HIGH RISE: After a long and demanding trek, visitors are captivated by the magnificent views of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World when they reach Machu Picchu
The majesty of Machu Picchu was revealed 100 years ago. Here CAROLINE HUTTON takes her own journey of discovery to the Inca citadel
THE last time I went camping I was 10 years old and at pony camp. So I can't imagine what led me to think that walking at high altitude for four days and sleeping on hard ground for three nights at my age was a good idea.
The lure of Peru's Inca Trail, perhaps the world's most famous trek, and its bounty of the 'hidden city' of Machu Picchu at the end, has drawn travellers to it for 100 years.
In July 1911, a young Peruvian boy took the American explorer Hiram Bingham up an ancient Inca path to a city totally hidden by forest high in the Andes.
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Undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadors that came to Peru in the early 16th century, Machu Picchu became a place of international interest, the best-preserved remains of any Inca citadel. It is now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Because it is more than 11,000ft above sea level, arriving in Cusco, the gateway to the Inca Trail, can result in altitude sickness. My friend Tom and I were startled to find tourists drawing from oxygen tanks in the hotel lobby. Thanks to drinking lots of water and coca tea, we didn't suffer much and so were able to explore the city soon after we arrived.
The main square, Plaza de Armas, dominated by the Santa Domingo cathedral, buzzes with young people revelling in its pavement restaurants and bars.
Paintings inside the cathedral may look as if they are straight from the Spanish Renaissance but on closer inspection bear some charming Andean touches. In The Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples dine on roast guinea pig, washed down with the local brew chicha, and Judas doesn't share the fair skin of his fellow diners - he is a dark, scowling Peruvian.
While I couldn't quite bring myself to order guinea pig, Cusco holds its own with great restaurants. We loved Cicciolina with its delicious tapas and Pachapapa, where they cook in the ground on hot rocks and serve a chocolate pudding that sorely tested my ability to share.
Our drive through the Sacred Valley to the start of the trail was an unexpected joy. We got dizzy gazing up at verdant terraces set in the mountains where farmers work by hand (you certainly couldn't get a combine up there). We were captivated by the beautiful textiles in Pisac market where I bought a few too many handbags.
Finally we reached Ollantaytambo, the common starting point for treks and where children were spilling out on to the town's ancient streets, their Mickey Mouse backpacks in stark contrast to the swathes of bright material adults use to carry anything from babies to huge bunches of maize on their backs.
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Next day we re-met our guide and were joined by two cheery New Zealanders and eight porters, who set off at a disconcerting pace with all our kit in enormous packs.
Walking alongside the gushing Urubamba River, we enjoyed the beautiful landscape, still green from the rains. The glacier on Peak Veronica behind us glinted in the sun and wild orchids and prickly pears reminded us just how far we had come from home.
The campsites on the trail are basic. There are loos but they're not much more than holes in the ground. You wash as best you can with baby wipes; this isn't the place to worry about a bad-hair day.
Miraculously, our cook conjured up hot food which we ate in relative style at a table set with napkins and proper cutlery. It got cold at night and I was very glad of my high-quality sleeping bag and thermals. An exuberant dawn chorus of frogs had us back on the trail by 5am and we had a few blissful hours without seeing anyone else.
Strict rules ensure no more than 400 people join the trail each day, so if you time it right you feel like you have the full 32,000 hectares of the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu all to yourself.
As we climbed toward the ominously named Dead Woman's Pass at 13,860ft we walked through a "cloud forest" filling the valleys, which parted revealing jutting peaks, and plants and grasses heavy with moisture. Another early start saw us pass archaeological sites set into the mountains, mysterious and magical, as the stone path wove through tunnels, down dramatic steps and into rainforest-like territory where dazzling blue butterflies danced alongside us. The last couple of hours of the trail are easy, yet thick with anticipation.
When we finally reached the Sun Gate, we paused momentarily before passing through. What a scene for the weary traveller: far below was a huge valley with the Urubamba rushing through and in the distance Machu Picchu, seemingly suspended on the side of a mountain with the dark forest trees that had kept it secret for so long spilling like a great skirt beneath it. The view is one of the great rewards for trekking 25 miles on the trail and demands a few quiet moments to take it in.
Wandering around the citadel, one is filled with a sense of history, a respect for ancient civilisations and the overpowering beauty of the landscape. It had not been a trip for the faint-hearted but it was hard to leave behind to re-enter the fray of normal life.
Original Travel (0207 978 7333/www.originaltravel.co.uk) offers an eight-night Peru itinerary featuring the Inca Trail and the Cusco region from £3,095pp (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Lima, transfers, guided tours and some meals.
PromPeru: 0207 235 1917/www.peru.travel