With the mid-morning sun dazzling off her midnight blue and ivory paint, the Belmond Andean Explorer stands out at Cusco’s dusty Wanchaq Station – in fact, she positively radiates. Not the first luxury train in South America – Belmond has operated the Hiram Bingham day train to Machu Picchu since 1999 – the Belmond Andean Explorer, which launched in May, is the continent’s first over-nighter, and represents a new chapter in South America’s love a air with refined rail travel.
After we’ve been serenaded by a traditional Peruvian pipe band and sated with rounds of silky pisco sours, the station’s bells ring and we clamber aboard, with most of the 38 guests making their way aft to the observation lounge and its outdoor viewing platform – the perfect perspective from which to watch Cusco, once the centre of the Incan empire, glide by. While we make new friends and toast our departure with flutes of chilled champagne, children wrapped in brightly coloured jerseys wave frantically from the trackside, their grandmothers in bowler hats unable to resist a grin as the shiny new train chugs by.
The Belmond Andean Explorer | Nick Walton
The scenery is enough to take your breath away – literally. The Peruvian Highlands itinerary, one of four offered, tours one of the highest plateaus in the world, with the starting point, Cusco, located 3,399 metres above sea level. While I manage to avoid many of the symptoms of soroche, the dreaded altitude sickness that can include headaches, nausea and dizziness, I do find myself gasping for an additional gulp of breath as I navigate the train’s narrow corridors. Fortunately, one of the amenities in my cabin is a personal oxygen tank, just in case.
The Belmond Andean Explorer caters to just 48 guests across 24 cabins; my Junior Cabin features a double bed, twin armchairs and a pair of large picture windows. Interior designer Inge Moore of London’s Muza Lab retained elements of the carriages’ previous incarnation, as Australia’s Great South Pacific Express. Contrasting interiors in Andean slate and ivory are complemented by ornate tin ceilings, gleaming art deco air vents, original chandeliers, mahogany panelling, marquetry floors and vintage light switches that survived the refit to light another day.
Despite the nod to the past, the Belmond Andean Explorer is unashamedly contemporary and luxurious: there are pots of muña or coca tea, to relieve altitude sickness, and baby alpaca wool shawls for those chilly alpine nights – even an indulgent refill of your personal oxygen tank is only the push of a button away. The fare includes gourmet dining, all beverages and world-class service amid modernist interiors full of colour and sophistication.
That said, it’s not all smooth sailing – the train does bounce and sway, sometimes violently, making your evening bathing rituals a fight with the forces of physics. However, the train is stable late at night, ensuring that while you might struggle to get into bed, you won’t be thrown out of it.
As our journey continues, the deep valleys narrow around us, the train chugging and shunting its way around turns so tight it’s almost possible to see into the galley several carriages down. When the mountains do take a fleeting step back, every inch of the valley floor has been ploughed and prepared for the rains, which will sweep down the rocky canyons bringing minerals from the Andes and bounty for the year ahead.
Some of that bounty ends up in meals, created by executive chef Diego Muñoz, which are served in the train’s two sumptuous dining cars or in the privacy of your cabin. Each meal is an ode to Peruvian produce. At lunch, as the train begins to climb towards the La Raya mountain range, the highest point on our two-night Cusco to Arequipa journey, we feast on choclo con queso (giant corn and cheese with paprika). There’s seared sea bass with Andean mint-scented broad beans, and cara cara (local citrus) poached with cardamom and thyme.
A firm favourite later in the trip is the alpaca tortellini. Each meal is a symphony of simplicity and flavour and is served with military-like precision by a 50-strong crew who, with their sleek leather suspenders and Latin flourish, look like they’ve just stepped out of an edition of GQ. Of course, there’s plenty more to do than sate your appetite in the dining room or soak up the alpine landscapes from the piano bar, an epicentre for socialising after the sun goes down. While the excursions along the way aren’t included in the tariff, they’re well worth a little extra expense. Explore the Incan ruins at Raqch’i; meet the Uros people of Lake Titicaca, famed for their floating villages; learn the importance of traditional knitting on the UNESCO-listed island of Taquile; and gaze upon the 8,000 year old rock art of the Sumbay Caves.
However, for me the pleasure of rail travel is to witness the ever-changing landscapes through which you pass, and that’s something that’s easy to do on the Belmond Andean Explorer. Whether its sipping piping hot almond milk at 3,800 metres under the ice-capped peaks of La Raya, waving to couples walking the Puna grasslands, or braving the chilly morning air of the observation car as the train rides the vertiginous ridges of Lake Saracocha, some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen, the Belmond Andean Explorer has become an instant classic.