A blast of the whistle. A wave of the green flag. Belmond Andean Explorer sets off on its first adventure from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa in Peru.
Soaring along the world's highest train route, Rosh Mahtani looks back at the inaugural journey of the Belmond Andean Explorer.
AROUND ME, EYES sparkle as they steal a glimpse of the approaching train. “That’s it, there it is!” Childlike gasps and excitement fill the air as it inches closer. The gleaming blue and white carriages pull into Cusco, high in the mountains of Peru. This is the Belmond Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper train. And I am among the first to step on board.
Before the train even begins to move, I am transported. The seductive jazz notes of its Piano Bar make me feel like I have travelled back into the glamorous 1920s. My mind wanders to the journey ahead, through Peru’s rich and varied cultures and landscapes.
OUR GRAND TOUR BEGINS
Along from the Piano Bar car, mahogany dining cars and carriages, each named after the region’s flora, are uniquely exquisite. Decked in a smart white blazer, train manager Christopher proudly escorts us to our cabins. This is luxury reminiscent of the Grand Tour: beside a large double bed, an alpaca-coloured armchair invites me to curl up with a book as the world glides by beyond the panoramic bedroom window. That’s if I can stay away from the Observation Deck, of course, with its unparalleled views of the unfolding mountains.
As the train pulls out of the station, I see several small towns dotted along the tracks. Women are dressed in tiered skirts of vivid colours. Families hurry to wave us off and watch the shiny new carriages glide past. Just a few hours from the ornate Spanish architecture of Cusco, we are weaving our way through the Andes, climbing up to La Raya mountain range at some 4,338 metres in the sky. The towns fade away and I am engrossed in the natural beauty that encircles me. The altiplano is alive with ichu—mountain grass that sustains the herds of llamas punctuating the vast expanse.
It is impossible not to be carried away by the magic of it all. Dinner, created by executive chef Diego Muñoz, is a landscape of its own. A starter of freshwater prawns is followed by beef tenderloin that rests on a cloud of pumpkin cream.
SPARKLING WATERS, VAST PLAINS
Each morning sun greets me, glistening over an entirely different scene from the one I saw the night before. Walter, my guide, is eager to show off the Uros Islands that float on mighty Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest navigable body of water. Made entirely of reeds, the Uros are home to one of the first groups to populate the Andes. This history is palpable when we take an excursion by boat, and the Uru people generously greet us with traditional songs. The island’s president points out some of the region’s birds, while the women weave intricate tapestries. After a day out on the water, pisco sours await under a canopy of stars on the Observation Deck. Only the soporific motion of the train draws our old-world cocktail party to a blissful close.
Bound for the white city of Arequipa, the final day aboard brings new sights. I see vicuñas grazing alongside the Explorer; open plains are followed by the twinkling Lagunillas Lake. At sunset, I alight for an al fresco cooking lesson with Diego. Like a magician, he dices the fish with the lime and chilli, and you can almost hear the ingredients come together in the bowl. I eat ceviche on the train tracks. It’s both poetic and thrilling.
WHERE THE CONDOR FLIES
How will I ever be able to reacclimatise to terra firma after such an extraordinary three days? Belmond Las Casitas—the brand’s newest hotel—offers the perfect oasis in which to transition back into the earth-bound world. Nestled in the breathtaking gorge of the Colca Canyon, I slumber in a private casita. I succumb to the plunge pool’s invitation before entering the spa. Somehow, the adventure is not over: along the canyon lie rustic churches and little towns to discover, with markets selling Peruvian needlework and giant corn on the cob. The next day, a dream is realised as I wake up to the sight of the majestic condor—messenger of the gods—soaring to the backdrop of the striking pre-Inca terraces.
In a world where speed is glorified and a traveller is constantly looking for the fastest way to move from place to place, the Belmond Andean Explorer creates an experience that is the destination. This is not a just a train journey. It is a magnificent waltz to the tune of clinking champagne glasses and sultry live music in the glamorous high skies.