Our 7am pickup to take us to our train was perfectly on time, as were all our arrangements made by our travel consultant. For all one hears about relaxed South American timetables—it’s true in many cases—our experiences were so well planned it was as if the Swiss were in charge of our itinerary. The van deposited us with our luggage in plenty of time to spare, and we made our way past the cheerful traditional Andean music band serenading passengers on the platform.
Our seats were not traditional train fare; these were cushy chairs like one would expect to find in a library, bolted to the floor around a pleasant dining table. It was a comfy setup for the 10-hour ride from Cusco to Puno (busses and cars make the trip in about half the time, but how often do we have an opportunity to ride a luxury train through the Andes?) and I wondered if we would be bored after a few hours. We weren’t.
The obvious enjoyment for the day was the constantly changing landscape, the towns and close up encounters with local people from the slowly moving train. But they also had amazing service, nearly constant food, bartending classes for those who wanted to learn the art of the Pisco Sour, musicians performing and even fashion shows of traditional Andean Altiplano textiles. The last car of the train was the combo bar/show/observation area, where we spent nearly half the time. It was a great place to take photos, especially as the train slowed to move carefully through small villages. Kids and adults alike would emerge from houses and shops, stopping for a moment to run and wave to us. It made us feel so liked and popular, yet, as the day went on, it also had a way of making us feel very, very conspicuously consumptive and wealthy. Even uncomfortably so. It was our experience to feel a combination of gratitude for our good fortunes, but also a deep self-consciousness of the fact that these small towns and hardy people are so poorly compensated for their long days of hard and difficult work. Most people we spoke to on the back of the observation car felt similarly, except maybe for the extremely wealthy young couple who were doing a multi-month tour through all of South America and the Galapagos Islands, organized by the ultra-high-end Abercrombie and Kent agency, they bragged. This train was not high adventure for them, and they slept through much of the day.
Nearly halfway along the route was a brief stopover at the highest pass (over 14,000’ above sea level) between Cusco and Puno. They have the stop arranged for a little shopping with local vendors, who turn out to be guerrilla salespeople! If one pauses long enough to poke through a stand of items, a woman would quickly place a blanket, hat or scarf on your shoulder, turn around and suddenly be 20 feet away as if magically transported. The game is to get you to follow them back to more of their wares and feel obligated to perhaps buy that perfectly selected item they just placed on you. We had to be quite firm and do pretty much the same thing back to them if we didn’t want it. Drop it off, say ‘no’ and take off to another stall. It’s very chilly at that altitude and some of those blankets looked tempting, but I don’t like shopping at such a rushed pace and passed on the opportunity.
Another unfortunate thing was that their wares were not much different from the hundreds of shops we’d already been seeing in towns everywhere. It’s a lot like our experience in Mexico and the Caribbean—I am convinced there are tourism cartels set up that supply pretty much the same regional knickknacks to all the shops and control most of the pricing as well. So it would seem that they’ve perfected the same shopping experience that American malls provide, but on a more indigenous level.
As the day and the train progressed further into the landscape of the Altiplano, or high plains, we found it somewhat similar to Utah—brown and hilly and brushy, although its valleys are at an impressive 12,500 feet above sea level and we could feel it in our lungs. It seemed like only an hour or two had passed since the shopping stop when the light began to change to late afternoon and the train chugged into the first major city, Juliaca. This was a fascinating place. Cozy, dirty, busy, bright, yet drab. 90% of the structures were halfway completed, with rebar shooting into the air from the 2nd or 3rd floor walls like random hair follicles from a balding head.
It’s the people who make up for the brown landscape and the ugly red brick architecture with their charm and vibrance. And along the train track itself were sights one would never encounter in our country. The busy street and farmers’ markets were not only along side the train route, but right on the tracks themselves. The vendors would sweep most of their wares out of the way in time for the train to pass, wave at us, then within seconds after our passing they would have swarm back onto the tracks to restore their shop spaces. They only have to do clear out twice a day on this lightly travelled route, and it was an amazing thing to witness.
As the sun set, a brief rain and wet snow storm passed over us, perking up our senses like it does in our deserts at home. The train made its way through the last hour of the trip in the dark to arrive in Puno. Entering Puno, just as in Juliaca, its tracks make their way right through the center of the streets and now-closed markets and made its final stop in the modest train station. Puno didn’t seem like the kind of place we’d go on an evening stroll and we were happy to meet our cheerful cabby who whisked us to our beautiful hotel on the waterfront of Lake Titicaca (another cultural reminder how out of place we and the hotel were).
Puno is even colder than Cusco at night and our cozy hotel had a wonderful open living room & bar with a crackling fire in a giant hearth. The room filled up with relaxing guests, sipping drinks (lots of coca tea to be had at this altitude), noshing on the spread of tapas and getting to know each other. A gentleman, whom we recognized from as far back on our trip as the day in Machu Picchu, came in with his wife and sat next to us. He was probably 60-something, jovial, with a white beard and a charming British accent. The three of us had all noticed “that professor” in Machu Picchu, then Cusco, the train, and now. And damnable as stereotypes are, he was indeed a well-traveled professor by the name of Gordon Campbell. He would turn out to be a delightfully captivating conversationalist for the next two evenings; and now I am intrigued so that I must either buy some of his books or find them in the library. Two of his books in particular interest me: “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome”, and “Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011”, which is a purely historical exploration of the text’s production and its setting. He has several other titles that sound interesting, as well.
Sufficiently warmed by the hearthside fire and the intelligent conversation with Professor Campbell, we returned to our plush, spacious (a first, so far on the trip) room to wind down even more and go to bed.