Posted by: Jessie Kwak | September 13, 2009

Tourist train from Lima to Huancayo

We were nearly late for the train to Huancayo, even though it was one of the things I was most excited for on our trip. After a week of relaxing mornings without a timetable, we rushed out of bed at 5:30, crammed our bags full, and said quick goodbyes to a groggy Jesús, who was working the night shift. Despite our late timing and an incompetent cab driver we made it to the train with moments to spare, and wedged ourselves and our luggage into the cheap “clasico” seats.

I hadn’t been sure what to expect from the train, but it turns out they’ve capitalized on the tourist appeal, and we received informational literature, announcements in Spanish, English and French at all points of interest, and an attendant fluent in all three languages who brought us breakfast, lunch, and coca tea for the altitude.

The train was full of tourists. The “tourist” cars with comfy reclining seats seemed to be populated mainly by a college-aged tour group, but our “clasico” car was where the party was really at. A Peruvian woman with her three kids, a few pairs of French tourists, a trio from Poland, a kid from South Carolina, us, and John from Chicago, who you will read about for the next few days.

We made our way slowly and jerkily out of Lima, through the suburbs of unfinished tenements and cobbled-together shacks. I’m not sure why no one goes past the second story here, but nearly every building in some neighborhoods had rebar jutting from the top, as though one day someone would come back to finish these skyscrapers.

Looking out the window of the Huancayo train

Looking out the window of the Huancayo train

After a while the walls began to close in. Towering mountains of brown dirt and dusty granite rose without warning from the valley below, where houses were tucked up as close to them as they could be, climbing as high up the walls as they dared. At one point a granite boulder had fallen some time in the distant past. It was the size of a house, and someone had built steps up to it and a children’s slide plunging from the top.

The valley floor was fertile, but narrow, and stands of bamboo and hibiscus brushed the train’s windows, a stark contrast to the steep and barren walls. The river, like nearly all the rivers we would see near populated areas, was clogged with trash.

The climb was a steep one, and the engineers employed many switchbacks, and at one point a turntable to reposition the engine. We begin to gain height rapidly, passing terraced farming on the steep hills where foot paths zigzag up to the highest crops. Houses cling to the hillside. Trash cascades down the cliffs.

As we gain altitude past where even terraced farming can give sustenance, the earth becomes a bloody shade of red. The grass that grows in this red earth is short and spiky like deep green sea urchins, and neon yellow lumps of moss carpet the empty spaces of this surreal sea-scape. We see our first hints of snow, on the ground and in the air.

The top of the pass is over 15,000 feet, and here the train stops so we can all get out and take photos of the high lakes, the alpacas grazing, the snow-capped mountain peaks. The tourists, us included, pose with our backs to the mountains.

Snow-capped peaks at the top of the pass

Snow-capped peaks at the top of the pass

The height is exhausting, and Rob and I both get a bit queasy. The queasiness subsides as we descend towards Huancayo, but we both get headaches which last through the night.

The ride was two hours shorter than they initially announced it would be, 11 hours total, and worth every minute. We arrived in Huancayo dazed, and were herded through the mob of tour operators and hotel promoters, batting away fliers with a tired “no gracias,” though in the end we all were clutching fistfuls of glossy paper.

We ate dinner with John, then fled through the rain back to his hotel, Hotel Kiya, where we booked a room as well. It was a nice place, quiet, and we had cactus growing in pots on the courtyard outside our window.

I was afraid that the altitude sickness (soroche) which sent me to bed early with a headache would bother me the next day, but I’ve been fine. It’s surprisingly hard to stay hydrated up here, and it’s hard to remember to drink water when you have to continually buy it at the store. Well, off to drink another glass….



  1. hi, could you tell me if the train goes every 3rd week or what? I am sooo confused, and my son needs to make his travel plans to lima, and from lima to cuzco, and if the bus on leaves on a sunday, once a month, we need to know~ it is really really a challenge to have any idea about wht’s going on…the rail webite is only selling tickets for the 21 may, another site says its once every three weeks,
    going back two days later on the sunday, and yet another site says it is once every week on a friday, returning on the sunday…
    if you can help clarify i ‘d be so grteful..also, do you advise buying on line to have a place on the train if he isn’t planning on being in peru until the day before which ever departure he needs to take…

    • The best source of information we’ve found is on the Incas del Peru website: Here’s the schedule for 2010.

      You can buy the tickets through them, though they’ll be more expensive (like everything that you buy online instead of just waiting until you get there). For example, we paid about $35 for one-way “classic” tickets–they sell them for $90.

      You’ll need to buy them more than a day ahead, though, so it may be your son’s only option.

      Now that I’m rereading your comment, though, it looks like your son is trying to get to Cusco? He probably won’t want to take the train to Huancayo, then…..

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