The romance of trains is lost on me. Where others lose themselves in the passing landscapes, I fret over the tight spaces and anticipate the inevitable motion sickness. I always opt to travel by car or aeroplane instead. But faced with no such choice if I wanted to visit Machu Picchu, I was grateful to my Limenean friends who organised for our travelling party to arrive there in style aboard the Inca Princess.
The only private carriage on the South Western Railway, which was first laid more than 100 years ago to carry coffee from the highland jungle to Cusco, the Inca Princess ($5,000 to hire, each way) accommodates up to eight passengers in custom luxury and complete privacy along tracks added after Yale scholar Hiram Bingham rediscovered the “lost” city of the Incas in 1911. The 100-minute journey follows the whooshing Vilcanota River past snow-capped peaks into the Andean cloud forest en route to the legendary Incan citadel. The one-of-a-kind waggon, available on request at any time of the year, may be reserved on any of parent company Inca Rail’s dozen daily departure times in each direction between Aguas Calientes, the jerry-built pioneer town at the base of Machu Picchu, and the Incan city of Ollantaytambo, where we board.
Greeted by a quartet of Peruvian musicians playing their Inca quenabambooflutes, animal-hide drums and chajchas rattles made of goats’ hooves, I take a seat, glass of Möet et Chandon in hand, and gaze out the walls of windows and skylights (first picture), which together let in the full magnificence of the captivating scenery. Inside this singular travelling parlour, the polished-wood walls are hung with original Andean art, while a narrow brass-railed balcony (seen in second picture) allows you to take in the quinoa fields and snow-capped peaks en plein air.
A few friends relax on the L-shaped leather couch and at the bijou marble-top bar as Pisco sours are expertly delivered. As the altitude here has already jarred my equilibrium, I opt instead for Inca Rail’s own Andean soda made with fresh lemon juice, star anise and ginger slivers. As I sip and stare at the ever-changing panorama, the carriage’s dapper supervisor comes over to point out the remains of an Incan stone bridge and to explain that the terraced hillsides across the river represent the Incas’ advanced agrarian system, before ushering us over to four intimate dining tables.
A five-course Peruvian tasting menu (third picture) of local organic produce, created in collaboration with Le Cordon Bleu’s Lima outpost, features Andean trout in a huacatay herb and Peruvian yellow chilli cream marinade, followed by quinoa tabbouleh with Andean herbs grown in Ollantaytambo. South American wines accompany our thoughtfully light meal, culminating in chocolate sourced in the high jungle of Quillabamba.
I feel so comfortable along this entire rolling journey to the Incan royal retreat, even in the well-appointed bathroom with its own window for seamlessly enjoying the view, that I leave, rather regretfully, fearing the five-square-mile mountaintop city of Incan palaces, temples, ritual baths and ceremonial houses may be a letdown.