On the Trail of the Incas

 

The Hiram Bingham train
The Hiram Binghamtrain provides a most civilized setting from which to view Peru’s sites.

 

It’s hard to know which way to look. As Orient-Express’ sleek blue and gold Hiram Bingham races through Peru’s Sacred Valley on its way from Cusco to the fabled ruins of Machu Picchu, towering snowcapped peaks of the Andes stand on one side and the Urubamba River flows on the other.

 

Day Trips Between Cusco and Machu Picchu
Day Trips Between Cusco and Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham include either a brunch or five-course dinner.

Inside the plush wood-paneled Dining Car, decorated with polished brass, elegant table lamps and crisp linens, the view is equally captivating as waiters in neat black and white uniforms serve a gourmet three-course brunch.

Four hours after leaving Cusco, the train pulls into Aguas Calientes station for the 25-minute bus ride up a precariously narrow zigzag road to the entrance of the ancient Inca citadel, and what appears next is simply breathtaking.

Perched on a ridge between Machu Picchu (Old Peak) and Huayna Picchu (Young Peak), an extraordinary patchwork quilt of gray stone temples, houses and terraces cascades down the mountainside like a granite waterfall frozen in time.

Machu Picchu may be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the planet’s most photographed icons, but no image captures the jaw-dropping reality of this magnificent monument.

A century after American explorer Hiram Bingham all but stumbled on one of the greatest archaeological discoveries on July 24, 1911, Machu Picchu continues to wow the 700,000-plus visitors who descend on the citadel each year.

 

Enjoy a Pisco Sour
Enjoy a Pisco Sour in the plush lobby bar of Hotel Monasterio.

While Bingham explored Machu Picchu by mule and tent, today’s well-heeled traveler can enjoy these legendary ruins and many of Peru’s other major attractions in unrivaled style. Orient-Express operates five luxury hotels in Peru from the capital Lima to the entrance of Machu Picchu itself, as well as the sumptuous Hiram Bingham train taking passengers on day trips between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Note: The one major difference between the Hiram Bingham and its Orient-Express counterparts in Europe and Asia is that it doesn’t have sleeping compartments. It serves brunch on the way to Machu Picchu and a five-course dinner on the return journey to Cusco, but each trip is only four hours long and doesn’t require sleeping berths.

While Machu Picchu is Peru’s Holy Grail, Lima is the international gateway (Note: LAN flies from several U.S. cities to Jorge Chavez International Airport), and the city’s rich Spanish colonial heritage centered around the Plaza Mayor, Government Palace, Cathedral and impressive Church of San Francisco is a good introduction to Peruvian history.

The all-suite Miraflores Park Hotel is an ideal base, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the upscale suburb of Miraflores. Tip: Opt for an Ocean View Executive Suite on a higher floor for the best views or one of four suites on the Presidential Floor which all have private terraces and plunge pools.

Lima has many excellent restaurants, including Mesa 18 at the Miraflores Park Hotel and Astrid y Gaston, and the best shopping is at Larcomar, next to the hotel. Another must-visit is Barranco, a bohemian artists’ quarter with stylish boutiques, restaurants and bars.

A 90-minute LAN flight southeast of Lima lies Cusco, the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and a vibrant Spanish colonial city that was once the capital of the Inca Empire.

 

Location, Location, Location
Location, Location, Location: The view from a Garden Room at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.

The historical Hotel Monasterio is the pick of Cusco accommodations. Luxury Travel Advisor loved the special “oxygen-enriched” rooms which help reduce the effects of altitude sickness at almost 11,000 feet above sea level. Tip: Drinking the local coca tea also helps alleviate the symptoms of headaches and shortness of breath.

Two blocks from the main square, this former monastery is set around a charming cloister, one corner of which leads to an art-filled private chapel. Agents’ Advisory: Orient-Express is renovating Nazarenas Convent next door and will reopen as a 55-suite boutique hotel in 2012.

While most people take the Hiram Bingham train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, Luxury Travel Advisor recommends staying at Hotel Rio Sagrado in the heart of the Sacred Valley and boarding the train at nearby Ollantaytambo.

The hotel’s 21 villa-style rooms overlook lush gardens and the Urubamba River, and each room has heated wooden floors and secluded terraces. Tip: Room 10 at the far end of the hotel is whisper quiet, and the two elevated suites, Villa Orquidea and Villa Capuli, are self-contained cottages with wood fires, dining rooms and kitchens.

A jewel of the Orient-Express Peru collection is Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel next to the ruins (all other Machu Picchu hotels are down the mountain in the town of Aguas Calientes)—which means you can visit the Inca citadel whenever you like and avoid the peak tourist crowds.

Note: The gates open at 6 a.m. but the first visitors arrive at 5.30 a.m. to explore the ruins and do the hike to The Sun Gate, or more challenging climb up Huayna Picchu, so prepare for an early start. Orient-Express can arrange entry tickets, which must be booked in advance.
Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is more nature lodge than luxe hotel but makes the most of its limited space and location.

The standard rooms are quite small, so opt for one of eight larger Mountain View Rooms, which have terraces onto the garden, or Room Nos. 36 and 40, which are the premier Suites. (Note: The lodge tariff includes all meals and beverages.)

The fun part of visiting Machu Picchu is the evening journey back to Cusco on the Hiram Bingham train. Pisco Sour cocktails in the Bar Car are followed by a five-course gourmet dinner and live music by a terrific Peruvian band. Were he alive today, the real Hiram Bingham would surely be delighted.

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