It is not every day that you are offered oxygen for dessert. But when you are travelling along one of the rooftops of the world – heading into the high Andes, where the air is thin and the effects of altitude can be debilitating – it is the sort of luxury you may be glad to encounter.
I resist the urge to top up my O2 the artificial way. But I also have to admit that dropping directly into a city perched at 11.200ft – the beautiful Inca capital Cusco – is a shock to my system. Every breath feels like a concerted effort – and clambering up a flight of stairs is a grand journey in itself.
So I leave this gorgeous gateway to the world-famous citadel of Machu Picchu almost as soon as I arrive, and try to acclimatise at a lower altitude in Peru’s beautiful Sacred Valley.
Houses of the holy: Many tourists pass rapidly through the Sacred Valley - but there are attractions galore here
There is so much to see in this steep-sided natural wonder. Sadly, many tourists miss out on its intricacies, blazing through on a day-trip. If they go at all. Most take the train to Machu Picchu all the way from Cusco, a four-hour journey that bypasses most of the best sights.
These include the impressive Inca ruins at Chinchero and Pisac – though both places are more famous for their excellent Sunday markets. Then there are the amazing concentric crop circles at Moray – an Inca site, hundreds of years old, that mixes agriculture and archaeology.
Concentric eccentric: The Inca archaeological site at Moray is the Sacred Valley at its most striking
There are also dazzling salt pans, laid out like a white and silver patchwork, and a church in the hills which blesses new cars (and their purchasers) every weekend.
It is just such a car, garlanded with marigolds and tinsel, that I mistake for an Indian-style wedding car just outside Lamay – a hamlet where ladies grill guinea pigs over open coals at the side of the street.
This is a curious spectacle. And while they may be a Peruvian delicacy, I am glad to have filled up earlier on a slice of rather more acceptable suckling pig, fished out of a huge wood-fired oven and sliced into a bun by an enterprising chap who sells these delicious sanguiches de chicharron in a corner of Pisac market between alpaca-sweater stalls and silversmith shops.
Slices of the past: Agricultural terraces, cut into a hill at Chinchero, recall the Sacred Valley's Inca heritage
Such entertaining and eye-popping diversions are a great foil to the peace and solitude of Sol y Luna – an accommodation oasis slotted within flower-filled gardens just outside Urubamba (the only town of any real size in the Sacred Valley). Here, my casita – a cottage with private patio – is reminiscent of a Mexican colonial-style hotel, with its terracotta floors, heavy dark furniture, colourful textiles and whimsical carved figures.
Buzzy it is not, but local acrobats supply a spot of pre-dinner cabaret – a welcome accompaniment to the national apertif, the pisco sour – in a restaurant where the menu is designed by Pedro-Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s most famous chefs.
Two sides of the Sacred Valley: Salt pans on the mountain (left) and a car fresh from a church blessing (right)
Sol y Luna is 20 minutes from the pretty town of Ollantaytambo – from where the trains of Inca Rail travel to Machu Picchu in 90 minutes. It is a magical ride, especially if you can bag a seat on the left side to enjoy views of the Urubamba river all the way to Aguas Calientes, the base town for the ruins.
The best place to stay here is Inkaterra, an atmospheric nature lodge set amidst orchids, darting hummingbirds and lush rainforest. I am very happy to drift off to sleep here – a cosy stopover is paramount if you want to make the ascent to Machu Picchu at dawn the next morning, and have it mostly to yourself before the day-trippers flood in.
Do you want it wrapped? Anthea spotted guinea pigs being grilled by the roadside in Lamay
My private guide – a luxury highly recommended if you want to go at your own pace - is keen to pick me up at 5.30am, but I decide to wait until sunrise and enjoy a bowl of quinoa porridge with fruit. I still feel as if the ruins are all mine as we hit the top of the mountain, via the shuttle bus, at 7am.
Machu Picchu is probably a lot younger than you think – a late medieval relic of the 15th century rather than anything more ancient. But the astonishing astronomical alignments of its stones – laid out on towering cliffs in the cloud forest, framed by grassy plazas – cannot fail to impress. You need at least three hours of slow wandering to take it all in.
Back in Cusco, the comfort quotient is ramped up at the somewhat more posh, distinctly more urban Inkaterra – the only boutique hotel among the many five-stars in the city that purvey top-end accommodation, fine food and (where necessary) oxygen to their breathless guests.
Gifts in all shapes and colours: Chinchero is famous for its Sunday market, where souvenirs galore are on sale
La Casona, with a handful of suites built around a courtyard, is intimate and charming, and its restaurant is superlative. It is just a shame that its ‘no outsiders’ ethos keeps out non-resident diners – and with them, a buzz from which the hotel would probably benefit.
Outside, you find a wealth of expensive silver and alpaca knitwear shops – a trend that is replicated in the huge and fabulous main square, Plaza de Armas.
But better prices and more original merchandise can be found at Gifts of Cusco, near the Libertador – a good and less costly four-star hotel on the site of an old Inca palace opposite the Coricancha (the former Inca Sun Temple). Coldly Spanish-colonial on the surface, it offers excellent service and a glorious breakfast buffet, with big bowls of guacamole to spread on toast.
Local quirks: Terracotta bulls, always in pairs, are a regular feature on rooftops - there to bring good luck
Not to be missed, for a great, authentic lunch with plenty of live music, is Pacha Papa, in the suburb of San Blas, which offers yet more eclectic shopping. This is a good place to try some of the thousands of varieties of indigenous potatoes of which the Andeans are so proud. I try the purple-and-white tubers, but prefer the succulent barbecued meat for which the region is celebrated.
My last meal is at Cusco’s Monasterio Hotel. This proves to be unforgettable, and not just for the food. I enjoy the aromatic pumpkin soup and leg of suckling pig in this converted monastery – run as a hotel by Orient Express – and I cannot manage dessert.
The staff are concerned, and an oxygen mask is proffered as I wait for my taxi, my lack of appetite deemed to be the result of altitude sickness. I guess this is the Cusco version of a goodie bag…