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To Machu Picchu by Orient Express

Author: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

There are times for roughing it and times for not. Peru, with its Third World plumbing, is one of those places where a comfortable hotel room is greatly prized. I've heard about freezing temperatures at some of the less expensive hotels in densely populated Cuzco and more primitive Aguas Calientes. Bear in mind that in Cuzco (at 11,000-foot altitude) and in Aguas Calientes (at 6,000-foot altitude), nights are usually cold and altitude sickness also enters the mix.
So on my three-night tour to Machu Picchu, I scheduled my first and third night in Cuzco at Orient Express's Hotel Monasterio, a converted Spanish monastery dating from the 17th century. For the second night, my first choice was atop Machu Picchu at another Orient Express property--the 31-room Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. Some of this hotel's rooms have views of the ruins, and guests have the enviable priviledge of lounging on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. Plus they get to be here in the quiet evening, when the day visitors have gone. Unfortunately it was full even several months in advance. So instead, I opted for a night at the landmark's base in the atmospheric Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel (a former Orient Express property) and planned to indulge in the famous buffet lunch at Sanctuary Lodge.

When we arrived in Cuzco (originally laid out to resemble a puma in profile, its name translates as "navel of the Earth") after the short, scenic early morning flight over the Andes from Lima, we were met by a hotel van--a welcome convenience because we were exhausted after being up all night in the Lima airport. At the hotel we were offered coca tea, which eased our discomfort from the altitude, and our room was ready for early check-in.

Though still feeling a bit woozy after just a short nap, we took the de rigueur orienting tour of this legendary city of the Incas, viewing the rich treasures of La Compania church and the ancient ceremonial site of Saqsaywaman (which sounds like "sexy woman").

Later, we walked through weathered stone arches sheltering the halls of our magnificent hotel, examining the many original religious paintings decorating the walls. We really appreciated being able to order up a light dinner from room service and stay put, as we had an early call for the long train ride the next day.

Since transportation to Machu Picchu is via comfortable new train coaches now owned and operated by Orient Express, the excursion was quite efficient and comfortable (snack service and functioning restrooms were recently added), with just enough of Peru reality thrown in to make me feel I'd also had a cultural experience.

After a comfortable, stunningly scenic four-hour journey aboard colorful blue-and-yellow coaches and a short, exciting, zig-zaggy bus trip up the mountain, we entered one of the world's most spectacular sights.

Built by the Incas in the 15th and 16th centuries, Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish and was basically lost until 1911, when American professor Hiram Bingham rediscovered it. Now this fascinating fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We toured with an English-speaking local guide arranged for at the desk of the Sanctuary Lodge, then came back the next morning for a more leisurely exploration on our own. (Describing the site requires another article, but I was most surprised by the semitropical climate and recommend taking the time to just sit quietly and listen to the sounds of birds twittering and of the river flowing through a deep gorge far below, and to be on the lookout for the occasional butterfly and orchid.)

Spending the night in Aguas Calientes allowed time to explore the charming small village and to visit the hot springs used by locals for bathing and by hikers fresh from the Inca Trail for refreshing and relaxing. Sporting a bar and only a very basic changing area, it was quite a scene. After, we strolled the town's few streets and dined lightly on pizza, as our appetite was still suppressed by the altitude.

Our lodging, the Pueblo Hotel, features expansive cloud-forest gardens. After a rejuvenating breakfast on a terrace overlooking a river far below, we walked the property's Orchid Trail. The head orchid gardener showed us where the colorful flowers hid and also proudly introduced us to a gorgeous bloom he had discovered and that was named after him. The celebrity angle was brought in with photos in the lobby that told of a visit by actor Ben Kingsley just a few weeks before.

Back atop Machu Picchu, we selected lunch from a fresh, delicious, and beautifully presented buffet in the roaring dining room of the spectacularly situated, but relatively simple, Sanctuary Lodge. It was a relief that water was safe to drink and that we could also eat the fresh fruit and vegetables.

After purchasing a soft, soft alpaca coat in the Alpaca 111 shop here, we rode down the windy road again, bought a few souvenirs from the colorful stalls lining the path back to the train station, and spent the late afternoon and evening riding the rails back to Cuzco.

Home again at the now familiar Hotel Monasterio, our window this time looked out over a sea of terra cotta rooftops--imprinting a wonderful last sight in our mind's eye. Still experiencing little hunger, we continued drinking coca tea and for dinner, instead of the traditional guinea pig dish we had anticipated, ate only a satisfying corn on the cob fresh from a vendor's backpack. It cost about 25 cents; 30 cents with a wedge of local cheese.

On our last morning we feasted in the cheery golden breakfast room on electric-colored fruit juices and sampled tasty local Kiwicha biscuits and Andrean cheese, then boarded another early morning flight back to Lima.

Afternote: Since my visit, 50 rooms at the Hotel Monestario have been equipped with oxygen pumps to further ease altitude discomfort.

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