See Peru in Style
See Peru in Style
As the train winds along the mountain pass, I look out at the eucalyptus trees that line the tracks and breathe deeply. The sun is warm against my face and I’m leaning on the brass railings of the open carriage sipping my cool, fresh pisco sour.
“This is more like it,” I think.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done the adventure travel thing – sweating on crowded buses, my backpack between my knees and second-hand cigarette smoke in my nostrils. But this time I decided to do it in style.
So, with my backpack safely stowed in the train’s luggage compartment, I’m enjoying the fresh air and a beaker of the local tipple – made from grape brandy, lime juice and egg white – on the Andean Explorer, an elegant Pullman-style locomotive that is Peru’s answer to the Orient Express.
My journey began at 8am in Cusco, south-west Peru. It is the region’s main city and the ancient capital of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Over the next 10 hours the train rolls over highland plains and through mountains, reaching 14,176 feet, before arriving in the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
At 12,507 feet, it is the highest navigable lake in the world and is one of many jaw-dropping sights in this beautiful and diverse country. With its Inca temples, mountains, jungles and rich cultural and spiritual heritage, Peru is a Mecca for grungy gap-year students and ageing hippies seeking self-affirmation through punishing treks and cups of coca leaf tea.
There’s certainly no shortage of coca leaf tea, which is brewed from leaves of the plant used to produce cocaine but is legal and causes effects no stronger than caffeine. But you don’t have to rough it to get the most out of this South American country.
From Cusco you can visit all the Inca sites in the area. Tours are cheap and easy to book at hotels or the many tourist offices around the central Plaza de Armas.
The Inca tribes occupied Peru from the early 13th century until the late 1500s, when they were defeated and driven out by the Spanish. But much of their incredible architecture remains. You can climb the Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo, wind your way down the mysterious circular terraces at Moray and marvel at the jagged dry stone walls of the hilltop Sacsayhuaman fortress.
But the region’s major pull is Machu Picchu, the 15th century sacred Inca site perched high on a remote mountain plateau. Untouched for centuries, it was uncovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III. The Incas believed that the spot had cosmic powers and visitors flock to it hoping for a spiritual experience.
At one time the only way to get there was a gruelling four-day hike along precarious mountain paths through the surrounding cloud forests. Thankfully there is a more leisurely option. The glass-roofed Vistadome train takes you from Cusco up to the tiny town of Aguas Calientes (£51 return, perurail.com). From there a bus will take you up the winding mountain roads to the entrance of the city for about £12 return.
An entry ticket to Machu Picchu costs about £26 (www.machupicchu.gob.pe). You must show a form of photo ID to get in so take your passport. When you tire of Incas, visit the market at Pisac to stock up on brightly-coloured woven knitwear or silky soft alpaca fleece products and go to town on Peruvian cuisine at one of Cusco’s many fabulous restaurants.
The local nosh is largely based around the staples of corn and potatoes (Peru has more than 3,000 different types) combined with chilli peppers alongside fish and meats such as beef and chicken.
Traditional grains such as the protein-rich quinoa are also popular for bulking out soups and in place of rice in risotto and stir-fries. There is a strong Spanish influence as well as Italian (you won’t go short of pizza in Cusco) and the country’s location on the Pacific coast means traditional dishes are infused with Chinese and Japanese elements.
For example there’s lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry made with soy sauce and chilli peppers served with chips. For the more adventurous I highly recommend trying an alpaca steak. The llama-like animals not only produce some of the world’s softest wool, they are also bred for their incredibly flavourful meat.
Alpaca meat is low in fat and cholesterol and, frankly, delicious. Also check out ceviche, a seafood dish reminiscent of sushi – the fish is cured in citrus juices – served with sweet potato and crispy corn.
And, yes, I’m afraid it’s true, guinea pig – cuy – is on the menu. At a top restaurant you might find it shredded and marinated on a terrine of mashed potato but at any averagely-priced place you could be in for a shock. It usually arrives with head and limbs still attached after being fried or roasted.
In Cusco city I liked Greens on Santa Catalina Angosta, which serves great alpaca steak salad and local craft beers (mains from £5), and the brightly-decorated Macondo on Cuesta San Blas (mains from £5.50).
Lunch on the Andean Explorer is a three-course gourmet affair served at around 13,123ft. Then it’s another glass of pisco and back to the viewing carriage, watching the tracks uncurl behind us as we make our way across deserted grassy plains towards Lake Titicaca. The lake – with shores in Peru and Bolivia – is home to several indigenous communities who live on its islands with no electricity or cars. On the Peru side are Taquile and Amantani, which you can visit on a boat trip (from £30 for a day including lunch).
But the main attraction is the 44 Uros artificial floating islands, which are made entirely of dried reeds. Anchored with ropes staked into the lake bed, they are home to 200 to 300 permanent residents whose boats, houses and furniture are all made of reeds too.
When you step off the boat on to one of the islands, the reeds squash and move unnervingly beneath you. Adventurous travellers can spend a night on one of the islands, bunking down on a bed of reeds under layers of colourful woven blankets.
It’s late afternoon when we chug slowly into Juliaca, the trade centre for the region. Children run alongside the train laughing and waving. In the heart of the town, a market is in full swing beside – and on – the railway line. Plastic chairs and rugs spread with fruit, vegetables and bric-a-brac are calmly whipped out of the way as we come through, the sellers barely looking up.
The clear blue sky above the lake fades into dusky mauve, orange then indigo and the guard announces we’re at our final stop.
And we’ve certainly got there in style.