Cusco

andean explorer: train journey from cusco to puno

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When it comes to getting around within a country, our favourite mode of transport would be train: there is just so much leg room and freedom to move around while also having the opportunity to stare out of the windows at the passing scenery. Reading and playing card games are also easy possibilities to pass the time.

That is how we got to Puno from Cusco when we were in Peru. We went on the Andean Explorer which took about 12 hours. The seating carriages were also the dining carriage and the configuration was 4-seater tables and 2-seater tables. There was lunch and afternoon tea served. Towards the rear of the train was the lounge carriage with a bar and entertainment was provided throughout the journey.

The seating / dining carriage
The seating / dining carriage
Le (Mrs Wise Monkey) selected to join the dancing
Le (Mrs Wise Monkey) selected to join the dancing
Musicians and dancer
Musicians and dancer

The last carriage was an observation carriage with expansive viewing windows and no glass at the very back, perfect for photographing the ever-changing scenery. The train passes through so many different glorious backdrops and vegetation; through mountainous areas, farms, and in one section, right over a market set up on the tracks. The train journey was an experience we will never forget and were so glad to have experienced!

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The altitude for Cusco is approximately 3400 metres above sea level while Puno is about 3900 metres above sea level. On the train, the highest point that it stops at is La Raya which is almost 4400 metres above sea level. It certainly did feel harder to breathe as we walked around the markets at La Raya station.

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At higher altitude, there is a decreased oxygen pressure – it is not related to someone’s fitness ability. A few pointers/tips that we found useful to avoid altitude sickness:

  • Take it slow – over exertion is probably the easiest way to succumb to altitude sickness.
  • Coca leaves and coca tea –  what the locals use to help with this. Its quite readily available so enquire about it.
  • Make sure that several hours after arriving at high altitudes, to relax. We spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed and watching TV. There is always the temptation to hit the ground running and head out straight away to explore but it wasn’t worth the risk. This goes hand in hand with avoiding over-exertion. Allow the body to acclimatise.
  • One last tip from a friend who had been to Peru : don’t let our head go below our heart e.g. if we were to pick something up from the ground, we were best to bend out knees and lower our entire body, keeping our head and neck straight as opposed to bending over as we normally would and letting our head drop forward  and then quickly standing up again. We took this tip and all others on board  because we were not risking altitude sickness and risking it spoiling our time in Peru.
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eating cuy (a.k.a guinea pig)

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Guinea Pig anyone?
Guinea Pig anyone?

Apologies now if you owned a guinea pig growing up! In Peru though, particularly the Andes, fried guinea pigs are popular as are other meats such as alpacas. And we ate both during our stay in Cusco. Alpaca meat is so tender and is very low in fat and truly scrumptious. We ate alpaca skewers at Pacha Papa which we were told was a restaurant worth trying. But before trying the alpaca, we had tried a roast cuy at another restaurant. This restaurant had gorgeous Andean live music and the food was delicious but sadly, the cuy was not. Well at least we didn’t think so. We had hoped to order a full cuy but the restaurant had sold out for the night so we had a half cuy instead. So what did it taste like? Nothing like chicken, probably more gamey. It was stringy, there was very little meat and the skin, although appeared like crispy pork skin, turned out to be tough and rubbery! Now, all meats have a distinct smell, accompanied with the taste when inside the mouth, that usually differentiates it from other meats and the cuy was no different. The smell was actually quite strong and off-putting but only after it went into the mouth. We were glad we hadn’t got a full cuy! Peru also is well known for the different varieties of corn.

Purple Corn Pudding
Purple Corn Pudding

Purple corn pudding was this delicious dessert that was introduced to us in Sydney by a friend from Peru and so we were on the hunt in Peru for the authentic real deal. And goodness, the hunt was worth it!

But there was more to Cusco though than guinea pigs and alpacas. It was from here that we took a bus trip down to Ollantaytambo, where we stayed for one night before heading to Aguas Calientes, our base to the renowned Machu Picchu. So we cheated and didn’t do the Inca Trail – we had to sacrifice something to squeeze in the Amazon and it was this that had to give.  From Aguas Calientes, it’s a 20 minute bus ride up and then another maybe 10 minute walk to get to a point where we could view the ruins as we would see them in pictures except better, much better. The size and magnitude of what was before our eyes dwarfs what we have seen in pictures! We even had the low cloud sweeping across which gave the effect that we were in the heavens looking down.

The cloud about to blanket Machu Picchu
The clouds about to blanket Machu Picchu