South America by Train – Puno to Cusco

By Gerald Bailey
I’ll try to write this on today’s 10-hour train trip from Puno to Cusco.   In that time we’ll cover something less than 300 kms.   The journey by bus would be a lot quicker – but would have nothing like the atmosphere we’re currently enjoying and it would be quite impossible to hit the right keys, given the state of most South American roads!

This “Andean Explorer” train is apparently owned by the same company that runs the Orient Express and locals claim that it is second only to the Trans-Siberian.   However it’s being phased out early next year, presumably because it’s uneconomic.

A shame, really, because it’s something quite different.   Seats like armchairs, with tables between; white tablecloths; a small vase of flowers; brass table lamps; wooden panelling – it’s like a throwback to the 1930s.   A setting for an Agatha Christie murder mystery – you half expect Hercule Poirot to walk through the door!

We have constant service from the smartly-attired staff, offering coffee or coca tea, or just now, a blanket in case we were cold.   Lunch will be served at our table – a three-course meal of course.  And as well, we’re promised various forms of entertainment, including dancing – which will provide a challenge, given the width of the aisle.

I’ve quite enjoyed coca tea, made from the leaves of the same plant that’s processed to produce cocaine – and perfectly legal.   It’s recommended to counteract altitude sickness, as is the chewing of coca leaves.   We were told about that practice when we were here in 2005 (you often see people with one swollen cheek – but it’s simply that they’ve jammed some coca leaves between their lips and gums).

We’ve just reached our first stop, passing dozens of stalls operated by the local indigenous population.  How they ever make a living, given that so many are selling the same sort of merchandise, I can’t imagine.

There’s a standard style of dress among the women, regardless of which country you’re in: a bowler hat like Englishmen used to wear (though how it remains in place continues to be something of a mystery); a woollen jersey or a blanket and a flared skirt.   Men and women are both very short of stature, certainly by our standards and the women appear overweight, but as we saw in a dress-up session yesterday, that’s mainly because of the petticoats worn under their skirts.

We spent most of yesterday on Lake Titicaca, firstly visiting the settlement of people living on islands made of reeds. We’d heard about these people last time, but not seen them.

We were blown away by the elaborateness of the settlement.   On a base of reeds about two metres in thickness, they build their houses, schools and observation towers, something like 20 people to an island, where the women produce handcrafts while the men hunt and fish.   Jenny and I both found some handiwork to our liking so we compromised by buying both.

Today we spend a good part of the journey crossing what’s known as the Altiplano – a vast area of flat or gently rolling hills, largely bereft of trees.   Occasionally we see some livestock tethered to pegs, be they llamas, fairly scrawny cattle, or sheep, but with very little evidence of anything for them to eat.

A summons now to the observation car, where the dancing’s to take place.

Turned out to be folk dancing, like what we saw on the island (real island) where we went for lunch yesterday as part of our Titicaca excursion, to be feted with trout washed down with “Inca Cola”.

Our meals have been great.   There have been a few days lately when dinner hasn’t been pre-booked and we’ve contented ourselves with a bowl of soup in the evening – to give our systems some respite!