“Are you traveling all by yourself?” There was a look of curiosity – and admiration – in her eyes. “Uhmm… yes?” I said amused to the woman sitting next to me on the train. “Wow – you’re brave,” she said.
You’re probably thinking – Yeah… So you’re traveling alone. What’s the big deal? I know. I’ll tell you. I was on board Peru’s Central Andean train – and as a Latina traveling alone, this was just a bit unconventional. While Latin Americans might pretend otherwise, they’re still very conservative. I confirm this every time I go to Peru to see my family. And an additional idiosyncrasy: They won’t bat an eye if they see a woman foreigner traipsing alone, wearing shorts in the winter, and lugging a monstrous backpack on her back – but if it’s a Latina – there’s a different standard.
The woman was definitely not traveling alone, but with an entourage. After she was satisfied (or not) with my explanation for my solo trip, she pivoted around, knelt on her seat, and introduced her family who occupied the next couple of rows, “Oigan! Ella es G! Está viajando sola!! (“Listen! She’s G – She’s traveling alone!!). I turned around and shyly waved at her numerous travel companions. I got some nods, some smiles. Her uncle must have been concerned because later on he patted me on the shoulder – “If you need anything at all, please let us know.” I nodded and thanked him. “I’m a big girl – I’ll be fine.” He didn’t look too convinced.
If a mode of transportation can be romantic, then train travel fits that description. As cliché as it may sound, for me the journey can be as memorable as the destination, especially when you travel by train. Wouldn’t you agree?
Train travel is alluring, exciting, and gives you great insight into the culture, geography, and history of a country. You’ll feel connected to the land and its people in a way that you cannot do by looking out of your tiny airplane window. Plus, it’s refreshing to just pack and go – with no risk of getting frisked by airport security, or having to partially undress in front of strangers, or suffering embarrassment when you are yelled at because you forgot to throw out your bottle of water.
This latest train adventure of mine was in Peru, like I said, aboard the Ferrocarril Central Andino (FCCA), which travels from the capital city of Lima, at sea level, to the highland town of Huancayo, crossing the Central Andes. The train reaches an altitude of 15,980 ft (4,871 m) above sea level. Don’t worry – two nurses equipped with portable oxygen tanks are there to assist you should you feel like passing out.
Lima to Huancayo:
I’ve been on many trains, but this one has taken place #1 on my list. (And I do have a list of trains that I’ve ridden and ones that are in my future. If you’re interested, check it out here).
For some weird reason, this train route is not as famous as the one that takes you from Cusco to Machu Picchu. I only found about it by chance when I was visiting downtown Lima with some friends. I walked into the historical Desamparados train station – I had never been inside before. It’s a beautiful building with a glass dome in the middle. As I was walking around, a train representative offered me a flyer with train information, and asked me if I wanted to travel on the second highest train in the world. She explained the train crosses the Central Andes, arriving in Huancayo 12-13 hours later. (Ouch). She also mentioned that the train remains with you in Huancayo, so you can tour the city and surrounding areas, returning to Lima on the 4th day. Very cool.
Well, you don’t have to ask this travel addict twice. I said, “Yes!”
My uncle wanted to drop me off at the front door of the train station (he’s very protective of me), but the President’s Palace is right next door, so cars have to park a block away for security reasons. We said goodbye and I walked the rest of the way.
One of the train assistants helped me find my car, and I hopped on. I located my window seat easily. As I was storing my backpack under the seat, I was glad to be traveling light. There is no overhead storage, so if you have big bags or more than one, they’ll have to go in a separate train car.
