Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Peruvian Railway Journey

Great Railway Journeys
A Peruvian Railway Journey
Gyan Fernando

Note: This article was first written and published on the 26th of February 2002 in my Sri Lanka Railway site. Given the passage of ten years, it needs to be read as a historical document. The Peruvian Railway system is no longer the highest railway in the world.

PeruRail logo on ticket

he Peruvian Railway System is the highest standard guage railway system in the world. (The Lima-Huancayo-Huancavelica line). Unfortunately terrorist activity has forced the closure of the most spectacular part of it. What remains is spectacular in some ways, or at least interesting.
The author travelled on PeruRail from Cusco to Juliaca on the 19th of Jan 2002 (and then on to Puno).

If you are a fan of Paul Theroux and are thinking on the lines of "The Great Railway Bazzar" forget it! This railway journey was undertaken in First Class comfort and well away from the local smelly third class…sadly. 

Still, that was the only option. It was either that or else maintaining a constant vigilance about your pockets and belongings to the extent of missing out on the journey itself! We were of course forced to choose the First Class option.


Cusco (or Cuzco) (12000ft) has two railway termini. The train to Puno sets off from Huanchac station at 0800 hrs. The last coach is the Observation Car, an American style open-ended coach. The penultimate coach is the First Class accommodation with armchairs, tables and table lamps! Further on are the Orange and yellow third class coaches - the so-called backpacker specials. First class coaches are painted in a dark blue and yellow (? gold) livery.

The locomotives on this route are MLW Bombardiers

MLW Bombardier plate on PeruRail locomotive
MLW Bombardier

PeruRail ticket to Juliaca
Ticket to Juliaca
The train, surprisingly, departed on time - after the great photo shoot of posing on the footplate of the loco, an activity encouraged by the loco engineer with no oiling of palms involved. 
The fact that some of the Gringos recognised the loco as a MLW Bombardier seemed to please the crew! ("Si! Si! MLW Bombardier! MLW Bombardier!")

With a reverb blast of the air horns the train pulled out of Cusco travelling at a leisurely 15 mph, clackety-clacking over badly maintained non-welded rails. The train gently rocked from side to side and fairly soon it was obvious that this was because the rail joints were not in alignment but (? deliberately) staggered. Ballast was rather sparse.

Thick black smoke emanated from the loco. Obviously not warmed up enough or requiring tuning!

Leaving the suburbs of Cusco behind the train started a descent and then a serious bit of climbing through tight curves following the course of the Vilcanota River.

First class passengers relaxed in comfort. Drinks and snacks were served. Lush fields of maize passed by. Children stood in the doorways of adobe huts and waved at passengers. Passengers waved back and talked into their video cameras. Coca Cola signs in evidence. Quite appropriate as Coca Cola once contained cocaine!

The train passed through San Sebastion, San Jeronimo and Urcos. Almost continuous blasts from the loco airhorns sounding a warning at the almost continuous unguarded level (grade) crossings.

Railway stations appeared to be only marginally better maintained than the adobe shacks and could often only be identified by the abandoned passing loops. The train doesn't stop.

At first sight signalling does not seem to exist. This is rather worrying. Old-fashioned derelict semaphore type signals with the air of having seen better days pass by. Telephone poles are still standing but with the wires ripped off. Seriously worrying but then the penny drops. Radio signalling is the clue! Not a bad railroad one thinks!
Turntable at Sicuani
The train slowed down for Sicuani, a bustling town at an elevation of 3542 M. Colourful markets on either side of the tracks. Local smart arsed teenagers shout "Gringo!" or rather "GreeenGo!"

An old-fashioned railway yard with a turntable passes by. Armed guards close gates to railway yard as soon as the train enters.

Abra La Raya
Abra La Raya, Peru
Abra La Raya

From Sicuani the train climbs to the summit at La Raya (3906 M). First class passengers are served with a three course lunch. The train on this day waited for the crossing with the Puno-Cusco train at La Raya. 

The train is now on the Altiplano. Hawkers surround train. Loco horns from both trains play a duet and reverb eerily around the mountains.

Abra La Raya, Peru
Crossing at La Raya
Abra La Raya, Peru
Crossing at La Raya
Abra La Raya, Peru
Crossing at La Raya

Abra La Raya, Peru
Dog supervises departure of trains!
Abra La Raya, Peru
Church at La Raya
After the crossing, the train sets off across the Altiplano. The Vilcanota River disappears as a trickle in the marshes. Soon the train descends and at Santa Rosa picks up the start of the Santa Rosa River. The Santa Rosa River eventually joins the Pucara River and drains into Lake Titicaca. The track is straight now with gentle gradients, which is surprising as the train is at a very high elevation.
Tornado on the Peruvian altiplano
Tornado on the Altiplano

On this day the skies lowered and a tornado appeared suddenly on the Altiplano. By the time the train got there the tornado had dissipated with no visible damage. There was nothing to be damaged. Unconcerned "Indians" continued their work in the fields.
Joanna of PeruRail
Joanna, our charming rail attendant.

The train trundled along and very soon we arrived at Juliaca. Sadly, we left the train here to continue by road to Puno but the train followed us skirting the edge of Lake Titicaca. Darkness fell. This had been a 9+ hours rail journey. The final glimpse of the train was near Puno...just the twin headlamps...We were now in Puno and on our way to the Hotel Libratador and the Coca tea!
Lake Titicaca from Puno, Peru
Lake Titicaca at sunset as seen from Puno

Lake Titicaca from Puno, Peru

Technical note: The reason that we left the train at Juliaca is because the train is usually delayed here for an hour or so whilst the loco does shunting duties but on this day the train set off without too much delay.

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