The Andean Explorer: Inside the first luxury sleeper train in South America

Asoka Elon

Luxury sleeper trains are making a comeback this year as travelers not only want to get back out into the world as quickly as possible, but they are also looking for better and more unique experiences.

Among the newest making a comeback is the Andean Explorer, touted to be the first (and still the only) luxury sleeper train in South America, running from Cusco across the Andean plains, stopping at Lake Titicaca before arriving Arequipa for one- or two-night journeys.

Belmond started working on the project in 2016, which accelerated once the company found the rail cars that now make up the Andean Explorer. Belmond, previously named the Orient Express, repurposes old train cars for all of its luxury train lines around the world, from the Eastern Express (involving multiple modes of transit from Bangkok to Singapore) to the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, which involves traveling from London to Venice.

For the Andean Explorer, Belmond found its train cars in Australia, which had been abandoned for more than a decade before being renovated and retrofitted for the highest standards of luxury travel right now.

The Andean Explorer traverses the Peruvian Andes from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa on one- and two-night journeys.

Courtesy of Belmond

The Andean Explorer launched its first trip in May 2017. However, service shut down during the pandemic before resuming in May 2022. (The Hiram Bingham line between Machu Picchu and Cusco came back online one month earlier.) And since the spring, passage on the train has been consistently sold out. Belmond managers noted that approximately 50% of the people traveling on the train this year were actually passengers who already had bookings for 2020, but were canceled due to the pandemic, so they’re rebooking those trips now.

The bar car on the Andean Explorer.

Courtesy of Belmond

And being managed by a global luxury travel firm, guests can look forward to a five-star experience—starting with a dedicated spa carriage with treatments featuring Andean skin care products made from local, natural ingredients. Passengers can make there way across two dining cars, two bar cars, and an open-air observation car. And regardless of suite size, each cabin is equipped with plush and comfy bedding, multiple universal power outlets, a private bathroom with shower, and a personal safe.

Inside a junior double-bed cabin on the Andean Explorer.

Courtesy of Belmond

Dining service—all of which comes out of one single kitchen car for multiple restaurant and bar cars—is one of the top draws to the experience, with three meals per day, all of which are of the highest quality in presentation, technique, and flavor. The menu is firmly rooted in local products, and everything is gathered and delivered from one of Belmond’s hotels in Cusco before the journey. And the multi-talented team of chefs and servers are constantly working, as service runs behind the scenes from 5 a.m. to midnight daily on each trip.

There used to be Wi-Fi on the trains, but it was halted along with the train service during the pandemic. However, when the service resumed, the Internet provider was no longer available. Currently, Wi-Fi service is not available on the Andean Explorer, but Belmond managers said that it plans to bring service back eventually, although only to the common areas, such as the bar car, but not guest cabins.

Inside the Llama Restaurant, one of the dining cars on the Andean Explorer

Courtesy of Belmond

As for the journey itself, much of the thrill remains on the train itself, whether it be taking in the unparalleled scenery from one’s cabin or the open air observation car. Also one of the highest-elevated train trips in the world, guests have the opportunity to hop off for both stargazing and sunrises at Lake Saracocha, a Peruvian highland vista located 4,500 meters above sea level and the highest point of the journey. Another stop is a visit to the Sumbay Caves, home to rock paintings—with hand-carved illustrations of llamas, alpacas, and pumas—dating back some 8,000 years.

The Andean Explorer pictured at Lake Lagunillas, near Lake Saracocha, during its journey between Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, and Cusco.

Matt Crossick

Belmond already has a significant footprint in Peru, starting with another famous rail line popular with tourists: the Hiram Bingham line to Machu Picchu. Named after the American academic and politician who visited Machu Picchu in 1911, the Hiram Bingham train travels through the scenic Sacred Valley ( known as the “Valle Sagrado” in Spanish) to the Inca citadel, carrying more than 80 passengers on daily roundtrip journeys.

