A train journey through the Peruvian Andes

Head east from Lima to the Peruvian town of Huancayo on board Tren de la Sierra - the world's highest railway

Suzy Bennett | Issue 60 | 60 october 2003

At midday, the door to Carriage D of the Tren de la Sierra (Mountain Train) swished open and there, dressed in dazzling white, stood Nurse Llelia. Under one arm she wielded an oxygen tank; under the other was a large first-aid kit.

“Right,” she said in Spanish. “Who’s in pain?”

The train had just reached an altitude of 4,000m and passengers were dropping like flies – from mountain sickness. Llelia Muñoz had come to treat us.

The worst is yet to come

The woman in the aisle next to me raised her hand weakly. Yes, she said, she was indeed in a bit of a state, having just been sick in her handbag, and could she have some drugs please? Llelia strode towards her, unleashed the contents of her first-aid kit onto the table, and deftly handed her a pill, a cup of water and a damp cloth.

“Anything else you need, just shout,” she said, before sweeping the pills back into her bag and walking off to give oxygen to a wheezing passenger behind me who had feebly raised a few fingers into the air.

We were on the world’s highest railway, climbing from Peru’s capital, Lima, east to the Andean city of Huancayo, 335km and 12 hours away. The route’s highest point, 4,829m – more than half the height of Everest – was still to come. An ascent to this altitude can be dangerous and, by law, oxygen and a nurse must be on board.

For the past four hours the red-and-yellow diesel train had been chugging through the foothills of the Andes, and the scenery outside was stunning. After departing from the beautiful, cream-coloured Desamparados station in colonial Lima, we travelled through the pink-walled Rimac Valley, lush with corn and eucalyptus, and rattled alongside fields brimming with daisies and wildflowers. The train slithered around hills fringed with steep, ancient Inca terraces, traced a gushing river and hooted its way through traditional farming villages.

This was the first time for more than a decade the Tren de la Sierra had run, and along the route people lined the track, waving and cheering. Motorists pulled over for a snapshot and giggling children ran alongside us, trying to keep up.

The passenger service was forced to close in 1992 after the country’s violent Maoist group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), bombed the line, killing 20 crew. Peru was brought to its knees during the group’s brutal 20-year campaign, in which an astonishing 30,000 people were killed and thousands more were tortured and mutilated. More than £10 billion was wiped off Peru’s economy, and its tourist industry collapsed.

This journey symbolised that the country was on the road to recovery, Lucho Hurtado (a local tour guide on the train) explained to me. “The reopening of this line is a sign that Peru is a safe place to travel again,” he said. “This railway is part of our national heritage. The whole region suffered when it closed but now the line is open again and tourists are coming back, things are going to get better.”

A cup of soothing coca

An hour into the journey, I went for a walk around the train. It comprised six spacious carriages with rows of comfortable green seats and tables with crisp cream tablecloths. The passengers, mostly Peruvian families, had been murmuring excitedly about the journey, playing games and staring at the scenery unfurling outside.

But as the train started its steep climb into the frozen wastes of the high Andes, the thin, brittle mountain air was beginning to take its toll. Coming straight from Lima, at sea level, and without time to acclimatise, we were starting to suffer the headaches and nausea that come with an abrupt ascent to high altitude.

I declined Nurse Llelia’s treatment. I had a headache, but resolved to stick to the coca tea being handed out from a trolley. A traditional remedy for mountain sickness, coca is the raw material in the production of cocaine and, from the visible effects on the other passengers, it works significantly better than modern medicine.

Outside, the scenery was becoming increasingly desolate. After zigzagging up a steep and crumbling cliff face, the train picked its way through a deep gash in a wall. Sheer, grey rock towered above me less than a metre from my window. With the carriage in near-darkness, I craned my neck to try to spot a peak, but I could see only a tiny pinhole of light. I felt as if I was at the bottom of a well.

These were not the neat little Alpine peaks I visited on skiing holidays. There were no Swiss chalets here, no window boxes spilling over with red geraniums, or skiers in his-and-hers one-pieces. The Andes form the longest, and one of the highest, mountain ranges in the world, and they are enormous.

The construction of this line a century ago was nothing short of a miracle. No fewer than 66 tunnels and 59 bridges had to be built across terrain constantly shifting under landslides and floods. The line took 38 years to complete, with track painstakingly laid at an average of just nine kilometres each year. More than 2,000 workers died from disease in the process and the construction nearly crippled Peru’s economy, but on its eventual completion in 1908 the line was lauded as an engineering wonder of the world. Minerals and farm produce, previously brought down from the Andes by mule, could now be sold efficiently to world markets.

Feeling high...and a bit windy 

It was 2pm and, with the train edging its way to the summit, my headache became worse – although it was marginally offset by a feeling of drunkenness and mild euphoria. At this height there is 40% less oxygen in the air than at sea level and, to adapt, the heart rate rises and breathing almost doubles. Feeling high was one of the more pleasant side-effects.

When the train wheezed into La Galera – which, at 4,781m is the world’s highest train station – I managed to stumble outside with a dozen other ragged and shell-shocked passengers. We tottered breathlessly around, taking photos of the peaks which pierced the mountain mist. The bleached sun, high in the sky, gave the rocks a metallic glow and, with no shadows, I felt as if I was on the moon. It was a lonely place, freezing and grey, but spell-binding.

I collapsed back onto a foul-smelling train and soon realised that Nurse Llelia had failed to tell us that, apart from nausea and headaches, high altitude also causes chronic flatulence. The Tren de la Sierra now stank of 330 windy travellers.

Mercifully, the train lurched away and dipped into a lower valley, filling the carriages with fresher and richer air. With a two-course lunch of spinach pie and chicken, the passengers revived themselves and the carriages were again filled with laughter and conversation.

The scenery was now at its most impressive. We were barrelling through a plateau graced with snow-capped mountains and glacier lakes. Llamas with red ribbons tied to their ears pouted at us from the tracksides, horsemen in flowing robes galloped across the plains and young children with cute, red cheeks waved to us from remote hamlets. We were still at 3,700m, but the sickness and headaches had gone.

The next few hours were spent travelling through a string of ugly and heavily-polluted mineral-mining and smelting communities. In one, La Oroya, the train stopped, and within minutes my nose was blocked with black soot.

Later, with a lilac sun spreading its glow in a thousand layers across the sky, we dropped into the lush Mantaro Valley and passed red-roofed Jauja, Peru’s first colonial capital founded in the 16th century by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro – a picture of rail travel bliss.

A warm welcome to classic Peru

At Concepción, a 16-piece brass band and several hundred villagers had been waiting in the cold evening air to welcome us. Flyers for hotels, restaurants and bars were pushed through tiny gaps in the windows.

“There is a whole line of communities that used to depend on this train,” Lucho explained to me as I resisted the temptation to buy a life-sized toy llama from a particularly persistent woman. “It brought tourists and wealth to their markets. Now these people can hope again. Tourism is our number one market – it’s our future.”

A few miles up the track we reached Huancayo, where we would spend the next few days exploring traditional markets and villages in the valley, and marvel at 101 ways to serve guinea pig, a classic Peruvian dish.

As we disembarked, I noticed the woman who had been sick earlier in the journey had managed to return her handbag to its former glory. I asked her whether the trip had been worth the pain.

“Oh yes”, she enthused. “It was incredible. I just wish I’d made it to the toilet in time.”

I knew how she felt – despite feeling like I’d spent most of the journey being churned in a cement mixer, I really didn’t want it to end.    

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