Machu Picchu luxury train journey recalls adventures of Hiram Bingham

The Belmond Hiram Bingham train winds through the Urubamba Valley in Peru.
The Belmond Hiram Bingham train winds through the Urubamba Valley in Peru.
Dancers give the Belmond Hiram Bingham train a colourful send-off.
Dancers give the Belmond Hiram Bingham train a colourful send-off.
A dining car on the Belmond Hiram Bingham.
A dining car on the Belmond Hiram Bingham.
On track for songs and sours
On track for songs and sours

American explorer Hiram Bingham vividly recounted his first sight of Machu Picchu in his classic 1922 book Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru. Struggling through thick jungle with a young native guide, Bingham came across a flight of beautifully constructed terraces: “It did not take an expert to realise, from the glimpse of Machu Picchu on that rainy day in July 1911, when Sergeant Carrasco and I first saw it, that here were most extraordinary and interesting ruins.”

Bingham would go on to introduce this ancient Incan wonder to the world. “Whatever name be finally assigned to this site by future historians, of this I feel sure — that few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land,’’ he wrote.

On a crisp October evening more than a century later, the Belmond Hiram Bingham train is alive with song as it chugs slowly up through the Urubamba Valley from Aguas Calientes, the hub for Machu Picchu, to Cusco’s Poroy Station.

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Outside, the lush, sub-tropical landscape traversed long ago by Bingham slips by in a misty blue twilight (“In Inca Land one may pass from glaciers to tree ferns within a few hours,” he noted later in his memoirs). Inside, our carriage is rocking on its wheels as we howl and yodel and clap our way through Guantanamera, the Spanish-language classic made famous by American rocker Pete Seeger in the 1960s. A trio of musicians strum guitars, egging us on. The whole carriage erupts in roars and wolf whistles as an elderly American couple jump to their feet, grab tambourines and maracas, and start gyrating their hips to the plaintive Joseito Fernandez melody.

This impromptu jam begins in the train’s lavishly appointed bar car soon after dinner, perhaps fuelled by the excitement of a day at the fabled Inca site coupled with the many bottles of fine Peruvian wine and trays of pisco sours — the country’s national cocktail — that travel the length of the two dining cars over an indulgent four-course dinner service.

My fellow passengers, a well-heeled, Panama hat-wearing, cosmopolitan bunch, had showed no signs of flamboyance when we first met in the private Hiram Bingham waiting room back at Aguas Calientes. Then, it was all demurely sipped aperitifs as we availed ourselves of the hot towels served on trays, and traded quiet chit chat, waiting to embark on what’s been billed as one of the world’s great train journeys.

Its four blue and gold wagons, decorated in the style of 1920s Pullman carriages (the train also features the dining cars and an observation/bar car, and carries up to 84 passengers), are a welcome sight as I clamber onboard for my one-way, three-hour trip to Cusco.

There is luxury in the smallest details: the silky polished woods used in the elegant interior panelling, the shiny brass fittings, the crisp white tablecloths, sparkling crystal wine glasses and heavy silver cutlery. Generously laid out for us hungry trekkers, tonight’s dinner menu includes a leek and potato emulsion, caviar de Kiwicha, grilled trout with a Maras salt crust and tenderloin beef from the Sacred Valley, followed by organic chocolate from Quillabamba.

It’s decadence all the way for the daily service, selected the best train in the world by the readers of Conde Nast Traveller UK in 2011. A round-trip ticket includes aperitifs on arrival at Cusco’s Poroy station, brunch or gourmet dinner, on-board entertainment, a tourist guide for bigger groups, tickets and transportation to Machu Picchu, tea at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge and a gourmet Andean-inspired dinner.

It’s a feast in four divine courses, and we tuck in heartily while our guide entertains us with stories of Bingham’s exploits. And then, after endless rounds of pisco sours, the music begins: “Guantanamera ... guajira Guantanamera ...” It’s easy to imagine the ghost of the intrepid Hiram hovering overhead, clapping along in time.

Sharon Verghis was a guest of the Belmond Hiram Bingham.

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