The Ups and Downs in the jungle of foliage and concrete in diversified Peru

If the truth be told, there is no easy way to get there. The easiest way to get to “the lost city”, Machu Picchu, Peru from the capital Lima, is a series of transport vehicles. While there is a direct flight from Lima, you’d be missing some of the remotest frontiers, ecological reserves, exotic wild life, in a country where three fifths is jungle and the area abounds in folkloric tales.

When I look back on this trip it’s right up there with being one of the most difficult but also tops the list as the most interesting. Landing in Lima, a colonial city also known as the ‘cement jungle’, left me underwhelmed. It looked like someone up-chucked a mass of undistinguished architecture among the older, finer Barroco Coloco style. The exception is the glorious, people-filled (my guide said, unemployed), water spewing fountained, Plaza Mayor, where the majestic Presidential Palace, as well as the cream coloured Cathedral with 3 million Venetian mosaic tiles, have the back drop of the towering St. Christopher Hill.

An overnight stop at the newly renovated Country Club Hotel and a fine typical Peruvian dinner at Huaca Pucllana which included Pisco Sour, a ‘must’ Peruvian drink, lima bean and Andean cheese soup, swordfish with brown bean tacu, was a great introduction to the upcoming ‘real’ part of the journey.

After the two hour plane trip to the small city of Puerto Maldonado, then transfer by bus to the city pier, it’s here that we start seeing unparalleled diversity in a country with 28 of 32 types of weather. Suddenly, roads are rivers and the vehicles are motorboats and canoes. Depending on the speed of the current (it usually is a 45 minute motor boat ride), we travel on Tambopata River which turns into Madre de Dios River, all leading into the Amazon River.

Our accommodations at Reserva Amazonica Inkaterra, sitting on 10,000 hectares, seems like Jungle 101. Suddenly there’s massive, thick rainforest and the fusion of colour and sound . (Inkaterra is a Peruvian organization which promotes and practices environmental conservation while interacting with the locals.)

Even the fact that the 41 private suites don’t have electricity and only three have hot showers, didn’t faze this city loving scribe. Perhaps that’s because I had one of those three cabins!

With daylight quickly disappearing, I quickly take the 1 ½ hour trail tour. The wonders of nature while roughing it on narrow, often muddy, hilly paths, gives me the feeling of being the first to discover this inhospitable area as I stumble over tangled vines and view dense shadows from the depths of the jungle.

There are various levels of difficulty and walking slowly is recommended. Since many of the foliage may be home to poisonous, often minute bugs, our guide, Aldo, is adamant about not touching any of the leaves. Iron and Garlic trees, Fire flies and Owl butterflies, and a few of the 600 different bird species are spotted. However, the most adventurous enterprise is the in-progress 410 metre long, 90 metre high Canopy cable suspended bridge partially funded by the World Bank. It will be another ecotourism adventure activity giving guests an outstanding, different view. Reserva Amazonica is a place to learn not relax. But the swinging hammocks on each balcony entices a different experience.

Although it’s not often seen on the guided nocturnal water trips, we manage a sighting of a baby caiman (white crocodile), which is brought into the boat, mouth taped and body tagged for future reference and sent back into the catfish-filled brownish river.

The typical Amazonian dinner of fish grilled in a bamboo tube served with traditional gruel – quinua-is served in the cathedral ceiling pavilion, the only electrified area.

With flashlight in hand, I decide that the three lit kerosene lanterns left on the steps would be more practical in my suite where the mosquito netting is snuggly tucked into the mattress of the bed. During the night, along with the sounds of the forest, is loud rhythmic roaring which has me wondering, in my tired haze, whether I am in Africa. With controlled laughter, I realize it is a heavy snorer in the next cabin.

Wake-up call is not an option since thousands of birds, including loud macaws and multi- coloured parrots, start their riot of tweeting at about 4.30 AM. Nature is never too far. Greeting me in the shower is a very large frog which I opt to ignore since washing in this humid climate takes priority.

To acclimatize to the elevated heights which were ahead (and I do suggest anti-altitude pills), we fly to Cusco but not before visiting Japipi, a butterfly farm, just 2 minutes from the airport. Among the 2000 species, some are endangered.

Cusco, 3,399 metres above sea level, a history dating back 3000 years, is ‘The Oldest Existing City of America’ and deserves more time than I had planned. This city with cobblestone, narrow streets, was declared a Cultural Heritage of the World in 1978. It’s a dizzying experience both literally and figuratively.

