Delve into historical Peru and youâ€™ll leave a changed person. Hollie-Rae Brader embraces this colourful country
“Humans are most frightened of being forgotten â€“ no one wants to not be remembered.”
Those are the words uttered by our guide Nilton, as we observe the ancient ruins of important Inca settlement Raqchâ€™i. In that short but profound sentence, he sums up the Inca rationale for creating a civilisation to remember, and how vital it is for todayâ€™s Peruvians to remember their history.
And it doesnâ€™t stop with the locals, because the extraordinarily vast history of this mystical country is why people dream of coming to Peru.
Nilton turns and pauses before thanking each of us for visiting, because by coming to his homeland to learn about its heritage, we havenâ€™t forgotten his ancestors and the awe-inspiring wonders they built.
Peru topped my travel wish list when I was 10 years old. Tasked with a school project to create a travel guide for Machu Picchu, my dad and I spent hours looking at pictures of the worldâ€™s most famous ruins. It was always his dream to visit Peru â€“ and it quickly became mine.
While Peru has traditionally been regarded as a destination best suited to backpackers, that changed when high-end brand Belmond began to develop a significant luxury footprint across the nation. It started with the launch of the Hiram Bingham, the high-end train that connects Cusco with the foot of Machu Picchu and hotel Sanctuary Lodge. Since then, the operator has acquired five more hotels.
Last year the offering was bolstered further with the launch of the Belmond Andean Explorer, the first luxury sleeper train in South America. The train chugs along on one or two-night itineraries between Arequipa â€“ Peruâ€™s second-largest city â€“ and Inca empire capital Cusco, with some routes including visits to Puno, the gateway to Lake Titicaca, and aforementioned Raqchâ€™i. The only thing missing from Belmondâ€™s Peruvian offering is an Amazonian riverboat â€“ and even thatâ€™s on the operatorâ€™s radar.
Before joining the train, originally built for the Great South Pacific Express in Australia, I embark on a whistle-stop tour of foodie capital Lima.
With hardly any chance to acclimatise, I head to the Andes to visit the worldâ€™s second-largest gorge, the Colca Canyon. The vast landscapes boast a combination of deep canyons, snow-capped peaks, lush green terraces and rock formations. Along the canyons lie 14 perfectly preserved colonial towns, where the Spaniards settled the ancient Collagua and Cabana tribes. The scenery is spectacular, but itâ€™s the opportunity to see an Andean condor in flight that draws the crowds here. Our guide Freddie explains that the Incas worshipped these huge creatures, believing them to be messengers from the gods.
But itâ€™s another creature that captures my attention more: baby alpacas. Four fluffy cria live at Belmond Las Casitas and guests can bottle-feed them in the mornings and evenings. Despite seeing thousands of these cuddly creatures dotted throughout every corner of Peru â€“ even at Machu Picchu â€“ the chance to play mum wasnâ€™t one I was going to pass up.
This ranch-like property (guided horseback rides through the canyon are available), located in the heart of the valley, is the perfect place to settle into the relaxed Peruvian lifestyle. Each casita boasts its own heated plunge pool. After a dip, staff are on hand to light the fire in your room, and while you head for a delicious meal (alpaca meat included), theyâ€™ll even place a hot-water bottle in your bed to ensure you have the toastiest nightâ€™s sleep.
The remoteness of Las Casitas is what I enjoy most with limited connectivity (the Wi-Fi is a little intermittent) there are no distractions from immersing yourself in local traditions. We spend time cooking local recipes with the hotelâ€™s head chef, before learning how to make the nationâ€™s (and my) favourite cocktail, the pisco sour. Both experiences are complimentary for hotel guests.
Itâ€™s a four-hour drive to Arequipa from the hotel, but the excitement of ascending to 4,910m above sea level keeps me excited. On reaching the summit â€“ our highest point for the entire trip â€“ a feeling of pressure starts to build in my head and I almost feel drunk, but the symptoms disappear on our descent and we continue our drive to meet the Andean Explorer at Arequipa train station.
When travelling in such esteemed surroundings as the Andean Explorer, the journey is as important as the destination â€“ and I was excited for my first sleeper experience. Watching the scenery as the landscape changes and at different times of day is a real highlight and one enhanced by the experience of viewing it all on board the train as it rattles through the country.
On joining the train, we head straight to the observation bar, one of the key hubs on board. Itâ€™s here we meet our fellow guests, and with just 24 en-suite cabins (two deluxe doubles, six junior doubles, 11 twins and five bunk-beds) itâ€™s not long before weâ€™re all firmly acquainted.
Travelling with my younger brother, our home is a twin room that is relatively small. But whenever weâ€™re away from our cabin, staff pop in and transfer the beds into sofas, or vice versa, depending on the time of day. Each room is equipped with oxygen masks to assist those suffering because of the altitude. The onboard nurse is kept busy; she even pays a late-night visit to my room to show me how to use the oxygen as I attempt to sleep at more than 3,000m, somewhere between Puno and Cusco.
Wandering from carriage to carriage â€“ each named after local flora and fauna â€“ I feel as if Iâ€™m on a movie set. Travelling by train has an air of glamour and romanticism, and I feel as if Iâ€™ve slipped back in time.
The decor manages to be authentically Peruvian while also harking back to a bygone era of travel, with art deco-inspired rooms and period features such as a baby grand piano. With brightly coloured soft furnishings, such as handwoven cushions and soft alpaca blankets, photography from across the country dotted throughout each carriage and books about the destination and its history, Belmond manages to immerse guests in Peru while maintaining the luxury expected of this distinguished brand.
The trainâ€™s two restaurants and two bars offer ample space for guests to relax in the evenings while enjoying the culinary delights, such as river trout ceviche and alpaca tortellini, created by Peruvian chef Diego MuÃ±oz. My favourite spot is the open-air observation car. Surrounded by cast-iron railings, itâ€™s the perfect place from which to watch the Andean landscape rush past. The attentive staff rustle up a pisco sour, I take a sip and lean over the railings, enough for a gust of wind to rush through my hair. Kids wave as they run alongside the tracks, with grins as big as you could imagine.
The trainâ€™s first stop is in Puno, where we take to the waters of Lake Titicaca. The Incas believed this to be the birthplace of the sun, and as the largest lake by volume in South America, itâ€™s certainly impressive. Whatâ€™s more impressive, though, is a visit to the Uros people who live on man-made islands built from interwoven reeds. Our next stop is at Taquile Island, where the people live by a social code barely touched by time. Here men are expected to weave hats from an early age, believing they can impress women with their skills and eventually marry.
Back on board the Andean Explorer, weâ€™re served afternoon tea as the train heads to Cusco. After two nights on the train, I feel as if I know the staff well, and clearly they know me well too as a pisco sour sits waiting for me as I venture to the observation car on the last afternoon of the journey. I spend my remaining time on board here, with an alpaca wool throw wrapped around my shoulders â€“ waving at locals and watching the Peruvian landscape unfold in front of me. Suddenly, the trainâ€™s horn blasts and we come to a standstill â€“ the journey is over.
But Peru isnâ€™t one of those destinations that soon blurs from memory. Since returning to London, I often think back to Niltonâ€™s comment: â€œNo one wants to not be rememberedâ€ Never a truer word spoken â€“ and I wonâ€™t forget Peru.
If you like the idea of a holiday in Peru, take a look at our flights to Lima.