There are two classes of train cars: classic (cheaper) and tourist. If you can afford it, I’d recommend the tourist class (about $55 more) because the seats are more comfortable; they fully recline (whereas in the classic cars they do not). Plus you have a cushioned leg rest. You’ll have panoramic views from huge windows and also dome windows above you. The other added benefit of traveling tourist class is that you’ll have exclusive access to the open car, where you’ll get the best views. Oh, and access to the bar car, where you’ll get a courtesy Pisco Sour 🙂
It was another grey day in Lima, with the incessant rain that is so typical during winter. I was glad to be leaving that behind. The train conductor sounded the horn at exactly 7 am. I felt the train starting to pull away from the station – and I smiled. Looking around me, I realized the train was filled mostly with locals. This was a big holiday weekend – when Peru celebrates its independence from Spanish rule. One of the train attendants gave us the safety speech and told us we would get breakfast soon. On its way out of the city, the train traveled along the Rimac (a river that springs from the Andes and flows into the Pacific Ocean). This is a poor and overpopulated area of town. People were up and about and the streets were starting to get congested with traffic. The train conductor used the horn almost continuously to alert people to clear the railway line. Even with the horn blowing – a few moments later, I was dead asleep.
I woke with a start – My co-passenger was shaking my shoulder. We had arrived at our fist stop, San Bartolomé (4,962 ft/1,513 m above sea level). I hoped I hadn’t been sleeping with my mouth open. I got out to stretch my legs while the engine mechanics turned the locomotive around using a railway turntable. During the first part of our trip, the locomotive was behind all the cars, so it was going in reverse. At San Bartolomé, the locomotive was moved to the front, so it could pull the cars behind it for the rest of the trip.
Our next stop was at the tiny pueblo of Matucana , (7,802 ft/2,378 m above sea level). I jumped off the train to check it out. There’s an open-air market where you’ll find fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The townspeople were busy preparing for the upcoming weekend’s Independence Day parade.
A young couple of Peruvian dancers were traveling with us, performing dance routines as part of the entertainment. Below is a video I took as they danced at the plaza. The Marinera Norteña is a beautiful traditional dance in the north of Peru.
After watching the dance, I walked around the plaza and bought some fruit and bottled water. Soon we were asked to board the train again. Instead of going back to my seat, I headed straight to the open car. To be honest, I was dying for a cold beer, it was sunny and quite warm already. Conveniently, the bar car is adjacent to the open car. Based on the looks and questions about me traveling alone, I was apprehensive about ordering a beer… A Latina traveling and drinking alone! Oh, the scandal!
As we pulled away, we waved to the the happy kids running after the train. We also waved to the unhappy people who were stuck on the Carretera Central (Central Highway) that also crosses the Andes. Because this was a long weekend, half of Lima was getting away seeking the sun and blue skies. I later heard on the news that people were stranded on the road, without moving, for over 6 hours. So, sometimes, the train is faster than driving 😉
After Matucana, we continued climbing, getting deeper into the Andes. Now and then, we would spot a little town or a random house; but, for the most part, the Central Andes seem to be unpopulated.
As the train chugged along, I reveled in the spectacular scenery. I’d planned to do a lot of writing during the long trip, I love writing on trains, but I couldn’t get away from the open car. So I spent the majority of the time taking photos. Most of the passengers, however, stayed in their seats. Many were sleeping – and I’m sure more than a few were suffering from altitude sickness. A lot of them even had the curtains drawn shut, blocking out the magnificent views. Below is a picture of a particularly high point during the ride.
Some train facts: Construction of the Central Andean railway line began in 1870 – it took 38 years for the entire route to be completed. It was constructed by Polish engineer, Ernest Adam Malinowski and American railroad builder, Henry Meiggs. Over 10,000 men from Peru, Chile, and China worked on building the railway line. There is no formal recording of how many people died while building the line, but I understand it was in the thousands. The train route is 535 km long (which includes a section used solely for mining purposes).
From the coast and across the Andes, the train goes through 69 tunnels and 58 bridges and performs 6 zigzags. The highest stop is Galera, at 15,980 ft (4,871 m), known as the 2nd highest station in the world.
You don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate the magnitude of this railway project. The design, engineering, and construction of this line are nothing short of spectacular, especially considering that it was built in dangerous and sometimes inaccessible terrain and without modern machinery.
