Train Journeys Peru And Bolivia : A Story


One very delightful group that I managed and in fact some eight different departures were done over some 10 years for train enthusiasts, which consisted of privately organized diesel trains and steam, with very nice 4 star properties and full board accommodation, traveling all over Peru and Bolivia.

The program usually departed in September/ October from Lima; on arrival we would have the first two nights in Lima in which we would visit the City of Lima itself and a visit to the main train maintenance yard for Andean Railways. The yard visit was always of great interest as it was the first introduction to the theme held dear to the entire group, trains.

Then finally on the third day the group would be collected from there hotel in Lima and transferred to the old Victorian train station, Desamparados  in down town Lima, right in the old Colonial Center, next to the old Governmental Palace. Our departure would be early morning just as the sun rose, a slight misty haze would be arround, a very atmospheric scene, the train would arrive into the station with the group waiting, sprawled at different vantage points to catch the catch the first classic photo of our train arriving, with its old cecz carriages, plus at the back was attached a very old open veranda Victorian carriage, complete with bedroom and toilet. On boarding the group would quickly explored what will be there home for two days, some would spend a lot of time in the old carriage, peering from the veranda/ balcony onto train line and the surrounding countryside, whilst others mostly stayed in the the main carriage and at times hung out of the windows as we wound our way up from the foothills of the Andes right to the very top at 5,000meters and to a point called Ticlo, which was where you crossed the snowline and could peer up to the high peaks which seemed ever closer at this point. But lets describe a little of those first few hours on board our first train journey as we moved through Lima , the atmosphere was electric, the local inhabitants had begun to stir, some people would be walking on the track waving at us, the hens were singing there chorus and the wild dogs chasing our train. As we left the city and its houses, one had a sense of space, the distant foothills of the Andes begun to become more dominant and the heat begun to intensify, the track followed for a while the main road out of Lima, it was very dusty and dry, rain rarely fell in this area. Our first port of call would be the small station of San Bartolome  where we find what the entire group had been waiting for, the steam train, sitting majestically with its boiler fired up and quietly spitting and pumping out steam.  There was also a wonderful turntable, which was used by our diesel to turn round in order to follow behind the steam train. We all moved to board the steam train, most of whom entered the coal truck for a close spectacular two hour ride , the driver seemed to be as old as our train. As we gathered a full head of steam and moved out, the smoke would poured out and over the top of us, but on entering the tunnels the smoke would envelope us all. But you know, nobody complained it was the perfect experience that they all wanted and dreamed of!. After two hours our steam train finally ran out of puff and stopped, some members of the group would try to acknowledge the driver, who although he did not speak English new the commonality felt by all, Steam! Our faithful diesel was behind us and ready for us to board and to continue our journey to the highest point Ticlo, 5,000m and regarded as the second highest railway crossing in the world and once passed  we would arrive to La Oroya, the well-known mining town where we would overnight. La Oroya is a very old town whose existence has always been an important melting point for many of Peru´s minerals and was well known for its smells. But a little more about our first day, this spectacular railway line would takes us through  66 tunnels, across 59 bridges, and 22 zig zags, it had been built by Scotish and English Engineers at the turn of the 19th Century and was a great feat of engineering.  As our train was just for ourselves, we programmed some great photo stops with our train, reversing back into the tunnels or round  corners whilst the group waited at strategic points to take their photos, we always gave a full head of steam and whistle when coming out, to the delight of the group. Lunch and evening dinner would be served by the catering group; this was a simple, but a splendid experience.  Finally we would arrive to La Oroya at around 8pm and its local train station, where you would always find an old carriage or some object which would bring squeals of delight. A short transfer brought us to our hotel and a well-deserved rest, followed by a visit the next morning to the local train yard to see what interesting relics could be found and just how these people maintain this incredible line. After our tour of the yard, which always as predicted caused discussions amongst the group, we were ready to board our now familiar train with its crew to Huancayo. As we left La Oroya with all its Smokey smells, we enjoyed a relatively short 3-4 hour journey with a small drop in altitude it felt like we are going downhill, but only a little, finally we arrived to Huancayo and I remember once even to the sound of the local band who welcomed us, a big thing then, as there were few trains at this time that travelled on the line, just cargo. We were collected by a group of local buses and driven through the old town to our classic Huancayo Hotel right in the middle of town, a great location. The afternoon was free to wander, many would visit the local markets or inhabitant the local café´s  and latter in the evening,  we would all sit round for dinner and enjoy the local cuisine.  A little about the Peruvian foods, it is a very diverse and interesting Cuisine which is now enjoying international recognition, but it’s not a cuisine that you will find to different from what you are used to, so you adapt quickly to its dishes, unlike Chinese or Indian for example.

