For those who are still feeling the impact of the high altitude, the nearly hour-and-a-half boat ride isn’t ideal. Some of the passengers try to sleep off the sickness, while Jason and I happily take a seat on the top deck, saluting hard-working fisherman who skim across the water on their totora reed boats casting nets into the glistening lake. In the distance, massive creatures watch guard over the floating islands. They are, in fact, larger reed boats painted in yellows, blues, and reds that transport the Uro people from island to island. We are invited onto one of the islands, constructed of layer upon layer of reed, and greeted with songs and dances from the island’s inhabitants. It’s a display I won’t soon forget.
“We are welcoming you, and we are wishing away any bad spirits,” a lady tells me as I get my footing. “Come, I’ll show you my house,” she says gesturing her hand like a showman as the lake-shell jewelry on her wrists jingles. It smells of fire, water, and earth as we walk into her small hut. Clothes hang like stage curtains, and she points to the bedding stage where her family of five all sleeps together. Outside, she shows us her handicrafts, and, of course, we purchase nearly everything on display.
Our boat continues along the lake producing waves that lap on the shores of the other floating communities (there are over 100 islands), and we glide toward an island that peaks like a volcano. We disembark on Taquile, stepping foot on the private Collata Beach. Our guide has us pick three coca leaves. We hike up the hill to witness a mesmerizing view of the lake. We look one way toward Bolivia and dedicate a leaf to our family and relationships; we look toward our train in the town of Puno and pray for abundance; and then look inward and thank Pachamama (a mother earth figure) for her blessings. We place our leaves under rocks and two of mine blow out toward the lake, down the hill, and then up toward the sky.
As we ascend steps, we hear the sounds of drumbeats and singing. The local community is there to greet us with Champagne. The celebrations continue with a local Peruvian coin toss game called sapo. We compete with local children to get the coin in a metal frog’s mouth (it’s much harder than it looks). Then they bring us indoors where we feast. Fresh peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and a locally caught fish is more than enough to replenish us from the morning’s adventures, and it is also enough to put me to sleep in the lounge chairs that Belmond has set up on a private beach. I quickly drift off to the sound of waves and thoughts of Pachamama.
After our daylong adventure, the train staff is ready for our return with pisco sours and hors d’oeuvres in the piano lounge. Following cocktails, Jason and I dress for a romantic dinner together. Candlelit and seductive, the three-course meal features an outstanding array of local delicacies. Ravioli stuffed with seafood, a seared duck with potato purée, and South American pear. For dessert, the chef prepared an entire lemon, filled with local cream. It took days to prepare so the skin became edible, and it still makes my mouth salivate when I think of it.
Jason and I then make our way to the observation car for a nightcap. Standing outside as the temperature plunges, we bundle up in our recently purchased alpaca blankets. It’s so dark outside of our immediate surroundings that it almost feels surreal. We can see, though, our train making its way up more seemingly impossible impasses ahead. How much higher can we go? We think. Hints of white begin to appear in the sky. It’s the snow pack from the mountains. “We are at the highest point of the trip,” a worker tells us. “The mountain is said to bring good luck and fortune,” he adds. And as the only people still awake on board, we take our good fortune to bed.
The next day, we have a super-early morning breakfast, then we’re loaded onto a bus. While our fellow passengers grumble at the almost pre-dawn wake-up call, our next adventure is best seen before the crowds arrive. Here, located in the Sacred Valley, along a portion of the Inca Road is the ancient site of Raqchi. For history buffs, the ruins here are where the Incas, who were on their way to Machu Pichu, would take refuge. The off-the-beaten-path attraction has still-standing ruins of large temples to the God Wiracocha. You can visit the homes that once occupied the land, and marvel at the technology that the people here utilized. As we exit the archaeological site, busses of tourists are being brought in, and we’re happy that we were able to have the place to ourselves, with no one but us and the memories of those who once traversed these sacred lands.
The train’s steady rhythm brings us to our final destination of Cusco. We watch nature give way to city life. Children and dogs chase the Belmond Andean Explorer through the tracks. The quiet is now filled with barking and shouts. There is no longer rapid flowing water along the train, but a river of stores and homes that run parallel to the tracks. We pull into the Cusco train station, and we’re escorted off the train. The red carpet now leads us away from our home, and the staff all stands clapping, smiling and cheering like a dream. Now, in our dreams, I still hear the clickity-clack, of the train see the Sacred Valley in all its magnificence, and pretend I am on a private beach, and I thank Pacha Mama for this experience.