Peru Part Two: Midnight Train to Cusco

Train ride Belmond

(You’re reading Part Two of my Peruvian adventure. For part one, click here.)

After this trip, I’ve made up my mind that I will find a way to travel by train as much as possible. Of course, we got rather spoiled with this particular train created by Belmond, a hotel and leisure company that includes resorts, river safaris, and of course- luxurious train rides. They are the same company that has reopened the Orient Express (which is next on my list of train trips to take) and are known for their attention to detail and impeccable customer service.

Needless to say, our experience did not disappoint.

Night One: Champagne Send Off

 

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We arrived at the Arequipa train station around 7 PM, though it felt much later to us (the winter sun set around 4:30 in Arequipa, and we had walked all over the city that day so were rather exhausted).  The entire station is cleared out for only Belmond Andean Explorer passengers, and tables with white table cloths were set up, while in one corner two musicians were playing Peruvian music. We were quickly approached by the director of ceremonies, who warmly welcomed us and gathered some logistical information – which bags we were storing and which ones were being carried aboard, allergies or medical issues, and (most importantly) preferences on our first drink.

As the other passengers filtered into the station, we sipped on our mulled wine and observed the people around us. We began attempting to guess what country each couple or group was from (we ended up guessing only about half of them correctly, but we always could spot an American or German from a mile away). After everyone had arrived, we began embarking on the train….by walking on a red carpet illuminated by candlelight. I could feel myself preening and reverting to my old rehearsed “pageant stance” for our departure pictures they took of each couple. I knew if this kind of luxury continued, I was going to be absolutely insufferable by the next morning.

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We entered the first car of the train and immediately stepped back in time 100 years.  The train was decorated in beautiful Victorian white wood trim and plush floral benches, with crystal sparkling and candlelight dancing. We were all led into the piano bar, where a gorgeous baby grand was being played and liberal pours of champagne were being passed out. Every single person had their phones out, recording and taking selfies and cheers-ing Boomerangs. We were in Instagram heaven, and no filter was required.

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getting the champagne ready

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all the selfies

The entire train staff introduced themselves, including the onboard masseuse (!!), the waiters, bartenders, tour guides, and nurses. We were then given a rundown of our itinerary for the next few days and then invited to settle into our cabins for a bit before dinner began.

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We had decided to splurge on our room and reserved a junior suite instead of the standard, twin bed cabins, and I’m really thankful we did – that extra twelve square feet of space seriously made all the difference. Though even the suite was rather petite, it was beautifully decorated and cozy, and surprisingly space-efficient. We quickly changed out of our dusty clothes into something more presentable before heading toward the dining cart.

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Y’all, the food in this train was absolutely impeccable. We felt like we were in a Michelin starred restaurant with every meal, which was such a shame because we did not have the most ravenous appetites (damn you Diamox). The presentation was so beautiful, and they created unique twists on traditional Peruvian meals – we enjoyed an endless supply of maize, lamb, and seafood on this train, all paired with wine and Pisco Sours.

While enjoying our first meal, we began to make small talk with the two groups besides us, one German (we guessed it right!) and the other from Chile. As the wine flowed freely, we began to discuss our respective careers – turns out, four out of the six of us were all dentists! Of course, we began to all bond (get it, dentists?) over dental procedures and technologies and how they differed from country to country (nitrous gas is apparently quite new in Germany, for example).  Over the course of the meal, conversation flowed to our other travel adventures. Nils and Dorit (the Germans), who are empty nesters and taking full advantage of Europe’s generous paid vacation time, recently went on a safari train through several countries in Africa, and camped out in the desert for a week. They were planning to hike the Inca Trail once they had gotten to Cusco. Clearly, they were not amateurs. It was an enchanted evening, and our group was the last to leave the dinner cart long after everyone else had gone to bed.

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Our Chilean friends insisted on a picture of us as the pianist played “Midnight Train to Georgia” !

…which, to be honest, I’m thankful I didn’t waste time trying to go to sleep early, as that first night of train travel we were ascending several thousand feet in elevation. The night was bumpy and I spent most of the night tossing and turning and grimacing when the wine glasses on the side table clanged against one another. As luxurious as the train is, when you’re train is chugging up a mountain, you’re not going to have a restful slumber.