The next morning, was always an exciting journey in which we would board the train known as EL Machu with the big feature known as the narrow gauge line, which went all the way to Huancavelica. Most lines in the world are standard gauge, so you can imagine the attraction of this one, plus it had a long history going right back before the war, where it was used for mining, it is now very much a community train.  Our journey would take up most of the day, the line was run on a shoe string and had a reputation of not arriving on time and often breaking down. Yes we could all sit with the train driver, hang out of the doors and our private carriage although basic, fitted into just what our group wanted, it was historical. Attached behind us were always many other coaches older and more basic with the local population in all there colorful robes. We would stop at all the local villages, dropping of, or picking up and always great opportunities for those who wanted to walk right down to the end carriage and experience the local people. A basic kitchen existed onboard, two in fact, one for us and one for the rest of the train, complete with a basic fire stove, where they would cook full meals of, chicken, rice and potatoes, amazing! and even our waiter would try to wear a tie, even though it was all crooked.  Finally we arrived to Huacavelica, a historical place and regarded as one of the poorest communities in Peru, with an old steam train parked in the station as an ornament only.  Once we had said good-by to our crew, we were taken to our hotel on the main square, the local people would all stare at us, as we were a great rarity, and few tourists ever came here. The town itself was surrounded by mountains with a very atmospheric main square, the local shoe shine boys would quickly get to hear about us and inhabit the outside kerb of our hotel.  In the evening we would take a short hike up hill to a very local restaurant,  where sometimes a little push might be needed in order to get the food moving out of the kitchen and just a little local music to just create that colloquial feeling, but you could not help feeling that this was a unique experience where few ventured, a simple place with simple people, not something you would find every day.

Our journey the next morning will take us some 10 hours, in which we travel across the Andes and along what is is regarded as the highest road crossing in Peru and to the beautiful historical town of Ayacucho. On a day such as this,  there  are always a few photo stops planned on the way,  the landscape and remoteness of this area is enjoyed and one real bonus for the groups is the lunch stop at a small community in which for those who preferred not to have there box lunch,  we would eat at a very local restaurant, it could never be regarded as a place frequented by any tourist and you were guaranteed to be an unusual customer for the owner, the food could only be described as typical of the area and its eating material totally authentic, first impressions of the groups was, ¨ Can I try this, is it safe¨, which of course it was, price was not a problem either and finally the plunge is taken and soon realized that the soups, the local trout,  were all delicious and even the coca leave tea out of a chipped mug was great, soon more of the group joins,  until most have experienced the culinary delights of this very typical Peruvian Restaurant and lived to tell the tale and I am sure with all the photos taken of the kitchen, the three ladies and the cook, the story will be told many times. Our journey continued  until  we finally arrived to Ayacucho, very quickly everyone is off,  a good-by to our driver and a tip for his great driving and most are already of for a quick walk around Ayachucho, experiencing the old square and the charming atmosphere, before returning to the hotel for dinner. Ayacucho can be regarded as a taste of what will come the next day, Cusco, its square has similarities and a little of its flavor, Ayacucho´s principle attraction is its Spring Festival and then it is full from top to bottom, as this is a well-known time for Peruvians and foreigners. The next morning is an early rise in order to take our flight to Lima with a connection to Cusco, with some previous groups we had chartered a planes direct to Cusco.  The groups look forward to this day, although in reality everyday had been an experience and this was as different as any other and one that would take us soaring into the blue sky back to Lima, for a short moment and then to Cusco, the city of the Incas. On arrival to Cusco, we are met by the local pipe music which lingers all around you, the local costumes and the feeling of being somewhere quiet unique, as we arrived to our hotel, everyone is always informed of lunch time and the pending afternoon tour of the city and its surrounding ruins and for those who wish, a visit to the local train station to see what was stored here?.

By the end of this day the group would fell a little tired , the altitude of Cusco in reality was nothing compared to what we had been experiencing in those days prior, funny really, as Cusco is quite high and for most tourists Cusco was an altitude experience, but for the  groups it was,¨  No problem ¨.

