Ferrocarril del Sur
The standard gauge railway linking Cusco with Puno, more than 350km to the south, was fully opened by the Ferrocarril del Sur company in 1908.
The line is the third highest in the world. It starts from Wanchaq station in Cusco at 3354m elevation and then climbs for 159km to its 4300m summit at La Raya on the border between Cusco and Puno provinces. From La Raya the line descends onto to an Andean plateau, passes through the large town of Juliaca and finally terminates at the edge of Lake Titicaca at Puno (3828m).
Sadly, regular passenger trains on the Puno to Cusco line ceased at the end of the twentieth century. The state of the track means that speeds are low and it takes over 10 hours to complete the 200 mile journey. This means rail cannot be a viable competitor against either the cheaper bus companies or the dramatically faster airlines.
Today, there are only two types of train operated on the Cusco to Puno line and both are aimed firmly at the tourist market. One is the very upmarket Belmond “Andean Explorer”, which sells tickets at around 800 dollars, and the other is the more modest Peru Rail “Titicaca Train” with tickets at around 200 US dollars.
The “Andean Explorer” doesn’t actually run in February, so we couldn’t have taken it even if we had wanted to.
In any case, we were very happy with the “Titicaca Train”. It was not a bad deal at all and the fare included a welcome cocktail, a gourmet lunch and afternoon tea.
In addition, the rolling stock for the “Titicaca” was actually used on the “Andean Explorer” train until being replaced by more luxurious coaches just two years ago. In fact some people may recognise it as the old train and call it by its old name.
Nevertheless, the people at Perurail were very keen to point out that our train was no longer the “Andean Explorer”.
The “Titicaca Train” runs 3 times a week in each direction. Every day it departs one terminus at around 07:00 and is scheduled to arrive at the other at 17:30.
We were catching the Wednesday departure from Cusco to Puno.
At 6:40 we arrived at Cusco’s Wanchaq Station in a taxi from our hotel. A porter was standing in front of the station and he took our bags from us and led us to the platform where the train was already waiting.
The train was comprised of a diesel locomotive at the head of five carriages. The first two coaches were service vehicles containing the baggage car and kitchen. The third and forth vehicles were the Pullman style restaurant cars.
The fifth and final vehicle was a combined bar and observation car. The last part of the observation section was open at the side and the rear was totally open with just a barrier rail in place. This meant that you could stand in the open at the back of the train and watch the view disappear into the distance.
We arrived at a lectern half way down the platform behind which three uniformed Perurail employees stood. They greeted us and whilst one arranged for our baggage to be labelled and placed into the baggage car, another quickly checked us in. The third, who introduced himself as Mario and told us he would be our steward for the trip, guided us on to the train.
The coaches have 2 plus 1 seating and are presented in the style of a British Pullman train of the 1920s. Mario showed us to a table of two on the right hand side of the 4th coach and handed us the menu. He explained that the dinner and afternoon tea would be complimentary but we had the choice to purchase breakfast. Did we want to? We declined as we had already eaten in the hotel. It seemed that most of our fellow passengers had done the same as there seemed to be no takers at all.
By 7:00am all our fellow passengers were on board. There must have been about 60 people in all. We were a fascinating mixture of age groups and nationalities ranging from young Australian and German backpackers to elderly Americans. During the journey we met two couples from the UK, from Bath and Kiddeminster, a guy from Israel living in London and two groups of French people. There were also Indians, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans and a Peruvian family on board.
Dead on time at 7:10, and with the horn blearing constantly, we set off heading out of the station and through Cusco at about 10mph. We picked up a little speed but it still took almost 1 hour to clear the suburbs of Cusco.
By 8am we were threading through a river valley. The sun was shining and the scenery was exceptionally beautiful. It pretty much stayed that way for the whole journey.
After two hours everyone seemed to have settled in. In the bar car some of the British were already drinking pisco sours, the Americans were discussing Trump and the Germans had hogged the back of the observation deck. In the carriage the Chinese were drinking tea from a tiny flask and eating Pringles, the Japanese were sleeping and the Mexican mother was breast feeding her child.
At 9:40 we were all called over the tannoy to gather in the rear carriage for the formal welcome. We managed to get the last two seats but most people were left standing. We were all then served with our welcome cocktail drink.
This was followed by a fashion show. The first time I have ever experienced one of those on a moving train! Two models, one female and one male, paraded a series of llama wool knitwear through the carriage to the accompaniment of local music performed by two musicians dressed in costumes.
I wasn’t really interested in this at all. Luckily it seemed that the Germans were interested, so I took my chance and seized prime position on the observation deck.
I spent most of the rest of the morning standing at the back looking at the views in the distance. Most people returned to their own seats in the two dining cars, a few more ( including my wife) stayed in the bar section and I was joined out on the deck by a few more.
For most of the time we were running through fields of corn and potatoes, but now and again we would pass through little villages. The road from Cusco to Puno was parallel for most of the way and when we passed through villages it would join us and the track would effectively be part of the main street.
We were climbing for most of the journey in the morning and the scenery was becoming more and more mountainous. Snow was clearly visible on the peaks in the distance.
