10 February 2011
Peru's Home of the Gods
Most travellers to Peru have a particular goal in mind: the Inca site of Machu Picchu. This legendary citadel hides on its cloud-shrouded mountaintop, 50 miles north of Cuzco.
There are several ways to reach the citadel of Machu Picchu, starting with the muddy Inca Trail beloved of those who want to make the pilgrimage on foot over a challenging four days. Then there are a variety of train services, rising in luxury until you reach the Hiram Bingham, a throwback to a golden era of travel, that eases along the winding tracks across three lazy hours of champagne, wine and fine dining.
This is one of the world's most dramatic train journeys, heading off through agricultural plains as pisco sours are served to the sounds of local musicians on drums and guitars. Standing in the Observation Car, we looked out on all sides as we climbed up past the treeline to a cacti-covered desert then plunged back down into the rainforest and crop-covered terraces that enfold the ancient sanctuary.
From the train station at the end of the journey, we made the short journey up the zig-zag road towards the lofty sanctuary above the clouds. When we laid eyes on Machu Picchu, it was as if we had been granted an audience with a movie star. This clutch of low buildings raised on polished dry-stone walls - temples, homes, workshops - is instantly recognisable, huddled in the shadow of the tooth-shaped peak of Huayna Picchu. Shrines are linked by stairways, seemingly reaching up to the heavens. It would take days of attention to absorb its narrow passages, mysteries and legends, and jaw-drop vistas to the full.
We certainly gave it our all, throwing ourselves into a site now deemed to be one of the 'modern' Seven Wonders of the World. Exhausted, if exhilarated, we retreated to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge - the only hotel that sits alongside the citadel in its lofty isolation.
Recovering with afternoon tea, gazing at the ruins, it seemed remarkable that Spain's conquistadors, with their destructive fire, never found this Inca outpost. As the sun departed, and night added to the mystery of the stones, we felt almost palpably grateful that they didn't.
By Chris Leadbeater, a UK-based travel writer for major publications
What were your magic moments at Machu Picchu?