The next morning was always a highlight, Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Our journey would also be spectacular, riding out of Cusco town by train we would zig zag out of the valley and travel from a temperate to a tropical climate and experience a drop from 3,600m to about 1,500m at Machu Picchu. On arrival to Aguas Calientes, the small village beneath the ruins of Machu Picchu, we would be transferred to a further train and a ride to the end, where we would alight and met by the local engineers in charge of a local hydro plant. This plant which had been built into the side of a mountain, interestingly enough had been partly destroyed by a slow avalanche of mud some years back and had filled in half the plant, but a great plus about this place, it had a unique view to the back of Machu Picchu. We were to be taken right to the top of the Hydro, first by quite a scary sky lift and then by lift to the top where we would be shown around the plant and also have the opportunity to enjoy the great views and of course the back of Machu Picchu.  Finally we come down, you could see below you,  the railway line and the tunnel which had been blocked by the avalanche and prevented the train from going any further  and not all found it easy coming down on the Ski Lifts. Once down again we would travel back by train to Aguas Calientes where we had lunch and the afternoon free to relax. Up until now we had experienced a variety of weathers and generally warm, but now we were now in a tropical climate with orange tree groves and mosquitos. Next morning we would have to be up early and to take the 20 minute shuttle bus which would wind its way up to Machu Picchu for our tour of the Sanctuary, a lovely day enjoyed by all,  after which the rest of the day was free until we returned by train to Cusco in  the late afternoon,  which is about a four hour journey, some of whom alighted before the famous zig zag and drove the last few miles to Cusco, whilst others stayed on for the Zig Zag ride all the way down the Cusco Valley and to the end of the line. In the evening we enjoyed a colorful traditional folkloric show and dinner and returned back to our hotel to rest and be up quite early for our spectacular ride to Puno,  which would take us through the lush and fertile Cusco Valley and across the anti-plano, a vast desolate area with the high Andes. The train the next morning was always quite a luxury experience, with a wonderful three course meal served and the back carriage with its open veranda and bar,which  gave a relaxing way of observing Peru´s geographical wonders, which was never short on supply. The one and only stop we would have was at La Raya, the highest point on this route, here you were allowed to to dis-embark for half an hour, the local community always had there handicraft stalls out and what would begin as a relaxed atmosphere, would become very intense, as the time came close to the whistle, even to the point where we boarded, the bargaining rhetoric would continue with the locals sellers.

As the day progressed the the barmen onboard would arrange and demonstrate how traditional Pisco Sours were made, i.e. the National Drink of Peru , this would be followed by a fashion show usually of Alpaca, where local young ladies employed by the Alpaca firm would take a fling at being glamorous and parade, this was always discreetly enjoyed by the male fraternity and lastly a Folkloric show would be performed by a local Puno Group, a very different experience to Cusco. Arriving to Puno, we would all dis-embark and by the early evening we would be installed in the hotel Libertador ,perched on a ridge with a great view of Lake Titikaka, the highest navigable lake in the world and in the early hours of the morning , as the sun rose we would also have great views of the floating islands of Uros. For some of us after dinner we would enjoy a nightcap in the bar, an attractive area looking out to the lake before turning in, tomorrow would be a long journey, but an exciting one, taking us into Bolivia and to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world and built into a canyon, surrounded by the Royal Range, the snowcapped mountains of the Andes.

Departing early in the morning at sunrise, we would travel through Puno and across the flat countryside, the altitude is higher than Cusco, though not by much, but we were well used to altitude so this did not present any problem to the group. Finally we would arrive to the border and cross into Bolivia and quickly down to Copacabana, a small town on the shores of Lake Titikaka, with its beautiful main square and old white church, time to visit this area before we rode down to the harbor, to board our large catamaran which would take us across Lake Titikaka with a visit to Sun Island, the birth place of the Incas, or so they said. Here we would enjoy a ride on an old reed boat, with a great  liking to the old Viking crafts and finally the great climb up the steps of Sun Island, with its views , museum and traditional Shaman Offering. Returning to our catamaran we would journey to the other side and arrive to La Paz at around 8pm, after docking on the other side of the lake and taking the bus journey to La Paz, which was about 2 hours. In the evening we would enjoy dinner in the well-known roof top restaurant of our hotel, The Plaza. Next morning we would be off round La Paz, its City Center  and the main square with all its bullet holes around the plaza, representing the last Coup de Ta ( Bolivia is in the Guinness Book of Records as having the most Coup de Ta´s in the world )  and the witches  market which were all very interesting. No visit would be complete without visiting its old Victorian Train Station, its line long since been dug up, but there is interesting old shed which we always managed to open up,   in which we discovered some old trams. The Victorian Clock on the station must have stopped back at some point in time, which who knows when and shows a completely outdated time, but all adds to the atmosphere, as if we are great discoverers.  Finally no visit is complete without a visit to the place called Moon Valley, with its rocks and cliffs which supposedly gave the impression of a moon crater. Lunch and the afternoon free to just wander around this fascinating city. The next day we would return to Puno, an all day journey by coach with a visit to the great ruins of Tiwanaku, often regarded as the birth place of the American Civilization. Our journey would take us from our hotel which was well down the canyon, back up to El Alta, a notorious run down suburb which is at the top of the canyon, with great views of La Paz City Center and the snowcapped Royal Andes Range. From here we would drive to the Ruins of Tiwanaku for our visit with a typical lunch close by,  before carrying on to the Bolivian Border, but not before we made a visit to a small community with a yard and shed,  in which we found a whole host of steam engines, some of which were under repair.  I had found this several years back and still was a pleasure for the groups to visit, I would say it had been one of the great finds that had been made, as it was so authentic and these people were so happy to have us, as we had something in common, trains as one would say, ¨Like minds ¨. After crawling all around these locomotives, we finally arrived to the border and a few hours later, Puno and our hotel.

