How do you see Peru in luxury? Hop aboard the Andean Explorer

CNN  — 

Long train journeys are inescapably romantic. They’re all about the journey; the destination is irrelevant and distance is an ally.

Which is what makes the new Belmond Andean Explorer so exciting.

Crossing the spine of the Peruvian Andes, more than 12,000 feet above sea level, between the cities of Cusco, Puno and Arequipa, three days and 456 miles one way, this is the first ever luxury sleeper train in South America.

It’s a New World version of Europe’s Orient Express, adventure and Champagne on the roof of the world.

All aboard

Belmond Andean Explorer: A luxury sleeper train comes to South America.

The train itself, a transplant from a former luxury line in Australia, shipped over and renovated from head to toe, evokes an earlier age of exploration.

The elegant rooms, like miniature Art Deco apartments, range from bijou fold-down sofa booths to opulent suites with double beds and idyllic window nooks to watch the world go by.

Period details are everywhere: polished silver filigree along the walls, a baby grand piano, cast iron railing in the open-sided observation car to lean over and catch the Andean breeze.

So is Latin flair: lampshades the color of Andean lupins, hand-woven textiles in bright Inca patterns, a local three-piece band, which joined us for the last night, and had the entire train dancing salsa as we rattled along under the stars.

As well as the 24 guest rooms, and observation car, the 16-carriage train also features a lounge, bar and two restaurants, overseen by celebrated Peruvian chef Diego Muñoz who fuses local recipes with gourmet twists.

“I want you to taste the landscape that we pass through,” Muñoz says.

Plans are also afoot for a spa carriage later this year too. Now that truly is luxury elevated: back rubs and pedicures at 14,000 feet.

Colca Canyon

The Colca Valley: A 62-mile fissure of green mountain slopes stepped in terraces and ancient villages.

There are a number of different permutations for the trip. My plan was to board the train on the outskirts of Arequipa, its most southerly station, gradually climbing over a high pass of the Andes before dropping down to Cusco, in the north – a total journey of three days.

Before I embarked there was one stop that I couldn’t resist.

Three hours down a winding mountain road from the city is Colca Canyon – the second largest gorge in the world, almost 14,000 feet from base to tip at its highest point, nearly twice the height of the Grand Canyon.

It’s a spectacular setting: a 62-mile fissure of steep green mountain slopes stepped in terraces and ancient Inca villages. It’s also the best place in the world for up-close encounters with condors, the largest flying bird on the planet.

I drove out to a viewpoint the next morning and found half a dozen gliding on the dawn thermals like soaring giants, full of grace, silent and free.

The Incas believed them to be messengers of the gods and it’s easy to see why. It was like watching the breeze transformed into a living thing.

Lake Titicaca

Passengers can learn how to make ceviche while watching the sun set over the Lagunillas lagoon.

The next day I embarked from the outskirts of Arequipa, traveling across high barren plains of gold and green, the city’s three ice-capped volcanoes looming 18,000 feet above, to the city of Puno 190 miles to the east.

We passed shepherds, wrapped in bright rainbow shawls, herding packs of alpaca, children waving from dry stone villages and caves with 6,000-year-old paintings of shamans and pumas hidden within. At the Lagunillas lagoon, we watched the sunset as chef taught us how to make ceviche on a table overlooking the water’s edge.

By sunrise, we were 80 miles down the track, on the shore of Lake Titicaca – at 12,500 feet the highest navigable lake in the world.

We took a boat out later that day to Taquile island, off the northeastern shore, and were welcomed by a traditional Quechua community. Bright feathered hats, pan pipes and drums and dancing in circles were backdropped by the mountains of Bolivia, 30 miles away on the eastern shore.

Floating Islands

Floating islands are the star attractions of a Lake Titicaca excursion.

It’s the floating islands that make Lake Titicaca truly unique. Like an entire city in the middle of the lake, the islands are home to thousands of people living on a series of loosely connected platforms made entirely from totora reeds.

At the island of a family from the lake’s Uros community, four straw shacks on a spongy reed bed about the size of a back garden, we learned how each island is alive.

The base is cut from the thick submarine soil where the reeds grow on the lake and then bound together like buoys. Afterward, a fresh layer of cut reeds is woven on top, which must be replaced every 20 days. The community has a floating kindergarten and even a football field.

La Raya

At 14,000 feet, La Raya valley is the highest point of the journey.

We leave Lake Titicaca, rattling in the darkness under bright Andean stars, and wake to another world entirely. The mountains of the La Raya valley are the highest point of the journey at 14,000 feet. Green foothills rise precipitously to dark ridges of ice and storm.

From there we descended north for 100 miles, past the rarely visited Inca ruins of Raqchi and along the Urubamba River through fertile fields of corn and ripe purple quinoa. At Cusco we reach the end of the line.


The red rooftops of Cusco's old town.

Before the Spanish arrived in the 1530s Cusco was the capital of the Incas and their genius is everywhere.

There are ancient walls with foundations of smoothed-out jagged stone carved together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle to protect against earthquakes. Fountains and water channels built by the Incas still run to this day. A steep climb leads to the Sacsayhuaman citadel.

Made of enormous limestone blocks that circle a grassy mound overlooking the city, it’s one of the largest structure of its kind ever built.

Without iron, mortar or the wheel the Incas somehow created such intricate architecture that, 500 years later, a sheet of paper can still not be placed between these stone blocks.

“To recreate that now, we would need computers and a diamond-cutter,” says guide Nancy Bautista, a direct descendent of the Incas herself.

Machu Picchu and Beyond

No journey to Peru is complete without a visit to Machu Picchu.

Cusco is also the gateway to Machu Picchu and the sacred valley: Inca terraces cut into the mountainside, ruined temples in the jungle, colors everywhere brighter than an Inca shawl.

There were more adventures to be had. I was about to rush to the next site, but then I remembered: It’s all about the journey – Champagne and adventure on the top of the world.

Perhaps I’d just jump straight back on board.

Aaron Millar is the author of “50 Greatest Wonders of the World.” He tweets at @AaronMWriter