Tag Archive: Peru Rail


Andes by rail

Andes Explorer passenger car

Andes Explorer passenger car

Train travel affords an opportunity to see a side of the landscape not to be otherwise seen, and by that measure Peru Rail’s Andean Express is over the top.

The train covers the 240 miles between Cusco and Puno – the jump-off point for Lake Titicaca – at a leisurely pace which allows passengers plenty of time to soak up the scenery.

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

The train pulls out of the Cusco station at 8AM, and as it passes through the city, locals are eating breakfast under the canopies of sidewalk kitchens or making their way to work.

Children and adults alike wave at the train as it passes, evoking a childhood memory.

It’s no surprise that the Andean Explorer has been named one of the world’s Top 25 Trains.

It  serves up the day-long trip with a level of comfort and service that recalls the golden age of train travel.

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Armchairs and white tablecloths lend the feel of a drawing room to the passenger cars , and uniformed stewards seem ever-present.

Cocktails and high tea are served in a club car tacked onto the end of the train, but it’s the view from the car’s open-air gallery that’s truly intoxicating.

For those who are so inclined, a Happy Hour and made-in-Peru fashion show help to break up the trip.

 

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

The outskirts of Cusco dissolve into small villages where all manner of enterprises have been drawn to the rails.

In some places the tracks pass through the dowdy underside of towns and in others run alongside their main streets.

Wives work side by side with their husbands in every type of endeavor from tending fields to brick making.

The train passes through the Rio Urubamba canyon and continues climbing away from the river’s headwaters.

Behind us, mountains loom over river and villages tucked into lush, terraced valleys, and pare the sky into slivers.  Ahead of us, the landscape unfolds into a vast, arid altiplano – high plain – framed by mountains that ring the horizon as if propping up the endless sky.

Church at La Raya, Peru

Church at La Raya, Peru

 

 

Near the halfway point, the train begins to brake in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

 

A small church appears as we pull to a stop in front of a bazaar that stretches alongside the track for nearly the length of the train.

 

 

 

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

This is La Raya, and at more than 14,000 feet above sea level it’s the highest point on the route, and  the divide beyond which water no longer flows toward the Urubamba and Amazon, but instead toward the Pacific Ocean.  To the north are mostly Quechua-speaking peoples and to the south – and into Bolivia – the native tongue is Aymara.

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

 

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

As I step off the train and begin wandering among the artisans, Cusco’s 11,000 foot altitude suddenly feels like child’s play.

 

 

The stopover is brief, and it’s a bit like watching a speed-dating event as everyone tries to strike a deal.

 

 

The quality and variety of the work – mostly textiles – is good, and since only one train passes through each day, the vendors are highly motivated.

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

 

 

 

 

Beyond La Raya, the route passes through agricultural villages separated by grazing animals and the stubble of recently harvested fields.  Couples labor together on their land.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxis wait at crossings for the train to pass.

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

 

A bicyclist paces the train for a while before falling behind.

 

 

About an hour before its arrival, the train passes through Juliaca, home of the airport nearest to Lake Titicaca.  It’s about 10 blocks to the harbor from the Puno train station, and the hotel zone and central plaza are even closer.

Tomorrow begins with a boat trip to the floating Uros Islands.  Click here to come along!

 

Tip:  The view from seats on the west side of the train is significantly more interesting, particularly on the segment through the Urubamba canyon.

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Contemplating Cusco

For the Incas, all roads led to Cusco.  The city’s name is a corruption of the Inca word for “center,” and it was for them the “navel of the world”, the place from which roads to the four compass points linked the capital with the four regions through which it administered the empire. The Incas’ mark on the city was largely erased by the Spaniards’ campaign of cultural genocide, but in the old city – as in Ollantaytambo – the conqueror’s architecture sits atop original Inca walls.

Cusco 01 2014-05-12

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas as seen from Saksaywaman

Those walls rise, man-high, around narrow, tourist-packed streets that feel at times like walking through Florence. The old city comes alive at night, and there are easily enough good restaurants in Cusco to suit every taste and budget. Plan to stay no less than a couple of days and at least as many nights here to take in the essentials.

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Cusco’s historic center street view

The Spaniards were intent not just upon conquering the Inca, but upon obliterating the symbols and practices through which Inca society had been bound together.