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We woke to the sunrise over Puno, bleary-eyed and dizzy, though we weren’t sure if that was from the wine or the elevation. After a double dose of caffeine and another elaborate breakfast, we headed out of the train and onto our waiting boat for a day trip to the famous Floating Islands.

 

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Day Two: Floating Islands of Uros, Isla Taquile

 

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The Uros civilization pre-dates the Incas, and many centuries ago they moved to their floating islands as a defensive measure from invaders – if their territory was threatened, they could simply move. The islands are made out of reeds called Tortua – the dense root beds of these reeds help stabilize the island, though the top layer must continually be replaced as it rots after a couple of weeks.  There are countless islands in Lake Titicaca, which by the way is an incredibly large body of water. Each island serves as its own community with its leader and each person is responsible for a certain role, whether it is gathering food, sewing clothes or maintaining the reeds. They are considered a cultural institution for Peru, and the mayor recently installed solar panels on each island to help them modernize their community while staying true to their culture.

 

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Getting a tour (and a reed boat ride!) with the locals, though probably quite touristy, was also incredibly fascinating to me. I truly felt like I was on the other side of the world – I had never seen anything like this before.

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After the floating islands, we returned to our more modern boat for a trip out to the Isla Taquile, another ancient civilization whose people were known for their talent in textiles and weaving. A group of locals prepared us a delicious lunch of soup, fish with rice and plantains, and of course, more corn. We also sipped on the famous coca tea, said to help with elevation sickness and indigestion. Honestly, I just thought it tasted good when I put a lot of sugar in it, but I suppose it made me feel better as well.

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storm rolling in

Our guide, while hiking with us around the island, also discussed the important connection these cultures had with the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the respect they gave to the land. He also had us reenact some of the “gratitude” rituals that the pre-Incans also supposedly still perform. This part felt a little silly (and at times, almost disrespectful to the community) by reenacting their ancient customs, but it was still interesting to learn.  Afterwards, we headed back in our boat to the mainland which would take over an hour (I told you the Lake was big!). Some afternoon storms cropped up on our ride back to the train, and I’m not going to lie when I say the choppiness of the trip back made me more than a little anxious. Charles rolled his eyes at me and promptly fell asleep, but I was not the only passenger to feel a little seasick. Needless to say I was thankful to head back to solid ground!

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Puno’s weather had chilled in the afternoon, and we were all shivering as we headed into another glamorous train station, this time outfitted with a fireplace and a first class tea presentation, where we quickly warmed up and decompressed from the stressful ride. We then headed back onto the train for a solid power nap, followed by cocktails and conversation in the “observation cart.” The elevation had steadied, and now our journey was infinitely smoother and more pleasant.  As the sun set down, we traveled through both countryside and town mains streets, and began another evening full of wine and deep conversations.

 

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At this point, we had found another couple with our group (Canadian and seemingly around our same age), and the female was a hygienist! It was destiny for us all to end up on the same train together.  Needless to say, we had another late night of deep conversations, flowing from religion to literature to politics without missing a beat. To me, this part of our trip was my favorite part of our journey, and not even because of the glamour of the train (though that didn’t hurt) – it was the friendships and connections we found with people who lived on opposite sides of the world.  We learned so much about Chile, western Canada, and northern Germany by spending time with these couples – and isn’t that the whole point of travel? To gain more understanding, more knowledge, and more empathy and communion with your fellow man? To see the world through a bigger lens?

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drinks in the observation cart

Day Three: Ruins at Raqch’i and Departure

After a night of legitimately peaceful sleep, we stopped at an ancient Incan site near Cusco called Raqch’i.  Functioning as a control point as the Incan empire expanded, exploring these ruins gave us an introduction to the many ruins we would be exploring in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The Incans were clearly methodical and diligent workers, as many of their constructions had incredibly stable foundations and designs, and many buildings were still in tact despite time and trauma.

We then spent our last couple of hours enjoying the company of our friends on the train as we wound our way through the mountains and entered Cusco. Over Pisco Sours and yet another four course lunch, we replayed our adventures over the past 48 hours as well as our plans moving forward into the Sacred Valley. The couples who were planning the full Inca Trail trek were preparing their hiking gear and arranging their meetups with their trail guides, while Charles and I were planning to meet our tour guide for the Sacred Valley adventures we had arranged.  We were going to miss our time being treated like a king and queen – but we were also ready to delve into the culture of the Incas.

 

On to the next adventure.

 

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