying a pair of kites and cheerfully waved at the train. Not long after, a dog took off after the train, doubtless not giving any thought to the implications of what actually catching it would entail.
Only some of the distant mountains retained the warm glow of fading sunlight, and in time they too were only visible as silhouettes against the blue hour sky.
Around 6:00pm or so we began creeping through the outskirts of Cusco, by far the largest city on the journey. The train pulled into Cusco’s Wanchaq station, near the historic center. This is not the same station used by travelers from Cusco to Machu Picchu. There’s no interchange between the lines; the tracks aren’t even the same gauge (Cusco to Puno is standard gauge, and Cusco to Machu Picchu narrow gauge). PeruRail’s trains to Machu Picchu don’t even depart from downtown Cusco these days, with travelers instead catching trains from the town of Poroy to the northwest.
The Andean Explorer arrived at about 6:20pm, although the crew asked us to stay aboard the train until our luggage was unloaded, a process which took another ten minutes or so. I noticed that this year, the route has a scheduled duration of 10.5 hours rather than 10 like when we rode it; I guess there were too many late trains! After picking up our backpacks, we caught a taxi to the Peru Treks office to check in for our Inca Trail trek departing in 36 hours’ time.
Date: Monday, August 17, 2015
Distance: 385 km (240 miles)
Train: PeruRail #19 Andean Explorer
Equipment: MLW DL560 locomotive #653 and vintage passenger cars
Performance: On-time departure from Puno 8:01am, arrival 20 min late Cusco 6:20pm (duration 10 hours, 19 min)
Cost per mile: $0.70/mile