It’s that infinitely beautiful moment between day and night, when the shadows draw long, the air grows still, and the last lingering light drains from the sky, to be replaced by a canopy of southern stars. And there’s no better place to watch this transition than high in the Peruvian Andes, a mug of piping hot almond milk in hand, a baby alpaca shawl around the shoulders, and ancient, ice-capped peaks dominating the darkening horizon.
I’m travelling on the Belmond Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury overnight train, and this brief stretch of the legs is taking place on the crown of the La Raya Pass, at 4,343 metres above sea level, the highest point on the train’s two-night, 700-kilometre-long Peruvian Highlands itinerary. After exploring the tiny trackside chapel and posing for selfies in the creeping shadows of the Andes, the train’s guests clamber aboard again, congregating in the open-air observation car for as long as they can weather the chilly night air as the train curls its way through deep valleys on its decent towards Lake Titicaca.
“There’s nothing quite like being at the top of the world,” says train manager Christopher Mendoza as we finally retreat into the warmth of the bar car and make our way towards dinner. “Maybe it’s the air, maybe it’s the lack of air.”
Luxury rail travel has been slow to arrive in South America.
While the rest of the world is falling in love with luxury trains all over again, South America’s rail journeys have been, until now, either short and sweet or long and arduous. Belmond (formerly Orient Express) pioneered the contemporary train experience in Peru when it launched the Hiram Bingham, a luxury day train that climbs between the Incan capital of Cusco and the ruins at Machu Picchu, in 1999. Belmond now links its luxurious hotels and remote retreats – including Sanctuary Lodge, the only accommodation at Machu Picchu – by rail, allowing travellers the chance to marvel at the Incan ruins, enjoy a few days in Cusco, then visit Puno and the volcano-wreathed city of Arequipa by train during four one- or two-night itineraries.
The Peruvian Highlands itinerary is the best of the lot. Like many of my fellow guests I had arrived early in Cusco, checking in at Belmond’s Hotel Monasterio, a breathtaking house of slumber set within in a former monastery dating from 1592, to acclimatize to the altitude of the world’s second highest plateau. The next morning the train, resplendent in midnight blue and piano key ivory, departed the ancient city’s Wanchaq Station with the pageantry of an ocean liner, traditional dancers swirling their vibrant blue dresses as they performed the Peruvian Marinera Norteña courting dance, children in colourful woollen caps waving from the trackside as we chugged southeast, diving into deep terraced valleys, Andean condors circling gracefully high above.
In many ways, the Belmond Andean Explorer bridges eras in rail travel. Formerly Australia’s Great South Pacific Express, a Belmond train which ran between Sydney and Kuranda in Queensland from 1999 until 2003, the train was shipped to Peru and reimagined by interior designer Inge Moore of London’s Muza Lab. She retained many elements of the Aussie train, which was itself designed around the glamorous heyday of rail travel in Europe. Molded facades, original chandeliers, gleaming art deco-inspired air vents, ornate mahogany panelling; marquetry floors, and vintage light switches that survived the refit to light another day all tell of the timelessness of life on the tracks.
Despite the nod to the past, the Belmond Andean Explorer, which caters to just 48 guests across 24 cabins, is unashamedly contemporary and luxurious; pots of muña tea, to relieve altitude sickness; additional baby alpaca shawls for those chilly alpine nights; or even an indulgent refill of your cabin’s personal oxygen tank is only ever a push of a button away. My junior suite features a double bed, twin armchairs and throw cushions in vibrant blue and persimmon, and a pair of large picture windows, the landscapes beyond which mesmerize for hours – you can bring a good book on your journey but I’ll wager it never makes it out of your carry-on.
There’s a clutch of excursions along the route that help break up hours swaying and bouncing down Peru’s undulating tracks. A few hours after leaving Cusco guests explore the Incan ruins at Raqchi, and in the vast desert outside Arequipa we climb down from the train to gaze upon the 7,000-year-old rock paintings of the Sumbay Caves.
In Puno, the train’s silver tongued excursion manager Ari rouses the willing to catch a staggering sunrise over Lake Titicaca before we depart on a whole day excursion that visits the Uros people, famed for their floating totora reed villages; and the idyllic, Unesco-listed island of Taquile, where guests dine on locally grown quinoa and lake trout, and gaze at the glaciers of neighbouring Bolivia from vintage cane chairs salvaged from the Great South Pacific Express.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” exclaims a Miami-based music executive travelling with his young family. “Peru has been on my list for so many years and the launch of this train was the perfect excuse to finally pull the trigger.”
The wonder of the destination extends to the train’s two elegant dining rooms, where waiters in chic uniforms, complete with stylish leather suspenders, serve the Peruvian cuisine of executive chef Diego Muñoz. From lingering breakfasts served as the train rides the soaring ridges above Saracocha, and sun-kissed lunches backdropped by the three volcanic peaks which ring the White City of Arequipa, each meal is a symphony of flavours and textures that tells a story of Peruvian tradition and innovation. Highlights on our journey include seared seabass with Andean mint-scented broad beans; cara cara, a local citrus, poached with cardamom and thyme; and, for the intrepid, al dente alpaca tortellini.
The fine dining, the military-like precision of the staff, and the other worldly landscapes of the highlands make leaving the train in Arequipa rather painful, but we’re content in the knowledge that finally fellow slow travel lovers can explore this unique destination as travellers have for centuries, one stretch of track at a time.
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Where to go when: Autumn 2017