We were meant to be flying from Peru to Bolivia to visit projects supporting people in need but the border was closed. People were protesting against a new gas pipeline. I never did find out why they felt the need to do that but it gave me the best day of my life and it meant that I returned from my time in Peru without missing one of the great railway journeys of the world- a whole day on the Andean Explorer travelling from Puno to Cusco right across the Andes. It was an unexpected touch of luxury and a long lingering ride across the interior of Peru as we looked forward to two nights in Aguas Calientes and visiting Maccu Picchu.
We left Puno at six o’clock in the morning. It was a strange back and forth beginning as we climbed up out of the town slowly via a series of switchbacks. By the trackside there were a series of small shacks, each one had a street dog waiting patiently by the door for it’s chosen people to wake up. Peruvians love dogs and I had already been offered a puppy to bring home in Chancharia, one of the shanty towns that we visited on the outskirts of Lima. Dogs were everywhere and none of them that I saw ever looked in need. Many of them had to duck and dive, yes, stealing offal from underneath street stalls and grabbing what they could find, but since a lot of the people who I met also had to get by on a similar basis I had decided that the dogs were doing all right. Certainly these particular dogs knew exactly where they were and who they could rely on and it made a solemn farewell honour guard for the train as it crept out of the town in the early light. They probably watched the train leave every morning, knowing that the sight and sound of it signaled the start of a new day.
I settled myself out in the open air on the platform at the very back of the train, behind the viewing carriage. I would be there for the rest of the day, watching the Peruvian landscape unfold in front of me, reluctant to leave my post even for meals or Pisco sours. Puno began to recede into the distance as the train rattled along the shore of Lake Titicaca, a vibrant green expanse of water where we had visited the reed islands by boat the previous day. Quite quickly we were out on our own, heading across a great plain. Among the ruined farmsteads and dark rubble strewn ground there were farmers working alone, stopping to wave as the train passed. They were using tools that my grandfather would have recognised. Llamas raised their heads to watch us go by. It all looked harsh and unforgiving, the kind of place where people had tried and failed, but never given up making the attempt. Just a single stretch of track led the train out across the seemingly endless open ground towards the distant mountains. When we passed through the small towns, Juliaca, Pucara, Chucqibabilla, bicycles were halted and market stalls with coloured awnings were cleared away from the track for a moment to allow us to clatter our way slowly through the heart of the town’s life. We rode roughshod over paperback books laid out between the sleepers for sale, causing a moments chaos until the market closed in again behind us, covering our tracks. People, smiled, waved, stared, until the dogs ran the train out of town and sent us on our way back into the wilderness. It was magical.
The climb up across the La Raya pass is astonishingly beautiful. Just a single fragile track leads you upwards into spectacular snow capped mountains. When the train stopped to allow us to get out, breathe the mountain air and look around people appeared from nowhere with crafts to sell. The fact that we were so high up and so isolated made them seem unreal. I wondered how long they had walked to get to the train stop. They held out knitted finger puppets, gloves, hand made water bottle holders, colourful hats, towards the faces on the train. Their expressions were serious. We clearly had money or we would not be on the train and they needed it. This was their one chance. Deals were done through the train windows or beside the tracks. When I got off the train to stretch my legs I found a whole craft market waiting for me. All because a train stopped in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere but still nowhere. Peruvian craft markets are a joyous burst of colour and imagination. You can buy carved gourds, tiny exuberant animal finger puppets, paintings, knitted cardigans, jumpers, hats, gloves, ceramics, Peruvians are a talented and creative people. They love to dance, make, sing, parade and dress up. I had met people who were ready to do all those things in the most difficult of circumstances and my admiration for them has never faded. Life without a safety net demands a lot of the human spirit but sometimes it also shows us at our best.
When the train set off again we descended steadily into a very different landscape, the rich, green fertile land of the sacred valley. It was easy to see why the Incas had seen it as special. The farmers here had a much more promising soil to work with- there was life and growth everywhere around the Huatanay river. A different world. This was the Peru that I had wanted to see. Flocks of parrots in sub tropical rain forest by a rushing river backed by mountains, a riot of green abundance, a world of natural plenty and luxury. When I had first been deposited in the smog of Lima after a long hard journey I had wondered whether the Peru that I had been hoping for really existed. Now I knew. It had been laid out before me like a film set for the whole day, a constantly changing vista that seemed to be there just for me. As the train swept down the main street of Aguas Calientes at the end of our journey I stared up at the side of the forest covered mountain above the town. Somewhere up there was Machu Piccu, and after my first night in Gringo Bill’s hostel I would walk in the sacred city of the Incas.