luxe Luxury

All aboard Peru's oldest luxury train to Machu Pichu

The willowy blonde in front of me, with her leather-trimmed fuchsia Globe-Trotter vanity case and dangerously high heels, is drawing stares. Granted, travel guidelines to Machu Picchu list poncho or raincoat, suntan lotion, hat and sturdy hiking shoes — dutifully followed by most of us in the Belmond Hiram Bingham waiting lounge. But as twirling dancers and musicians with Andean pipes give us a little send-off, and one too many flutes of sparkling wine and maca-apple punch have made the rounds, she seems just right for Peru’s oldest luxury train.

Lesson from the movies

Belmond’s 84-seater is no ordinary ride. Named after the American explorer who discovered the ruins of the Inca citadel in 1911, it takes its cue from the famous Orient Express — most recently seen in Kenneth Branagh’s $55 million adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery. The 1920-style carriages, blue and gold livery, and lustrous interiors deserve a little more than hiking boots, true. But as the train begins to pick up speed, and a dramatic landscape unfolds — fields of corn and potatoes, rocky countryside, the undulating Urubamba river — the selfies and conversations begin, and all else is forgotten. The waiters come around, taking orders for brunch, and a small group gravitates toward the caboose, the observation car and, more importantly, the cheery live band. An open bar makes quick work of pisco sours and the popular ginger ale-spiked Chilcano, while the singers launch into everything from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970s cover of ‘El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)’ to Latin pop singer Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’. The former, a Peruvian anthem, is standard at almost every bar across the country. And the latter, well, the music video is fast-approaching the five billion-view milestone on YouTube; it’s no wonder that even the two young Japanese women, busy with their impressive DSLRs, stop to smile and cheer.

Welcome dance at the Hiram Bingham lounge

Welcome dance at the Hiram Bingham lounge   | Photo Credit: Richard James Taylor

Well into our three-and-a-half-hour journey, when the dancing around the bar has settled down, lunch is served. Fortunately, there is a lot of local representation here as well as on the dinner menu — the Belmond Hiram Bingham offers only day trips, though their new Andean Explorer is a sleeper train (see box), what with Peru’s huge biodiversity. Medium rare Peruvian beef vies with salt-crusted trout from Pumahuancas, and, for dessert, passion fruit chocolate and corn cheesecake, featuring Sacred Valley’s purple corn and elderberry sauce. Even the marmalade served with the bread boasts cara cara oranges from the jungles near Machu Picchu. I sip on chilled Peruvian wine with my meal, feeling a little thoughtless as my companion opposite me is stoically battling altitude sickness.

Time out on a cliff
  • About 70 km from Machu Picchu, through the Sacred Valley, are three vertically hanging transparent capsules, also known as Skylodge Adventure Suites. They are perched along a mountain that is 1,200 feet.
  • Getting to your bedroom in the sky involves the via ferrata or taking the zipline hike. Once you get there, you can see right up to the end of the valley. “Ollantaytambo is the only living town from the Incas, and in front of the rock face, we have Pachar ruins,” says manager Natalia Rodriguez, who is planning more capsules at a lower altitude.
  • Dine on pumpkin soup, salad, a quinoa dish, chicken or lentils hamburger and dessert, with passion fruit juice and wine. The two days and one night package is around $420 dollars per person, and includes transportation, guides, equipment, dinner and breakfast. Details:

Into thin air

Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th century, and our base for the Machu Picchu trip, sits at over 11,000 feet. It takes a few days for some to acclimatise to the altitude, which has led to the phrase “breathless in Cusco”. It is why tour guides remind you to pack the necessary prescription meds and why the tiny airport and the hotels have oxygen cylinders on standby. Locals, of course, swear by the coca leaf to combat altitude sickness, used for centuries for its medicinal benefits. The leaves are hawked everywhere.

At our hotel, Palacio del Inka, a former Inca palace and monastery, coca tea is available round the clock, alongside water. It is the same in Airbnbs and hostels, too. In markets, it is chewed like tobacco, and small bags are sold for a few Peruvian soles (one sol roughly translates to ₹20). With an earthy-vegetal taste, the tea is mildly calming, and it seems to have a curative effect on a few passengers on our train suffering from nausea.

Bar and lounge on Hiram Bingham

Bar and lounge on Hiram Bingham  

Our chatty Cusco guide, Alex, tells us that since the Incas didn’t have milk, only lupini beans, they got their calcium from coca. Later, in Machu Picchu, another guide lets on that when the Incas mummified their dead, they replaced the entrails with coca leaves, and embalmed them with mint leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. Charming. There is also the fact that cocaine is derived from the coca plant. Thus it is illegal to take coca leaves out of Cusco. You can stock up on bags of coca candy, of course, a guaranteed hit with friends back home. But Belmond Hiram Bingham serves some delicious coca chocolate biscuits post dinner, that I try in vain to hunt down at supermarkets.

Stepping up the luxury
  • The Belmond Andean Explorer sleeper train covers the Peruvian Andes from Cusco to Lake Titicaca. You will pass the Colca Canyon and the city of Arequipa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and visit the floating islands of Uros. Buy souvenirs from Quechua women in colourful skirts and bowler hats. Opt for one- and two-night journeys on one of the highest rail routes on the planet. There are 24 cabins on the train, and it can accommodate 48 passengers. Don’t miss executive chef Diego Munoz’s (of Astrid y Gastón fame) specials like alpaca tortellini. Rates for rooms start at $1,405 for two nights. Round trip to Machu Picchu from Poroy station at ₹67,000 and up. Details:

Journey to the sun

At the photo-friendly ruins of Machu Picchu, seen often on postcards and picture books, but in reality filled with an inexplicable calm, we are silent for a long minute. Our guide emphasises the Incas’ connect with the sun. The Temple of the Sun, for instance, has celestial observatories, which aided them in the precise sowing and reaping of various crops. There is the sun calendar, and the window designed to showcase the sun during the winter solstice, the sacrifice centre, and the mausoleum, the natural cave in which, some say, rests Pachacutec, the Inca who made Machu Picchu in the 15th century. Strolling along the aqueducts, we make time for the obligatory selfies with the resident llamas. And look out for our own Zorrino, the Peruvian boy who guides Tintin and Captain Haddock to the Temple of the Sun in Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun.

Our guide points to Huayna Picchu, or ‘young peak’ in Quechua, and the Inca Trail, the classic journey from Piskacucho to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu. The four-day trek isn’t easy, and yet sells out for the year within a few weeks. But luxe pursuits take precedence on this trip, and we get back to our train at Aguas Calientes.

On our starry ride back to Cusco in the observation car, the subject continues to be Machu Picchu, which possibly had about 1,000 people living there at one time. Was it used as a palace, a retreat for the wealthy, or a sanctuary? Many theories exist, and pisco sours, it appears, can keep the conversation going for a long time.

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The writer visited Peru at the invitation of Promperu.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:35:03 AM |

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