A 12-hour train ride in Peru: Huancayo to Lima

By John Briley
Sunday, December 6, 2009

We Americans vacation efficiently: Get there, maximize exhilarating, rich and/or relaxing experiences and hustle home, ideally before the boss even notices we'd left.

So I was dubious when I heard about a 12-hour tourist train through the Peruvian Andes, from the altiplano town of Huancayo to Lima, especially since two days earlier I'd flown the reverse route -- in one hour.

But then I read the accolades: Peru's Central Railway (Ferrovias Central) route boasts the second-highest tracks in the world, topping out at 15,689 feet above sea level, and etches a phenomenally scenic and at times hair-raising route through the mountains. For about $34 one way, you get a big reclining seat, panoramic windows and skylights, dinner and one pisco sour cocktail in the bar car.

The only drawback is that the Huancayo-Lima leg runs overnight, meaning that I'd have to peer through the darkness -- and stay awake -- to catch the scenery (the Lima-Huancayo segment is a daylight trip). But it also meant that I wouldn't have to pay for a hotel. Sold.

We pull out of Huancayo at 6 p.m. on a Sunday as a piercing blue sky crystallizes into mountain dusk.

Huancayo is one of a string of red-tile-roofed towns in the Rio Mantaro Valley, a fertile farming region about 10,000 feet above sea level and one of Peru's chief craft-producing areas. I had spent a weekend there hiking the hills and browsing Huancayo's bustling Sunday market, the largest in Peru, featuring, it seemed, at least one of every product made, grown or slaughtered in the country, plus overstuffed stalls of plastic and textiles manufactured in China.

The town does not approach, say, Cuzco for mystic aura or Huaraz for arresting mountain beauty, but Huancayo is not nearly as touristy as Peru's main attractions, and it makes a nice base for adventuring and exploring.

Arriving in the bar car to claim my drink, I find a raucous scene: The place is awash in golden light, with music blaring and a dozen people chattering loudly around a curving copper-plated bar. The slat wood flooring, vest-clad bartenders and faux brass touches evoke an Old West saloon.

A guy named Juan Pablo, an oil and gas worker from the coast, is telling anyone who will listen that pisco actually alleviates altitude headaches and thus is prescribed medicine for this ride. I mention that I'm writing an article about pisco and am immediately consulted to validate an already prevailing opinion: "Where is pisco from?" Juan Pablo roars. "Chile or Peru?"

My response sparks another howl of delight and, of course, a round of shots.

I walk out the bar car's back door to an open-air observation car. People are drinking, smoking and snapping photos. The diesel-electric locomotive is pulling us through Huancayo's outskirts, past waving kids and barking dogs.

An hour outside town, we stop at the first of six switchbacks, a Z-shaped move that involves temporarily reversing course to navigate a hill. Three women, one in traditional colorful dress, appear from the darkness, reaching up to sell us homemade cookies and breads.

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