A Peruvian treasure trail: The magic of Machu Picchu, 100 years after its discovery
The Inca Trail - that fiendishly
difficult trek to reach the fabled city of Machu Picchu in South
America's Andes - was closed for renovation work. I was secretly
relieved. No pressure to prove myself, no dire camping rations, no
Instead, I caught a train and embarked upon a quite spectacular journey.
Edge of empire: The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, never found by the Spanish, was rediscovered 100 years ago
In the centre of Peru lies the
Sacred Valley, the 15th-century Inca imperial heartland, with the 'Lost
City' at its mountainous head and the former capital Cusco 50 miles
train ride followed the precipitous course of the roaring Urubamba river
upstream from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the closest access town to the
ruined city. As the steam train hugged the sides of the narrow valley
floor, we sank into leather seats, enjoyed a drink and marvelled at the
scenery through the huge panoramic windows.
was all so different for the explorer and academic who chanced upon the
sculpted terraces and granite buildings of this lost city exactly 100
years ago. In fact, Hiram Bingham would probably be appalled to hear of
such luxury after he scrabbled on his hands and knees through dense
jungle for several days to reach the site a local boy had described to
Bingham, a Yale University professor,
rediscovered the only Inca city to have survived intact following the
destruction the Spanish wreaked everywhere else. The only reason it
escaped colonial decapitation was that it was never found. In its
glorious isolation it was abandoned and forgotten, taken over by the
jungle until its rediscovery on July 24, 1911.
one really knows what the citadel's function was: religious,
ceremonial, residential or agricultural, although certainly all four
played a part. Our hotel had organised a young archaeology student to
take us round and explain all the various temples, Inca architecture and
terracing that enabled them to grow so much food to power the armies
that extended their vast empire.
all the gold panels that would have decorated the Sun Temple have long
gone (melted down or stolen after its abandonment), but as the sun rose
we could imagine how majestic it would have looked.
site is perched on a mountain ridge 7,970 ft above sea level, so
altitude sickness can be a problem for some. We were advised to chew
coca leaves, drink coca tea and take an aspirin until we acclimatised.
The brave can always take the option to climb the mountain of Huayna
Picchu that towers over the ruins, but the site itself is fairly easy to
walk around, with most of the Inca steps intact.
unexpected encounter with a huge llama provided some amusement -
particularly when he took a shine to my sister, gaily trotting after
her. Having said goodbye to our llama friend, we were grateful to rest
weary feet at our hotel - Inkaterra Machu Picchu, in Aguas Calientes.
in its own 12 acres of protected cloud forest, by the side of the
thundering river, the aim is to immerse you in the natural environment
(albeit with every mod con on hand). Exotic orchids surround each
individual villa, hummingbirds dart through trees and the swimming pools
are a wonderful balm for aching muscles.
after a couple of days, it was time for our personal Peruvian trail to
move on. Before we reached Cusco, my sister and I decided to visit some
other spectacular Inca monuments along the way. Our favourites were the
romantic mountain-top ruins of Pisac and the striking edifice of
Ollantaytambo, the remains of a fortress-temple which soars above the
Local life: While Spanish colonial heritage is everywhere, the true Peru still shines in this incredible country
We broke our journey at the
Orient Express hotel, Rio Sagrado, in Urubamba, on the green banks of
the river of the same name. A particular highlight was feeding baby
alpacas and chatting to the local schoolgirls dressed in their brightly
coloured traditional dress.
it was on to Cusco. Built in the shape of a crouching puma with a
fortress at its head and a temple at its heart, the former Inca capital
is now a beguiling mix of impressive ancient stonework and Spanish
colonial architecture. We checked in to the Hotel Monasterio, a
16thcentury monastery that has been fantastically converted, and over a
spot of lunch on the courtyard patio enjoyed some Peruvian delicacies.
guinea pig and rare llama steak (we felt a little guilty) might not be
to everyone's taste, but they were delicious. Outside, the main square
was filled with Andean women in their distinctive bowler hats and
multi-coloured woven shawls selling everything from alpaca clothing to
because Roman Catholicism is still dominant in everyday life, there are
more churches than you can shake a carved llama stick at.
Cusco, it's only a short plane trip east to delve into the jungle to
and explore the mighty Amazon. Our foray into the flora and fauna in one
of the world's most biodiverse areas was near the Bolivian border on
the hot and humid Madre de Dios (mother of God) river.
Reserva Amazonica jungle lodge was a blast for the senses. Accessible
by river-boat and situated in a 40-mile private ecological reserve, the
individual thatched suites with river views boast every creature
comfort. It's eco-consicous, too - the buildings are made from natural
materials to blend in with their environments, so we could see (and
hear) wild frogs sitting on the walkways.
staff were knowledgeable and a fantastic guide, Jesus Ghlemm, took us
on expeditions two or three times a day, both on foot and by boat. We
saw colourful wildlife - from giant macaws to howler monkeys high in the
trees, and from hairy tarantulas with their babies to caimans prowling
walkway, strung from tree to tree in the jungle canopy, was a twitcher's
dream, enabling us to see birds such as toucans and eagles at close
quarters - although probably not for those who fear heights! Ghlemm
answered all our many questions with patience and humour, and as an
introduction to up-close exotic encounters it was an outstanding
From the snowy
mountain peaks to the heat and humidity of the jungle, our own Peruvian
trail had taken us to unforgettable heights.