IT STARTED with mysterious, mystical Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the citadel was never found by Spanish conquistadors who were plundering the Incan empire about the time Columbus "discovered" North America.
No one is sure why the Incas abandoned the town, fortified with carefully-hewn granite on top of massive mountains, more than 500 years ago.
All experts know, by broken pottery along its steep trails, is that the inhabitants left in a hurry, taking only what they could carry.
They estimate that Machu Picchu, which could have housed fewer than 1000 people, would have taken tens- of-thousands of workers many decades to build.
"Mystery upon mystery," our guide Camila Alfaro Rodriguez said.
"What you have to understand is that Machu Picchu has a few answers, and a lot of questions."
It has been suggested that the town was an Incan king's private hideaway, but the truth is, and it seems will forever be, shrouded in mystery.
The Incan empire lasted less than 100 years, sustained by almost a dozen other South American civilisations that stretched back 200 years before Christ was born.
Its capital, Cuzco, is higher in the Andes. The impressive city's cobbled streets are dotted with churches, Moorish-influenced townhouses and manicured courtyards, mostly built on top of Incan stonework. It is alive with little stores, street vendors and history.
Cuzco is a tourism centre, from which tens-of-thousands of travellers launch their journeys to Machu Picchu, 112km west, down through the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Some visitors take buses or trains to within 42km of the mystical town, to walk for four days in the footsteps of the Incas on part of the famed Inca Trail. Others pile aboard "expeditioner" trains to Aguas Calientes, the little tourist town at the base of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, a national park that covers the mountains and slopes around the citadel.
From the town, the citadel is only a 20-minute, exhilarating bus ride around a dozen or so hairpin bends.
But first things first.
In Cuzco, we stayed at the Hotel Monasterio, a former monastery and Catholic university that was built by the Spaniards in 1595.
A few minutes walk from the city's squares, it was converted to a hotel in 1965.
It has more than 100 rooms, no two the same.
Several are "oxygenated" to help guests cope with the altitude.
Each morning, a classical guitarist plays in the garden where guests, if they wish, can take breakfast, including rich coffee grown in the Secret Valley.
Other times, Gregorian chants are softly piped through the cloisters.
In the guest book, Bill and Melinda Gates, who visited in 2008, wrote that this was the most beautiful hotel in which they had ever stayed.
Hotel Monasterio not only has a unique atmosphere, it also has warm, helpful staff.
Like the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu, the hotel is owned and operated by Orient Express.
Hiram Bingham III was a US academic, explorer and politician credited with unearthing Machu Picchu in 1911.
Bingham, so the story goes, was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones.
The rail trip from Cuzco to Machu Picchu may be only 112km, but it travels through centuries of South American history.
From the outside, only the train's blue-and-gold livery distinguishes it from three other companies that bring thousands of explorers to the area each day. But inside, the carriages' polished timber, parquetry, brass fittings and classy, frosted glass panels with a HB logo tell another story.
The opulent carriages, built in Singapore, were designed by Orient Express and based on the classic 1920s Pullman cars.
The Hiram Bingham, which carries a maximum of 84 passengers each journey, runs only once a day.
And what a run.
The smiling, super-efficient, uniformed staff, and the selection of the best South American wines and cordon-bleu cuisine that they serve (we had alpaca, guinea pig and Chilean steak and trout in two sittings, all delicious) are the backdrop to the main event.
Hiram Bingham passengers have front row seats to the stunning Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The railway line winds along next to the magic Urubamba River, which lures whitewater raft paddlers like bees to flowers.
Rich farmland that climbs tier by tier to impossible angles up the mountains is just across the river.
Then the train snakes into narrow valleys framed by mountains that disappear into clouds on both sides.
A little further along, it cuts into tunnels.
Between courses, you can head to the bar car at the rear of the train, through to the open-air observation deck for a quick photo.
But before you know it, you are at Aguas Calientes, and minutes away from the citadel.
Our guide Camila Rodriguez had already introduced herself on the train.
It was warm and fine on top of Machu Picchu.
Camila led 10 of us through, up and down the city, regaling us with tales of
the Inca kings, Spanish invaders intent on "mining" Incan gold, and Incan life, as revealed through hints uncovered by teams of archeologists still digging on the site.
More than four and a half hours later, it was over.
We had organised to stay a night in Aguas Calientes, taking to the citadel the next day, this time by ourselves.
Five hours later, we came down, almost satisfied, and within the hour we were back on the Hiram Bingham.
A quiet drink in the bar car turned into a full-on party, as all the passengers, Inca Piscos in hand, were joined by two bands and most of the staff.
There was even a chorus of Waltzing Matilda before we were called back to the dining cars for a superb meal.
We all rolled back into the bar car for the last half an hour of the trip.
The music and drinks started flowing again and I leaned over and asked a Brazilian girl exactly what we were celebrating.
She shrugged and laughed.
"It's just the South American way," she said.
It made sense on the train.
Almost two months later, it still does.
No one should miss it.
NEW SEVEN WONDERS
- Petra (100BC) Jordan
- Christ the Redeemer (1931) Brazil
- Machu Picchu (1450), Peru
- Chichen Itza (600), Mexico
- Colosseum (80), Italy
- Taj Mahal (1648), India
- The Great Wall of China (started about 400BC), China
- New7Wonders Foundation, 2006
The Hiram Bingham train package includes:
- The train journey from Cuzco (Poroy) to Machu Picchu and return
- Musical entertainment on board
- Water, tea, coffee, Cusquena Beer, Pisco Sour and an excellent wine selection
- Brunch on out-bound journey; cocktails and dinner on return journey
- Transport to and from Machu Picchu
- Admission ticket to Machu Picchu sanctuary
- Professional Machu Picchu tour guide for every 14 passengers (our group had 10)
- Afternoon tea served at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge
- A stay at Cuzco's Hotel Monasterio can be added.
FIVE REASONS NOT TO WALK THE INCA TRAIL
The trek, known as the Inca Trail, begins in the Secret Valley and ends at Machu Picchu, a four-day walk covering 42km. However, the trail is much longer than this section. It is a web of well-built paths that linked the Inca empire
Altitude sickness can bring the fittest walker to a standstill
Although the walk is rated "moderate", the Incas used steps extensively, and the trail winds high into the mountains. The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it
Machu Picchu is at the end of the walk ... when you need all the fitness you can muster to explore
Unless you have organised an extra day at Machu Picchu at the end of your trek, you could find that you have little time at the citadel (a couple we met walked for four days only to have only two hours at Machu Picchu ... in poor weather)
You will miss the Orient Express Hiram Bingham train
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