If Cuzco is the navel, the Sacred Valley of the Incas – Vilcamayo – is the umbilical cord that connects it to Machu Picchu. I take the Pullman-style Hiram Bingham train (named after the American explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911) from Poroy, north-west of Cuzco. We pass through a landscape of neat terraces sown with potatoes, sunflowers and quinoa. From Ollantaytambo, those walking the “classic” four-day Inca Trail alight, smiling brightly even if they are a touch apprehensive, their rucksacks overstuffed with gear, tents, spare hats, chocolate, nuts and bottles of water. There are lots of family groups, with teenagers and children as young as 12 kitted out for the hike (and shorter day walks are possible for younger kids). I’ve done the main trail, as part of an epic walk over the Salkantay Pass, and it’s harder than its popularity might suggest: as well as the altitude, there are the cold mornings and some steep climbs up the staircases the Incas built for their messengers to trot along. But there’s great camaraderie on the trail and the reward of a triumphant arrival at the so-called Sun Gate.
The train’s a lot easier though. Tasty canapés are served. Mums, dads and kids tap their feet to rousing folk music, the older travellers sipping on pisco sours. European trains are too fast these days, all functionality; this train trip still feels like an adventure. We enter Aguas Calientes, the final stop, after a long curve around the base of a towering mountain. In the morning, Machu Picchu looks glorious. I arrive just after a rain shower has passed over, leaving the stonework glistening and the air clear and lung-cleansing. Though perched on a lofty saddle between two mountain peaks, the site is lower than Cuzco. The last few clouds glow brightly as they swirl around Huayna Picchu, the rocky pinnacle that rises above the site.
The “historical sanctuary”, as UNESCO describes Machu Picchu and its surrounding forests, covers more than 116 square miles. For all the studies carried out, its real purpose remains a mystery: there are residential and religious structures, and agricultural and possibly academic areas, but experts are still guessing about the possible cosmic significance of its location. I walk all the way up to the Sun Gate to get a panoramic view. Machu Picchu amazes as much because of its setting as its architectural magnificence. I see a rainbow form above the ruins, and a vulture – perhaps a condor – circling in the mist. Even the numerous tourists look small amid the grandiose drama of this ancient city.
My next stop is Puerto Maldonado. It’s only a 55-minute flight from Cuzco, but it’s an utterly different topography, climate, mood and milieu. The rain, the moody clouds, the dense jungle, all tell us we are in the headwaters of the Amazon, a river the Incas imagined as a fearsome serpent. The journey up the Madre de Dios river is great fun. It feels intrepid, on the edge of things, but I spy smart-looking jungle lodges on the banks of the tributary. As dusk arrives, we reach our own, a handsome rustic resort that has been neatly built without tearing down the trees. During the last decade, the Tambopata region has seen a rapid expansion of the hotel offering, and an overall upgrade.