The backpacker scene can be ruthlessly competitive. Travellers in hostel bars will fight to win the prize for the most dangerous or crazy story, and wear it like a badge of honour. So you climbed a mountain? Someone has always climbed a bigger one, in a hurricane, and lost a non-vital appendage to frostbite along the way.
So I didn’t earn any cred by choosing not to do the gruelling multiple-day trek to Machu Picchu, but instead taking a luxury train: the Belmond Hiram Bingham.
‘You’re gunnah regret it,’ one know-it-all fellow Aussie told me matter-of-factly.
But regret it I did not. How could I regret a day that starts with champagne at 8.30am?
The Belmond Hiram Bingham is no ordinary train.
Stepping aboard its shiny blue and yellow carriages at Poroy Station (about 15 minutes outside of Cusco), I actually gasped at the beautiful 1920s style décor; there was a cosy dining nook for every passenger set with an ornate vintage-style lamp.
To me there’s a romance about old-fashioned train travel. Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and scenes from Mad Men where Don Draper sipped a gin as the Amtrak pulled out of New York’s Grand Central Station have given me a nostalgia for the era.
The Hiram Bingham brought my travel fantasies to life. As we left the station and everyone headed to the bar car, I felt underdressed in my T-shirt, tights and trainers – a 1920s flapper outfit would be far more appropriate. I wondered if I’d accidentally time-travelled, like Owen Wilson’s character Gil in Midnight In Paris.
Waiters carried trays of champagne through the mingling passengers as the train began to pick up speed. Out the window small towns with curious children watching us go by gave way to vast expanses of countryside, the Andean mountains making for a dramatic backdrop.
A three-piece band began playing Latin rock songs, and soon some passengers were dancing (no doubt uninhibited by those trays of champagne flutes).
My limited dancing abilities are only ever on show when it’s very dark and very late, so I was content to sit back and watch the revelry. But our fun was soon interrupted by an announcement: brunch was being served. The party would have to wait.
The food couldn’t have been served at a more perfect time. As I tucked into a meal that could have held its own at a fine-dining restaurant (think smoked trout, cannelloni, and Peruvian vegetables pureed to perfection all washed down with local wine), the view out of my window became more impressive still. We were moving through the Sacred Valley, where lush vegetation grows on craggy mountain peaks and the Urubamba River flows mightily along.
I’d built Machu Picchu up in my mind until it was pretty much akin to visiting the moon. So after we’d alighted the train, taken a bus up to the top and walked the final hill and it suddenly appeared in front of me, it took me a moment to process that I was really, truly, finally there.
I wouldn’t be the first person to gush about the beauty and wonder of the place, so I’m just going to say this: Believe. The. Hype.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the network of ancient stone walls. I was surprised at how few other people I had to share the site with. I’d mentally prepared myself for the kind of crowds you face at the Colosseum in Rome or the Louvre in Paris, but it was the complete opposite: several times I found a place to sit alone and take in the magnitude of it all. Apparently, this is because most visitors go in the morning to see the sunrise over the ruins. But my advice is go later; I loved that I didn’t have to jostle for a view with hundreds of others.
The harsh blow of having to leave Machu Picchu was softened by knowing I’d be spending another three-and-a-half hours on the Hiram Bingham on the way home.
And the return journey didn’t disappoint. There was an electricity in the air; everyone seemed elated after ticking something off from the very top of their bucket lists. There was more champagne, more food, more dancing, and for me, even more romance about train travel. I’m already planning my next adventure by rail.
Erin Van Der Meer is an Australian travel writer. Right now she's in the US drinking too many free refills of Dr Pepper.
Follow her adventures: Instagram @erinvandermeer, Twitter @erinvandermeer
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.