By Alison Roberts
|Alison Roberts (left) on the Andean Explorer from Cusco to Puno, who was entertained by the conducting staff (below). Colourful peasant women on arrival at Lake Titicaca (above)|
This year's break coincided with a visit from my in-laws, which provided the excuse I'd been looking for to treat us to a trip on the Andean Explorer; a luxury Peruvian train that runs along the 351km route between the historic city of Cusco and Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and links two of the country's top tourist destinations.
Since we are the first passengers to arrive at the poster blue and canary yellow train I set about exploring our surroundings for the 10-hour journey ahead.
I pop my head round the toilet door and note, besides the space, vanity mirror and marble-topped sink, that there is a window. I don’t need to worry about missing any scenery on this journey.
I half expect to run into Hercule Poirot, but instead the other passengers include a group of American women, with pashminas and pearls celebrating a year of 60th birthdays, some camera-happy Japanese tourists, two Rastas and an elderly English gentleman and his immaculate lady friend. Reaching across the table he gives her hand a squeeze. "Isn’t this wonderful," she purrs.
The train sets off at 8am sharp. I am impressed. It is a short but sluggish crawl out of Cusco and then, as if eager to show us the beauty beyond, the train rattles along, passing fields of freshly turned soil, regimented rows of maize and artichokes, red-roofed adobe cottages and dry stone walls.
The track is sandwiched between steep forested valley slopes and beneath a powder-blue sky. I have dressed for low temperatures at high altitude but begin to peel off my layers as the sun bakes me through the window.
"Good morning. My name is Carolina. Can I take your order for lunch?" one of the train attendants chirps as she slides a gold and navy menu across the table.
Our eyes digest the choices: spicy pumpkin soup or Andean sushi with quinoa, followed by beef in fig sauce, oriental chicken, or, unusually for Peru, a vegetarian option.
There is champagne, but since it costs more than the £70 one-way train ticket we settle for an Argentine Malbec.
Waiters carrying a silver tray bring a "Welcome Pisco Sour" (a brandy-based cocktail) to our table and a map so we can follow the route.
We pinpoint our location based on which side of the train the road and river are running. Then the river begins to meander and, as if this is a cue to the entertainment manager, those needing a change of scene and pace are invited to a fashion show in the bar.
Intrigued, I wander along to find Carolina, transformed into a pouting model, working her Latin hips on the carriage catwalk.
Strutting in time to the beat of Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics, she happily poses for photos, her hand resting on the back of a chair.
The waiter, Santos, however, is less keen on this part of his job description. More like a wooden toy soldier, he models a hideous collection of grandpa cardigans.
Carolina on the other hand wears a colourful collection of baby alpaca hats and gloves, decorated, I notice, with pinned luminous price tags.
The Japanese travellers take photos with the ferocity of the paparazzi (maybe they plan to rip off the knitting designs to sell on the streets of Tokyo).
Later, back in his crisp white shirt, navy bow-tie and apron, a more relaxed Santos brings round a basket of woollen goodies and we are encouraged to touch before buying.
At the level crossings the kids eagerly wave up at us, but their mothers are expressionless. Perhaps they are calculating how many years it would take for them to afford a ticket to travel to Puno this way.
The train starts its climb. The river has shrunk to a trickle. We catch our first glimpses of snow on the pyramidal peaks and grazing herds of alpacas and vicunas.
Santos discreetly lays our table with white china, silverware, linen napkins and polished wine glasses, but before lunch we stretch our legs at La Raya station (the highest point of the journey at 4,319 metres).
The pashmina-and-pearl set are swept away by hardy Andean women to stalls piled high with woollen souvenirs.
The women are dressed in uniform Nora Batty stockings and felt Aunt Lucy hats. Two thick black plaits trail down their backs onto which a baby is bound.
After a short stop the train pulls off while the women hold jumpers up at the windows, hopeful for a last-minute sale.
And so we begin the juddering journey down hill to Lake Titicaca. Santos teases the cork out of our bottle of wine and, despite going through a tunnel while filling my glass, not a drop is spilt.
The waiters line up in the aisle and, when given the nod, like robots place the plates they are holding at the appropriate table setting, one to the right, one to the left.
The main course is garnished with sweet potato shavings and red pepper twirls and wouldn’t look out of place in one of Lima’s fine restaurants.
The expanse of burnt yellow, spiky, tuffs of altiplano (high plain) is interrupted with half-built settlements made up of corrugated roofs, cracked concrete splashed with mint choc chip and Peach Melba paints. It is clear which department is the poorer neighbour.
Those hoping for a siesta after lunch, nicely relaxed by the pastel tones and soft sculptured scenery, have no chance since next up is happy hour and dancing, announced by the ear-piecing cat call of the multi-talented Carolina, who is now twirling down the carriage in a full skirt of petticoats, enthusiastically pursued by a band of pan pipers and drummers.
Some of the passengers are up dancing even before their happy-hour order has arrived (this is their birthday party). The music gets faster and faster and, exhausted, I go in search of a drink.
Teatime coincides with the train’s arrival in the not so attractive town of Juliaca, which, nevertheless, is fascinating since we chug through a scrap yard of written-off combis (mini vans), a market selling underwear displayed on coat hangers, stacks of rubber tyres, wind mirrors and transistor radios lined up like dominoes, an open-air pool hall (the players are warmly dressed in 1980s-style furry hooded parker coats), and a line of barber shops.
All too soon, however, we are skirting the lake, beneath a darkening sky and sun-gilded clouds and gliding towards the twinkling lights of Puno.
"That was extraordinary," the immaculate English lady mouths to her gentleman friend and he squeezes her hand. I have to agree. Costing less than a standard single rail ticket from Bristol to London I’ve had an Orient-Express experience, albeit South American-style.