Peru’s empty promise

Want to wander Machu Picchu without the tourist hordes? Sally Howard shares the secrets of this bucket-list favourite so you, too, can have the Andes Mountain wonder all to yourself

I think Paddertin was saying hello,” relates our guide Maria, lifting her arms and forming claws of her fingers in demonstration.

We’re on-board the Hiram Bingham, one of the antique Pullman trains that ply the final leg of the journey to Machu Picchu and, as the train-car chugs its susurrating hiss-ker-choo, an Andean meal is being served, in a wobbly and well-meaning fashion, over optimistically white tablecloths. The view through the window is sublime: the bottle greens of the jungle unfolding like a magician’s cape beneath Andean escarpments ruffed with white mist.

On this same route a week ago, Maria tells us, a short-faced bear rose up six feet on his furry hind legs, window-side, paws aloft. Indeed, half a dozen times in the past month passengers on this same train were tucking into their Incan five-potato salads when the bear we know as Paddington put on a private performance.

“Was he eating marmalade?” enquires my boyfriend Tim.

“Nooo. The, how you say it? Paddytons, eat bromelias,” replies Maria, after a bemused beat. “And mangoes, but only the mango skins”.

The cult British kids’ book is practically unknown in the country whose native ursines inspired it. But then, who needs a fictional bear in red wellies when you have the real thing? Peru’s Spectacled bears (real name) – with their expressive faces and toddler-like gait – are increasingly coming down from the mountains and into contact with Machu Picchu-bound tourists as avocado farmers encroach on their mountain habitat.

And bear sightings aren’t the only sign of rapid change in this deep-green nook where the Peruvian Andes meet the ‘eyebrow of the Amazon’ (as they call it in these parts). Machu Picchu is witnessing a tourist boom that lands more than a million arrivals at its UNESCO-listed site each year (2016 saw a record high 1.4 million arrive). In 2014 a tourist was even said to have been hospitalised in the scramble to reach the Temple of the Sun for that lusted-after sunrise shot. Since then, the Government has installed new entrance-gate surveillance cameras, and as of July all visitors are now led by an official tour guide and on site for a specific time period – between 6am-noon, or noon-5.50pm.

“All the tour companies say ‘Machu Picchu at sunrise, Machu Picchu at sunrise’,” tuts Maria, as we step off the train into the roasted-corn aromas and mercantile bustle of the site’s gateway town of Aguas Calientes. “Pah! That’s the worst time to go.” Maria is our secret weapon. A “mestizo”, or half Incan “black-blood”, Maria has picked about the old Inca trails since she was in ponytails. Today, chain-munching alpaca-jerky as her tiny frame bobs up and down in lipstick and trekking shoes, she’s our ticket to seeing the old citadel in peace.

Belmond's-Hiram-Bingham
Belmond’s Hiram Bingham

Our home for two nights is Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Lodge, a cluster of luxury casitas at the jungle-fronded edge of Aguas Calientes. Dismissed by some as a necessary evil en route to Machu Picchu, this frontier town is, in fact, rather charming – its jostling shops and cafés do sell selfie sticks and sunhats, but also regional handicrafts and indigenous cuisine, such as lomo saltado (spiced beef with chips) and fat-kernelled corn, baked until smoky sweet. And bedding down here, Maria advises, is the only way to steal a march on the Machu Picchu hordes.

Despite the brochures’ promises, there’s really no way of seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise without the crowds. Or, moreover, at sunset, since the site shuts at 5.30pm, and twilight – thanks to the equatorial latitude – cloaks these storied hills at around 6pm year-round.

But there is a secret sweet spot, says Maria. At the casita, we follow her sunny injunction to kit up – walking shoes, hat, those perennial wellies – and catch a late bus up the rutted, switchback road to the citadel’s main gate. Most of Machu Picchu’s daily visitors pour through this gate between 6am and 10am. Maria, clearly worth her weight in jerky, lands us here at half past four in the afternoon, when the crowds are thinning out in anticipation of hot showers and sundowners. We breeze through the turnstile in minutes.

She leads us, at a rapid gait, past all the Machu Picchu icons – the grassy parade of Incan garden terraces, the muscular stolidity of the Principal Temple and enigmatic rounds of the Temple of the Sun, whose windows survey the site like brooding eyes – and on to the densely packed ruins of the ancient industrial zone at the eastern edge of the site. Here, with no other tourists in sight, she beckons us, heads ducked, through a warren of connected stone rooms. Suddenly, a power-cut-dark passageway opens out onto what was once the balcony of a 15th-century Incan stonecutter’s home and we’re greeted with gorgeous, unbroken panoramas of the temples and valleys beyond.

Nothing prepares you for your first sight of Machu Picchu in its entirety: those photogenic walls and terraces curving, improbably, to the plunging contours of a 2,430m-high mountain ridge; those deep-blue peaks – with old-man Machu, the sharp-shouldered Wayna Picchu, wreathed in spectral mist. Today, in the buttery light of late afternoon, those terraced greens shade off into gauzy, blue-gold horizons and an Andean condor seem to capture our mood as he casts sinuous aerial arabesques across the scene.

Nothing prepares you for your first sight of Machu Picchu in its entirety

We all fall silent, appreciatively. Until Tim breaks the spell: “Aha… aaaachoooo!” He bats at a mosquito that’s dancing its own, inelegant pirouette beneath his left nostril. Peruvians take delight in their ectoparasites’ predilection for white-gringo flesh. Maria, who’s no exception, has her own theory. Through a generous mouthful of jerky she confides that discrete ‘teams’ of mozzies besiege the jungle air here at different times of the day. At this gilded hour, we’ve chanced upon the A team: silent, sand-fly-like bugs with a vampiric appetite for new blood. Still, if they put off the crowds of chattering tourists, it’s a small price to pay for having Machu Picchu all to ourselves.

