In the steps of the In­cas

This week­end, Peru’s Machu Pic­chu cel­e­brates 100 years of mod­ern dis­cov­ery

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - ANDREW CONWAY

THE old shaman looks me straight in the eye. ‘‘I wish on you the strength of a puma, the agility of a snake, and the speed of a con­dor,’’ he in­tones in his na­tive Quechua, the an­cient lan­guage of the In­cas, as he wafts plumes of smoke from burn­ing coca leaves around my head, body and legs.

I’m se­cretly hop­ing he’ll use his spir­i­tual pow­ers to ask Pachamama, the In­cas’ revered Mother Earth, to de­liver me a nice Oz Lotto win, but given I’m in Peru’s Sa­cred Val­ley and pre­par­ing to climb one of the peaks of Machu Pic­chu in a cou­ple of days, I’m happy to be chan­nelling some divine sup­port and en­cour­age­ment.

Two days later, how­ever, my in­ner Inca has gone walk­a­bout. I’m huff­ing and puff­ing, wheez­ing and gasp­ing my way to the sum­mit of Huayna Pic­chu, the gran­ite moun­tain tow­er­ing over the Inca ci­tadel of Machu Pic­chu, and feel­ing more like a three-legged llama than any speed­ing puma, snake or con­dor.

I press on, push­ing my­self up in­creas­ingly nar­row steps, around sheer-drop ledges and over wind­carved boul­ders, my heart thump­ing as it strug­gles to draw oxy­gen from the thin An­dean air. With a fi­nal crawl through a cramped cave and a few steps up a rick­ety lad­der, I emerge on to the sum­mit to a view that takes my breath away.

Machu Pic­chu may be one of the New Seven Won­ders of the World, a UNESCO World Her­itage site and one of the most fa­mous and pho­tographed des­ti­na­tions on the planet, but no im­age, poster or Na­tional Geo­graphic shot ad­e­quately cap­tures the jaw-drop­ping panorama of this magnificent mon­u­ment.

Perched on a ridge be­tween Machu Pic­chu (Old Peak) and Huayna Pic­chu (Young Peak), this patch­work quilt of grey stone houses, tem­ples and Inca ter­races as neat as corn­rows ap­pears to cas­cade down the moun­tain­side like a frozen gran­ite wa­ter­fall. If there is one global won­der where the re­al­ity far ex­ceeds the hype, this is surely it.

Ex­actly 100 years af­ter US ex­plorer Hi­ram Bing­ham all but stum­bled across one of the great­est arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies on July 24, 1911, Machu Pic­chu con­tin­ues to be­witch and baf­fle the 700,000-plus vis­i­tors who de­scend on the ci­tadel each year.

To this day, no one knows ex­actly what pur­pose Machu Pic­chu served. Bing­ham ini­tially thought he had dis­cov­ered the leg­endary Lost City of the In­cas, a fan­ci­ful but mis­guided the­ory long since de­bunked by arche­ol­o­gists who fol­lowed in his foot­steps. Oth­ers be­lieved it to be a se­cret Inca refuge or fortress, con­cealed from the in­vad­ing Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors, then mys­te­ri­ously aban­doned and for­got­ten.

Ac­cepted wis­dom now leans to­wards a royal es­tate built at the height of the Inca em­pire circa 1450 as a site of cer­e­mo­nial, spir­i­tual, as­tro­nom­i­cal and agri­cul­tural im­por­tance, be­fore be­ing aban­doned about 100 years later.

Af­ter a cen­tury of heated de­bate and con­jec­ture, one fact re­mains clear. The solid, silent stones of Machu Pic­chu bear tes­ta­ment to a peo­ple who could nei­ther read nor write, yet pos­sessed as­tound­ing ar­chi­tec­tural and de­sign skills and sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Peru is as proud as Pachamama about this week­end’s cen­te­nary and has been cel­e­brat­ing with colour­ful events and fi­es­tas, many fit­tingly held in Cusco, which was the cap­i­tal of the Inca em­pire and re­mains the bustling gateway to the Sa­cred Val­ley and the ru­ins of Machu Pic­chu.

The cen­te­nary’s great­est legacy, how­ever, will live on long be­yond this week­end. Af­ter decades of bit­ter ar­gu­ments, law­suits and gov­ern­ment protests that went from Peru all the way to the White House, the on­ceim­mov­able Yale Univer­sity has fi­nally re­turned 366 of an es­ti­mated 40,000 price­less Inca relics re­moved from the site by Bing­ham and his Yale-funded sci­en­tific team dur­ing the first ex­ca­va­tions.

The arte­facts, which were orig­i­nally ‘‘on loan’’ to Yale for re­search pur­poses but never made it back to Peru in 100 years, in­clude ce­ram­ics, tex­tiles and bones that will now be on dis­play in Cusco’s new Casa Con­cha Mu­seum. It’s a small vic­tory, but an im­por­tant one at this mile­stone an­niver­sary.

