TRAVEL: The luxury train to Machu Picchu


Machu Picchu is the jewel of the Inca empire, a spectacular stone city high in Peru’s Andes Mountains. It remains an enigma — built around 1450 and mysteriously abandoned — and a bucket list pilgrimage for modern adventurers, even if you take the train.

(Cinda Chavich photos)

By CINDA CHAVICH


(Aguas Calientes, Peru) - We rise before dawn and make our way down past the shuttered souvenir stalls and bars to a line of buses, queuing up with other tourists hoping for a glimpse of the mysterious city of Machu Picchu at first light.

I pause to snap a photo of the golden statue of Pachacuti, the powerful emperor who expanded the Inca empire and built this 15th century citadel high in the Andes, one of the architectural wonders of the modern world.

It’s nearing the summer solstice and, as our bus chugs up the steep switch backs, I imagine the sun rising over the sheer faces of these “old man” mountains, a searing beam of light illuminating the Temple of the Sun, like it might have at an Inca Sun God ceremony 500 years ago.

But as luck would have it, when we pile out of our seats around 7 a.m., just in time for our Kodak moment, a bank of fog rolls through the sacred valley and shrouds the views below us in a billowy grey blanket. When the sun actually breaks through an hour later, the place is already crawling with selfie-stick wielding hoards, elbowing into the most scenic spots for their own five minutes of fame.

But that doesn’t dampen the wonder of standing here among these spectacular mountaintop terraces and temples – I’ve reached the pinnacle of an iconic journey.



THE HIRAM BINGHAM ROUTE

Machu Picchu is a bucket-list destination and, like other sacred shrines around the globe, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is often approached on foot.

Trekking the Inca Trail has become so popular, in fact, that you must have a reservation to hike the route, with the government restricting the total number of people to 500 a day, just 200 tourists with their bevy of porters and guides.

Llamas graze the terraced slopes of Machu Picchu.

All that is beyond my limits — both in time and energy — so I opt for a less strenuous expedition, booking a ticket on the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train that leaves from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. At an elevation of 3,399 metres, Cusco is an adventure in itself, a place to stop and adjust to the high altitude before traveling onward.


It must be momentous to approach Machu Picchu on your own steam, and view it as you climb, exhausted, over that last rise to see the ancient citadel spread out before you, just as explorer Hiram Bingham did in 1911. But traveling in his namesake train, with its 1920s-style Pullman carriages, makes a rather momentous journey, too, a flashback to the time when the Yale scholar first discovered the Sacred Valley.


Boarding the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train that leaves from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco.

The shiny blue train is waiting to depart from a private train station outside Cusco, local musicians in traditional garb serenading us as we climb on board. The dining car, where we settle in for our day trip, is fitted with plenty of polished brass and burnished mahogany, an homage to the golden age of rail travel.

Though PeruRail runs other trains along this track to Machu Picchu, the former Orient Express (now Belmond-branded) cars are the best of the rolling stock, a guarantee that we will reach our destination sated, and in style.



The trip takes just four hours and begins with an elegant lunch featuring local foods and white linens. Waiters hurry down the aisle delivering flutes of champagne and rosettes of cold smoked trout with quinoa. There’s rare filet mignon and Peruvian potatoes, and cheesecake flavoured with sweet corn.

Many gather in the bar after lunch, but I head to the open observation deck at the back of the train with my camera to watch the changing landscape. The train winds past small farms and through towns where women are cooking over open fires and pigs wallow in muddy ditches. It’s the only way to reach this isolated destination, and offers a glimpse into life in the Peruvian countryside.






The altitude actually drops from 3,486 m to 2,038 m over the route, and the landscape changes dramatically, from open farmland and dry plateaus to steep gorges, carved by frothing turquoise rivers and clothed in dense jungle.



As the train approaches Piscacucho, at kilometer 82 of the 112-km route, I glimpse porters carrying camping gear, following the hikers who are just beginning their four-day hike along The Inca Trail.


When our train pulls into Agua Calientes, local porters are there. too, ready to carry our luggage to the hotel. I marvel at the market stalls brimming with local woolens and weaving, and the lush forest beyond my window, filled with orchids and hummingbirds.


But we’re primed for our final destination high in the surrounding mountains, the ancient architectural marvel of Machu Picchu.





THE LOST EMPIRE

Machu Picchu was build around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, but there are still questions swirling around the true purpose of this impressive Andean enclave. A sacred spot or a summer palace for the ruling class? The jury is still out.

But historians agree that it is one of the finest examples Inca engineering, each slab of granite carefully carved to fit against the next like some massive jigsaw puzzle. Perched on this mountaintop, the Urubamba River snaking through the valley below, it’s humbling to sit on the edge of the terraced fields and contemplate the civilization that created it all.



Though some call Machu Picchu “the lost city”, local farmers knew the spot well when Bingham followed them up these steep slopes and first saw the ruins. The city was overgrown but largely intact, somehow missed by the Spanish conquistadors when they battled the Inca and laid claim to the territory in 1572.


That’s why it remains one of the most important pre-Columbian archeological sites in the world. It’s hard to take in all of the guide’s banter as we hike through the steep, 12-acre site — the underground foundations and complex drainage system, the orientation to the sun, the powerful sacred stone at the highest point — but it’s clear this is evidence of a powerful and sophisticated civilization.


When we board the Hiram Bingham train for our return trip that evening, dinner is another elegant affair of kiwicha caviar and grilled trout with wild tree tomatoes, a reflection of the most modern side of Peru today, and one that sits in stark contrast to the simple and often harsh life of rural residents here in the high Andes.


EXPLORING THE ANDES

We disembark when the train stops in Ollantaytambo, with plans to visit the local food markets and learn how local women dye wool with plants for their colourful woven, knitted and felted artisan products.



Then we travel further into the mountains, past high plains where cattle graze and families winnow quinoa by hand, heading on to other important reminders of Incan innovation and construction skills — from the 3,000 cascading salt pools at Maras, where water from salt-rich streams is still captured for evaporation and harvesting, to the concentric terraces of Moray, an archological site believed to have been designed to provide sheltered micro-climates for food production, and thereby develop crops that could flourish at a variety of elevations high in the Andes.



Salt pools at Maras

The Moray archeological site is a massive terraced depression, Set on a high plateau in the Andes and designed by the Incas for farming at high altitude,


In the market in Chinchero, I peer into the aging faces of the Andean women selling potatoes and quinoa, laughing and drinking fermented chicha morada, babies wrapped in bright shawls on their backs. In their wide skirts and distinctive fedoras, these Quechua-speaking people are the living descendants of the Incas.

Theirs is a rich culture — with a magnificent and noble past.





©Cinda Chavich


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