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.

sailing the highest navigable lake

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Reading up on altitude sickness and how it randomly can strike someone freaked us out a little before we went. We spent hours researching and reading up on everything we could about altitude sickness – it wasn’t going to ruin such a huge chunk of this Peruvian adventure. So we understood that there is less oxygen at higher altitude and symptoms of altitude sickness included light headedness, lack of appetite, nausea, drowsiness and shortness of breath on exertion. One friend gave the advice: “Don’t let your head dip below your heart”. Others were telling us just to take it slow. So we heeded their advice when we landed in Cusco (approximately 3,400 m.a.s.l). There would be NO exertion whatsoever. So walking to the carousel to pick up our luggage, we were probably taking one step every second. Maybe we were being extreme but we were not jeopardising our health being frantic unnecessarily. We did have a few people at the airport and approach us and ask whether we needed a doctor, which we thought was very amusing.

Our transfer guide instructed us to relax in our rooms for at least 2-4 hours before actively exploring the city and to also dose up on coca leaves or coca tea. Little did we know that coca leaves derive cocaine. Thank goodness we didn’t bring back the delicious teas and lollies! But they certainly worked a treat for suppressing any symptoms of altitude sickness. Now to explain some of the symptoms, let us give an example. There was one day where we walked up 10 steps (or so maybe) and when we got to the top, we were so out of breath that when we talked, the words came out as if we were spluttering from crying. It was the weirdest sensation ever. It took twice as long to get a sentence out because we were catching our breaths….

The highest altitude we reached was at La Raya on the train from Cusco to Puno where it was about 4,300 m.a.s.l. And getting off the train and back on the train was exhausting, not to mention the temperatures at this height was windy and freezing.

Women of Uros welcoming us
Women of Uros welcoming us

And Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at approximately 3,800 m.a.s.l. and we were able to sail on it! Well, more like speed boat to Taquile Island and Uros. Uros are the floating islands – the islands built on totora reeds. This is our biggest highlight in Peru! The population is about 1000 people and there are homes and schools and about 5-6 families per “island”. We saw their homes and how they lived and even got a trip between the islands on a reed boat. To our surprise, we heard that some of them had satellite TV hooked up to their reed homes.

Visiting the Uros Islands is one of our favourite all-time travel experiences. This was a very cool way to finish our time in Peru. The Peruvian people are so warm and welcoming and we are blessed to have had the opportunity to visit this country.