Peru: A cool destination with altitude

Mist-wrapped ruins and lakes in the clouds make Peru special.


By Daralyn Danns, July 9, 2009
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Machu Picchu: the lost city of the Incas built in the 15th century and Peru’s most famous archaelological site

Machu Picchu: the lost city of the Incas built in the 15th century and Peru’s most famous archaelological site

Looking down on the ruins of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World was mesmerising. Nestled in the steep slopes of the Andes overlooking the Urubamba River, this city in the clouds seemed magical. It was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen — and I have seen the other six of the New Wonders of the World.

Built by the Incan Emperor Pachacútec in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by the Yale archaeologist, Hiram Bingham. Exactly what the Incas used it for remains a mystery, though for many year its purpose was thought to be religious connection. The most recent theory, however, is that it was a retreat for the Inca nobility.

The cloud shrouded ruins include palaces, temples, storage rooms, baths and some 150 houses, all in a remarkable state of preservation, though it is arduous climbing up and down the steep steps to see the ruins.

Thanks to its cherished place on the gap-year schedule, Machu Picchu — and Peru in general — is known as something of a backpackers’ destination. Recently, however, luxury hotels have started to arrive in this Latin American country nestled between Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile.

In particular, Inkaterra, a Peruvian eco-tourism company, has opened some stunning hotels, including Inkaterra Machu Picchu, a few minutes’ walk from the village of Aguas Calientes. What makes this hotel special is not only its pretty casitas (bungalows) with cosy fireplaces to keep you warm in the cold evenings, but the cloud forest and 372 species of orchid to be found in the hotel’s gardens.

The hotel arranges various eco-activites including a Twilight Walk eco-walk to “experience the spirituality of the forest”. Being so close to nature was therapeutic after a hectic start to my tour of Peru.

After spending the first night in Lima, we headed to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Driving south, through the small Andean villages we saw llamas and alpacas roaming in the fields and women walking the streets dressed in their traditional, bright, woven costumes. Watching them, it was if we had been catapulted back in time, except that, among the ramshackle buildings we saw signs offering internet connections, and spotted a woman talking on a mobile phone.

In Pisac, in the Sacred Valley, there is a bustling, colourful market where farmers and smallholders from the highlands come to exchange their produce for essentials, such as rice. The market also has an area aimed at tourists, where you can buy local handicrafts in vibrant colours.

From Pisac, we headed south to Ollantaytambo, one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning. The fortress here was one of the few places where the Spanish lost a major battle. It is possible they found the steep terraces as hard to tackle as I did. They may also have felt light-headed from the lack of oxygen at the high altitude.

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, dominated by the Cathedral of Santo Domingo

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, dominated by the Cathedral of Santo Domingo

As we checked in to our hotel, the Urubamba Villas, we were welcomed with a cup of coca tea — legal in Peru and designed to help guests acclimatise to the altitude.

Each of the hotel’s villas has its own maid who prepares a superb dinner and breakfast, and guests can specify their dietary requirements in advance. Personally, I would go back just for the quinoa pancakes. In fact, vegetarians and the kosher-observant shouldn’t have a problem eating anywhere in Peru as there are so many varieties of fruit and vegetables, including approximately 3,000 varieties of potatoes. The fish is good too.

I thought Machu Picchu would be the highlight of any trip, but it turns out that Peru is littered with gems. These include Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire and one of the highest cities in the world at 3,310 metres above sea level. Founded in around 1100 BCE, the city has traces of its ancient Inca heritage as well as of the Spanish conquistadores who arrived in the 1500s, plus a touch of modernity.

The best way to soak up the atmosphere is to stroll the city’s narrow cobbled streets and the Plaza de Armas, its main square where you will find great shops such as Alpaca 111 selling clothing and homewares. Spare some time to see the 16th-century Gothic-Renaissance Cathedral of Santo Domingo, and the nearby Iglesias del Triunfo, which between them dominate the square.

In Cusco, we stayed at Inkaterra La Casona, the town’s first boutique hotel, originally a 16th-century colonial house where olde world luxury meets high tech. Before dinner, we visited to the 15th-century fort of Sacsayhuaman offering stunning views of Cusco.

There is no shortange of great restaurants in Cusco, including Cicciolina and the elegant Map Café where the Andean trout is recommended.

Our last stop was Titicaca, the Incas’ sacred lake in the heart of the Andes. Some 120 miles long and 12,500 feet above sea level, it sits ethereally beside Peru’s border with Bolivia, with the snow-capped peaks of Bolivia’s Cordillera Real range visible to the east. Remote, serene and magically beautiful, it has small, man-made islands floating on its glistening, dark blue waters.

At the lakeside Titilaka Hotel, I got chatting to Alan and Nancy, a Jewish couple from Michigan, who had followed almost the identical itinerary to my group.

“These hotels are beyond”, exclaimed the well-travelled Nancy, “beyond” being the American superlative for fabulous. Beyond, for me, summed up not just the hotel, but the whole trip, from the capital to the Lost Valley, Machu Picchu and the cloud-level lake.

Back in Lima, there were a few hours for a quick tour before my flight home. Highlights are the changing of the guard outside the white stone government palace, where soldiers go through their military paces to Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa, and Miraflores, Lima’s most stylish neighbourhood overlooking the Pacific.

Lunch at the Rosa Nautica — where you seem to be surrounded by the waves — is an idyllic way to spend the last few hours of a tour around Peru.

Travel facts

Last Frontiers (www.lastfrontiers.com; 01296 653000) offer a 10-day Peru itinerary (1 night Lima; 2 nights Urubamba Villas; 2 nights Inkaterra Machu Picchu; 2 nights at Inkaterra La Casona, Cusco; 2 nights at Titilaka) from £3,240 per person based on double occupancy. Price includes accommodation, private transfers, most meals (B&B in Lima and Cusco), international and internal flights with LAN. LAN (www.lan.com) has London-Lima returns from £780. Inkaterra Hotels (www.inkaterra.com; freephone 0800-458-7506).

Jewish Peru

● Jews, escaping the Spanish Inquisition arrived in Peru in the 16th century but not many survived the local Inquisition.
● The roots of the modern community date back to the mid-19th century.
● Today, there are around 3,000 Jews in Peru, most in the capital Lima. There are three synagogues and a Jewish Community Centre (www.hebraicaperu.com)

Last week’s travel pages omitted bmi’s London-Tel Aviv fares. Economy from £293, premum economy from £557 and business from £793.

    Last updated: 4:21pm, July 9 2009