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Friday, August 6, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 6: From Cusco To Puno On The Andean Explorer

This entire day was spent on a 10-hour long train trip from Cusco to Puno. The train is operated by Peru Rail, but is actually run by Orient Express group, which operates this train as a luxury sight-seeing train trip. The train is named the Andean Explorer. The train trip was an upgrade over our original itinerary that had us doing this trip in a bus. We paid $145 per head extra for taking the train instead of the bus. The train ticket we got mentioned a fare of $200 for the 389 kilometer journey, so it was not a cheap trip by any stretch of the imagination. Peru Rail's own website mentions a price of $220 for the trip. I have no idea why the fare on the ticket was different from that on their own website.

The previous evening, we had rearranged our belongings so that we could travel to Puno with just small suitcases rather than all of our luggage. We were coming back to Cusco from Puno in a couple of days, and we were booked into the same hotel on the return day, so we were told that we could leave our big suitcases in the hotel's hold room for free and claim them on our return.

On this day, therefore, we were picked up at the hotel at about 7 AM with just small items of hand luggage and taken to the Wanchaq train station in Cusco (which is about 10 minutes from our hotel).

We reached the station at 07:30. Once again, our tickets had our names on them, so our passports were checked against our tickets before we were allowed to board. Passengers waited in a waiting room at the train station before boarding began, and were entertained by live indigenous musicians. At 07:35, our tickets were checked and we were allowed to leave the waiting room and board the train. We boarded at about 07:45. The train left on time at 8:00 AM and reached Puno at 5:50 PM, 9 hours and 50 minutes later.

Each row of seats on the train is configured to be 2x1 (with a wide aisle between the seats), with alternate rows of seats facing each other across a table. The table had flower vases with flowers, and a table lamp, and was covered with a table-cloth. There were small overhead racks for small items, but luggage could be stored between seat-backs of adjacent rows of seats or in separate luggage racks. Most large luggage was loaded onto the luggage car of the train. There is one restroom at the end of each carriage, and sometimes there was a line of passengers waiting to use it.

The train consisted of a diesel-electric locomotive followed by a luggage car. This is followed by two passenger compartments, labeled B and A. The fourth and last compartment was divided into two parts. The first part was a bar and dining car. The second part was an observation deck with large windows and a few bench seats down the middle. The very end of the observation area was completely open with a waist-high railing.

The train was only about two-thirds full, and nobody boarded the train anywhere else. There were only two stops for the train, one at La Raya, which is the highest point of the trip at 4,335 meters elevation, and another at Juliaca, about an hour away from Puno.

Announcements were made in both Spanish and highly accented English. The only entertainment was provided by overhead speakers playing piped music (some of it in English, some in Spanish, and some just instrumental). I spent most of my time during this trip on the observation deck where the sound from the speakers was not audible above normal train noises. The train was not air-conditioned, with ventilation and cooling provided by open windows. There are individual reading lights or air vents. The weather started out chilly, but as the sun burnt off the clouds, it became quite warm after a while, even on the open observation deck.

The train was reasonably fast, in most stretches, but had to slow down quite a bit in urban areas. Peruvian grade crossings, even in heavily congested urban areas, have no gates or lights, and rely on drivers spotting trains and stopping for them. The train also ran through bustling marketplaces and other congested places in some urban areas, particularly when passing through the cities of Sicuani and Juliaca.

The view from the observation deck was very good, at least until Sicuani. We followed the left bank of the Vilcanota (or Urubamba) river quite closely all the way until Sicuani. In the initial parts of the trip, the valley we were in was quite narrow and the mountains around towered over the train, leading to several wonderful photo opportunities. The route was quite winding and some of the curves were quite sharp. There were also several ascents and descents, some of them somewhat steep (at least for a train). After Sicuani, the valley became quite broad, and the mountains receded farther from the train. Sometimes, the river was not even visible from the train.

At La Raya, the train stopped for about 15 minutes to let passengers enjoy the view (12:35 - 12:50). La Raya is the highest point on this railroad route at 4,335 meters above sea level. The climb up to La Raya from Sicuani was quite gradual and unspectacular. The view at La Raya was reasonably good with some glaciated peaks visible. These peaks form part of the Vilcanota Knot which is the source of the Vilcanota rivier (which is a tributary of the Amazon river). We also stopped for a few minutes just after La Raya as we passed a train in the opposite direction on a siding.

After La Raya, the train enters the South American Altiplano. This altiplano (Spanish for high plain), located where the Andes are at their widest, is the most extensive area of high plateau on the earth outside of Tibet. This is a very large area of very low relief, which made the scenery quite drab after La Raya. The train descended gradually from La Raya to Puno (which is at an altitude of 3,860 meters) with a few minor ascents. In many stretches, the track was completely straight for several miles at a time. The train stopped for 5 minutes at Juliaca (16:35 - 16:40). During the last few miles of the trip, as we entered Puno, we encountered a few hills and some sharper curves. The train also runs along the shores of Lake Titicaca just outside Puno. The sun went behind the hills around 17:20, and soon after, it became too dark to enjoy what little scenery there was to enjoy.

