Machu Picchu

My wife and I originally planned to travel to Peru in the month of February, a journey that had to be postponed owing to floods and landslides in the Andes.

Sections of the railway linking Cusco to Machu Picchu had been washed away. Since there was – and is – no road into Machu Picchu, thousands of tourists had to be evacuated by helicopter. When Jenny and I finally left England for Peru, at the end of March, Machu Picchu had not yet officially reopened for business. But we planned to spend a few days in the Amazon region first.

If you have time, take a detour – as we did – to Puerto Maldonado. If you don't have time, make time. We spent four days at Inkaterra's amazing Reserva Amazonica, a jungle eco-lodge on the Madre de Dios river about nine miles downstream of Puerto Maldonado, near the border with Brazil. The lodge offers a full range of tropical forest experiences – day and night-time expeditions into the jungle – as well as the longest canopy walkway I have ever been on. From a height of 90ft you find yourself looking down on the monkeys in the trees. While we were in the forest, word came through that the vital sections of the railway track had been reopened. So we flew from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco, staying once again at another magnificent Inkaterra hotel, La Casona, an elegant colonial building next to the museum of pre-Columbian art and a stone's throw from the main square.

As we checked in that evening, I couldn't help remembering the last time I had visited Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It was in May 1959; I was halfway through my gap year (though that phrase had yet to be coined) and walking down Bishopsgate, in the heart of the City of London, when I noticed a discreet bronze plaque outside a building. It read: "H. Clarkson, Brazil (Shipping) Ltd." I entered the building and asked to see the managing director.

"The MD's in a meeting," I was told.

"Don't worry. I can wait." I made it clear that I would wait till October if I had to, since the Oxford term didn't start till then.

Eventually, when I met the MD, he told me rather gruffly to write down what I wanted and leave the letter with his secretary. So I wrote: "Dear Mr Glen, I would like to work my passage to Brazil on one of your boats. Yours sincerely, Stanley Johnson." The secretary suggested I should put "ships" instead of "boats".

A few days later the MD sent me a letter telling me that I wouldn't be able to work my passage. Instead he offered me the owner's cabin on an iron-ore carrier bound for Brazil provided I was ready to pay a nominal "victualling" charge of £1 a day.

That trip to South America remains a high point in a lifetime of travel. And the culmination of a memorable journey was the visit to Machu Picchu, that magnificent Inca site in the Peruvian Andes, at a time when, as a tourist destination, it was still virtually unknown.

It is strange how chance encounters can shape one's life. Drinking a caipirinha one day in a bar on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, I ran into a young man who told me that if I had time to spare I should really "do the Incas".

"But the Incas," I protested, "aren't they on the other side of the continent?"

That was about all I knew then about the Incas. I didn't know about the great wealth of archaeological treasures in and around Cusco and the neighbouring regions. I don't think I had even heard of Hiram Bingham, the American professor-turned-explorer who in July 1911 "discovered" Machu Picchu in the high jungle of the Peruvian Andes and named it, unforgettably, the "lost city of the Incas".

But I heard enough that night in Rio to know that Peru was where I wanted to go. A few days later, I boarded a little wood-burning steam train that chugged its way across the heart of the Mato Grosso in Brazil to Corumbá, on the Bolivian border. I hitched a ride on a Bolivian military plane from Santa Cruz to La Paz, then took a local bus up on to the altiplano, the great grassy plains surrounded by ice-covered mountain peaks, home to great herds of llamas, alpaca and vicuña. I crossed Lake Titicaca, the world's largest high-altitude body of water, into Peru and took another local train from Puno to Cusco.

Nowadays, of course, Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire, is recognised not only as the jumping-off point for the visit to Machu Picchu but as an extraordinary cultural and architectural treasure in its own right. When the conquering Spaniards demolished its monuments and temples in the 16th century they used the stones to build the cathedral, churches, monasteries, convents and other structures of the present-day city. The mighty Inca ruins of Sacsayhuamán, which I visited in 1959, today still dominate the skyline above the town. The Incas moved boulders weighing 80 or even 100 tonnes into position, building great Cyclopean walls, which because of the system of interlocking stones have been virtually earthquake-proof where other structures have collapsed.