Apart, that is, from Tad, whom we find on our walk, doubled over and arms outstretched. “Dudes: I’m doing the condor!” he announces, unsolicited. Backpacker Tad is fresh from the Inca Trail: the four-day trek through high Andean mountain passes (from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu) that’s South America’s most famous, and most hiked, hike. “Man, it was busy,” he says, nose to the ground. “I guess all the baby boomers are doing the big one before they, you know, bite the big one. Ha ha!” I raise eyebrows at Tim. Had we made the same popular trek, we’d have had to put up with countless Tads.

Thank goodness for Maria. When we walk on across the site we discover its showpiece attractions deserted: the atmospheric natural rock cave of the Royal Tomb, and the Temple of the Sun, its stones finely wrought by ancient, anonymous hands.

Next day, there’s no hurry to rise, as Maria has something better in store for us than a trip back up to Machu for the oversubscribed sunrise. So, after a leisurely breakfast of Andean anise bread and jungle-fruit marmalades (no sign of molestation by bespectacled bears), we’re back at the citadel gate for the Intipunku trail. Intipunku, or Sun Gate, forms a notch on the southern horizon of the Machu Picchu site. It’s the point of entry for trekkers on the Inca Trail and a fine half-day hike in itself: less hair-raising than the vertiginous climb up the peak of Wayna Picchu, but more of a challenge than the other, more popular, day-trek: the 30-minute amble along the cliff-path trail to the old Incan drawbridge.

We’d had Machu Picchu all to ourselves, in all of its heart-in-the mouth and tear-in-the-eye glory

Most trekkers time their arrival at the Sun Gate for sunrise, but we’ve set off at lunchtime to avoid the bucket-listers. At this hour, shimmying green lizards and butterflies – white-green specimens as big as gentlemen’s handkerchiefs – are our main companions on the trail. Fifteen minutes in, we pop out at the viewpoint for one of the most famous vistas back over the citadel. Here, tame llamas nuzzle the trail backpacks left unattended as their owners gaze at the view.

“Jhrrkkki?” Maria offers us with a glottal emphasis that suggests a sizeable butterfly has lodged itself in her larynx. A nearby llama jealously regards the packet in her hand. “Jerky is actually a Quechuan word, and an Incan invention,” she continues. “The Incans created it for their messenger boys to eat when they walked these trails.”

It’s not just the jerky that the conquistadors took east. The Spanish left an epidemic of smallpox, but took the Incan gold – stripped and smelted the dazzling yellow metal that decorated Incan temples to fatten the coffers in Madrid. Some academics speculate it was this loss of wealth and the drop in population from the pox, that led to Machu Picchu’s abandonment. “They took our gold and our jerky,” muses Maria, as we regain a trail that’s flush with wild orchids and the ochre bromelias the bears find so tasty.

Peru’s colonial inheritance is a matter of live debate in public life. The popularity of Machu Picchu has made Peruvians like Maria proud of their Incan blood.

We reach Sun Gate in the early afternoon, taking a seat on the sun-warmed stone plinth in front of the gate’s tumbledown arch. It’s here the Inca Trail-walkers arrive, broad-smiled and sweaty, to their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Today, two straggling hikers sit here, aching legs dangling over the stone steps. It’s a month before the rainy season and short bursts of rainfall have created double-bowed rainbows that straddle the sun-dappled clouds. I feast my eyes, for the last time, on those mystical greens. Next to me, one of the walkers wipes away a tear with a dusty sleeve.

Aguas-Calientes-village
Aguas Calientes village

A couple of days later we are in the Sacred Valley. A woman wearing the peculiar Andean headpiece that looks like a Victorian clerk’s bowler hat bears down on us with a menacing expression. In her hand there’s a skinned guinea pig on a stick, which she thrusts through the car window, importuning: “Cuy? Cuy?” as Carlos, our taxi driver, recoils beneath his waxed quiff. It wasn’t quite the welcome we’d expected in the Sacred Valley, the lush green dent 40km east of Machu Picchu that’s home to the regional capital, Cuzco, and sleepy resorts where the hikers come to unkink after the mountain trails.

Urubamba, the village we’re passing through, is famous for guinea pig, the dish Quechuan people consider sacred and some tourists consider an extreme sport challenge. Maria declares this “stupido”, pointing out that Peruvians were nibbling on these rodents a millennium before Britons adopted them as pets.

We’re headed for the gorgeous luxury ranch lodge Sol y Luna, where we’ve heard that there may be a famous face in residence. Katy Perry – sporting a bobble-hat and sunglasses the size of car windscreens – had been in our train carriage on the way back down from Aguas Calientes, making a racket with her entourage. There had been talk that Machu Picchu had stayed open late to allow the pop star to view the site at sunset, but two days later we were gratified to discover that she’d been granted no red-carpet treatment. In fact, with no Maria to smooth her path, Perry had seen the citadel with the sunrise crowds.

That evening we slink into the private hot-tub in our Sol y Luna casita. The air’s sweet with the smell of eucalyptus-wood fires, and we watch hummingbirds glowing brilliantly in the low evening sun. Tomorrow it’s on to Lima for a day of Pisco Sours and ceviche and, reluctantly, our connection home. We had set out to do the bucket-list Machu Picchu in peace. And, despite the odds, we’d done it. We’d had Machu Picchu all to ourselves, in all of its heart-in-the mouth and tear-in-the-eye glory.

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Sally Howard/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing