Ollantaytambo, in Peru’s Sacred Valley, is a magnificent Inca archaeological site that is all part of the Machu Picchu journey. This was the stronghold for Manco inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance, and today it is known, among other features, for being the start of the four-night Inca Trail hike.
You see up to 400 people along the route, some staying at pre-arranged camps, others carrying tents in their copious back packs. The gal, like others travelling with Orient-Express, had been given a black hand-bag, embroidered with the Orient-Express logo, for her overnight at Machu Picchu (main baggage is, during your stay, faultlessly looked after by Orient-Express).
The town of Ollantaytambo is a buzz of people. There are tourists swarming up the ruins. There are miniature taxis, if you can call them that.
There are also numerous people about to get to Machu Picchu in the true luxury lifestyle way, aboard Peru Rail’s Hiram Bingham train, a splendid beauty named for the American who re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911.
Some leave Hotel Rio Sagrado in time for the 0700 train that leaves directly from the hotel (remember, the entrance is next to the single-track). That train is run by another company.
For real luxury, take the Hiram Bingham, and not only because you know you can trust it as Peru Rail is run by Orient-Express. The timing means that you do not have to leave the hotel until 10:15. You have a few minutes in Ollantaytambo, and then get to the train station in plenty of time to see it arrive.
You are helped on to the train by chic young local people, immaculately groomed, speaking perfect English. Oh, said one young blonde American girl as she saw the carriage – this is just like Harry Potter.
It is not surprising that they want you only to travel hand baggage as, frankly, there is not a lot of space. The carriages, made in Singapore in the 1930s, apparently, are gorgeous theatres of highly-polished wood veneer and brass and plush pale lemon and beige upholstery.
There are 42 seats per carriage, half set as pairs, the rest in foursomes. The tables are set with cream linens, and flowers, and fixed gold lamps with little shades, and best Villeroy & Boch china, and the glasses are engraved with the Hiram Bingham logo.
At the back of the train is a bar-cum-observation car. On the journey to Machu Picchu, not many people use this car – there is not time. The journey only takes 90 minutes and during that time they serve a set three-course brunch, with vegetarian options easily available.
The breads, being Orient-Express, are outstanding. The free wines on this sector are a local Tacama Blanco de Blancs, a blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, and an Argentinian red, Norton Malbec Mendoza – there is also an extensive to-buy wine list.
At Machu Picchu. or rather Aguas Calientes, the train stop in the town down in the valley, Orient-Express people guide you past a local market and straight on to buses for the 20-minute journey up the winding road, to check in to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (or go directly into the ruins).
The return journey is even more memorable. You are escorted into a bus, back down the mountain and, at Aguas Calientes rail station, Orient-Express has a dedicated waiting area.
You are offered cold towels, and drinks and snacks, with a three-piece group playing local music, and then personally taken to your carriage and into your seats.
The evening journey, which takes you closer back to Cusco, is a 3.5-hour gala, starting at 17:50. Start with a complimentary Pisco Sour, and then head for the bar car for a lesson in making this exotic, hypnotic and addictive drink.
The same group that played in the waiting room is now entertaining in the bar car, and oh are they electrifying! One guy sits on what he calls a ‘carton’ and bangs it as a drum. The other two are mostly on electric guitars but one alternates with a Peruvian flute.
They hand round hand-shake-things and cymbals to the crowd, the train rocks gently, everyone is in such a good mood. The only person I saw all day in a skirt, as opposed to trousers, still looks like a Manhattan marketing executive: everyone else is in hike and trekking gear.
At 1910 dinner starts, so it is back to your carriage for a prolonged affair, with an amuse, a starter, a choice of main and a dessert. From both journeys, outstanding tastes were an avocado starter, and a vegetarian Pachmanca local dish with an organic black quinoa emulsion.
Others raved about the Maras beef, cooked as requested, with confit of root vegetables and Quillambamba peanuts. On the return, the wines are both Chilean, from Montes Classic Series, a choice of Chardonnay, or a Cabernet Sauvignon DO Valle Colchagua (attractive ruby red, good bodies, fruity, firm tannins, long and pleasant end, says the printed menu).
This menu also welcomes us with ‘at dusk, with both eyes full of the ever-lasting beauty of the sacred citadel of Machu Picchu, the traveller embarks on the return journey to Cusco’.
The most amazing thing is that, apart from the bread, on this train all the food is cooked from scratch, here onboard. I was lucky enough to be invited through to the kitchen, to congratulate the chefs. Gosh, even the washing up is done here, too.
This is the most amazing logistical operation, running Monday through Saturday. Sunday is a day of rest for the crew, but Peru Rail has other trains to get you to Machu Picchu, and back again.
We arrived back, at Poroy, the station nearest Cusco, exactly at 21:16. Henry and his fellow train men said a warm farewell, our bags were waiting, as was our driver, and we were in our Cusco hotel before ten… and we have ‘done’ Machu Picchu (see tomorrow’s Girlahead)