There's a book called 1,000 Places to See before You Die. A THOUSAND? You have to be kidding, right?! We (me, recently retired, and my wife Jane, a nurse) have a 'bucket list' of about a dozen places to see before... well, before we get too old to enjoy them in comfort.
Featured both in the book and our list was Machu Picchu - the ‘Lost City of the Incas’, the ‘City in the Clouds, the original ‘El Dorado’… Call it what you will, photos and videos show it to be a true wonder of the world. In reality, they don't scratch the surface of the gobsmacking awe of the place when you first see it yourself.
But I'm getting ahead of myself in recapping our holiday, a 12-day tour of Peru, the Land of the Incas.
After landing in the Colombian capital Bogota on a ten-hour flight from Heathrow, a short wait and a three-hour hop brought us to Lima, capital city of Peru, once the Spanish royal city of Latin America.
It's the middle of the Peruvian 'winter' - the dry season - and the city is permanently shrouded in low-lying mist and cloud, the result of an Antarctic current that makes the sea too cold for swimming. On land, it's still shirt-sleeve weather for hardy North Europeans and the city offers a few surprises, like the main square with sumptuous colonial-era architecture. On the seafront in the fashionable district of Miraflores there is a statue of Paddington Bear, a gift of friendship from the UK to the people of Peru; we all know that the loveable bear's home was in "deepest, darkest Peru".
We spent a couple of nights at the well-appointed and comfortable Hotel Jose Antonio Deluxe to shake off the jet lag before heading off on an early morning flight to Juliaca; this is the nearest airport to Lake Titicaca and is reputed to have the longest runway in the world. The reason? At over 12,600 feet above sea level, aeroplanes need a lot of room to land!
In the tiny terminal, our guide warned us about the lack of oxygen and offered us coca leaves. These leaves, strictly prohibited almost everywhere else in the world, are legally and routinely chewed by locals and visitors alike in Peru to relieve altitude sickness. It's an acquired taste - more palatable is the coca tea, always freely available to guests at the Sonesta Posadas del Inca Hotel in Puno on the shore of Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
The lake - its name means 'pumas of stone' in the Inca language - is incredibly vast; in fact, because of its size and its location it is possibly the only place on our planet where you can actually see the curvature of the earth! Peru seems to abound in these kinds of superlatives.
“No coca after 4pm or you will never get to sleep that night”, we were told. We awoke at the Sonesta to a frost-covered lakeshore. We watched guinea pigs scampering around the hotel's lawn as we ate a breakfast of alpaca ham.
Under a blazing sun, we enjoyed a day tour of one small corner of the lake, first to one of the famous 'floating villages' - homes built on vast rafts of reeds. The locals, who took to the water to escape from the Incas and have their own language and culture, used to be wary of strangers but now welcome tourists. Community leaders will tell you which village you can visit, so that the tourist income is shared out equally.
‘Maria', the chief's wife, invited us into her home and dressed us up in traditional clothes made of thick alpaca wool designed to keep out the cold - and the sun. At that altitude the sun will fry you, so don't forget your high factor sunscreen!
She showed us around and, of course, showed us her selection of handcrafted embroiderings and garments. I bought an embroidered wall-hanging telling the story of their escape from the Incas; two months’ work, £30. Jane treated herself to a scarf and a pouch.
Back on the speedboat, a two-hour dash brought us to the island of Taquile, a rocky dot on the map rising another 600 feet from the lake. It’s inhabited by a few hundred members of another ethnic group with a different language and culture who have even less contact with the outside world, but who are also seeing the benefits of welcoming tourists in a controlled, manageable fashion.
After climbing to what, in the thin air, seemed like the highest hamlet on the island, a lunch of Lake trout and Inka Cola - an impossibly bright yellow concoction - was extremely welcome. The villagers got out the panpipes and drums to perform a traditional dance for us. After browsing for a few more souvenirs it was time to head back to the spotlessly clean and spacious Sonesta hotel for dinner; everything except the roasted guinea pig, 'cuy', is under £10.
The next day was all downhill – literally - to Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire and one of the prime tourist attractions in Peru. We checked-in to the Sonesta Cusco, another little gem, ready to get ready for the big one the next day - the train to Aguas Calientes and up the mountain to Machu Picchu.
Until a couple of decades ago, the only way to get to Machu Picchu was via the Inca Trail, a four-day hike over the mountains on vertiginous paths. Many visitors still take that route, but you have to book your place in advance. In the 90s, a train line was driven from Cuzco along the River Urumbamba valley, known as the 'Sacred Valley of the Incas'.
The train was a wonderful surprise, with luxury seating in carriages that offer panoramic views; the three-hour train journey is almost worth the trip in itself! Aguas Calientes, "Hot Springs", was thronged with tourists of all nationalities, queuing for minibuses to take them through the hairpin bends to Machu Picchu. We checked-in at the best hotel in town, the El MaPi by Inkaterra, and then headed off around the corner to get the minibus ourselves.
Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish Conquistadores searching for 'El Dorado', the City of Gold. In fact, it lay undisturbed, jungle-covered for about 500 years until an American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, stumbled across it in 1911. What it was used for and why it was abandoned remains a mystery. Best guess: it was the summer palace of the Inca. (Inca simply means 'Emperor').
The place we have all come to see is crowded, it has to be said, but once past passport control - yes honestly you have to produce your passport - your first sight of the City in the Clouds is unforgettable. Words can’t express it, so I won't try.
You simply have to go there before… you know.