Mark Davison from Oasis Travel in Howard Street discovered the truth behind the Peruvian proverb ‘Little by little, one walks far’ when he visited the country in the company of expert host Nick Goodchild from specialist travel company, Veloso.
It is without doubt one of the great journeys of the world: the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has long been celebrated amongst travellers for its combination of stunning scenery and spiritual heritage. Today it is also one of the best known UNESCO World Heritage Sites, attracting more than a million visitors each year.
Many would-be visitors are intimidated by the thought of tackling the ‘Inca Trail’ to reach the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, above the beautiful and sacred Urubamba River valley. Certainly a basic level of fitness is needed if you are going to be walking, at altitude for several hours a day, for up to four or five days, but age is no barrier and the route is within the grasp of almost anyone who sets their mind to the task.
As I discovered, however, you don’t have to be an intrepid walker or backpacker to enjoy this wonderful region of the world and my visit with the much-respected Veloso travel company gave me a wonderful flavour of Peru … without exhausting me!
For me, as with most visitors, the busy and bustling capital of Lima was my gateway to Peru. Strangely, Lima Centro, where the wonderful Museums, Cathedrals and main tourist sights are located doesn’t have a tourist vibe and a hard edge comes over the area at night.
Miraflores is the suburb containing the main focus of the action and nightlife and I stayed there in the comfortable and well equipped Hotel Dazzler, with its modern and minimalistic rooms, situated close to some great local eateries and restaurants.
The wonderful Hotel B, a Relais & Chateaux property, was a great find. It’s a charming boutique hotel in the up-market Barranco district, just south of Miraflores on the Pacific coast; a wealthy seaside resort scattered with old mansions.
The Allpa Hotel & Suites is also Veloso-recommended for its good positioning and keen pricing.
Just be aware, wherever you choose to stay, transfers are long and traffic congestion nothing short of horrendous. From the airport to hotel will take at least an hour while, day tours around Lima Centro require patience as at times the city is practically a car park … just chill and go with the uber-relaxed South American mood and you’ll find that it’s all worth the wait and the view from a Lima cab is actually a window on a fascinating world!
Puno, a one hour transfer from Juliaca Airport, lies on the Northern side of Lake Titicaca, a staging point for exploring the miraculous floating Uros Islands (constructed with reeds) and picturesque Taquile Island. It’s a fantastic experience and it’s worth devoting time to enjoy it to the full. The lake is fifteen times larger than Lake Geneva, so if you want to visit Island of the Sun and other islands on the Bolivian side of the lake, try to plan in an overnight stay.
In Puno we stayed at Libertador Lake Titicaca, with its stunning lake views. Bedrooms are compact but comfortable and the hotel boats its own jetty, which is a big advantage for excursion departures, avoiding transfers to and from the busy main port.
Hotel Titilaca, another Relais & Chateaux property, and a little more expensive, is an extra hour transfer further round the coast but it has the wow factor! Superbly appointed bedrooms and decking areas take in the full lakeside panorama.
We let the Belmond Andean Explorer Train take the strain and it’s something I would highly recommend … ten hours of luxury, connecting from Puno to Cusco, taking travellers from iconic Lake Titicaca to the drama of The Sacred Valley, departing Puno at 8:00am, arriving Cusco at 6:00pm. The time slips by with luxe ease while you enjoy a four-course lunch served at your table, check out the bar and observation car at the rear of the train and enjoy the mid-journey stop at a local market. The service also operates in reverse.
There are a number of ways to visit the attractions of The Sacred Valley at leisure. You can do the excursions from a base at Urubamba in the countryside of the Sacred Valley or from the city of Cusco some 45 miles to the South-East. Inevitably, because most guides are based in the city of Cusco, tours from Urubamba can be more expensive, but in compensation Urubamba provides wonderful views and a fantastic feeling of space. We stayed at new Inkaterra Urubamba, in the lovely stand-alone Casitas within the grounds. Views from the lounge and restaurant over the peaks of the valley are amazing and the hotel interior is also finished to a very high standard.
I would point out that Urubamba, unlike Cusco, is not a large city tailor-made for exploring. It is very much a resort-based area and, if you venture out, don’t expect footpaths or street-lighting at night! However, tours and excursions tend to start early and often energy levels waning when you get back to the hotel so a great meal and a relaxing room more than fits the bill.
For luxury consider the Belmond Rio Sagrado and Sol Y Luna and, for tourist value, Casa Andina.
Next we visited Ollantaytambo, a charming town just an easy road transfer from Urubamba, following the course of the river west, en-route to the ‘main event’ of Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo is incredibly popular as a tourist attraction in its own right and also because it provides the shortest direct train service (two hours) to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly known as Aguas Calientes) which serves the citadel. No vehicles are allowed further than here to avoid gridlock in the Machu Picchu area and we took the excellent Peru Rail service.
A bit of traveller insight here on the subject of railways in Peru: on each line there are around three different operations - one for locals, one for tourists and one luxury. The Hiram Bingham service from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo is the top luxury service. The services to/from Cusco and Machu Picchu Pueblo take three hours.
MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO
Machu Picchu Pueblo is at the base of one of South America's – indeed one of the world’s - greatest tourist attractions, Machu Picchu.
We stayed at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, booking a Junior Suite which is worth the extra expense. (Who knows when or if we’ll ever be back here after all?) Relaxed and tranquil, the hotel has its own charming Orchid Garden along the banks of the river and it is within easy reach of the many restaurants and bars in this bustling town.
As a more budget alternative, the hotel El Mapi in the town centre was admired by all - great bar and restaurant area and rooms bright and attractive.
For luxury Sumaq is another great option while Casa Andina Classic is perfect for most tourists’ requirements.
So much has been said about Machu Picchu that I was a bit apprehensive about its capacity to live up to my expectations, but it definitely does not disappoint. The mystical atmosphere of the citadel, built at 2,492m and surrounded by a vast, scenic backdrop of forested mountains is nothing short of breath-taking and the first glimpse is a memory that will stay with more for ever. Built in the 15th century and later abandoned, its huge dry-stone walls are made from huge blocks without the use of mortar; no-one quite knows what lies behind these intriguing buildings with their strange astronomical alignments, but there is no shortage of theories.
Onward to Cusco which could so easily have been an anti-climax, but this is a wonderful destination and a contrast to all that has gone before. Its open squares and the charming side-streets of the San Blas district make for a city brimming with character.
The high end Inkaterra La Casona, and the tourist-focused Casa San Blas Boutique hotels are popular choices but we stayed at Belmond Monasterio, a fabulously beautiful hotel in a prime location. The former monastery retains many original features and eating breakfast out over the extensive grounds was a real delight. Situated beside Monasterio in the same square is Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. It is another top-notch five star in the same chain and, unlike many Peruvian hotels, this property has a wonderful swimming pool.
Please feel free to contact me at Howard Street if you’d like to hear more about Peru.