Land use was also markedly different in different parts of the trip. Until Sicuani, we could see lots of rugged mountains all around. The river valley was mainly used for agriculture. Human habitation was in evidence throughout, and the train passed several old stations that were no longer used. After Sicuani, the land use was more for animal rearing than agriculture. Human habitation was much sparser. After La Raya, the land was only sparsely used, with most of the land overgrown with heather. The only land use seemed to be animal-rearing, with the train passing several large herds of llamas, sheep, alpacas, and other types of wool-producing animals. There were also very few trees in evidence on the altiplano.

The road between Cusco and Puno runs alongside the railroad tracks most of the time, but sometimes the road crosses over the tracks and the river to run on the opposite bank of the valley. Between La Raya and Puno, the land being quite flat, the road could sometimes not be seen from the train. Most road vehicles were faster than the train when the two ran alongside each other (I would guess the maximum speed of the train to be about 60 kmph).

The observation deck of the train became dusty quite easily because of dust stirred up by the train itself. Train attendants passed through frequently dusting off the area and cleaning it so that it did not become too grimy. When the train ran fast, it swayed quite vigorously from side to side making it difficult to write notes. But there were no roaring rails or any other noisy problems.

At about 10:00, there was a live fashion show in the dining car and observation deck, with a model showing off various alpaca garments (which she later went around trying to sell to the passengers). Then there was a live music show (with native peruvian musicians playing native peruvian instruments) during which all passengers were offered free Pisco sour (passengers who do not drink were offered a non-alcoholic beverage).

Meal orders were taken off a menu at each table. Basic lunch service and afternoon tea service are included in the price of the ticket. Passengers were offered a choice of a couple of appetizers and 3 main entrees. The menu consisted of dozens of other items that passengers could pay for if they wanted. Passengers could also buy breakfast on the train if they wanted to. The meal was pretty tasty. It was delivered by hand as in a high-end restaurant, without the use of any carts. The utensils were all metal, and passengers were provided real cloth napkins and wine glasses. Meal service started as soon as we left La Raya and continued all the way until 14:30 (including dessert). The afternoon tea service (with cookies and coffee and tea) started right after we left Juliaca. Non-alcoholic beverages are included in the price of the ticket, but apart from a glass of house wine during lunch, all other alcoholic beverages had to be paid for separately.

In the afternoon, once again, at around 15:30, there was a live music show. The chef conducted a demonstration showing interested passengers how to make a Pisco sour. After that there was happy hour at the bar with drinks being offered at half-price.

The passengers on the train were quite well-heeled given the price of passage (in comparison, a bus trip on the same route, even in a luxury bus, costs only about $50). Lots of high-end gadgets were in use on the train including laptops, Ipads, Kindles, etc. The camera gear in use on the observation deck was also very expensive with lots of SLR's sporting high-end telephoto and wide-angle lenses.

Overall, this was quite a unique trip for me. The train passes through La Raya, which is easily the highest point I have ever been to or through in a train (4,335 meters or about 14,222 feet above sea level). The second highest point (and previous highest point) is Pike's Peak at 4,233 meters, which is at least a full 100 meters lower. And when it comes to standard gauge trains with no special mountain use modifications (of the locomotives or the tracks), the lowest point on this train trip was probably 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) higher than the previous highest point I have been to on such a train. The train runs on a 4' 8.5" (1,435 mm) standard gauge line with no modifications of any sort. The grade is quite gentle most of the time, so no special modifications are necessary to operate the train, even though the altitude is quite high.

The scenery was quite spectacular at least in the first half of the trip, making it a scenic rail trip worth taking. The open observation deck at the back of the train was also unique among all the trains I have been on. As I mentioned in my quick update, it was like a leisurely trip in first class on an airplane, only better. I don't remember any airplane having an open air observation deck from which to enjoy and photograph the scenery! Which reminds me - the photographs! Since this post has become quite long, I will include them in the next post.

For now, I will leave you with an orientation map of our route. Cusco is marked with a green marker labeled A on the map below. The road is marked as 3S on the orientation map, and passes through Tinta, Sicuani, Ayaviri and Juliaca (I can't get Google maps to trace this route out on a map for some reason). Puno is where my mouse cursor is on the picture (in the lower middle of the map). La Raya is on 3S at the point where the road intersects with the state boundary between Cusco and Puno, shown by a dashed line on the map below. The country boundary between Peru and Bolivia is shown by the solid gray line that cuts across Lake Titicaca also.

Route from Cusco to Puno
The road and the rail tracks are separated by no more than a few miles at most at any point on the trip. In fact, most of the time, the road is mere meters away from the rail tracks.

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