The next morning we had arranged for the train to practically stop outside the hotel, this was our private chartered train, it was always an amazing feeling. With our two carriages and a diesel train,  we would travel all the way to Arequipa  with quite a few very nice photo stops , which would involve reversing round corners,  across bridges and all complete with a full head of steam and whistle and of course no journey was complete without the famous cab ride for anyone who wanted a spot with the driver, this would be alternated all the way,  until we arrived to Arequipa and would be repeated the next day. We left early that morning, boarding our train just outside the hotel and settling in our carriage, we had a  great day lined up and lunch would be cooked and served by our on board chef and team and was guaranteed to be a culinary experience. We quickly climbed out of Puno, leaving behind the great Lake Titikaka and soon we were passing local the Amaras Communities, which is a very dominant culture in this area. Soon we would arrive to the commercial bustling town of  Juliaca and the train would take us right through the center and actually right through the local market center,  which sprawled onto the line and where you could practically shake hands with the locals. Once out of Juliaca, we continued on pass more communities , then up some hills and around corners to where we passed some lagoons, a great place to turn the train back a short distance for a photo shot and like this,  more were arranged, lunch was a delight, the catering staff did us proud, every morsel was so delicious. Before finally arriving to Arequipa we would pass through the valley of the Volcanoes, some of which are active, some few years back,  there was quite a severe earth quake with the epicenter in a place called Moquegua, which was not too far away.  A little about Arequipa, regarded as the second most important town in Peru, it is nestled right below the great majestic volcanoes called Misti and still to this day active. This beautiful Spanish Colonial Town would be our home for a further two nights which would allow us to do our last spectacular train journey across the desert to the old beach town of Mollendo, an all-day affair, but one which would engage us in another highlight not to be forgotten.  Next morning for the group we had by now our traditional visit to the yard, to see what could be unearthed,  sometimes some relics from a long forgotten past, before finally boarding our private train and carriages for our all day journey. As the sun rose we slowly journeyed out of Arequipa, past local fields, irrigation channels, chickens, short bridges, before we arrived to the desert gate way, this endless cover of sand and dune faces would continue until the end of the line, at Mollendo. We made several photo stops, one of which was a small desert town in which we ran the train out of town and back in again, with the cameras clicking. At about midday our catering crew did a lovely meal before we finally arrived to Mollendo, this last part took us downhill for a numbers of miles through tunnels,  sheer face sides, around corners until we finally could see the ocean and the small town, we were arriving to sea level. We finally pulled up at the old railway station, dis-used and had rarely seen a train for years.  A free two hours were agreed by the group and of they hiked around the town, an old sea port with its own history. Finally all back onboard for our ride back to Arequipa, as we climbed we slowly watch the coast line disappear until we reached the flats and the desert and began to push our way across. A spectacular sun set began to grow from our train windows, becoming so deep that the train was stopped to the delight of the group and we all alighted to watch the final rays of the sun drop behind the horizon, what a spectacle this is always is in the desert and such a moment. Finally we crossed the last bridge into Arequipa and arrived to the station, where we were met and transferred to our hotel for a well earnt rest.

Next morning we would visit the historical town of Arequipa, with its cathedral and old monastery of Santa Catalina, the largest covered convent in the world and in the afternoon we would finally boarded our flight back to Lima and our hotel, for our final night before returning to England. In the evening we would have our final farewell dinner all together, an evening of remembrance and a feeling of having shared something unique and special.

The next morning many of the group would take off to different parts of Lima on their own, some to  Barranco, where there was an old tram, others into Miraflores for some last minute shopping and then in the late afternoon, the last transfer to Lima Airport where the group would board there flight home and the end of an experience of a life time !.....

Hope you enjoyed my story

Many thanks

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