While Bing­ham trav­elled to Machu Pic­chu us­ing trusty mule and can­vas tent, to­day’s ama­teur arche­ol­o­gist can make the pil­grim­age in pil­low-soft com­fort. Ori­ent-Ex­press op­er­ates five lux­ury ho­tels across Peru, from the cap­i­tal Lima to the gates of Machu Pic­chu, all care­fully de­signed to of­fer guests an au­then­tic slice of Peru­vian cul­ture.

Each ho­tel — as well as a deluxe train that bears Bing­ham’s name and takes well-heeled pas­sen­gers on day trips be­tween Cusco and Machu Pic­chu — cre­ates an Inca trail of a very dif­fer­ent kind, far from the hardy hikers and well­trod­den path of the real thing.

This pam­pered ‘‘trek’’ be­gins in Lima at the Mi­raflo­res Park Ho­tel, an all-suite prop­erty over­look­ing the Pa­cific Ocean and lo­cated in the up­scale sub­urb of Mi­raflo­res. Lima isn’t Peru’s most at­trac­tive city, but its rich Span­ish colo­nial her­itage, largely cen­tred around the Plaza Mayor, Gov­ern­ment Palace, cathe­dral and im­pres­sive Church of San Fran­cisco, is a good in­tro­duc­tion to Peru­vian his­tory.

The ho­tel is next to Lar­co­mar, ar­guably the best shop­ping and restau­rant com­plex in Lima, and Bar­ranco, an artists’ quar­ter with good restau­rants, cafes and bars, is a short cab ride away. Peru­vians take their food se­ri­ously and are sur­pris­ingly good at it. Dine at Mesa 18 at the Mi­raflo­res Park Ho­tel or Astrid & Gas­ton, the flag­ship of top chef Gas­ton Acu­rio, and you’ll get your first taste of Peru’s ris­ing-star gourmet rep­u­ta­tion.

The real fun starts in Cusco, a 90-minute flight south­east of Lima and a bustling tourist cen­tre chan­nelling vis­i­tors to Machu Pic­chu. It’s here you can board the lux­u­ri­ous Hi­ram Bing­ham train, j ointly op­er­ated by Ori­en­t­Ex­press and PeruRail, or other reg­u­lar ser­vices for the four-hour jour­ney to the ci­tadel, but vi­brant Cusco de­mands at least two days to ex­plore the part-Inca, partS­pan­ish sights, from the an­cient Sac­say­hua­man Inca ru­ins to the colo­nial Plaza de Armas and its magnificent cathe­dral.

A word of cau­tion about al­ti­tude sick­ness in Cusco, which at 3330m is the high­est point for most trav­ellers en route to Machu Pic­chu. Pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion such as Di­amox (ac­eta­zo­lamide) can help re­duce the dis­com­fort, which may in­clude headaches, a tight chest and short­ness of breath. Drink lots of coca tea, avoid heavy meals and al­co­hol, and take it easy dur­ing the first day or two as you ad­just to the thin­ner air.

The his­toric Ho­tel Monas­te­rio goes one step fur­ther, of­fer­ing ‘ ‘ oxy­gen-en­riched’’ rooms that also help with the al­ti­tude is­sue. This for­mer monastery, two blocks from the main square, has cosy rooms and suites set around a charm­ing clois­ter, one cor­ner of which leads to an art­filled pri­vate chapel.

The vaulted lobby bar shakes up Cusco’s best pisco sours — Peru’s na­tional drink, made from pisco brandy, lime j uice, sugar syrup, egg whites and bit­ters — and Il­lariy Restau­rant serves Peru­vian favourites such as al­paca, ce­viche and roasted cuy (guinea pig), the lat­ter mer­ci­fully masked by a chilli jam glaze.

Cusco is all high-def­i­ni­tion vi­su­als and colour, back­pack­ers j ostling with lo­cals tout­ing mas­sages and bars, and An­dean vil­lagers car­ry­ing ba­bies in rain­bow-coloured pa­pooses or las­soed to lla­mas for tourist photo op­por­tu­ni­ties, palms out­stretched for pay­ment.

All this, how­ever, is merely the ap­pe­tiser to the main course of Machu Pic­chu, served up on a sil­ver plat­ter if you travel on the sleek Hi­ram Bing­ham train, which whisks pas­sen­gers on day trips from Cusco to Machu Pic­chu and back through the ma­jes­tic Sa­cred Val­ley. (You could also board the train at Ol­lan­tay­tambo in the heart of the Sa­cred Val­ley and spend a night or two at the beau­ti­ful Ho­tel Rio Sa­grado on the banks of the Urubamba River.)

The blue-and-gold train bears many of the hall­marks of its Ori­ent-Ex­press coun­ter­parts in


Machu Pic­chu is be­lieved to be a royal es­tate built by the In­cas in the mid-15th cen­tury as a site of spir­i­tual, cer­e­mo­nial, as­tro­nom­i­cal and agri­cul­tural im­por­tance


Dancers in the streets of Cusco dur­ing cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions

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