WHILE we may not always admit it, we all have a bucket list of places to visit. Those interested in travelling to the remote Atlantic Ocean island of St Helena to see where Napoleon Bonaparte lived out his last years will be pleased to know that commercial flights from Africa just commenced, so now it is easier to “tick” that off the list.
Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most recognised and visited historic sites and the one all travellers to Peru want to see to better appreciate the mighty Inca civilisation that was centred on this mountainous location.
Most tourists will include the city of Cusco and the adjoining Sacred Valley in their itinerary to make it a minimum and relaxed three-day stay.
Relaxation is the operative word as altitude sickness will be a problem for some. At 3,400m above sea level, the chance of being affected by altitude sickness (known locally as soroche) is something some visitors need to consider.
The symptoms are dizziness, lack of breath and headaches so it’s best not to exert oneself and drink the coca tea offered in many places.
Cusco is the gateway to the Incas with most flying in on a domestic flight from Lima, the capital. Immediately, the rarefied air started playing tricks with my lungs as I started to slowly discover the mountainous city’s old narrow streets, grand plazas and impressive stone buildings.
Even at the lowest of steps I was puffing but I used my time profitably to take photos (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) while catching my breath as my ever-diligent guide took these rests as an opportunity to tell me about the city’s history.
Cusco was home to the Incas before the Spanish conquered it and there is evidence of both cultures where the famous Qurikancha has Inca foundations that support the Spanish-designed, Convent of Santo Domingo.
Plaza de Armas is typical of several open plazas with the ornate La Catedral and Temple de la Compania de Jesus lining its grassy verges.
Beyond the plazas, ancient narrow winding alleyways head through the Barrio de San Blas. Small arts and crafts shops, restaurants, bars and cafes make for a vibrant atmosphere.
I especially enjoyed wandering around San Pedro Markets to admire the huge variety of colourful potatoes and varieties of corn grown in Peru.
My Cusco home for two nights was the 18th century former convent known as Palacio Nazarenas which is a masterpiece of Spanish architecture.
Meticulously restored during a 10-year project, the boutique hotel is thoughtful enough to pump oxygen through the air conditioning to ensure a restful night (I kid you not).
HISTORIC TRAIN JOURNEY
Travellers arrive into the isolated and mountainous Machu Picchu site on normal PeruRail trains while others spend several days walking and camping out along what is known as the Inca Trail.
In 1911, Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu and the luxurious train that now transfers well-heeled tourists from near Cusco to the archaeological site is named after him.
Passengers are transferred from Cusco to Poroy by bus for the start of their three-hour train journey northwards to Cusco. A glass of champagne and musicians set the scene for my indulgent day on the rails and rambling over the ruins.
Superb produce sourced from the Sacred Valley is served in the gourmet lunch on the way to Cusco and dinner on the way back. A trio of musicians kept our spirits up and the barman kept Peru’s favourite spirit flowing in the iconic cocktail; Pisco Sour.
But all this was merely the entree for the three hours we had discovering the maze that is the archaeological site of Machu Picchu.
A LOST CITY
Machu Picchu is a massive granite citadel perched high up in the Andes Mountains. It is Peru’s best known Inca site and an image etched into my mind and, no doubt in those of the hundreds of visitors who shared it with me on the day that I was here.
Built in the 15th century and abandoned a century later after the Spanish arrived, Machu Picchu’s existence still baffles historians.
Was it a fortress, astrological site, a reflective retreat or a religious site? Whatever it was; the Incas made a very conscious decision to literally move mountains in erecting the grand stone structures high up the steep mountainside.
Inca stonemasonry had already been explained to me in Cusco and it is mind-boggling how hundred-tonne blocks were arranged with such accuracy as to make it impossible to run a sheet of paper along the joints between the stone blocks.
My guide was a font of knowledge and while it’s an undulating site, Machu Picchu is easy to negotiate and we made many stops to admire the topography and architecture.
Flying from Lima to Cusco and then driving down into the Sacred Valley is the best approach for those who may suffer from altitude sickness. This picturesque valley is drained by the Urubamba River and the semi-arid landscape dotted with eucalyptus trees makes it look more like rural Australia than mountainous Peru.
Many tour companies will recommend a few days here acclimatising and relaxing in beautiful riverside resorts such as the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, before visiting Machu Picchu and ending in Cusco at the highest altitude.
In addition to enjoying the beautiful food and produce grown in the Sacred Valley I loved seeing local textiles being woven and the archaeological sites of Ollantaytambo and Moray plus the amazingly photographic Maras salt pans.