Romance by Rail - Aboard Belmond’s Hiram Bingham

by Janice Burmaz December 09, 2015

Mention Machu Picchu to any seasoned traveller and immediately it will invoke images of lost Inca civilisations amongst dense Amazon jungle and intrepid explorers. Machu Picchu is an unprecedented destination for any would-be traveller visiting the Peruvian Andes of South America.

Machu Picchu is located some 150 kilometres inland from the city of Cusco in the Urubamba River Valley as it winds its way eastward into the Amazon jungle from the high Alto Plano of central Peru.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu and the discovery of this lost Inca city by Hiram Bingham in 1912. The archaeological significance is in part due to the fact it escaped ransacking by the Spanish invaders in the 15th Century
due to its remote river valley and
hilltop location. 

For modern day explorers to reach Machu Picchu you have the option of a 3-4 day walk over the Inca Trail or travel by rail. Peru Rail runs 14 return trains a day from Cusco into the terminus station at the base of Machu Picchu known as Aguas Calientes (aptly named after its invigorating hot springs). Whilst Peru Rail’s Explorer and Vista Dome trains are an excellent choice – there is no comparison to the penultimate rail travel on one of Belmond’s iconic luxury trains, the Hiram Bingham –
appropriately named after the famous historian and explorer. 

As a self-confessed train buff, to spend the day exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu and then indulge in the experience of a luxury train service on our homeward journey was like the perfect fine wine and food match, and one that would exceed all our expectations.

Our outbound service was train #12 with a scheduled departure of 1750 hours. The exquisitely appointed ‘Sala de Espera’ opened 30-40 minutes prior to departure providing us with the perfect sanctuary to escape the bustling crowds of several thousand plus visitors that transit through this tiny township every day.

As you enter the waiting room you are immediately greeted by an extremely well-dressed concierge eager to offer you a hot towel and refreshing drink while checking that all is order for your impending departure. The décor is open and relaxing. Numerous historic photographs adorn the walls retelling the construction of the railroad and the pioneering operations of this narrow gauge railway, all adding to nostalgia and heritage of the ‘Hiram Bingham’ experience.

Peruvian beats fill the room – ‘Trio Sambor’ play a lively set of Latin tunes as a forerunner to our onboard entertainment. Belmond’s locomotive pulls into the station with its two salon cars (with seating for 42 in each), a bar/observation car, service and galley. So immaculately finished in regal blue, the polished carriages are dazzling, more akin to the high gloss finish of a superyacht hull – the detailing and filigree is a work of art in itself. As we head over to our train, we are warmly greeted on the platform by our conductor and car stewards resplendent in their fine uniforms that wouldn’t be out of place on a military parade ground. A welcome hot towel to wipe away any last remnants of the day’s dusty encounter completes the embarkation process.

The moment we enter the salon we are transported back in time to the classic era of high-class train travel, when rail was the most preferred and extremely romantic. The richness of the décor is mesmerising – mahogany wooden panelling, ornately polished brass hand rails, coat hooks and hat racks, soft pastel prints on the upholstery and curtains are matched to the subtle incandescence of soft side lights and table lamps – not a fluorescent tube to be seen.

Tables are set, in classic heavy weight white linen, fine white China and glassware all intricately monogrammed with the iconic ‘HB’ logo, fine silver cutlery, leather bound menu folio and a blossoming red rose. 

The carriage quickly fills with the excited chatter of travellers from across the globe as they share the day’s adventure to the dizzy heights of Machu Picchu. Then the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the conductor sounds the whistle and our train pulls out of the station, right on schedule. Our romantic dinner for two soon turns into a rowdy group of six, four Americans travelling as father, son, uncle and friend. We trade
stories and travel tips from our Peruvian adventures as our train starts to climb its way back up the Urubamba towards Cusco. 

We are invited for a welcome aboard ‘pisco sour’ as a warm-up to some sing-a-long entertainment. Lively Latin favourites roll out such as La Bamba and Mambo #5. Audience participation is unavoidable as maracas and tambourines are passed around and a ‘samba dance-off’ by the more extroverted ensues. 

Darkness has now fallen and the dramatic chasm-like scenery of the river gorge and over hanging cliffs gives way to occasional fleeting lights of local railside settlements and the occasional passing train in one of the many crossing loops – priority of course been given to this prestigious train.

The entertainment having concluded and appetites sharpened, we are ushered back into our saloon car for the gastronomic part of the journey. Amuse-bouche of mashed sweet potato scented with fava bean, fresh cheese, tomato, onion and carrot. The entrée of ‘leek and potato emulsion 3000-metros’ is obviously choreographed for the altitude as our train gently climbs the 1500-metres back up towards Cusco. Mains are a choice of local trout ‘Trucha’ with a salt crust, creamy quinoa and parmesan cheese with tree tomato Meunière sauce, or beef tenderloin with a medley of local potatoes from the ‘Huama’ community located along the Urubamba, topped with a pink pepper ‘Mole’ sauce. Naturally we chose one of each with the opportunity to maximise the tasting experience. Rounded out with a 55% organic cacao, pineapple and tarragon strawberry coulis, delightfully garnished with Maras salt and lavender.

After a day of great exploration as the infamous Hiram himself would have done, it was rewarding to sit back in comfort and enjoy a gourmet dining experience in such elegance and style. Time was of no essence – you are just simply absorbed in the ambience and nostalgia of a glorious way to travel and explore new horizons.

So, having been entertained then wined and dined with elegant sufficiency our 3 ½ hour train journey seemed to have gone so quickly as the conductor made a final announcement that we were pulling into Poroy on the outskirts of Cusco. It was now a case of fond farewells to our new friends from the USA, a hearty thanks to the conductor, cabin stewards and wait staff who all line up in best Belmond tradition to farewell their guests. The Belmond Hiram Bingham is one of those most romantic and special holiday memories and a big tick off my bucket list. When you make the journey to Machu Picchu, don’t even think of missing it. 

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Janice Burmaz
Janice Burmaz


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