The Puno to Cusco Express
One of my favourite train journeys ever is the one I undertook in September 2001 from the shores of Lake Titicaca in Puno to Cusco, gateway to the Inca kingdom in Peru. I am actually amazed that this journey never seems to make the lists of the finest train trips in the world.
This could change however with advent of the Belmond Andean Explorer luxury train that offers an overnight service and the possibility of extending your trip to a two night affair by taking/bringing you further afield to/from the wonderful small city of Arequipa in the west of Peru.
This train is all to a bit too ostentatious for me so I will stick with the non-sleeper service that I took all those years ago, that that does not seem to have changed that much in the interim.
The journey northward took over ten hours and started at about the time that most holiday makers may be thinking about getting up for breakfast. Naturally it was possible to have your first meal of the day on board, however impoverished as I was back then I made do with a grey box from our hotel containing a hard-boiled egg, roll, cheese triangle and carton of orange juice.
The train consists of five or more blue carriages (there were eight when I did the trip) with signature yellow stripe, pulled by a similarly decorated diesel locomotive. The last carriage is an observation car with an open end allowing you to be at one with nature and waving locals as you pass by.
Fortunately for us not many passengers seemed to be bothered with doing much observing from the last carriage, being more concerned with eating the ‘gourmet’ meals they had booked. In one of the few changes since we travelled, 2/3 of the last carriage is now a very comfortable looking bar car, a great venue for pisco sours or a cold beer.
The sun was already up when we set off at 07.30 on the dot from Puno, which is situated close to the Bolivian border, soon picking up a decent pace that was still slow enough to properly enjoy the fabulous surroundings without them being a blur.
As we pulled away from the station and the main city, the first part of the journey hugged the shores of the lake, reputed to be the highest navigable such body of water in the world and which we had crossed by boat just a few days before.
The beautiful blue lake was augmented with a plethora of birdlife such as white-tufted grebe, ibis, flamingo, lapwing, snowy egret, heron and various species of duck. It really was a twitcher’s paradise, not to be missed if you are that way inclined.
After leaving the vast expanse of water behind we slowly started to travel upwards into the foothills, passing roaming herds of alpaca and llama, fields of soft green & brown hues and rushing streams.
For me however, the highlights were the small settlements we travelled through. When I say through I mean up close and personal with homes, farms, markets, football pitches and schoolyards. Waving, smiling kids and adults, all genuinely looking pleased to see the interruption to their daily lives gliding past.
At one stage about halfway through we stopped at one of the few interchanges on the route to allow the train travelling in the opposite direction to get past.
This was the signal for some opportunistic kids to approach the observation car to see what goodies might come their way. Their smiles when they were rewarded with sweets and pens were a heart-warming sight to behold.
At no point did the ten hours or so on board drag, but perhaps the highlight was when we climbed up into the snow-capped Andes Mountains. The air thinned and temperature dropped as we mingled with the clouds.
I spent much of the time in the observation car, but as the atmosphere got chillier as we climbed ever higher and the sun started to drop towards the horizon, I retired to my reserved seat to buy a warming coffee and sit in colonial style comfort.
We then started our descent and before long the magnificent city of Cusco started to hone into view. This was an exciting sight, producing enticing thoughts of the Machu Picchu trail that lay before me in the very near future.
The train had to travel a series of switchbacks on the descent into Cusco as the terrain was too steep to be traversed straight down. This saw us zig-zagging down the mountain so that the city was alternately on my left and then on my right.
I arrived at Wanchaq Station right on time, ten hours twenty minutes after leaving Puno to catch one of a fleet of cheap minibuses to take us the short journey into the ancient city. The adventure will set you back $250-$300 nowadays (some 6x what we paid in 2001) and at around $20 per hour it is money well spent. You do of course pay extra for meals at your seat or in the dining car, but they are hard to resist!
What was known as the Puno – Cusco Express when I took it is now described as the Titicaca train by operators Peru Rail. Further details can be found at https://www.perurail.com/schedules/perurail-titicaca/.
I think nowadays you may get some panpipe entertainment on the way. Personally I would rather not have ‘El Condor Pasa’ forced on me, but I suspect I may be in the minority!
Incidentally, a one-night trip on the luxury Belmond Andean Explorer version also operated by Peru Rail will cost you at least $650 each if sharing a twin cabin. Doubles are available at a higher fee.
So there you have it, a wonderful journey linking two iconic cities that needn’t break the bank.