Kingdom in the clouds

Jessica Alexander takes to the tracks onboard Belmond’s Hiram Bingham in search of Peru’s iconic wonders and ancient Inca traditions

I’m handed a pair of maracas and am ushered into the observation carriage just in time for the chorus of Hey Jude, the steady chatter of the train tracks setting the tempo.

The local musicians are taking a break, so some of the passengers have taken it upon themselves to form their own percussion band, tambourines at the ready.

Just a few hours prior I had been in the very same – albeit more sedate – carriage watching misty peaks fade into the distance whist the thundering Urubamba River raced us to our final destination, the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.

This was one of those rare occasions where the journey was just as much part of the experience as the final destination.

Peru train
Hiram Bingham, a Belmond train

Outside the wild landscape seemed unruly in comparison to the opulence of the Hiram Bingham, a Belmond train, where delicate Peruvian-inspired dishes were served atop crisp white linen tablecloth, followed by a pisco sour in the glossy teak cocktail bar.

Upon arrival at the Sacred Valley we proceed to climb to an elevation of 2,430 metres above sea level. Linder Farfan Quispe, our guide, knows to take it slow as our lungs adjust to the thinner air but our efforts are soon rewarded as the kingdom in the clouds reveals itself.

The mystery of Machu Picchu continues to fascinate archaeologists and pulls adventure-seekers towards the Andes. To see such sophisticated agricultural terraces and stone masonry in the depths of this mountainous jungle is nothing short of extraordinary. Below me the skeleton of the remaining citadel tells the story of the Inca, a deeply spiritual community guided by the sun and the stars who occupied the estate from 1420 for almost a century before it lay abandoned and undiscovered for 300 years.

Linder tells me how more Peruvians are returning to the Inca religion, a belief system that is rooted by a strong respect for nature and a connection to Pachamamma (Mother Earth). It is something that I’ve noticed across the country, from references in ancient artefacts in Lima’s museums to the hillside communities of Cusco that still leave offerings to Pachamamma to encourage a fruitful harvest.

“If we treat her with respect Mother Earth will be kind,” says Linder. “We must give back and not just take.”

Wise words to live by.

Hitting new heights

A staple bucket list destination, Peru continues to inspire travellers with its natural allure. While its biggest claim to fame is Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is home to more than 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has a diverse interior, from its coastal capital Lima to the beginning of the Amazon rainforest to the jagged Andes Mountain Range, all of which makes it one of the 12 most biodiverse nations in the world.

“In the last quarter of 2023, 10% more British travellers actively visited Peru and we hope to see this figure increase in 2024,” said Angelica Matsuda, Executive President of the Commission for the Promotion of Peru for Export and Tourism – PROMPERU.

Community tourism is also having a heyday with more travellers in search of an authentic cultural experience and looking to give back to local communities.

Tour operators such as G Adventures and Wild Frontiers have created itineraries focused around travel with purpose in Peru.

Peru weave
Sacred Valley Womens Weaving Co-Op

Wild Frontiers’ 10-day Peru Adventures with Purpose Tour includes an indigenous homestay experience on Lake Titicaca and time spent with a weaving community, while G Adventures’ 10-day Inca Journey includes cooking classes in Cusco, visits to community-focused restaurants, Indigenous weaving experiences and night time caiman spotting in the Amazon.

“From active lovers wanting to hike in the Andes to wildlife aficionados looking to cruise along the Amazon waterways, we have a tour to suit,” said Sarah Miginiac, G Adventures’ General Manager for Latin America. “Plus, with the usual closure of the Inca Trail in February, travellers will be able to hike the iconic trail after its annual maintenance.”

Peru lima
Lima, culinary capital of South America

Peru is also fast becoming a gastronomy hotspot, with Lima establishing itself as the culinary capital of South America.

Award-winning chefs champion local ingredients and UNESCO recently declared Peruvian ceviche as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognising the cultural significance of the dish.

“It is clear that Peru is capable of offering a diverse and rich cultural heritage, adventure routes, breathtaking landscapes, award-winning gastronomy, as well as traditions and customs, which will create unique and unforgettable experiences,” said Matsuda.

“Peru is back and waiting for more UK travellers to discover it.”

Top experiences

Climb Machu Picchu: In an effort to monitor overtourism, the Peruvian Government has restricted the amount of visitors to the famous site to 4,500 per day. A guided tour reveals how the 300-strong Inca community lived and the story of how it was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham. More adventurous clients can trek the 26-mile Inca Trail with Apumayo Expeditions.

Stay in a monastery: Monasterio by Belmond is one of the most unique hotels in Cusco. A former 16th century nun convent, the hotel has its own baroque chapel that guests can visit and displays Spanish colonial art throughout. Due to the high altitude (Cusco is 3,399m above sea level) rooms are pumped with oxygen to help combat the effects of altitude sickness. Guests can also enjoy an opera dinner at neighbouring El Tupay.

Take a tour of Lima: The best way to explore Peru’s capital is on a walking tour. Lima Mentor offers small group half day tours with knowledgeable local guides. The tour starts in the Historic Downtown of Lima, home to sculptures such as El Beso (The Kiss) and a certain famous Peruvian bear. Visitors are then taken to Pre-Colombian archaeological site, Huaca Huallamarca, before touring the impressive Larco Museum which houses a private collection of Pre-colombian art.

Peru mines
Maras Salt Mines

Visit Maras salt mines: Hidden in the Sacred Valley, an hour from Cusco, is the Maras salt mines. Each of the 3,500 salt pools is locally owned by 600 families who harvest the salt by hand. The pools, which are all connected by an underground network of canals, are each at different stages of the crystallization process.

Where to book it

Belmond: A stay at Rio Sagrado, A Belmond Hotel, in the Sacred Valley starts at £451 for a Deluxe room. Flights from London to Peru via Madrid with LATAM start from £688pp.;