Their obsession with building Catholic churches upon the ruins of Inca palaces and temples created two of the city’s most prominent attractions – the Qorikancha and the Cathedral de Santo Domingo.

The vast Plaza de Armas is Cusco’s center and a great place to people-watch, but it’s also the address of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and older, adjacent Iglesia del Triunfo.

The cathedral is constructed of stone scavenged from Saksaywaman, the great archeological site in the hills above the city.

This UNESCO world heritage site was once occupied by the Inca’s palace and armory.  Work on the cathedral was finished more than a century after the church was completed.

It’s now a major repository of Cusco’s colonial art, archeological artifacts, and religious relics.  They’re all so fragile that photos are no long permitted… so this attraction has to be seen firsthand to be experienced, and it’s not to be missed.

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Convent & Church of Santo Domingo; site of the Qorikancha

 

The sprawling Convent of Santo Domingo is built upon the site of the Inca Qorikancha, a religious complex of five temples that was the spiritual heart of the empire.

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo

 

Above ground, the only hint of its origins is the curved wall of perfectly fitted stones upon which the convent church now sits.

 

 

 

 

The cloistered courtyard within gives no further clues as to what lies beneath.

Inca chamber beneath the convent

Inca chamber beneath the convent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In two places, though, precise construction of the original Inca chambers is laid bare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earthquake-proof, trapezoidal windows align perfectly

Into the perfectly formed chambers are set windows and doors that narrow from bottom to top in earthquake-resistant design.

The Inca technique for mortarless walls used stone pins and catches to bind the blocks together.

It has survived dozens of earthquakes, including the massive quake of 1650 that leveled most of the Spanish construction above it.

Inca mortarless block

 

On a gold plaque is transcribed a copy of an earlier map showing the location of all structures in the original complex.

 

Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

The short walk to the Qorikancha from the city center is already halfway to Cusco’s artisan market, located at the intersection of the Avenidas del Sol and Tullumayo.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans' market.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans’ market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans' market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans’ market.

While there’s been no lack of opportunity to shop the work of local artisans elsewhere, this market houses stalls of more than 100 artisans under one roof.

It showcases work in media including textiles, leather, wood, and stone.  Many can be seeing creating new works while minding their stalls.

The vendors are very engaging and the prices quite competitive.  An afternoon visit is recommended, as some stalls are closed mornings.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.

 

 

A giant statue of Christ with arms extended looks out over Cusco from the hills above.

 

 

Behind it are the ruins of Saksaywaman, sitting astride the compass-point entrance to the Cusco which it once controlled.

Ruins at Saksawywaman

Ruins at Saksawywaman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About half an hour’s drive from the city center, this site is draped across the hills.

 

 

Significant portions remain unexcavated, so it’s not as comprehensive as archeological sites  seen earlier.

 

 

This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

It does, however, boast one particularly unusual feature:  An open-ended cave through which mountain breezes create a natural freeze-drying effect which the Inca found well-suited to the task of mummification.

Days in Cusco  may be filled with museums and monuments, but evenings are for walking the, narrow, warmly lit  streets of the old town, and for checking out the great dining scene.

(There’s still plenty of time this evening to try an alpaca steak and a quinoa beer.)

Time spent in Cusco flies by, but in Peru all good things seem to lead only to more good things.

Tomorrow morning, Peru Rail’s Andean Explorer heads south on a day-long trip that follows the Urubamba River valley to its headwaters before it emerges onto the high plains.  On its way to Lake Titicaca, it passes through the highest point of the trip – 14,170 feet.  (The scenery will take your breath away, too!)  Click here to come along for the ride.

The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.

The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.

Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.

Machu Picchu 03

 

The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.

 

The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.

 

Machu Picchu 02

 

Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.

It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.

Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail.  Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.

The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.Machu Picchu 04

 

Machu Picchu 01I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in  photos.

In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.Machu Picchu 05

Machu Picchu 06

Machu Picchu 07

 

Machu Picchu 08Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.

The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.

In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.

Machu Picchu 09On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu 10A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.

Machu Picchu 11The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture.  Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.

Machu Picchu 12Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction.  It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.

This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.

Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.

The train departs  tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco.  Come  along for a walk about the Inca capital.

