A little girl wearing a bright yellow jumper runs after her brothers as they herd the family’s sheep and alpaca over the flat plain of the Altiplanno. Suddenly the still and calm is shattered by the blaring air horn of a train. A bright blue train of five cars snakes its way towards the family. The sheep are spooked and start to run along the track. The girl can’t quite keep up with her brothers as they chase the sheep and lags behind to get her breath as the train passes. She slows to a walk and raises an arm to wave to the two boys standing on the open observation car at the back of the train.
Riding on the Andean Explorer is not so much about getting from Puno to Cusco, it’s an adventure in itself. And what an adventure – we kept on expecting Hercule Poirot or Phileas Fogg to stroll out and join us.
The day began for us with a little more excitement than we were seeking when there was a car accident in front of us as we got to the tiny train station in Puno. The young man hit by the car must have had a glass bottle in his pocket which cut his leg, there was blood everywhere. Luckily he was with two friends who finally managed to force a taxi to stop – after most refused. They then bundled their, now unconscious, friend into the boot; piled into the back and set off into the distance. That really drove home to us how different Peru is to home.
Anyway, the Andean Explorer is an old-style train, like something out of an Agatha Christie book . There are only five cars and the last one is half-bar, half-observation car with an open back. Our seats are armchairs around a table covered in a thick cloth and with a little table lamp. This is not normal rail travel in any way.
The trip from Puno to Cusco takes ten hours by train. It’s faster by road, and much cheaper, but a different sort of experience. The train seems to average about 30km an hour, which makes seeing what we are passing really easy and enjoyable – especially from the open observation car. As we pass through small towns kids run after the train begging for money, able to keep up for a short stretch. In the towns we pass through markets with tiny stalls set out along the tracks; in fact they are on the track until the approaching train whistles to warn people to clear the way. Everything from tools, to car parts to mummified llamas is on display.
We pass over the Altiplano. There are tiny farms, small flocks of sheep or alpacas being watched over by solitary shepherds or sometimes a group of kids. The houses are small, thatched and made of mud-bricks. And everywhere is a yellowed scrubby grass. On the train the contrast couldn’t be higher. We sit sipping Pisco sours as the world goes by, then are served a wonderful three-course lunch at our table by liveried waiters. It’s all so over the top it makes us laugh aloud.
We stop at the highest point on the route from Puno to Cusco after about five hours travelling and get out to stretch our legs. At over 4300m it’s the highest point we’ll reach on the trip. Almost immediately as we start to descend the farmland becomes richer. There are green fields, the houses have corrugated iron roofs and the townships get bigger. This now against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks looming another couple of thousand metres above us. The land is richer but the people still have a tough life, we see field after field with entire families in them ploughing and planting by hand, the wooden plough being dragged along by a cow.
The land moves from flat plain to deeply riven gullies and valleys. The marks left by the rainy season here are abundant and apparent. Whole hillsides are nothing more than scars from landslides. Instead of scrubland there are now trees about and everywhere you look there are cacti. We have afternoon tea as the train rolls along beside a river that drops away beside us into a deep gorge.
Eventually ten hours after leaving Puno we roll into Cusco after what we all agree has been a truly special rail journey.