From Lima to Machu Picchu involves a one hour flight to Cusco, and then the choice of the 4-day Inca Trail hike, or a train. In years gone by I would have loved to attempt the hike, but I was very happy to travel on the Vistadome Peru Rail train that takes you to the heart of Aguas Calientes, the gateway town for Machu Picchu. There is also a regular Peru Rail train for those on a budget, or the super-luxury HIram Bingham Belmond train (photo below), named after the American academic and explorer who presented Machu Picchu to the world in 1911. Whichever method you choose to reach the citadel, it all adds up to rather an epic journey, and the anticipation builds gently along the way, so much so that it is easy to feel that the reality will not meet the expectation. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a true must-see destination . It will fulfil even the most cynical of travelers and it will lift you up, I guarantee it.
MACHU PICCHU AND CUSCO
1. Machu Picchu
We were blessed with stunning blue skies, but I think the effect when you first see Machu Picchu (above), after emerging from a narrow short tunnel, would be the same whatever the weather. I've only one other time felt so affected by a place and that was on entering the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We entered around 8am and it was hard to pick out another person. The scale of the city is much larger than I had envisaged, and people soon become little dots as you explore. The llamas are not a tourist thing, they genuinely live here and help to keep the grass neatly mown.
2. Intipunku (the Sun Gate)
After lunch at the Belmond Sanctuary Hotel which sits alone at the top of the mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu, about half our group set out on the fairly serious hike up to the Sun Gate. The trail guides you high above Machu Picchu to the point (above) where the Inca Trail from Cusco gets its first glimpse of the iconic site. By the time you descend again, the crowds are thinning out and there are some stunning photos to be taken along the way (below), especially if you catch the sun at the right point in the sky. This was a joyous day.
3. Alpacas and Llamas
Synonymous with Peru, these two species, both related to the camel, are more than fun to look at. Llamas were pack animals for the Incas, whilst also a valuable food source, whilst alpacas are prized for their incredibly soft and warm wool fabric. We visited an alpaca farm just outside Cusco (below), and experienced first hand, locals dyeing and weaving. All the colors are natural, coming from leaves, herbs, insects and seed pods.
4. Cusco Cathedral
At over 11,000 feet Cusco is where any altitude sickness would kick in on your Peru travels, rather than at Machu Picchu which is only around 7,000 feet above sea level. Fortunately our group was barely affected, with the constant instructions to stay hydrated and drink the local Coca tea no doubt helping. We quickly fell in love with this city and wished we had longer for our visit. The main square, Plaza de Armas is a romantic yet lively gathering place offering colonial arcades, a cathedral, gardens and a central fountain. The highlight though is definitely the 17th century Cathedral (below), with all it's subtle secrets and hints that still hark back to Incan rule despite being built by the conquering Spanish.
5. Mercado Central de San Pedro (below)
A visit to a local market is always right at the top of my to-do list, especially if it's a genuine non-touristy experience. Cusco's main local market was just such a place, combining breakfast and lunch cafes, fruit and veg, butchers, flowers, cheese, bakeries, and general haberdashery in an exciting sensory overload.
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