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Peru - Machu Picchu / Cuzco

Think Peru and you probably think Inca Ruins: Machu Picchu, lost cities, deep in the jungle. Think Peru and I certainly use to think of the Inca Trail and backpackers – horribly rancid after days of sweating without a bath. Think Peruvian cuisine and you probably think of the pet guinea pig being served up with fries.
But think Peru and I certainly never thought “gay Mecca”. Yet here I am standing above the main square of the city of Cuzco – once capital of the Inca Empire – and billowing proudly from many of the tiled rust coloured roofs is the rainbow flag – international sign of the homosexual. Why so many gay bars and clubs? Have I discovered a lost gay city, hidden high in the Andes to compete with Machu Picchu as a must visit destination?
Like so many of my initial misconceptions about Peru the rainbow flag is just another. It’s actually the flag of the Inca Empire – the additional white stripe distinguishing it from the Pride symbol.
Like dominos my misconceptions all started to fall. Peru is the culinary centre of South America with a fusion cuisine which is world class and certainly extends beyond deep fried guinea pig. It boasts fabulous boutique hotels not just back packer hostels. Most importantly there is another way to reach the enchanting lost city of Machu Picchu other than four days of hard hiking. It’s called the Hiram Bingham – a three-and-a-half hour train service from Cuzco to South America’s must see destination.
The Hiram Bingham is a train from a different era. It’s not steam powered but everything else about this train is from that period. Midnight blue on the outside – on the inside the carriages are dark teak, polished brass, comfy armchairs, white table clothes and little lantern lights on the tables.
This is old style, first class travel run by Orient Express. When it comes to the food on board imagine The Ivy restaurant on rails. Immaculately dressed waiters served me a starter of olive corn tamale, with a tree and pear tomato salsa, followed by cannelloni of spinach, quinoa and chicken. Desert was a stunning melt in your mouth chocolate cheese cake. After brunch I made my way to the back of the train with my Peruvian friend and travel companion Jaime to an open-air observation carriage. And what a view there was to observe.
Along a single track the train trundles through parched, dusty villages – baked crisp and brown in the Andean sun. It warns of its approach by blowing a horn to clear the track of people, cattle and llama – there are no level crossings here. From the villages the train moves through soaring mountain passes inhabited by butterflies and orchids which you can almost reach out and touch. It’s a journey through arid hills and then onto lush tropical rain forest. According to Jaime you pass through about five different eco systems because of the different altitudes you travel through.
But the real purpose of this trip isn’t to pass through different climatic zones and ecologies. Our mission was to travel back to a South America which existed before the Europeans arrived – to the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu.
I’ve seen many ruins in my life but what makes this archaeological gem so impressive is its haunting isolation. The terraces, ceremonial stone structures, neat lawns kept in trim by grazing llama and maze of stone buildings which make up Machu Picchu are balance precariously on top of a mountain so high that clouds wrap this lost city in its own special blanket. There are guides but make sure you spend some time alone to wander alone in wonderment at the evidence of a now extinct civilisation.
Some believe that Machu Picchu was a holiday retreat for the Inca (King) who ruled a huge swath of Latin America around the 1400s. If Machu Picchu was a retreat for the Inca, the heart of their once powerful empire was the city of Cuzco.
Cuzco is slightly schizophrenic – it’s architecture a seductive combination of Spanish colonial and Inca. To describe this city as “breath taking” is not to slip into cliché. It is literally true. At 3,000 metres above sea level the air is thin and climbing just a dozen cobble stone steps will leave you as breathless as if you’ve spent all night dancing at a club.
And while it might be ancient ruins and Inca culture which brings most to Cuzco there are a suprising number of nightclubs and bars in Cuzco. (Because of altitude sickness go easy on the alcohol for the first few nights, though.) Although you wouldn’t travel here for the gay scene, I was told of a couple of emerging underground places where the gays hang out. By the time you arrive the chances are it will be even more developed. I was told about these new clubs which pop up from time to time from a staff at a place called the “Fallen Angel” . Although not strictly gay it seemed pretty gay-friendly looking around at the other tables and could well provide a good place to start your adventures.
The altitude sickness can be debilitating with headaches and insomnia just two of the unpleasant side effects. Some chew coco leaves – the raw ingredient of cocaine – to overcome it. But if the coco doesn’t work then one of the few places you can get some respite is your room if you’re are staying at the city’s top hotel The Monasterio. It’s the only hotel I’ve ever stayed in which provides oxygenated rooms! They literally pump the stuff in to compensate for the thin air. Well worth it – if only to eliminate the insomnia.
But there’s more to the Monasterio than that. Originally a monastery, it was built in the 16th century on the site of an Inca palace. The heart of the hotel is the central Renaissance style courtyard surrounded by gardens and the stone cloisters.
From Cuzco it’s a day trip to what’s known as the Sacred Valley a place of more Inca ruins, fertile plains and remote Andean villages. But for me the most enduring memory of the Sacred Valley was after dark. A combination of high altitude and no light pollution meant the sky had burst into an infinity of stars. The shooting variety tore across the sky – giving an Andean light show which leaves you even more breathless than the thin air.


A double Room at Hotel Monasterio starts from around £328 per room per night. An oxygenated room costs an extra £30 a night. To book, visit monasterio.orient-express.com or call 0845 077 2222.
A round trip from Cuzco to Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham costs around £366 per person. The price includes on-board meals with Peruvian wine, cusqueña beer, soft drinks and hot drinks (brunch on outward journey, dinner on return), pre-dinner cocktails, on-board entertainment, guides, bus transfers, entrance to the Machu Picchu sanctuary and afternoon tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. To book visit perurail.com or call 0051 8458 1414.

Martin Popplewell

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