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

River, road, and rails often run together through this part of the Valle Sagrada – the Sacred Valley – but the river road turns east into the mountains beyond Ollantaytambo , and anyone not trekking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must arrive by train.

The good news is that Peru Rail cars are clean and up to date, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and the ride takes little more than an hour.

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Inca platform on a cliff

The Urubamba River descends steadily from its headwaters on the far side of Cusco.  By the time it reaches Ollantaytambo, it has already dropped by nearly 2,000 feet on its way to the Amazon.  It drops by nearly 3,000 feet more as the train follows it to Aguascalientes through twenty miles of changing microclimates.

 

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

After three days in the Valley, the visitor’s eyes become attuned to  flyspecks of Inca terraces and buildings anchored in the vast landscape, or half-hidden by foliage.

 

 

They appear with amazing frequency along this route, which drives home the point that there was far acreage under cultivation in Inca times than there is today.

 

 

The views are spectacular, and peaks of nearby mountains are sometimes only visible through the train’s vista dome.

 

 

From time to time there’s a wait on a siding for a returning train to pass through a one-lane mountain tunnel.

 

 

 

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

 

 

The road has long ago veered away from river and rails, and the scattered hamlets along the river are now connected to the opposite bank only by footbridges.

 

 

 

 

 

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

 

 

 

The river grows increasingly turbulent as it plunges ever downward.

The rainy season is still months away and boulders above the low water mark have been worn smooth its raging currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguascalientes has the look of a Colorado ski village crossed with a Colorado mining town.  It’s nestled in a gorge at the foot of Machu Picchu and anyone can walk along every street of its twenty-five square blocks in little more than an hour.

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente's riverfront street

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente’s riverfront street

 

 

The riverfront street is split down the middle by the Peru Rail tracks, and although there’s little rail traffic beyond the village, it’s possible to dine at an outdoor table within its reach.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The village is divided by a tributary of the Urubamba, and the halves are connected by several bridges from which much of the town is readily visible.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Aguascalientes is a pedestrian delight.

Connected to the rest of the world only by rail, the streets of Aguascalientes are free of any automobiles.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

 

Construction materials, restaurant deliveries, and even trash collection rely on porters and hand trucks.

There is no lack of good restaurants here, but there are far more pizzerias, wi-fi coffee houses, and Peruvian restaurants with menus barely distinguishable from each other.

The "Inca Cross"

The “Inca Cross”

A walk through the village turns up dozens of images of the Chacana, popularly known as the “Inca cross”.

It’s a square superimposed upon a cross with arms marking the four compass points.  It symbolizes the Incas’ view of a three-level world:

Hana Pacha, the upper world in which the gods reside.

Kay Pacha, the world of living people.

Urin Pacha, the underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Aguascalientes takes its name from the therapeutic hot spring at its upper end which can be a welcome stop for anyone who’s overdone a day of hiking.

There are also massage therapists on almost every street corner, and in combination bath and massage makes for a great wind-down after a day on the mountain

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A peek into a church on the main plaza turns up the recurrent image of a crucified Christ robed in an Inca tunic.

Unlike most of the Christ images in Peruvian churches, this one is dark-skinned.

Young women in traditional garb are gathered in anticipation of the Mother’s Day celebration which is just beginning to crank up.

 

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother's Day celebration.

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother’s Day celebration.

Tonight’s a night to turn in early, though, because the plan for tomorrow is to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.  Come along.

 

Some  tips:

  • Only a limited number of Machu Picchu tickets are issued for each day, which will require you to also have round trip reservations for the train and bus shuttle tickets to and from the site.
  • You may encounter baggage restrictions if boarding the train at Ollantaytambo, so consider taking with you only enough baggage for a couple of days and leaving excess baggage at the station checkroom.
  • You’ll also want to have room reservations in Aguascalientes for at least the night before or after your Machu Picchu visit… or maybe both. 

While some Machu Picchu aficionados spend every minute of a full day on the site, even a casual tourist accompanied by a knowledgeable guide should plan on spending no less that 2-3 hours there. 

The crowds are at their lightest at opening, and on Sundays.

