Whistle top tour

Altitude slickness ... entertainment on the Hiram Bingham train.
Altitude slickness ... entertainment on the Hiram Bingham train. 

Catherine Marshall takes the easy road to the ruins of Machu Picchu.

As I fall into a deep, altitude-induced sleep, the thought comes to me like a dream: other souls have slumbered in this 16th-century room, tucked up in a high, wood-carved bed beneath towering ceiling beams, sheltered from the chill night air by wooden shutters latched tight against the window jamb. All manner of sacrifice and self-flagellation might have occurred on this site where first an Inca palace stood, and then a monastery, built in 1595.

The thought evaporates into the high Andes air and sleep consumes me, sweet and dreamless. If there are ghosts of seminarians and Spanish bishops and Incan princesses floating about the Hotel Monasterio in Cusco, they refrain from visiting me in my sleep, for I awake well-rested, refreshed perhaps by the coca tea I drank the previous night, or the oxygen pumped into my room to prevent altitude sickness.

Dining at Cuzco's Hotel Monasterio.
Dining at Cuzco's Hotel Monasterio. 

But the essence of those souls who lived here eons ago is stamped everywhere: in the chapel decorated with gilt-framed oil paintings and suffused with the sound of Gregorian chants; in the 300-year-old cedar tree that stands in the courtyard; and the time-smoothed cloisters that surround it. Crossing the hotel's threshold from Nazarenas Square, I have entered a crucible of history that neither earthquakes nor the passage of time have managed to erase.

History radiates outwards, too, from this hotel and the walled city of Cusco to the Sacred Valley and further still to Machu Picchu. Cusco might be heritage-listed, but the legendary Incan ruins are what draw most travellers to this region in south-eastern Peru. Inca Trail trekkers roam the narrow, cobblestone streets, bright with anticipation for the pilgrimage that awaits them or wearied by their journey.

But there is another, altogether more salubrious, way in which to seek out the wonder and illumination that Machu Picchu invariably imparts: a journey, of sorts, back into the more recent past, aboard Orient-Express' luxury Hiram Bingham train. Styled in the manner of a 1920s Pullman train, the Hiram Bingham is named for the explorer who stumbled upon the foliage-strangled ruins in 1911, and alerted the Western world to their existence.

Champagne flutes tinkle in the dining car as we rattle out of Poroy Station near Cusco, passing through wide, corn-coloured fields that skirt the towering Andes. The railway line cuts straight through a village's main street so that colour-washed, terracotta-roofed houses are almost within arm's reach from where I sit at my window-side table inside the Hiram Bingham. A dog runs along the street, tail wagging; a little boy waves; the train wails its mournful warning until the village has been left far behind.

The gold-and-blue train idles through the Sacred Valley; in summer, this landscape turns green and fills with wildflowers, but it's the tail-end of winter now and donkeys graze on yellowed, wintry titbits, cows recline in corrals erected along the railway line, and farmers dressed in the vibrant reds and yellows of traditional peasant shawls till their fields by hand, readying them for crops of barley, taro, potatoes and more than 60 types of corn.

Further on a sense of familiarity enfolds me, for the mountains are closing in now and a profusion of eucalyptus trees springs from their foothills. The trees are imported from Australia because they grow quickly and are useful in the construction and heating of houses and the fashioning of farm implements.

"It's hard to find native trees - jacarandas, cedars, pisonays - around here these days," says Jose Luis Amaut, the guide appointed to my carriage. "They are crooked and small, and take a long time to reach maturity."

And so a part of Australia floats by as we reverse down a switchback and then start the climb towards Machu Picchu. A glacier named Veronica oozes from a breach in the mountain; its icy effluent, the Urubamba River, will stay by our side until we have reached our destination. At the station in Ollantaytambo, bougainvillea sprouts from the walls and brightly dressed women sell even brighter handicrafts. Here, the cornfields are green and luxuriant; cows loll about beneath stands of gum trees and peasants squat protectively over their fledgling crops. But open space is at a premium; it is being squeezed out by the mountains, which stretch up into the clouds now, their peaks frosted with snow.

By the time we pull into the station at Machu Picchu - a narrow, mountain-wedged town - we have feasted on the swath of land that lies in our wake: the vistas that have filled our windows like painted canvasses, the produce that grows plump and sweet on thin mountain air. We climb into waiting buses and make our final assault on the citadel via a series of hairpin bends. There's a short, vertiginous climb on foot then suddenly the ruins lie before us, familiar as a postcard.

Machu Picchu is at an elevation of 2430 metres. The ruins sit on a cleared hilltop between two rising monoliths: Machu Picchu ("old peak") to the south, and Huayna Picchu ("young peak") to the north. As I wander about the citadel, I feel the presence of those Incans in the cold stones, the terraced hillsides and the botanical garden with its angels' trumpets, passionfruit and begonia.

When I board the train back to Cusco in the late afternoon, guests have gathered in the bar to drink pisco sours and sing along with the guitar-playing Peruvian guides. The air is spiked with exhilaration and accomplishment, a side-effect of having entered the sacred City of the Incas.

By the time we reach the last village before Poroy Station, its colour has been drained away, its proximity to the railway line blurred by nightfall. Windows glow blue with television light and dark figures scuttle down empty lanes.

The train blasts its long, mournful wail, announcing itself to those who walk alongside its tracks, to the children fast asleep, and to the long-buried souls who roamed these mountains so many centuries ago.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Orient-Express.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Cusco, Peru, for about $3097 return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly non-stop to Santiago (12hr 30min), then non-stop to Lima (4hr) and finally to Cusco (1hr 20min). Phone 13 13 13; see qantas.com.au. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas via Sydney.

Staying there

Guests can book a superior king room at the Hotel Monasterio for $211 a night, twin share, for a minimum two-night stay when buying an Orient Express 21-day advance booking package. The package includes breakfast, welcome fruits, water and coca tea to ward off altitude sickness. There is a $45 surcharge for in-room oxygen enrichment. See orient-express.com/collection/hotels/hotel_monasterio.jsp.

Touring there

A round trip on the Hiram Bingham train costs $389 a person and includes on-board brunch and dinner, transfers, entrance fee and a guided tour of the citadel, and afternoon tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. See orient-express.com/collection/trains/hiram _bingham.jsp.

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