After Machu Picchu, this was one of the major highlights of our trip – The Andean Explorer – First Class train that operates between Cuzco and Puno. Rated amongst the Top 25 Train Journeys in the world, the Andean Explorer takes you from Ancient capital of Cuzco at 11500ft to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca at 12500ft. During the 10 hour journey you are pampered with gourmet meals, live performances and stunning views of the beautiful Andes mountains!
The reservations have to be made well in advance via the Peru Rail website – same company that operates trains to Machu Picchu. You can take the train either from Cusco to Puno or vice versa. It is not cheap! The ride from Cusco to Puno will set you off by $300+ per person, but trust me it is worth it!
Upon reaching the Cusco station (Wanchaq), our bags were collected by porters and we were escorted to a VIP lounge where we were ‘checked-in’. While the train was being prepared for departure, we were offered refreshments in this area.
After few minutes, a service staff approached us and personally escorted to our seats in the coach. We were blown away by the luxurious wood interiors and spacious seats. It was the first time we were traveling in a First class tourist rain. The train had 3 Passenger compartments, a Bar car, an Observatory car, a pantry car and a storage car.
Once all the passengers boarded, the guard gave the signal and the train slowly pulled out of the station. In a short time we exited the city limits of Cusco and started our winding journey through the Andes.
The observation deck was the most busy space. This is the most unique part of the train. It is like the Guard cabin of freight trains in India. You get unobstructed view of both sides of the track. The most interesting time is when the train goes through a curve. We tried to capture the same in different landscapes!
Another interesting photo opportunity is the view from the back of the train, again as it passes through different landscapes.
Soon we were asked for our preference for lunch. Looking at the menu, the names looked straight out of a Master Chef show. Thankfully, it was a set menu and we just had to choose between two options for each course except dessert. I ordered meat dishes (Fish & Beef), while Swati opted for vegetarian dishes. They were served soon with excellent presentation, making us wonder how they manage to do on a moving train! They were as tasty as they looked!
Soon after lunch, the train pulled into La Raya station – the highest point on the route – and the only stop where we can get out. The station is nothing much but a platform, with a souvenir market and Church right next to it. When all the passengers got busy shopping, we got the whole train for ourselves! Being a fan of trains since childhood, I couldn’t resist going around taking a few shots of the train. Since it was stationary, it was a great opportunity to get some HDR images!
The train moved on, continuing through barren valleys after this. Around 4pm, the next activity was ready. Announcement was made that soon live performance will begin in the Bar/Observatory car! Since our coach was right next to it, we went and got ourselves a seat right away. But as the passengers came in, we realised most of them were Senior Citizens and we gladly gave our seats to few elderly. Soon the artists came, quickly set up the instruments and started their performance, playing traditional music.
After a while, a young lady came dressed in traditional clothes and started a dance performance in between the crowd.
After watching a round of performance we returned to our seats and relaxed for a while. The slowly came out of the rural areas and entered the outskirts of town Juliaca. Now, the route between Cusco and Puno does not have any other passenger trains operating. It is just the two Andean Explorers that pass through here, and an occasional freight trains. So as far as the local population is concerned, the tracks are too a valuable real-estate. If you ask me why, see below –
As soon as the train passed, pedestrians, shoppers and vendors returned to carry on with life as usual! After passing through multiple such markets and streets, we entered Juliaca station.
Here the train made a technical stop and moved on. Light faded quickly afterwards as the sun set. This meant all the lights on the train has to be turned on! It was a challenge to take photos in low light on a moving train, but some how managed to get a basic shots to give you a feel how the train looks at night!
We arrived in Puno on time. By the time we were led out of the train, our luggage was arranged outside according to carriages, making it easy for identification. We had 3 big bags with us and were struggling to find a cab, when the Service Manger approached us and offered us a city cab at the local standard rates.
The whole end-to-end service was top notch and this trip exceeded all our expectations. It was the most memorable train journey so far!