That Magnificent Train

by Zach Dorfman


The music was everywhere there were tourists. Since arriving in Peru, I’d heard the same songs looped interminably by flute bands: in public squares, hotel lobbies, bazaars, bars, and cheap buffets; in Cusco and Aguas Calientes and Urubamba and Ollantaytambo; and, increasingly, in my sleep. A few general guidelines materialized. First, no group could possibly resist “El Cóndor Pasa,” famous for being repurposed by Simon and Garfunkel in 1970 (“I’d rather be a hammer than a naaaail/yes I wouuuld/if I only couuulld//yes I wouuuld,” and so on). Second, the flute bands would, over the course of their set, eventually return the favor by likewise appropriating some classic Anglo-American pop music: songs like “Hotel California,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Hey Jude” (but never, curiously, any Jethro Tull). And, at 6:45 in the morning, Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.”

I was waiting to board the Andean Explorer, a once-a-day luxury train that runs from Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, with its magnificent sixteenth-century cathedral that sits across the main city square from Starbucks and North Face annexes, to the city of Puno (“The Folklore Capital of Peru”), which sits on a polluted bay on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The age of the average rider seemed to hover around sixty, the lobby full of pasty Australian retirees travelling with large tour groups. We were informed over a loudspeaker that the ride was estimated at roughly ten hours; this, we later learned, was unduly optimistic.

Like its relative the Hiram Bingham (which travels from Cusco to Machu Picchu, a much shorter journey that is actually more expensive), the Andean Explorer is privately owned and operated by a company called PeruRail and serves no local purpose whatsoever. A round-trip ticket on the Bingham — named for the American explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu — costs roughly eight hundred dollars, or twelve percent of an average Peruvian’s yearly earnings. (And average earnings in the Andean Highlands are less than a twentieth of those in Lima; poverty rates in the highlands reach past fifty percent, with indigenous communities particularly affected.)

We departed Wanchaq Station at around eight AM. The train snaked through the outskirts of Cusco, paralleling the Huatanay River. Slowly, the city gave way to open country: undulating valleys, russet river canyons with frothing rapids, and charming old colonial churches. After an hour or two, we passed through a small town, which exemplified the aggressive disrepair characterizing some of the contemporary housing stock in parts of Peru. Boxy, sun-scorched dwellings pushed up neatly against one another, the streets treeless and dusty. (I was later told this dilapidation is at least partially purposeful: The Peruvian government does not tax “unfinished” dwellings. The exterior of homes are left — or made — decrepit. This tactic also has the advantage of deterring thieves.)

You wouldn’t know it from the tourist infrastructure that has been built up around Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but Peru is still recovering from two decades of blood and ruin. From the early eighties to the turn of the millennium, it struggled through one of the worst conflicts in twentieth-century Latin America. The Shining Path, a millenarian Maoist insurgency that both drew from and brutalized the poor indigenous population in equal measure, engineered a campaign of terror that stretched from the Andean heartland of Peru to cosmopolitan Lima. Over the course of Peru’s “Years of Lead,” (as the Italians memorably call their own struggle with radical militancy in the seventies), the Shining Path killed an estimated thirty-eight thousand people. The state responded with a furious counterinsurgency — roving paramilitary death squads and all — that terrorized the same populations preyed upon by the Shining Path. In 1992, citing the need for a freer hand in dealing with terrorism (and ruinous hyperinflation), President Alberto Fujimori dissolved parliament in an autogolpe, or “self-coup,” setting off a constitutional crisis. Government-affiliated groups are considered responsible for roughly thirty-two thousand deaths.

No one suffered more in this conflict than the indigenous, generally Quechua-speaking people of the Peruvian Andes. Six Andean provinces account for eighty-five percent of all related deaths. Caught between paramilitary forces and the Shining Path, highland villagers were occupied and then re-occupied, tortured for cooperation and then again for non-cooperation, massacred for being government supporters and massacred for being Maoists, in a kind of widening gyre of suffering. In total, seventy-five percent of all those killed were Quechua-speakers.

After the 1992 capture of its leader and founder, Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path began to fade — violently — from Peruvian life. But it has never quite disappeared entirely. From its remaining strongholds in the Peruvian jungle, it has become deeply involved in the lucrative cocaine trade. (Outpacing Colombia, Peru is now the world’s greatest producer of the drug.) Between 2008 and early 2013, the Shining Path killed more than eighty Peruvian soldiers and policemen; in 2012, the group kidnapped (and eventually released) thirty-six laborers helping construct a natural gas pipeline. Though the Peruvian government has arrested or killed many of the Shining Path’s remaining leaders, it seems to have a protean ability to regroup, even under great outside pressure.