The ‘piece de resistance’ , Machu Picchu, the Incas best kept secret, is a 3 hour train ride away. The sleek Hiram Bingham luxury train service to Machu Picchu Village (Aguas Calientes) includes white linen restaurant service, live musicians and unforgettable passing landscape from rushing white waters juxtaposed to colossal mountains, some snow capped.

A 10 minute walk from the station along the tracks and flanked by vendors selling wonderful colourful woolen items, is well organized by the 85-room ecological-involved Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. The waiting staff transfers our luggage to our rooms. On this 5 hectare, rocky terrain in the Peruvian Andes, 2,020 metres above sea level, the owners of the Inkaterra chain have built an authentic five star standard boutique hotel decorated with original Inca objects and framed woven fabrics. Immediately, my sense of smell is inundated with the scent of plant life. This area is among one of the world’s largest diversity of native species.

Although the rooms have the relevant needs including a wood burning fireplace essential for the very cold evenings, there is little time to relax and enjoy. Since it was already late afternoon, I take the on-site hotel guided orchid walk and see some of the still budding 372 different native species along with one new orchid specie. “In all probability it is also the world’s largest orchid species collection set in a natural environment in a private facility” I quote from American Orchid Society Magazine.

Humming birds, Highland Motmot long tail birds, two caged indigenous Spectacle bears, 400 fern species, herb plants with a cure for everything from blood pressure and varicose veins to antiseptics and impotency, 2000 tea plants and the sacred rock – Petroglyph from pre-Inca period, are also included on the hotel’s site.

And finally, the day we have all been waiting for- seeing Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas from the 1400s. The Incas were a civilization with no written records but a heritage of greatness, Machu Picchu, a legacy of the Inca Empire.

Within 30 minute our bus ride is at the entrance and the citadel of Machu Picchu. Rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham (a Yale University archeologist), this enigmatic ancient site means ‘old peak’. This ‘sacred place’ is located on the eastern slopes of the Vilcanota mountain range and is 2,350 metres above sea level, high in the Andes Mountains.

On first sighting of the Inca citadel with dramatic, rugged mountains, some snow capped and mist raising from the Urubamba River 2000 metres below, is a startling sight, no matter how much one has read about Machu Picchu. The huge perfectly arranged terraces which were for agricultural purposes, seem so modern. On this 32,592 hectares of land there are150 roofless houses and temples. Originally, there was a community of approximately 800 inhabitants, self contained and with their knowledge of agriculture, fed the entire population.

The cloud shrouded ruins have many granite rocks weighing 50 tons which have been perfectly fitted together where even a knife blade can’t be inserted. Most are finely sculpted , rounded and tightly fitted masonry which, unbelievably, is earthquake proof. The entire area is connected by alleys, multitude of stairways and narrow watercourses. (My serious recommendation is to prepare for this trip by exercising for a few months). The question, never adequately answered, is how these gigantic, mortar-less rocks were carved, carried, placed so close together that it’s impossible to squeeze even a knife blade between them and also have managed to remain stable all these years. No two answers are the same. The primary function of the site is also open to speculation. Was it an astronomical observatory and/or a site for training brides or priestesses?

The perfect example of mathematics and artistry is at the Sacred Plaza and the Temple of Three Windows with huge perfected shaped rock walls and trapezoidal shaped windows. From Huayna Picchu you can see the valley of the mountains and slopes which were invisible from below. The Gate of the Sun., Royal family suite where the rocks are smoother and finer than the others, the High Priestess’ two story rooms, Choir Room (with perfect acoustics), Sun Rock and Cardinal Rock, and the mysterious carved Condor, are only some of the important stops on this mountain top sanctuary.

It may be a pun, but it was a downer to leave Machu Picchu. However awaiting us at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a pre arranged massage at UNU Spa (means water in Quechua language). Sergio’s technique of combining shiatsu, reflexolgy and using100% natural based botanical extract oil, proved to be the perfect ending to the Peruvian experience.

Country Club Lima Hotel
Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro, Lima
611 9000

Reserva Amazonica
Rio Madre de Dios Km 15,

Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
Km 110 Linea Ferrea
Aguas Calientes, Cusco
084 211122

Restaurant Huaca Pucllana
General Borgono Cdra.8
445 4042

Hiram Bingham Train
Approx. $450 round trip from Cusco
Entrance to Machu Picchu is US$20 and guides are available for US$15 per hour.