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The slow train across the Peruvian Altiplano

The high-altitude, high-end train across the Peruvian Altiplano and its striking scenery is an experience not to be forgotten

The slow train across the Peruvian Altiplano
The Belmond Andean Explorer. Image: Richard James Taylor.

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The plateau’s lunar landscape stretches for miles in all directions — just a whisper of a cloud and a snow-capped peak break the horizon. There are no signs of agriculture, no buildings, just dusty scrubland — a few telegraph poles and a solitary train track the only signs human beings have even set foot here.

The line we’re travelling along — formerly known as the Ferrocarril del Sur (‘Southern Railway’) — dates back to the late 19th century and connects Cusco with the coastal city of Arequipa, via Puno. It’s clear from the view out the window — 14,760ft above sea level in the Peruvian Altiplano — that this is no ordinary train journey. In fact, it’s the fourth-highest rail route in the world. The air is gasp-inducingly thin; and its dryness is tangible in each breath I take. Luckily, staff are on hand to serve all manner of drinks — from a bottle of mineral water to a pisco sour.

The Belmond Andean Explorer launched in May 2017 amid much fanfare — adding to its existing Peru service, the Hiram Bingham train from Cusco to Machu Picchu — reflecting the group’s trademark luxury and elegance, most famously embodied by the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express.

Passengers are offered the choice of a one- or two-night trip in either direction. The train’s 16 carriages contain just 24 cabins and the maximum number of guests is 48 — yet there are 35 crew on board. It’s evident we’ll be getting the full A-list treatment.

At 11am, we’d left Cusco — perched a dizzying 11,150ft up in the Andes — sipping a welcome glass of Champagne in the piano bar as train manager Arnaldo introduces the crew and discusses our itinerary. So far, so VIP.

Within an hour we’ve cleared the sprawling outskirts of the city and are slowly climbing south east along the valley, following the Urubamba River.

Our first stop, 75 miles from Cusco, is the Inca archaeological site of Raqch’i. In the 15th century, this trading post was home to around 1,500 people. Today, it’s overlooked by the remains of a temple (11 of its 22 volcanic-stone columns still stand). We don’t linger long, but daily excursions like this help to give us a deeper understanding of the landscapes unfolding through the window as we trundle across Peru.

peru train altiplano

The landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano. Image: Richard James Taylor.

Onwards we travel, the Andes ever-present on either side of the train, yet the scenery bounded by the mountains changing subtly all the time — one minute dry scrubland; the next, tall, green grass; then a village and more farmland. Viewing all this from the observation car at the rear of the train is an absorbing, mesmerising experience. Watching the plateaus of the Andes sail past for several hours is phenomenally peaceful and serene.

Snaking higher and higher — rising beyond 13,000ft — the Urubamba, which we’ve followed from the beginning of our journey, reduces to a stream. Soon, we’ve headed over the mountain, beyond its source, on our way towards the Altiplano — an area where the Andes are at their widest.

We rise at 5am the next day, having arrived in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and await the sunrise. Cloud means our photos aren’t quite as postcard-perfect as we’d hoped, but the tranquillity and sudden change in landscape are exhilarating.

Titicaca’s superlatives are well documented: South America’s largest freshwater lake; the highest of the world’s large lakes; one of fewer than 20 ancient lakes on Earth… Yet knowing all this simply can’t prepare you for a body of water whose shores stretch all the way to the horizon.

A group of us cross the vast watery expanse to visit the floating villages of the Uros, the indigenous people who manage to maintain their traditional way of life on islands built from reeds. There are approximately 2,500 Uros on 87 islands and while the overall experience feels quite commercial it offers an insight into a unique way of life — plus tourist incursions like this help to support communities that might not survive.

Lunch is at a simple, local restaurant overlooking a beach on Taquile Island, around 28 miles east from the shores of Puno. The warm sun sparkles on the water — Bolivia vaguely visible on the horizon — and for a moment on this blissfully tranquil, remote island, I briefly forget where I am.

The next morning, those astonishing Altiplano landscapes kick in. It’s not until midday when we finally drop below 13,000ft again. The dramatic scenery sees steep gorges, cliffs and ravines appear before us — the ground remains dry; the occasional patch of scrubland the only vegetation. And as we lunch, we continue to descend. Approaching Arequipa, trees and green fields finally emerge among the arid mountains at 10,000ft.

There’s a warm welcome on arrival, and a return to urban life in a Baroque city built with white volcanic stone, but I can’t help but crave those lunar landscapes on the Altiplano.

Essentials

Journey Latin America offers a 10-day trip to Peru from £5,197 per person. The price includes first-class accommodation, two nights on the Belmond Andean Explorer, excursions, most meals and transfers. International flights not included.

Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)