There’s a new way to see the rolling, varied landscapes of Peru, and not only does it hail a welcome return to the golden age of luxury travel, it serves a mean pisco sour…
Lead image: The Belmond Andean Explorer
The golden age of travel has returned – and it serves up a mean pisco sour. When an invitation to a wedding in Lima corresponded with the launch of the Belmond Andean Explorer in May last year (and the first Paddington 2 film trailer), it seemed the stars had aligned for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to deepest darkest Peru.
Who doesn’t have Machu Picchu on their bucket list? But reaching the heady heights of the world’s most iconic Inca ruins was just the beginning of a whirlwind adventure that began with baby alpacas in tiny hats and ended with what I can only describe as the wedding of the century, Latin style.
The Belmond Andean Explorer
The impressive Belmond Andean Explorer, launched in May 2017, is South America’s first luxury train, running a number of one and two-night journeys. We travelled from Cusco in the Peruvian Andes (once the capital of the Inca Empire) to Arequipa (the colonial-era capital of the Arequipa Region), via Puno on the shores of the magnificent Lake Titicaca.
The two night journey departs at Wanchaq Station, near Cusco, where you’re seen off in style with a display of traditional Peruvian dance. Then it’s into the bar car for a glass of fizz as the magnificent steam train whistles into life. The train has four types of accommodation – deluxe double bed cabins, junior double bed cabins, twin bed cabins and bunk bed cabins – all with clever en suite shower rooms and natty storage.
We spent the majority of our journey in the observation carriage at the very rear of the train, an open-on-three-sides extension of the bar car (are there two more marvellous words?). Here you can marvel at the beautiful, changing landscapes – rolling mountains, shimmering lakes and desert-like expanses of nothingness – with a drink in one hand, camera in the other and smiling staff tending to your every need.
Evenings are occupied with pisco sours in the piano bar, elaborate meals featuring fine Pervuian dishes like lima bean cappuccino, alpaca tortellini and beef tenderloin, and live music and merriment with fellow travellers in the bar car.
Marvel at the beautiful, changing landscapes – rolling mountains, shimmering lakes and desert-like expanses of nothingness – with a drink in one hand, camera in the other
Days are occupied with trips to see the sunrise over Lake Titicaca, the Inca ruins of Raqchi and the fantastic Uros floating islands – unfathomable villages constructed on floating bundles of reeds, complete with simple houses, watch towers and even schools.
Your final day commences with a jaw-dropping sunrise, viewed from a hilltop between two lakes, Saracocha and Pacharia, before the train snakes around Saracocha, gifting you some of the most serene, spectacular scenery you’ll ever set eyes on.
As our journey rolled to an end, I was devastated to disembark, convinced I could spend the rest of my life on that observation carriage; pisco sour in hand. But all good things must come to an end, and after a couple of hours exploring Arequipa – a Spanish colonial city with an impressive main plaza, three imposing volcanoes one of the world’s deepest river canyons, Colca Canyon.
Arrange an overnight stay if you can, and look into trekking options. For us, Lima beckoned, so we hopped on a flight and headed for the cosmopolitan Belmond Miraflores Park, where a rooftop pool with astounding sea views awaited.
& The Hiram Bingham
The Belmond Andean Explorer was not, in fact, our first luxury train experience in Peru. Prior to that most magical of journeys through the Andes, we had taken the famous Hiram Bingham train from Poroy Station near Cusco to the base of Machu Picchu.
Infamous may be a more accurate way to describe the Hiram Bingham, because the 3.5-hour journey was a riot. A hoot from start to finish with pisco sours, live music and singalongs – all before an elaborate lunch.
You don’t need me to tell you about the sights of Machu Picchu; it is simply phenomenal (crowded, sure, but no less awe-inspiring). Friends of ours did the Inca Trail, with three days of camping, a private chef and staff to carry and erect their tents, which is certainly a bucket-list experience worth looking into.
the Sacred Valley
Cusco, often overlooked as ‘Machu Picchu base camp’, is certainly worthy of a couple of days. Not only will time spent here help you acclimatise to the altitude (as it’s actually about 1,000 metres higher), it’s a pretty, historical town with a grand central plaza, boutiques selling alpaca scarves, artisan craft markets peeling off the side streets and traditionally dressed women offering photo ops with baby alpacas (or baby goats, as it transpired!). Do crawl your way up the steep steps to see Critso Blanco, the Inca ruins of Saqsaywaman and sweeping views of the city.
Crawl your way up the steep steps to see Critso Blanco, the Inca ruins of Saqsaywaman and sweeping views of the city.
While here, stay at the Belmond Hotel Monestario. The beautiful courtyard – home to a huge cedar tree, flowerbeds and women weaving colourful textiles – is filled with birdsong, trickling water and the quiet murmur of prayer song.
The rooms are magnificent; quirky and characterful with arching windows, religious portraits, sloping ceilings and cosy mezzanines. Dine on giant Andean corn, Peruvian shrimp chowder and chateaubriand in the hauntingly beautiful candlelit vaults of El Tupay.
For complete peace and tranquillity, head further out of Cusco to the Sacred Valley, where you’ll find the Belmond Rio Sagrado. Cradled by mountains and the meandering Urubamba River, it’s the perfect setting for an indulgent spa treatment, alfresco yoga classes and feeding the hotel’s baby alpacas.
Belmond, whose tagline is The Art of the Journey, has certainly put its back into restoring the golden age of travel. Each hotel oozes heritage and character that is entirely different from the last, and you can weave as many as you like into an experience that’ll sweep you across Peru, and off your feet.