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Wednesday 16 September 2015

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Machu Picchu

For most people who come to Peru, Machu Picchu is the highlight of their trip, and it is a stunningly beautiful and evocative place to visit. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, it is not as old as many people believe, and is thought to have been built in around 1450 AD, only to be abandoned a century later during the Spanish Conquest.

Machu Picchu

Located on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley, 50 miles northwest of Cusco, it was built in classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls that were cut to fit together perfectly, without mortar.

The three main structures are the Inti Watana  (believed to have been an Inca astronomic clock), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Scattered around the site are larger buildings thought to have been used by the nobility and religious leaders, as well as smaller dwellings and storage houses for the rest of the Inca population.

Just as striking as the architecture is the stunning setting, at the top of a mountain, hundreds of metres above the Urubamba River in the valley below, and surrounded by lush tropical jungle replete with hummingbirds.

Amazing views of the Urubamba River

The views are spectacular, and justify at least a full day to catch sunrise and sunset. Machu Picchu is the number one tourist destination in Peru, but it is large enough not to feel crowded except perhaps around lunchtime when day trippers from Cusco arrive.

This is a good reason for staying locally either in the little town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) in the valley as we did, or in the eye-wateringly expensive Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (of the Belmond Hotel Group) right next to Machu Picchu.

The most panoramic views of Machu Picchu are from the top of Huayna Picchu, the mountain which towers behind the structures of the citadel. Access to Huayna Picchu is now limited to 400 people per day, 200 being allowed up at 8am, and another 200 at 10am. It takes around 1 hour to climb at a fairly brisk pace, and there is a well marked and mostly paved path so it does not require any special equipment beyond the avoidance of flip flops.

Climbing the Huayna Picchu

The mornings are often cloudy at Machu Picchu, so it is worth staying up on top of the mountain until the early afternoon to get the best chance of a crystal clear view of the site below. It is officially discouraged to stay on Wayna Picchu beyond 12 noon, but actually lots of people do as the views are better in the early afternoon.

Some of the best views of Machu Picchu however are to be found not from Huayna Picchu itself, but from the much smaller peak known as Huchuy Picchu that you will walk past on your way back to Machu Picchu.

On our trip, it was almost deserted because very few people who have climbed Huayna Picchu make the effort to climb another peak. However, it is actually very easy to ascend, much less strenuous than Huayna Picchu, and is the perfect spot from which to contemplate the ruins of Machu Picchu in peace, and to take photographs from one of the best locations in the area. 

How to Arrive and Leave Machu Picchu

There are only two ways to travel between Machu Picchu and Cusco - either on foot along the Inca Trail in a journey lasting two to five days depending on where you start from, or by train, and we chose the latter. We travelled to Machu Picchu on the splendid Belmond Hiram Bingham train (formerly Orient Express) - you can read more about that here.

Great views from the Vistadome train service from Cuzco

We travelled from Machu Picchu to the Sacred Valley town of Urubamba on Peru Rail's Vistadome service.  Surrounded by glass in the roof as well as the windows, there are spectacular scenic views on the journey as it passes alongside the Urubamba River. The Vistadome has air conditioning and very comfortable leather seats.

The excellent Vistadome train service to Aguas Calientes

The journey to Urubamba took 3 hours, and the time flew by, partly because of the wonderful scenery en route, but also because the attendants on the train worked very hard to provide the best service, and even an Andean fashion show and dancing. Highly recommended.

Where to Stay

Hotel Sumaq

The Hotel Sumaq is an elegant hotel situated on the banks of the Vilcanota River, a few minutes walk from the Aguas Calientes train station. Surrounded by lush vegetation, in the midst of mountains and valleys, it is a tranquil place to prepare for a visit to Machu Picchu, or to reflect afterwards.

With a bar serving excellent Pisco Sours, and with complimentary afternoon tea, it offers a great opportunity to unwind near the historic sites of the area.

The hotel offers, for additional fees, a range of activities including cooking classes, a hike to the valleys and waterfall of Mandor, or a bird watching tour. We had a short but informative class on making ceviche and mixing the perfect Pisco Sour.

