Rail travel in Peru is not something that the majority of its population ever gets to experience, but for the tourist wanting a bit of affordable luxury there is nothing to beat a day aboard the Titicaca Train on its thrice-weekly journey between Puno and Cusco.
Regular passenger services along this 385 km (240 mile) route ceased many years ago, and remaining freight traffic seems sparse, so the principal traffic for operator Perurail today is this service, and the even more up-market Belmond Andean Explorer, whose two-day itinerary includes a long branch off this route to Arequipa.
Taking a northbound journey on the Titicaca Train was like a delightful step back in time to an age when train travel was something to be savoured. My single fare for the ten-hour journey was $191 (£145) which may sound a lot, but included lunch, afternoon tea and remarkable on-board entertainment in the form of a folk band and fashion show.
On the day of my trip (Thursday, 7 March 2019) there were no more than 20 passengers at Puno Station to board the 07.30 departure, which was hauled by 1974-vintage locomotive 659 and comprised a baggage car, catering car, two passenger saloons and a delightful bar car, with an open observation area at the rear (pictured top).
That open viewing platform was an excellent was of watching the unfolding landscape, spotting a preserved steam locomotive in Juliaca station (above) – principal town on the line and junction for the Arequipa route – and seeing how the railway here runs along a lengthy line of market stalls, which are briefly cleared away for the train and return onto the track the moment it has passed (below).
Disaster struck our train on the outskirts of the town when we hit a car on one of the countless open level crossings, which the train approaches with horn blaring in the hope that road traffic will take notice. In this case the car drove off, but we still had to wait over an hour while the train driver was questioned by police.
Once clear of the hordes and the driving madness of Juliaca, our sedate northbound progress took us over a long section of plains, with the Andes looming ever larger to the right, passing through isolated places like Pucara, where the abandoned station looked to have remained untouched since regular passenger services ceased almost 20 years ago.
Our only official stop is at the highest point in the journey, La Raya, 4319m (14,150ft.) above sea level, where the 10 minute stop gives you a chance to appreciate the view, visit an old chapel and run the gauntlet of local people selling all manner of local produce.
From this point the line descends steeply, passing through one former station at Sicuani, that is protected by large blue iron gates that are only opened to let the train pass, where a collection of old rolling stock was the only rail vehicles to be seen anywhere between Juliaca and journey’s end in Cusco.
Approaching Cusco at dusk, more than an hour late due to the Juliaca incident, the final 25 minutes of our journey sees our train easing through the Inca capital’s eastern suburbs, horn blaring as we cross an endless succession of busy yet ungated and unprotected level crossings.
Arriving at the city’s gated Wanchaq station there is a tantalising glimpse of some dual gauge track and a link to the city’s other railway system. This is the remarkable 3ft (914mm) gauge line that runs to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu from San Pedro station and will be featured in my second Peru feature: “A trip on the world’s most expensive narrow gauge railway”.
For schedules and fares on the Titicaca Train and all its other services, go to http://www.perurail.com