A holiday trajectory normally apes life: there are ups and downs – but the ups hopefully outweigh the downs in the long run. This was on my mind during the penultimate stop on our Peruvian adventure, in the now less-trammelled Colca Valley.
It’s a region that was off the tourist path for over a decade in the Eighties and Nineties while controlled by the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path, but which is now gradually returning to itineraries.
We’d left our tranquil room at the Belmond hideaway Las Casitas to a deafening dawn chorus of birdsong. Now, an hour’s drive later under a cloud-scattered sky, we were watching condors line up like jets at Heathrow on a Monday morning, swooping one by one over our heads with a whoosh of their giant wings as they surfed the currents above the depths of the Colca Canyon, the second-deepest land canyon in the world.
Our two-week itinerary had taken us to the heights of the Inca Trail and through the Sacred Valley on a luxury train. We had travelled across Lake Titicaca to visit ancient civilisations and, lastly, embarked on a gourmet adventure in the Peruvian capital Lima. Each new day only transported us to further heights.
If Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his way and Earth is designated a residential zone, then Peru will certainly qualify in a top five of global recreational parks. With its awe-inducing Andean peaks dropping abruptly down to desert, culminating in a surf-bashed rocky coastline, this is a country of epic scale.
For those seeking to absent themselves from the frenetic demands of 21st-century connectivity and get out and about in a world of geological wonder, ancient traditions and omnipresent pan pipes, it’s hard to think of a better location.
The luxury hotel group Belmond clearly agrees, expanding its conquest of landmark buildings and iconic hotels in Europe to preside over some of the finest hostelries in this South American nation. It’s been a landgrab seemingly as successful as that of the conquistadors as there is now barely a worthwhile destination left to visit there without one of their supremely spoiling establishments to retreat to.
Back in 1998, when I first visited, just six years after the demise of Shining Path as a major force, you had to take a circuitous route via Madrid in order to reach the country. Now it is eminently accessible, with British Airways running a direct flight to Lima.
Cusco, the ancient Inca capital and gateway to the extraordinary civilisation that dominated South America for 100 years during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was our first stop. Jet lag propelled me from my opulent pillow-strewn nest at Palacio Nazarenas, an old convent set in a series of courtyards with fountains, blooming hydrangeas and rosemary bushes, to the town square.
At 7am the Plaza de Armas, dominated by its 17th-century gothic cathedral, was already a hive of activity. Schoolchildren were practising for the next day’s regional dancing competition in the early morning sunlight. A heavenly choir drifted from the cathedral, enticing me closer – but not before I’d assured the security man at the door that my intention was to pray, not to sightsee.
Inside was dark, cool and the scent of incense thrust me back to my Irish Catholic childhood. Draped in white and gold-threaded cloth below a crucified black Christ, the altar was resplendent with vases of pink and red gladioli. In the dim light the priest, in purple and gold vestments, knocked back the blood of Christ from a gold chalice.
The high walls boasted more gold, framing the vast 17th and 18th-century paintings of the bloodiest sufferings of Christ. This was religion in all its gory, fear-inducing pomp, brought to South America by the conquistadors who concluded the Incas’ domination of that huge continent in less than a year.
Shivering, I stepped back into the sunlit fresh air to find the children still dancing, waving their national banners of green, blue and gold and whooping to the rhythm of the drums. I made a note to remember how rich the rewards are for the traveller who stirs early.
Although visiting the sacred pilgrimage site of Machu Picchu and walking the Inca Trail is part of the appeal here, there is also plenty to occupy those experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness, which range from headaches to slight nausea, before they head higher into the Andes.
Wandering the narrow, cobbled streets full of historic buildings and museums is a delight. There are day treks on offer, including fishing, kayaking, white-water rafting and our choice: paddleboarding on Piuray Lake.
Driving out of Cusco along snaking mountain roads, we arrived at a small wooden cabana on a lakeshore where we donned wetsuits and life jackets to embark on a glorious sun-soaked two hours of family paddling. Puffball clouds were mirrored in the still waters of the near circular lake as, overheating in our neoprene, we abandoned our boards to swim.
Surrounded by the ubiquitous snow-covered mountains, the lake was edged by rolling grassland dotted with grazing sheep and the occasional rustic farmstead. It felt like we had slipped centuries back from our day-to-day lives.
Then, in a form of time travel we grew used to in Peru, it was fast forward to the Twenties for an Agatha Christie-style adventure aboard the Andean Explorer. We passengers gathered on the platform of the tiny 19th-century railway station in Cusco with a rising sense of excitement.