Modeled after the Pullman carriages of the 1920s, the train’s dining car, observation car, and bar car take travelers on a stylish journey through the Peruvian countryside, with live music and an open bar coming and going. On board, guests should enjoy an exclusive craft cocktail from the menu created by mixologist Aaron Diaz, inspired by the majestic road to Machu Picchu, stretching from the Andes to the Amazon.

The observation car on the Andean Explorer.

Courtesy of Belmond

Belmond also has several hotels and resorts in Peru, including the Rio Sagrado in the Sacred Valley, the Palacio Nazarenas and Monasterio in Cusco, and the Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel available in the immediate vicinity of Machu Picchu, just steps away from the entrance to the national park.

The Sanctuary Lodge was originally a research station for excavations at Machu Picchu. Eventually, the Peruvian government decided to repurpose it as a hotel, and Belmond currently holds the lease. And with that moniker, the Sanctuary Lodge is an ideal spot for a quick recovery, whether you are staying overnight or not. Guests can enjoy tea service, sit out on the terrace, and enjoy Peruvian tapas overlooking Machu Picchu, an experience offered exclusively to groups. Guests can also enjoy local cuisine with produce grown on the Lodge’s own plot, take part in a coca leaf reading, or unwind with a yoga session in the gardens.

The orchid garden at the Sanctuary Lodge near Machu Picchu.

Courtesy of Belmond

The Sanctuary Lodge’s sister properties Palacio Nazarenas and Monasterio each have a long-standing history in the UNESCO-registered city of Cusco. (They are also, notably, the only hotels in Cusco that pump oxygen into guest rooms, helping guests acclimate to the elevation much quicker without even realizing it.) Palacio Nazarenas, an all-suite hotel, boasts a storied past as an Inca temple, a private mansion, and a convent before becoming a full-service hotel as it is today. And the Palacio Nazarenas is also home to the first outdoor heated pool in Cusco. Suites also have a complete bar kit for making your very own pisco sour, a cocktail that claims roots in both Chile and Peru.

Centered around a central courtyard with a 300-year-old cedar tree, Monasterio is a restored 16th century monastery and protected national monument, featuring one of Cusco’s finest collections of 18th-century colonial art on display throughout the hotel.

The swimming pool at the Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cusco, Peru.

Courtesy of Belmond

Additionally, in Cusco, Belmond started working with the Q’omer Wasicha Project in 2015 to promote organic vegetable management and cultivation in local communities as well as fair trade practices. Representatives for the hospitality company say that, as a brand, Belmond believes that tourism has a commitment to support the social and economic development of local communities.

The spa pool at the Rio Sagrado.

Courtesy of Belmond

Thus, Belmond is currently working with more than 10 local communities and suppliers to purchase superfoods such as quinoa, kiwicha, chirimoya, purple corn, corn, organic vegetables, ceramics, and textiles. Several communities are now trained in the production of vegetables and herbs, including the comprehensive management of the greenhouses that allow the harvest of organic crops that would not usually survive the high altitudes of the Andes. And new this year, Belmond guests will be able to visit the community to learn from them about the harvesting process before returning to the property for a meal featuring fresh products from the garden. 

The observation car on the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu.

Courtesy of Belmond

Pre-pandemic, most customers on the Andean Explorer came from North America, Europe, and Australia. And while those demographics still make up most of the passengers right now, Belmond says it has seen a higher number of customers from across South America, but especially Peru as many more people have become interested in domestic travel.

Compared to the Andean Explorer, the Hiram Bingham train often does have repeat clients given it is a much shorter service to one of the most visited landmarks in the world. But same as with Hiram Bingham, passengers have high expectations for consistent, high-end, luxury service.

There are currently four itineraries for the Andean Explorer, and managers for the train say there are no plans to add new itineraries for the time being as Belmond continues to bring service back online since the pandemic started. However, you can jump in halfway through on trips now, such as Puno at Lake Titicaca to Arequipa or just Cusco to Puno.

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