Riding Peru’s Rails
Huancayo is famous for its impressive Sunday markets, and indeed it seemed the entrepreneurial spirit was strong in this Andean town – every occasion was a money-making opportunity, including the 5am train ticket queue.
I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair, sold bread and offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings was I that I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue, giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting and pushing with a distinct lack of personal space.
While being jostled, I thought about my onward plans. Following in the footsteps of Paul Theroux in his book, The Old Patagonian Express, had been no easy task so far, but even Theroux himself had not managed to take this train – he had turned back at Huancayo to Lima and flown on to Cusco from there. In the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east.
Taking a deep breath, I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket, wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought to book in advance. I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, now standing in for a seat, with a small family of three who were off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean uniform of smart hat, bright flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back, asked me, “What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question, I thought to myself, and to my embarrassment I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question. Crikey, I thought, this is going from bad to worse. I tried describing fish and chips, but the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful: dramatic peaks and tiny villages passed by my window as we climbed to a height of nearly 4,000 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey, as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous bridges and tunnels (38 to be precise).
From my perch on the floor, I marvelled at the goings-on in the train. Families squabbled, children cried, strange-looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full by the time I reached the ticket office, and it boasted numbered seats with no one allowed in the aisles or doorways. Its attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train, tottering up and down with plates piled high with rice and vegetables. His skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
In daydreams I revisited my previous train journey, from Lima to Huancayo, and the luxury of a seat and some lunch. That trip had been on more of a tourist train, the fare pricing out most locals. In contrast his railway trip cost only s/9 (£2) per person and as a result myself and thousands of locals were squeezed into just three carriages.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat, the teacher explained the man was her brother. “He drinks,” she added apologetically.
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, and as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views, which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before. The towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. It appeared I was the only tourist in town.
Follow more of Rachel Pook’s adventure as she retraces Paul Theroux’s footsteps at www.rachelpook.com
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