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Travel by train evolves from special trip in Peru

March 2, 2018 GMT

Trains, their capabilities, and unusual routes have always fascinated me.

Perhaps it goes back to my childhood’s Lionel train set. Or to my youth when I always looked forward to rail journeys throughout Europe, crossing border after border while relishing both the changing landscape and the mix of diverse cultures.

Last week while driving down Jefferson Terrace I had to stop at the light while the Sunset Limited passed through on its way westward.

How travel by train has evolved!

As the train surged forward, I recalled reading that Amtrak currently has the Acela Express in operation between Washington D.C. and Boston. It travels at 150 miles per hour and a faster version, the Avelia Liberty, is being planned.

But for the adventurous railway buff there is another kind of journey that’s particularly appealing because few places have the geography that allows it. Once any traveler embarks on a high-altitude railway ... that trip will never be forgotten.

A few years ago I wanted to have this experience so I flew to Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, which sits at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. After crossing Lake Titicaca by hydrofoil, I arrived at the port of Copacabana and from there went to Puno, Peru, where I boarded the train to Cuzco, the old Inca capital.

It was in Puno that I befriended the Lofton brothers from Chicago who were returning home after having spent a year in Argentina. I couldn’t have asked for better traveling companions.

We decided to ride in the second-class carriage so we could mingle with the locals. The car was clean, comfortable, and nearly full. We prepared for the day-long trip by buying water, soda, fruit, and sandwiches.

The Peruvian railway personnel were both courteous and professional. However, they informed us that we’d be reaching some high altitudes along this route. They added that every car carried oxygen cylinders and trained staff to handle any “high-altitude discomfort.” They were preparing us, particularly the foreigners, for possible problems with “soroche,” the local term for altitude sickness due to decreased oxygen in the thin air.

We got underway and I soaked in the surroundings. Two youngsters chased each other down the aisle. Three rows from me an Indian mother nursed her infant while her husband took out snacks from a basket. And the handful of foreigners either took pictures or read. Conversations throughout were animated.

Then, very slowly, the ambiance changed as we began to climb.

The playing children grew still and returned to their parents where they snuggled close and fell asleep. An older man at the very front began to nod before, he too, dozed off. There was almost no moving about and few people spoke.

Many people dozed until, finally, the train began its descent towards Cuzco. Incidentally, at our highest point, nearly 14,000 feet, two railway employees carrying oxygen walked back and forth through all the cars in case anyone was in distress.

In the distance, the Andes towered like sentinels cloaked in their uniforms of ice and snow, continuous reminders of our exceptional odyssey where we were all now caressing the heavens.

A multitude of rail journeys around the globe await the intrepid traveler.

O.J. GONZALEZis a native and resident of Jeanerette. He graduated from USL in printmaking and photography and his photographs have appeared in publications in Louisiana, Alaska, Canada, New Zealand and England.