At about 12:00 we arrived at our only stop of the journey; a 10 minute pause at La Raya. This is the summit of the line and at 4300m, the highest altitude we would reach on the whole Peru trip.
La Raya was also about the halfway point and marked the boundary between Cuzco and Puno provinces.
There was no real settlement at La Raya. There was just a church sitting all by itself between the railway and the parallel road and a small market with local people selling what we had now come to expect: a collection of llama wool goods.
Everyone from the train alighted and descended on the market. A few people purchased some things but most didn’t. I wandered around looking into the church and photographing the train. The effects of the high altitude were quite apparent and I struggled a few times to catch my breath as I wandered around.
As soon as the train left La Raya we were served lunch. It was all cooked on board and it was absolutely delicious. We started with the local potato soup, which like everything with potatoes in Peru, tasted fantastic. The main course was a lovely piece of beef, wrapped in bacon and served with mashed cream corn.
We descended slowly and entered a larger plain. There were plenty of cattle in the fields too. The train was still moving relatively slowly; at one point a dog was chasing us and it almost managed to keep pace alongside.
By 2pm we had finished lunch and the train was now passing through the wide Andean plateau. As we approached the little settlement of Ayaviri there were flamingos visible outside. Inside, most people were asleep!
At around 3pm there was another session of entertainment in the bar car. This time the same musicians appeared but were now accompanied by a colourfully-dressed dancing girl. I retired once again to the back of the train to chat to some of the others and enjoy the view.
The number of staff on board was quite amazing. It said something for the level of wages in Peru that you could, assuming they made a profit, fill a train with 60 or so guests paying 200 USD, feed them, transport them 350km and employ probably more than 20 staff to look after them.
By about 4pm we were on the outskirts of Juliaca, the largest settlement on our journey and the largest town in Puno province. On the parallel main road there was also a sign saying that Puno was only 42km ahead, yet we still had almost 2 hours on board to look forward to.
Juliaca is not the nicest town in Peru and it has something of a bad reputation for crime, perhaps encouraged by the smuggling business with nearby Bolivia. The Lonely Planet guidebook warns people that muggings and robberies in broad daylight are a possibility. It encourages visitors landing at the airport (the nearest to Puno) to get out as quickly as possible.
From the train, the town looked pretty poverty stricken and it was certainly the poorest place we saw in Peru. Even though the Peruvian economy has been booming over the past few years it seems that many parts of the country, particularly rural Peru, have been passed by. (We got an even stronger impression a few days later when we returned through Juliaca by road on the way to the airport. We also experienced “reverse culture shock” landing back in Lima. The regions are certainly disproportionately poor)
At Juliaca the railway passes directly through the local market. It actually forms the central axis of the market and stalls are placed on either side the railway track itself. This makes some sense given that it goes through the town centre and there is only one train a day. For most of the time the market stall holders and their customers have the railway track to themselves.
Our train now slowed down to a crawl as we stood on the back deck and watched fascinated as the market passed by on both sides. For some local people the train passing through seemed to be an interesting interruption to their shopping and they waved at us as we went by. For others it seemed we were a complete nuisance and you could feel their frustration as they waited for us to pass so they could continue with their lives.
In some cases the stallholders were actually using the centre of the track to display their goods. Some of these products had been covered up before the train came through, but not everything was covered and there were places where even food was exposed to anything dripping from the bottom of the train.
It was all quite an amazing spectacle and it went on for more than a kilometre before we finally made it into Juliaca station.
We made a brief stop in Juliaca and then set out again towards Puno. At around 4:30 afternoon tea was served. Dainty little sandwiches and small cakes on a plate were offered together with an infusion of mint and other local herbs.
By 5:15 everything had been cleared away and, on the schedule at least, the train was supposed to be nearly there. Yet there was still no sign of the lake. We were still passing through beautiful flat plains with cattle and sheep grazing. The sun was still shining but it was getting lower and lower in the sky. We were running late!
Finally we rounded a bend and the lake was there. We trundled, frustratingly, past the hotel where we would stay the next three nights and then kept going along the lake shore for another few kilometres until we joined the main road heading into Puno. We finally pulled up in the station over 30 minutes late at 6pm almost 11 hours after leaving Cusco.
This must be some kind of slow train record for me; 11 hours for a distance equivalent to London to Preston or Tokyo to Nagoya.
I can’t say it hadn’t been enjoyable though. I had been a bit skeptical about riding on such a touristy train, but I have to admit it had been delightful. The sun helped and the scenery had been just magnificent.
Still it is a shame that they can’t fettle the track a bit and run cheaper trains a little faster and give the bus companies a run for their money.
Before we could detrain there was still the delicate issue of unloading the bags. We were told to remain seated. The train first pulled up with the baggage car aligned to where we would eventually alight. The bags were unloaded and then the train was finally brought forward so that the carriages were level with the bags. It was an extra 5 minute delay but no one seemed to care.
We got off, retrieved our bags and jumped in a taxi to head back 5km in the direction we had just come.
The hotel upgraded us to a room that not only overlooked the lake, but more importantly had a great view of the railway track that passed in front of the garden gate.
I knew we wouldn’t need an alarm clock the next morning as the northbound “Titicaca Train” was due to pass just after 7:30.