  • I used the services of GoToPeru for all of my in-country travel, for reservations and ticketing to cultural sites.  Their guides are excellent and I highly recommend their service.
Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Town, terraces, and ruins of Ollentaytambo

Ollantaytambo is where the Inca ruins come most alive.

Here the terraces creep down the mountainside to the very edge of a town in which many Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants.

It was also once a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, during his eight year rebellion against the Spanish that ended deep in the mountains at Vilcabamba.

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu

Ollentaytambo is a popular stay-over for backpackers on their way to Machu Picchu

 

Ollantaytambo is the last stop on the Perú Rail line before the Machu Picchu station in Aguascalientes

It’s also a popular stopover for the many backpackers who pick up a connection to the last leg of the  Inca Trail just a few miles down the track.

Those hikers not staying in any of the town’s hostels or lodges cluster around the wi-fi cafes, lounging on their packs and checking email on their iPhones.

 

Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

Man in native dress sits next to a Cusqueña beer truck.

On the central plaza, a man in native garb sits, chameleon-like, next to a Cusqueña beer truck of the same color.  The brew, a lager style, is Perú’s most popular beer, although at least two microbreweries now operate out of Lima.

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Two women in native dress wait for tourists to arrive

Across the plaza, women in native dress offer to pose for pictures.  Even after only a couple of days in country, the differences in dress among the native peoples is already beginning to sort itself out.

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Original Inca walls, streets, and aqueduct

Ollantaytambo’s narrow streets appear unchanged since they were built by the Inca.

They pass between signature walls of stone rising a full story and fitted seamlessly together without benefit of mortar.

Aqueduct gutters along each lane still carry fresh water from the mountains as they did when first built.

Only the telltale design of Spanish Colonial structures erected on these foundations testify to the Conquest.

Ollentaytambo street scene

Ollentaytambo street scene

 

Ollantaytambo seems to absorb the visitor into a time warp.

It’s often possible to stand at a corner and see nothing in any direction that gives a hint of the five centuries that have passed since people first walked these streets.

 

Entrance to traditional Inca home.

Entrance to traditional Inca home.

One home is occupied as a living museum in which the caretakers live just as their Inca ancestors once did.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

Corn is only one of the foods air-cured by the Incas.

It’s cool and dim inside.  Ears of corn and lines of fish are suspended from the ceiling, curing in the dry, cool air.  (The word ‘jerky’ comes from the Quechua term “ch’arki”, which means “dried meat”)

Stones used to hand-grind corn.

Stones used to hand-grind corn.

 

Worn stones bear witness to centuries of corn tediously hand-milled.

Corn has been a staple in the Peruvian diet for over 3,000 years, and many varieties are unique to the area.

It’s used to make everything from bread to chicha morada, a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage made from boiled purple corn.

Guinea pigs - cuy - on the hoof.

Guinea pigs – cuy – on the hoof.

Guinea pigs graze on the dirt floor, fattening up for their unforeseen slaughter.

These animals are native to the region, and have served as a source of protein among the indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Guinea pig – cuy  – is still to be found on Sacred Valley restaurant menus .

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Main ruins in foreground, Inca granary in background on mountain.

Most of the archeological site lies on the west end of the town, but a trail up the mountain opposite it leads to several isolated structures above.  A climb to explore them offers a tempting opportunity for a panoramic view of the entire area that’s too much to resist.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

These granaries stand about 50 tall, placed to take advantage of cool, dry breezes.

The climb along a narrow trail with steep drop-offs ascends several hundred feet and the hike takes around half an hour.  The buildings that were barely visible from the town below are now revealed to be granaries, each silo standing nearly 50 feet tall.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

View of the main ruin from the slope opposite.

The hike is worth it, though, because the main part of the site is spectacularly visible in its entirety from this vantage point.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Town in foreground, ruins to right, quarry on the cloud-covered mountain.

Towering in the distance across the river is the cloud-wrapped  peak from which the stone for this monumental construction was quarried.

As I survey the panorama from my perch at more than 9,000  it crosses my mind that the Egyptians had to contend with no mountains when they hauled the massive stones with which they built the pyramids.

I can be only more impressed by the Incas’ ingenuity and perseverance.

My train to Aguascalientes and Machu Picchu leaves at mid-day tomorrow, and I’ve got an idea about what to do with a free morning.  Come along and see.