The Andean Explorer is a magnificent specimen, a romantic anachronism. Fashioned after the classic American Pullman models, it is undoubtedly the most luxurious train I’ve ridden. In the main cabins, each passenger has a personal, freestanding plush wing chair, set neatly around a table fitted with a crisp white tablecloth and small lamp. Servers in formal dress constantly plied us with (mediocre) food, coffee, juice, and complementary drinks. Distractions punctuated empty time. There was a fashion show, a tea service, dancers dressed in glowing costume, and happy hour, with more roving mercenary flute bands. There was a bar car in the back of the train with an open-air lounge, providing a constantly receding survey of the landscape. The bathroom had a fake copper mail slot for you to deliver your soiled toilet paper. (In Peru, waste paper is normally deposited in trash bins beside the bowl itself.)

We climbed through the Altiplano and the terrain changed rapidly. Signs of human settlement became sparser before nearly disappearing entirely. The grass browned, the livestock took on a harried look, and the light became harsher and flatter, rebelling against the verticality of the giant peaks that would emerge from intermittent hibernation between the empty dried-out hills. A vintage crimson Volkswagen Beetle briefly raced the train on the highway paralleling the track. The air was pinched. At over fourteen thousand feet, we were far above tree line; the country seemed less lifeless than utterly deathless, beyond the cycle of both and uncaring of either. It was beautiful, like something Thomas Mann would have conjured up from the rib of a llama.

After a brief stop at La Raya, a tiny trading post with an even tinier church, the train descended again. Evidence of agriculture became more marked, and the shadows of Indian peasants crisscrossed next season’s plantings. Dirt roads bisected the landscape more frequently. We re-entered the world of machines: cars, trucks, mototaxis. Soon it became clear that we were on the outskirts of a real town, even, perhaps, a real city.

We came upon Juliaca, the regional capital with over two hundred thousand residents, around an hour before sunset. The train slowed as it approached the city’s urban fringes. “It’s an illegal city,” a man from Puno later told me, “full of smugglers bringing goods back and forth from Bolivia.” When I asked him what people were smuggling, he mentioned gasoline, “and other things.” (An estimated sixty percent of Juliaca’s residents are involved in the trafficking business. Authorities believe illegal cross-border trading is a billion-and-a-half-dollar-a-year industry in Peru.)

This part of town was shambolic to its core. The streets were unpaved and uneven, and led only, as far as I could see, to proliferating garbage piles and scoured buildings. The streets appeared ambivalent about their very direction; the track bisected a large intersection of sorts, an ersatz plaza borne from this tortuous urban delta. The train slowed and eventually halted in the center. I had just gone to the open-air bar car to watch the sun set. There were a few other passengers present, but not many. People emerged out of businesses, schools, warrens, who knows, watching the train sit there. Children in crisp uniforms bought candy ice from a vender. An elderly man stumbled up to the back of the bar car, performing the universal harangue of the old drunk. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty, then forty-five. Soon I was the only customer left inside the bar, sitting cross-legged over a mahogany bench, mixed drink in hand, curiously entranced and frozen in place.

A truck was parked in the middle of the track, blocking the train, and no one could locate its owner. We couldn’t do much at all, besides wait. The bartender told me that the police were on their way, but had no idea when we’d start moving again. He told me this in a matter-of-fact manner, but he seemed like he was unsettled and trying to hide it.

When I walked through the main cabins en route to my own, I realized that the mood aboard was much altered. People squirmed in their seats; spoke in conspiratorial tones; avoided craning their necks to the right or left while stealing furtive glances out the window. Books — flaccid romance novels with unintentionally hilarious cover art, masturbatory self-help pamphlets posing as epic stories of self-discovery, pedantic adventure lit for Real Dudes — sat face up on white tablecloths.

As darkness descended the lights of the train switched on, the table lamps illuminating each passenger with perfectly diffuse light. It became far easier to see into the train than out of it. Outside, it was all imprints and shadows. Inside, the staff decided to hand out flutes of champagne. Never before has so much free champagne been given out for so few toasts.

The train rumbled into motion roughly two hours later, but people were too depleted to cheer, or even for polite applause — besides, an overenthusiastic reaction would have betrayed something unsavory about people’s response to the whole event, some aspects of the situation that no one really wanted to confront, not now, and maybe not ever. We were once again comfortably ensconced in fantasy, on the outside while in the train, looking inside to the enclosed space that was Peru. Things were back to normal now. The Andean Explorer passed through a marketplace so dense it nearly brushed the tin roofs of the makeshift stalls on either side of the track, the shops’ bare bulbs vibrating back and forth like censers. People stood and watched the train pass by, a few snapping photos on their cellphones. We pushed through the urban notch, accelerating, back into the night.