A TRIP to the highlands of Peru is framed by the beauty of nature, the legacy of the past, the promise of adventure and - if you play your travel cards correctly - the memories of a lifetime. Multiple rewards stand to be reaped from a visit to the mountains of the central Andes and the experience is entirely breathtaking - but not because of the high altitudes involved.
Nowadays, long after the end of early Peruvian civilisations and the mind-boggling, if short-lived, accomplishments of the Inca empire, visitors to the former Inca capital of Cuzco and the surrounding valleys will come away with a sense of the richness and diversity of a vast region, and an appreciation for an area that offers some of the country's most interesting attractions.
Chief among those attractions is a site shrouded in mist, myth and mystery and surrounded by massive peaks located 70kms from Cusco, on a ridge 2,430m above sea level. It was discovered a little more than a century ago in July 1911, when American historian-explorer Hiram Bingham followed a native Quechua boy up a steep hill and a flight of stone steps.
Bingham wrote about the discovery in Lost City of the Incas: "In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it."
He was right. The Incas knew a thing or two about location, location, location - and what to do with it.
The citadel (or spiritual site, depending on your point of view) of Machu Picchu (Ancient Peak), still elicits the same kind of awe in modern-day visitors.
Most of the 2.6 million people (and probably all 1,348 visitors from Singapore) who visited Peru in 2011 will have made a pilgrimage there. No matter what the weather conditions are like - it can be cold and wet during the rainy season - it never disappoints.
They make their way by bus and train from nearby valleys and towns or on foot via the Inca Trail, an energetic four-day hike that passes through cloud forests, Inca ruins and native settlements to get there.
Those on larger budgets can opt for a more upscale way of arriving - by luxury train named the Hiram Bingham and operated by Orient Express. This runs between Poroy, just outside Cusco, and Aguas Calientes, the small hotsprings town that is a staging point for visits to Machu Picchu, 25 minutes away by shuttle bus, up a series of switchbacks.
The train journey takes about 31/2 hours and covers just 57 km, but it puts passengers in the right mood for the main event when they are transferred by bus and deposited at the doorstep to Machu Picchu. This is one place that has no bad angles but from a photographer's perspective, the best place, perhaps, is from a terraced hillside opposite the tall mountain (Huayna Picchu, or Young Peak) that looms behind the site and near the entrance to a trail that leads to an Inca bridge. In the early morning, when the sun hits the low stone walls of the Inca ruins and the ever-present clouds part just long enough to reveal Machu Picchu and the majestic scenery all around, it really is a scene out of a storybook.
My guide Carlos Yepez says there is also a luxury version of the Inca Trail. Typically, backpackers pay about US$500 each to experience the raw beauty of the trail.
But for about US$9,000 a head, a cardiac arrest-inducing price for most of us, more well-heeled travellers will be accompanied by guides, porters, chefs and even masseurs who will help ease the hardships of a brisk uphill walk.
At the height of their power in the early-16th century, the Inca realm stretched over a territory of close to a million sq km, with Cusco the richest city in the Americas.
Apart from their cultural riches, their engineering prowess and advanced building techniques, the Incas invented a relay station system under which long-distance runners (chaskis), could deliver messages and even fresh produce from the coast to the mountains, covering about a 300 km distance in a matter of hours.
Parts of the system, which once stretched along a vast network of trails from Chile to Colombia, can still be traversed on a number of walks within the Sacred Valley (also known as the Urubamba Valley), which begins on the outskirts of Cusco.
Within the valley, several interesting towns are worth a visit, including Pisac, a colonial town with Inca ruins, a colourful market and a famous outdoor bakery, where bread and cuy (guinea pig) is on the menu. Further up the road is Ollantaytambo, an Inca archaeological site where the main attraction is a terraced complex on a hillside overlooking town. From the hill, there is a view of ancient grain-storage facilities carved into the opposite hillside, alongside a large sculpted face of a figure from Inca mythology.
In the town of Urubamba, I made a pit stop at a chicharia, a local bar with dirt floors and earthen jars filled with a fermented corn beverage called chicha. There are only a couple of items on the menu: corn beer and roasted cuy. In a room adjoining the bar, guinea pigs run around freely, chewing grass and blissfully unaware of their fate.
Meanwhile, in the courtyard outside, patrons can try their hand at a local drinking game which involves tossing metal counters on to a homemade wooden box and score board from some distance away. Needless to say, scores are inversely proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed; at average altitudes of 2,600m, not too many cups are required for one to reach maximum-entertainment mode.
For most tourists, a visit to the Andean region begins with a flight into Cusco. An airport is slated to be built on a plateau 28km away, outside the picturesque village of Chinchero. This is a picturesque city of about 360,000, characterised by grand colonial buildings in its centre and red-roofed residences all the way to the hills in the distance.
The tallest building in town is 12 storeys high, and although Cusco is a New World city, it has an old-world feel, with almost everything the Incas built five centuries ago destroyed and rebuilt in the colonial style and transformed by Spanish conquistadors. Churches were built over the foundations of gold-plated Inca temples. The city's 16th-century cathedral - one of the largest in Latin America - is on the site of an Inca palace.
Old Inca walls, cobblestone streets, llamas with their Quechua handlers walking past pizza joints, alpaca clothing boutiques, pharmacies selling canisters of pure oxygen and the bustling market of San Pedro all add to the city's ambience.
At 3,360m, a brief walk through the streets may induce a headache or shortness of breath. Once you're acclimatised, however, the natural high that a visit to the mountains elicits is what you'll remember most.
There are many routes to Peru and even more ways to get around once you're there, but if you're a fan of hassle-free travel in Third World countries and want someone reliable to handle the boring details, check out Lima-based travel company Aracari (www.aracari.com).