I spent only a night or two in Cusco in 1959 before taking a steam train down through the Sacred Valley, following the Urubamba River, to Machu Picchu. I was the only foreigner, indeed the only tourist, as far as I could see. I was surrounded by peasants carrying livestock and other produce to the market. I must have broken the journey at some point, because among my old photographs I have a picture of my younger, thinner self perched on the terraced hillside at Pisac, another Inca wonder.

Fifty-one years later, Jenny and I were not able to repeat exactly the itinerary of my gap-year travels. Because of the recent floods and landslides in the Peruvian Andes, we couldn't board the train until the wayside stop of Piscacucho, a long way down the Sacred Valley. Piscacucho is, in fact, only 17 miles from Machu Picchu, which is located at the end of the Sacred Valley, but it seemed much farther.

The Urubamba River that day was still in spate, spraying the embankment with foam and debris; the track was still fragile, in some places visibly crumbling, and the driver understandably proceeded with caution. We took well over an hour to cover the distance. I would not have had it otherwise. If you look down, as the train winds its way slowly through the mountains, you can see the foaming river, only a few feet below; if you look up, through the glass panels in the roof of the carriage, you can see the mountain peaks and the circling hawks.

In 1959, I was the only tourist on the train. In April, when my wife and I went there, all the compartments were packed, with passengers being limited to hand luggage. And the little station that serves Machu Picchu has itself been transformed. From my earlier visit, I remembered a tiny wayside stop, where you disembarked to climb up to the citadel. Today, the town (known as Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo) has more than 2,000 people. I can't recall where I spent the night when I first went there but, since I was travelling on a shoestring, I am sure it was a fleapit hostel. Today you can stay in splendour at the five-star Inkaterra hotel on the edge of town or in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel right outside the entrance to the archaeological site.

In 1959, there weren't any other tourists at Machu Picchu. I look at my old photographs and I cannot see a single human being. Today, if you stand on Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain") and take a wide-angle shot of the ruins with Huayna Picchu ("Young Peak") as a backdrop, you will on an average day find scores, if not hundreds, of tourists in view.

If there weren't any tourists in 1959, there weren't any tourist guides, either. Looking back I rather regret that. We certainly benefited from having a knowledgeable escort this time around.

At the end of our first morning in Machu Picchu, we found ourselves standing in front of a tall circular structure with three trapeze-shaped window openings looking out to the east.

"This is the Sun Temple," our guide, Ivanov, told us. "At precisely 7.22 on the morning of the winter solstice [June 21], the sun will shine through the central window to illuminate that huge white granite rock."

I knew from my photo album that I had seen precisely the same structure in 1959, without understanding the astronomical significance.

I suggested to Ivanov that if the Incas had been anything like the Aztecs they would have marked the occasion with a sacrificial victim or two. Ivanov shook his head.

"We don't find any evidence of human sacrifice at Machu Picchu. At Cusco, however, there is such evidence. It was regarded as a great privilege to be chosen as a sacrificial victim. Upper-class families competed for the honour!"

We learnt such a lot that day. Ivanov told us, for example, that the alignment of the great Inca towns reflected iconic images of Andean wildlife. Cusco, he told us, is designed in the shape of a puma and "the Incas built their great citadel of Machu Picchu in the shape of a giant condor so that, at death, they could fly to the Milky Way".

Later that day, we met a party of British hikers who had completed the arduous Inca Trail, hiking for four days through the mountains to reach Machu Picchu. I took out my notebook and accosted one of the walkers.

"Hello," I said. "I'm from The Daily Telegraph."

She told me that her name was Maxine Heasman and that she worked for the police in Esher, Surrey. Completing the Inca Trail had been an exhilarating experience. Hard work, too. "At times I have been in tears," she said. "It was the hardest thing mentally and physically I have ever done. No amount of advice before you leave England can prepare you for it."

Our guide left us after lunch to return to Cusco. Jenny and I spent the afternoon walking around the ruins. As the early crowds dispersed, I found myself reliving the grandeur, mystery and excitement of the place I had known in my younger days. In the whole world, there is nothing quite like Machu Picchu. Even 5,000 tourists a day can't change that.

Will I go back again? You bet I will. I have promised myself that, some time before that giant condor flies me off to the Milky Way, I will return. With any luck, I will still be fit enough to hike through the mountains along the Inca Trail, and sleep under the stars.

Stanley Johnson travelled to Peru with Journey Latin America. This article was commissioned by The Daily Telegraph.

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