Our room was comfortable and spacious, decorated in vibrant but harmonious colours and local artefacts.

It had a balcony with great views overlooking the tumultuous Vilcanota River and the surrounding valleys.

The views from our room at the Sumaq Hotel - the mighty Vilcanota River

Breakfast was served buffet-style, and included a good range of tropical fruit, yoghurts, cereals and cooked options.

The hotel has a well-equipped spa and sauna room and offers a range of treatments and massages, ideal after a day’s trekking to Machu Picchu.

Sumaq is the top hotel in Aguas Calientes, and whilst there are a number of budget accommodation options in the town, we found Sumaq was good value and well located for the local bars and restaurants and for a taste of local life.

Where to Eat

Hotel Sumaq

The town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) exists solely as a base for tourists visiting the nearby ruins at Machu Picchu. There are numerous cafes, bars and restaurants, but none that offers anything outstanding. We chose to have dinner at the Qunuq restaurant at Hotel Sumaq.

Our meal at Qunuq was delicious – we started on a good note with a delicious platter of appetizers including trout ceviche, a causa “maki” of chicken and avocado (causa is a Peruvian dish of mashed potatoes filled and/or topped with other ingredients) and a black quinoa salad with a tangy vinaigrette dressing. The appetizers were delectable, well made and bursting with flavour.

As mains, Dr G and I shared a grilled alpaca fillet steak served with mashed potatoes and grilled mushrooms. We got a real taste for alpaca on this trip – when well prepared (as in this case), it is succulent, meaty and surprisingly un-gamey.

Our second main course was a slow-braised veal stew served with a Peruvian pumpkin risotto. This was also delicious – a refined version of the classic adobo Arequipeño, a soupy pork stew, slow-simmered with chicha de jora (a corn beer), spicy rocoto pepper, aji panca, garlic, onions, oregano, cumin, and other herbs and spices.

What to Do

Although there is a range of activities in the area, including walks along parts of the Inca Trail, learning about local trees and vegetation, as well as birdwatching, the overwhelming reason why people come to Aguas Calientes is to visit Machu Picchu.

Arrival at Aguas Calientes also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo

It is a tremendous site which will take at least one full day to explore, but it would be good to have the chance to stay 2 or 3 nights in the area.

On our trip, we wanted to experience Machu Picchu from daybreak, and so arrived in Aguas Calientes the afternoon before, and checked into the Hotel Sumaq, strolled around town and had dinner at the hotel, before an early night to allow us to get up before dawn.

It is possible to walk from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu, but it is a fairly strenuous journey up a dirt track which takes 60-90 minutes at a brisk pace.  That is one way to arrive at the summit before dawn, and requires sturdy walking boots and a torch.  Alternatively, shuttle buses start ascending to Machu Picchu from 05.30, in a journey that takes around 15 minutes.

Once at the summit, the main question is whether to wander around alone, perhaps with a guidebook, or to engage one of the official guides. We took the view that most of what a guide told us about the site would be conjectural, and that we would rather be alone for the hours we had to soak up this amazing place. You might feel differently, but we did not think we were missing out.

Machu Picchu

Travel Essentials

Hotel Sumaq 
Av. Hermanos Ayar Mz 1 Lote 3 
Machu Picchu

Double rooms are available from £225 per night. 

Tickets for the Vistadome and Hiram Bingham trains are available from purchase online direct from Peru Rail at: www.perurail.com

Prices vary somewhat depending on the time and day of travel, but a one-way journey on the Vistadome train costs in the region of £45 pounds per person. 

It is advisable to book tickets for access to Huayna Picchu in advance, and this can be done from home via the Peruvian government's website www.machupicchu.gob.pe. This website does work, and you can print off your entrance tickets from home, but it is not the easiest website to use. Although it can be read in English translation, the ticket-purchasing function only works if accessed via the Spanish site.  Full details on how to use the site can be found here: 

Do remember that you MUST take your printed entry tickets AND your passport or a photocopy of it to the site, otherwise you will not be allowed through the security gates.

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