Walking with the gods

Issue 2 · Summer 2015
By Chris Moss

From encounters with toucans in the Amazon rainforest to the storybook terraces of Machu Picchu, Peru is a treasure trove of adventure for intrepid families

Issue 2 · Summer 2015
By Chris Moss

From encounters with toucans in the Amazon rainforest to the storybook terraces of Machu Picchu, Peru is a treasure trove of adventure for intrepid families

A woman leads her llama past incredible Inca stonework
A woman leads her llama past incredible Inca stonework

The woman in the bowler hat seems to be jogging, her backpack – containing her child – bobbing around as she hastens along the side street leading to Avenida El Sol, the main drag. She's keeping up an impressive pace, given the throngs of families, tourists, guides, hikers, merchants and idlers that pack the pavement. We're also more than 11,000 feet above sea level, which has slowed me down significantly – and, what with the ornate churches, the ancient walls and the museums and galleries, there's so much to see.

The Incas called Cuzco the “navel of the world”. Today, it's the hub of Peruvian travel. Hostels and hotels converted from monasteries and colonial mansions accommodate families from all over the world, all here on pilgrimages to Machu Picchu. It's my third visit in ten years and what is most obvious is the upgrading of food and drink – you can dine on Italian cuisine, new Amerindian fusions and even sushi, such is the cosmopolitan character of Peru's most visited city.

Cuzco was laid out to look like a puma. Great stone structures honour animals and nature

Sacsayhuaman is Cuzco's unsung wonder. A huge walled city, it's an extension of Cuzco itself, which was originally laid out to look like a huge puma; the great stone structures honour animals and nature, with thunder, lightning and the great high plains sky all celebrated as gods. The bulwarks, built with carved limestone boulders, were erected without any kind of mortar. Sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega marvelled at their construction: “To think how they could fit stones so immense so well that you can scarcely insert the point of a knife between them.”

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.

The Peruvian Amazon

The Amazon: Which Branch?

Peru has three main Amazon regions. The most established are the riverine national parks and reserves around Iquitos, a city only reachable from the rest of Peru by plane or boat. The least explored is perhaps the Chachapoyas-Gocta-Kuelap circuit – Kuelap is a striking mountain citadel and the mummy museums and lofty Gocta waterfall are all well worth the long road trip. The growth area for family groups is the Tambopata reserve, reached via Puerto Maldonado airport and a wonderful riverboat transfer.

The next morning I begin to understand why so many people want to come here. I see toucans, capuchin monkeys, capybaras, a bat falcon and, overhead, a noisy gang of macaws heading off to their clay lick. Blue morpho butterflies dance around the undergrowth, and as the sun sets a million insects wake up and start to scream. The Tambopata reserve is Amazon-lite, though: afternoons mean siestas, to be followed by short night walks and lavish dinners under the moonlit canopy.

I see toucans, capuchin monkeys, capybaras and, overhead, noisy macaws heading to a clay lick

I leave Peru as I arrived, via Lima. The capital used to be seen merely as a stopover, but excellent walking tours of the old city, the remarkable ruins of Huaca Pucllana and some fine museums (including the recently refurbished Larco museum of pre-Columbian art) have banished that impression. Back at sea level, I catch my breath and indulge in some outstanding ceviche. As gifts to the world go, Peru’s cuisine ranks right up there alongside its flora and fauna, which is almost beyond comprehension, and architectural wonders that simply take the breath away.

Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5030 to arrange your tailor-made holiday to Peru.
Images: Corbis

The baroque bell tower of Cuzco

Scott Dunn Suggests

Peru is perfect for active families and those looking to explore cultural and natural highlights such as the Amazon, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cuzco

Our Peru Family Adventure is the very best way of seeing this fascinating country with children or teenagers. After a night in Lima spend three nights in the Reserva Amazonica, Peru’s top wildlife lodge. Go on boat trips and walking trails, and encounter giant otters, monkeys and rainforest Indians. Fly to Cuzco and travel into the Sacred Valley, savouring the spirit of the Andes at the Sol y Luna, just outside Urubamba. Ride horses, go white-water rafting and mountain biking, or simply enjoy the great food amid tranquil surrounds. Continue by train to stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu surrounded by cloud forest abundant with hummingbirds and orchids. Return to Cuzco for two nights, and conclude with three nights by the ocean at Paracas. Or tailor this itinerary to whatever suits your family’s needs.

Peru Family Adventure, from £4,170pp for 14 nights including flights. For more information visit scottdunn.com/discoverperu
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