Heralding our departure on the two-night journey through the Sacred Valley to Arequipa, a local band serenaded us with Andean classics, including the inevitable rendition of El Condor Pasa, as globalised by Simon and Garfunkel.
Dancers in colourful costumes whirled to the beat as we sipped icy fresh strawberry juice before having our cabins assigned. It was like a scene from Murder on the Orient Express and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one scanning the 38 middle-aged, casually dressed passengers with suspicion.
Soon we were rattling along at 7mph through the fertile lowlands of the Sacred Valley before stopping to take in sleepy Raqui, a less-frequented Inca settlement notable for the unusual two-storey height of its clay and wattle walls, and an irrigation system that survives and flows to this day. On either side, magnificent peaks, thrust from the sea millennia ago, dominate the bright blue skyline with their deforested nakedness.
At night we slipped into evening wear to sip cocktails in one of the train’s two cosy bars, before feasting in the dining car. This is luxury travel at its most attentive, with afternoon tea or drinks served in your cabin at the press of a bell and nothing too much trouble for the smiling crew.
Yet it’s the access it gives that makes this train ride such an extraordinary experience. On our second morning, with the train stationary on the Puno harbour-front, we rose at 5am to photograph the sunrise between broody black clouds.
After freshly baked croissants and coffee, we set off by chartered boat to visit the reed-island-dwelling Uros people of Lake Titicaca. Separating Peru and Bolivia, this vast lake is the highest expanse of inland navigable water in the world at 50 miles (80km) wide and 118 (189km) miles long.
Five hundred years ago, the Uros escaped Inca attempts at subjugation by ingeniously utilising the lake’s totora reeds to build floating islands, meshing roots and earth to create a solid base and then scattering up to 6ft of fresh reed “carpeting” on top. Today, 1,500 Uros remain as a community on this expanding archipelago.
In better shape than they were two decades ago, having made a community business out of the stream of intrigued tourists eager to witness their unique lifestyle, they remain entirely reliant on the reeds that make up the ground beneath their feet, the huts they live in, the church they worship in, the goods they trade and even the fake palm parasols they create in lieu of trees to provide shade and a diversity of scenery.
Meanwhile, their cartoonlike double-hulled “balsa” boats, resembling giant bananas woven of wheat and famously the inspiration to Thor Heyerdahl on his Kon-Tiki expedition, can’t help but raise a smile.
We carried on across the lake on another high-skied, sun-kissed day to Taquile island, to witness another way of life that has stood still in time. Recognised by Unesco for their unique textiles, the islanders have jobs strictly delineated by gender. The men weave everything from bracelets to hats, scarves, ponchos, blankets and bags, while the women do the dyeing.
It’s an odd experience to find yourself surrounded by a group of smiling 17th-century Spanish peasants in 21st-century Peru. The Taquilenos style of dress was introduced by the Gonzalez family, who banned all local customs on purchase of the island from the King of Spain, decreeing that villagers dress like the serfs they’d left back home.
Living true to ancient Inca principles, they retain their rigorous system of positioning their chumpis (belts) to identify their romantic status (woe betide the woman or man who puts their scarf in the wrong place) along with some other surprising customs.
In an eerie echo of The Purge movies, on Good Friday the death of Christ bequeaths the islanders a 24-hour period of consequence-free bad behaviour, during which crop stealing is just the tip of the iceberg. Luckily, we were there a week early.
After so many experiences pulling us back in time, it felt incongruous to arrive in Lima, a vibrant modern city that has expanded from two million to a 10 million population in my lifetime and undergone a culinary revolution.
Bearing in mind how long it takes to make a booking at gourmet restaurants in London, the reaction of the Belmond Miraflores concierge when we asked for a table that evening was pretty impressive. Fifteen minutes later, without a penny changing hands, he called to tell us to jump in a taxi: they had a cancellation. My emerging love affair with Peru was sealed in that moment.
On our last night, we sat in a simply decorated first-floor room, under a high ceiling from which a multitude of coir ropes drooped to just above our heads, eating sushi served under clouds of liquid nitrogen, meatballs that turned out to be guinea pig foie gras (an acquired taste but better than the spatchcocked one we’d tried at an earlier destination) and a series of dishes each more inventive than the last.
The food was delectable, the atmosphere relaxed and the bill a mere £200 for the most astonishing fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine and lashings of sake (rice wine).
For the visitor, not forced to live with the corruption scandals of every government over the past 20 years and an exploding urban population causing infrastructure challenges, Peru is one of the most friendly and breathtaking countries on the planet.
The sooner Earth becomes residential-use-only and Peru is protected as a nation of outstanding natural beauty, the better.