One of the 58 bridges you’ll cross is Puente Carrión constructed in 1937. It was manufactured by the Cleveland Bridge Company. This is the biggest bridge of the line, at 262 ft (80 m) high and 715 ft (218 m) long.
Below: Infiernillo Bridge, pictured below. (10,827 ft/3,300 m above sea level). It was built in 1908 by the “American Bridge Company.” This bridge is remarkable – the train comes out of a tunnel, crosses the bridge, and goes into another tunnel right away.
Soon, it was time for lunch, which was served at my seat. I wasn’t expecting much, but it was actually very tasty. That was my little break away from the open car, but as soon as I was done, I returned to get some more shots. The scenery is continuously changing, the colors are different every few miles; it’s simply stunning.
As we got closer to the highest stop, Galera, it got colder and the air got thinner. We could start to see a bit of snow/ice on the Andes mountains. We were reaching the highest spot of the railway line.
Galera, was was our third and last stop, at 15,980 ft (4,871 m) above sea level. As I went back to my seat for my scarf, I saw many of the passengers hailing down the nurses to bring by the oxygen tank. Some people were running to the bathroom. The kids on board were crying – and getting sick. Thankfully, I was ok.
To celebrate this, the highest stop, I ordered a Pisco Sour. I had to! Some other passengers had the same idea. We couldn’t get off the train here, but one of the engineers let me hang out from one of the cars.
After a few moments, we began pulling away from Galera and started our slow descent towards our destination, although we still had a few hours to go. The scenery started changing once again. We were leaving the Andes peaks behind, but something strange was happening… The mountains were changing in color from reds, greens, yellows, and browns to a… dull white. But it wasn’t snow. It was poison. It coats everything – even the lungs of the people living in the area. We were approaching La Oroya.
La Oroya is the third largest producer of copper and zinc in the world, after China and Australia. That, of course, comes at a tragic price for human lives. The industrial pollution caused by La Oroya’s poly-metallic smelter and refineries is one of the worst in the world. Doe Run Co., the largest producer of lead in North America, has been operating the smelter since 1977. (But the plant has been running since 1922).
The scenery is eerily beautiful – but deadly. As the train slowly rolled through the mining town and the enormous smelt plant, I was reminded once again that traveling exposes you to both the good – and the bad- of our world.
La Oroya was the sobering part of the trip. I wondered about the lives of the people here – it’s a catch-22 for them, I’m sure. The only reason they live at La Oroya is because their livelihood depends on the work they can get at the plant. Since I returned from Peru, I’ve been researching more about this place. It appears there has been some progress lately concerning the plant’s actions in relation to environmental laws.
The sun had set and I could see the twinkling lights of Huancayo, and although I was tired, I was very excited. The second part of my adventure would begin early tomorrow! As the train started approaching the city, I went back to my seat to gather my belongings. One of the train attendants handed me a brochure for tours in Huancayo, but I had previously booked tours in Lima. (That was a mistake – I later found out I paid 3 times as much). I said goodbye (or, so long), to my new friends. We would all see each other in 3 days. (95% of the train’s passengers do not stay in Huancayo, but return to Lima on the same train).
I’ll write about the things I saw/did in Huancayo and surrounding areas on another post. I even made it to the jungle! I’ll also share some tips if you decide you want to take this train adventure.
I leave you with some photos of good times on the train. This was an unforgettable journey!
- The train only has 6 departures a year, so you have to plan accordingly. (May – October)
- If you are staying in the mountains and going somewhere else from there, get a one-way ticket instead of RT
- For RT travel, remember that the train stays with you in Huancayo for 3 nights
- The train returns to Lima on day 4, departing at 7 am. (You won’t arrive into Lima until 8 pm, approx.)
- Prices: Classic S/. 195. Tourist: S/. 350 ($68 & $122, round trip) Both include meals (breakfast & lunch, plus water, juice, tea, and coffee)
- Check train schedules prior to making plans.
- You can buy your tickets on the FCCA website, or, if you’re in Lima, in person via Teleticket at Wong and Metro Supermarkets