In the steps of the Incas
This weekend, Peru’s Machu Picchu celebrates 100 years of modern discovery
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