Across the endless plain drifted the haunting, reedy sound of Andean flute music as a young boy played to a herd of alpacas. On the station platform stands an old man with one tooth. He smiles benevolently and jangles a tray of brass rings hopefully in my direction. They aren't exactly Cartier quality. There is more gold in the teeth of the Ladies in colourful skirts who toss beautiful woven rugs in through any open windows for inspection. Ahh, now these wouldn't look out of place in a peasant-chic inspired
New York penthouse.
We've stop at a remote station on the 'Alti Plano' (High Plains) of Peru. The air is thin and cold. At around 13000 dizzy feet (4,000 metres) above sea level the tops of the Andes mountains look like tiny hillocks forming a scalloped edge to the plains. Only the Omo-white snow on their peaks gives the game away.
The train across the top of the Andes takes 12 hours. That's on a good day when the driver's had lunch, the engine can take the strain and there aren't any llamas on the track.
The most luxurious way to travel the tracks
across top of the world is on the Andean Explorer which runs on the route between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca (Puno) uniting two top tourist destinations. There is a fleet of refurbished coaches decorated in the manner of the great Pullman trains of the 1920's to ensure that you ravel in style. An open-air Observation Bar Car means you can appreciate the stunning scenery along this beautiful route with a Pisco sour in hand.
if your journey starts in Cuzco (Journeys
can also be taken in reverse) the train climbs up to the 'Alti Plano' and hugs the heavens until it arrives at Puno, on the shores of Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. It is a tiny, vacuum-sealed luxury ride along a track which also accommodates trains with peasants packed like sardines into rickety carriages, along with potatoes and assorted livestock.
Cuzco itself is the only place I've ever flown to where the plane took off and never seemed to come down again. The city is built at cruising altitude, more than twice as high as Kathmandu in the Nepalese Himalayas and way above any ski village in the European Alps. It's the kind of place where luxury hotels have oxygen canisters on hand just in case guests need a quick blast.
To help people adapt coca tea is poured by many smaller, less luxe, hotels as soon as guests arrive in Cuzco, often with the freshly picked green leaves still floating around in the cup. Cocaine is refined from the coca leaf and the locals chew it for energy, a wad of charcoal gum lodged in the side of their mouth to release the narcotic. However, you'd have to drink buckets of tea to feel the effect. Caffeine is probably stronger. A greater jolt to the system is probably the sugar content in the sickly green Inca Kola, the nation's answer to Pepsi. It tastes like fizzy bubblegum.
Just remember as you try to acclimatize that in this rarefied mountain air the Inca civilisation once built its cities in the sky. The remains of their smooth-walled forts and mysterious citadels orbit Cuzco, city of the sun, once the capital of the Inca empire. The Incas flourished for 500 years. Then the conquering Spanish, greedy with gold fever destroyed the temples, melted down the precious metal statues and built their own elegant city on the ravaged foundations.
In the far distance a dot of VIVID PINK moves across the windswept HIGH PLAINS.
You can still see how the pink-washed Spanish houses are stacked on top of the original Inca walls like layer cake, then iced with lacy, Mediterranean-style balconies.
Yet to the people of the 'Alti Plano', Cuzco and its gourmet restaurants are the lowlands - a metropolis as massive and racy as New York. Its history hardly affects them. Still speaking the old Inca language they live so high that the rest of the world has simply passed them by. "Above 13000 feet (4,000 metres) there is no politics and no borders", I was told.
Inside a High Plains hut there are two rooms; a bedroom where the whole family sleeps and a kitchen. One kitchen wall is packed solid with llama manure, for warmth, and because it makes good fuel. The ash is then used for fertiliser. The Llamas themselves provide meat, milk, clothes and company (you can train them like a dog apparently). On an early visit to the region I met Benito Ruelas, who came down from the plains for the first time when he was 12.
Sitting in a boat on the vast mirror of Lake Titicaca he told me, "We have little and waste nothing. The people here thought I was dirty because I smelt of urine. We use it to wash our hair because of the acid in it", Benito said. They also gargle with it to cure sore throats and feed it to babies with upset stomachs. Benito now works in Puno but the lure of the 'Alti Plano' is strong. When he developed ulcers "from drinking too much cola" he visited his uncle, the shaman, rather than have an operation. For three nights he drank herbs and sat with a guinea pig strapped to his stomach. When they killed the guinea pig and cut its stomach the animal had ulcers. "We transfer our illness to the animal", said Benito who has decided to go back to the highlands for good. "I need to learn our wisdom to pass on to my children or the culture will die".
You can see the history of the culture in the traditional costumes the old women still wear. It is as if everyone were on their way to the Mad Hatter's tea party. The women have hooped skirts like mini-crinolines with Edwardian bowler hats. They look like Alfred Tenniel's illustrations of the Red Queen in
Alice Through The Looking Glass. The men favour Dick Tracy trilbys. This isn't best-dressing, this is every day, let's-weed-the-potato-patch, garb. You see it everywhere.
At Pisac market, more than 18 miles (30 kilometres) from Cuzco, the women sit cross-legged in the dirt like rows of wilting peonies bartering their produce amid the tourists. Their multi-coloured, multi-layered petticoats fan around them like petals. In the muddy yard of an adobe house by the railway track a woman feeds her pigs while dressed in a bright scarlet bowler and a turquoise satin cut-off crinoline. In the far distance a dot of vivid pink moves across the windswept high plains.
Every hat tells a story. Bowlers are worn by the people of the highlands, the white straw top hats by those from the lowlands ("low" being a relative term). Different colours denote the tribe. A hat rammed squarely on the head means the woman is married. If it is worn decked with flowers or on the side of the head means "available". Although I did see a number of old ladies, their faces baked prune-like by the sun, who wore their hats at a suspiciously jaunty angle. Perhaps the rarefied air had affected their memory.
From Cuzco you can hope aboard yet another luxury train, the blue and gold
to take you up to Machu Picchu. The train is named after the European explorer who discovered the remains of theInca citadelin 1911. It is run by Orient Express hotels and the ultimate treat at the end of the journey is to stay overnight at the five star Belmond Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge , also run by Orient- Express hotels. Its orchid scented gardens sit right next the citadel and from its windows you can see the moon rise over the ruins - but that's another story.
Altitude: If your heart pounds and you feel breathless and light-headed, you're not in love, you're suffering from mild altitude sickness. The best way to adapt to the height is to take it easy and rest for a couple of hours. If the feeling persists or gets worse you could have a more serious case. Go to a lower altitude as soon as you can. Most luxury hotels offer oxygen canisters in the lobby to suck on if things get tough some even offer private canisters in your bar fridge or, best of all, pipe the air directly into your room.
Words & photos Hilary Doling. Update 5/3/10