Monday, April 11, 2016

A Journey Into the Sublime: My Recent Trip to Machu Picchu

I was incredibly fortunate recently to travel into the remote Andes of Peru where I climbed and trekked and spent days at Machu Picchu. It was one of the most inspirational and exciting and surprising trips—a glorious adventure into the realms where beauty, enigma, and inspiration dwell. At an altitude of almost 12,000 feet, high in the pure air of the rocky Andes, the experience is heady, indeed.

Come and join me this week for a great adventure and pure discovery. I have lots of inspiring exclusive photos I shot. And below there are practical information and essential tips, and a guide for how to follow in my footsteps.

Machu Picchu is magical. It’s one of the world’s great heritage sites, and it’s revered and protected. Stay for two or three days if you can. It’s a profound experience, one to be savored. Plan a hike. Imagine simply sitting in the shade of one of the Inca’s exquisite stone walls. Here I gazed out into the granite peaks and deep valleys and pondered the profound mystery and enchantment.

Visits are complicated and very restricted, so planning ahead must be meticulous. It’s essential to book a visit, all treks and specific trails, and the train trip months ahead.

Below I have listed lots of very practical information on booking, best times to travel.

Riding the Rails: Taking the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu

To get to Machu Picchu is complicated. The train from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo goes as far as Aguas Calientes. Then sturdy Mercedes buses grind up dusty switchback roads.

I was fortunate to travel on the Belmond Hiram Bingham, booked far ahead.

A bartender created the perfect Pisco Sour, and a lively band set the pace for exuberant sing-alongs and spirited dancing before and after dinner as the train sped through the darkness. Dining is chic, and especially delicious after hiking in the wilds and trekking the trails. Highly recommended.

Below are some highlights from the trip, including the scenes that fly past the window. Snowy mountains are a dramatic surprise. 

The Belmond Hiram Bingham classic train trip into the Andes was an essential part of a joyful trip I hoped would never end.

The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge 

Part of my adventure was staying at the only hotel on Machu Picchu—the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. It stands adjacent to the entrance, so adventurers can enter the sanctuary and climb Machu Picchu from sunrise to sunset, entering early in the morning before other travelers. Guests at the hotel can also explore the sanctuary until closing time, long after others have headed down the hill to catch the train back to Cuzco.

Morning in Machu Picchu: Magical Light

At sunrise, I was woken with tea and toast at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. I quickly dressed and stalked out into the hotel garden to watch the sun rising through the mist and clouds. Hallucinogenic. I then quickly whipped out my tickets, showed my passport, and passed through the entry gates. My guide was waiting, and it was useful to walk with him to get a sense of the layout. After an hour or two of his descriptions, I decided to strike out on my own, away from the obvious touristy settings like the Temple of the Sun. I meandered and paused and made peaceful and silent discoveries. I later walked to Inti Punku (Sun Gate) and Huayna Picchu, as well as other paths.

Late Afternoon on Machu Picchu

I Love the Incas: Their Secrets Are in the Stones

Thinking About the Great Adventurer Hiram Bingham

Wandering the trails around Machu Picchu, it’s natural to consider Hiram Bingham and his tenacity. Incans and farmers and early settlers had long lived in the Machu Picchu region, but it was Bingham who in 1911 hacked through the forest and jungle to find the temples and city that had survived, undetected, the Spanish Conquest.

Hiram Bingham, the Yale-educated American explorer credited with the “discovery” of Machu Picchu, hacked through to the perched site first on July 24 1911. Local farmers and a muleteer named Melchor Arteaga informed Bingham about ruins—Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu—on top of a remote precipice.

In his riveting book, ‘Lost City of the Incas’ (Phoenix) Bingham wrote of his childhood hopes, and the dreamlike experience of entering the jungle and the sanctuary to see archaeological wonders:

“I suddenly found myself in a maze of beautiful granite houses. They were covered with trees and moss and the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, could be seen, here and there, walls of white granite ashlars most carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.” — Hiram Bingham, writing on the wild mountains and finally the discovery of Machu Picchu, 24 July 1911

Days of Wonder:

I found shade and peace and tranquility beside an Incan stone wall. Visitor numbers are restricted, but it’s ideal to find quiet moments and shade. The Andean sun at this altitude is intense.

Travel Information

To make a reservation, or through

Just 84 passengers ride in this 1920s-style Pullman train. Lunch is served as the train swiftly speeds past rivers and snow-capped mountains. It is one of the great 5-star luxury train trips, a classic itinerary. I loved the upcountry trip, and on arrival at Aquas Calientes, the end of the line, I hated to depart. Luggage is taken from the train up to the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge.

On the return evening trip to Cuzco, jubilant passengers celebrated their achievements of hiking and their great good fortune.

The hotel should be booked months ahead. Standing in a verdant private garden, and nestled near the entrance to the sanctuary, it affords early and late access. Otherwise, visitors must take the half-hour trip down to Aquas Calientes, and stay overnight in the town, or depart on the train. The hotel has great rustic charm and serves excellent Peruvian cuisine.

From Cuzco, which I wrote about earlier on THE STYLE SALONISTE, I traveled to Urubamba and stayed at the Belmond Rio Sagrado Hotel. From there, we headed to Ollantaytambo and joined the Hiram Bingham train up to Aguas Callientes. From there scheduled Mercedes buses take the steep and winding trail high up the hill to Machu Picchu.

Reservations for Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu must be made well in advance at, or link to:

Those who plan to hike the Inca Trail: detailed information at The four-day trip is a serious undertaking, ideally requiring porters, equipment and planning. One-day hikes (I made one) are extremely rewarding, but require planning, reservations, and a guide who can recount tales of the Incan runners who sped along the rocky mountain trails. Orchids, butterflies and birds can be identified by the guide.

Peru Is One of the Great Adventures

Note: I flew from San Francisco—Houston—Lima. I stayed in Lima for one night at the Belmond Miraflores Park hotel, and then flew to Cuzco. LAN Chile airlines has efficient timetables, and flights within Chile are very straightforward.

British Airways announced that it would be offering direct flights from London/Heathrow to Lima. And there are direct flights from Miami and major cities within South America. Flying from California to South America is fast and easy. Peru is on the same longitude as New York, so for US travelers there is little time difference.

When to go to Machu Picchu: 
Temperatures hover around 70deg F much of the year. Driest months are June, July, and August. Note that while fog and clouds can waft in at any time—it is best to travel in the dry season. And sometimes trails are booked six months ahead. Plan carefully to avoid rainy days at Machu Picchu, drizzle on the Inca Trail, or total fog. December and January are not ideal.

Belmond Sanctuary Lodge arranged for an excellent guide for the first morning I was on Machu Picchu. For the rest of my three-day visit, I created my own adventure using maps, meeting up with friends. I took time, rested out of the bright sunshine, watched the clouds, tracked the shadows, climbed and hiked, and gazed in awe at the Incas’ magnificent creation. 

I highly recommend discovering with a companion or solo, maps and guidebooks in hand. In silence, you can ponder, wander, take your time, shoot photos, climb the trails, write notes, and experience the mystery and beauty and drama. In silence and awe, you can lean in the shadow of an Incan wall. 

Alone or with a passionate traveler companion you can thank the great craftspeople who created this sanctuary, a monument to human endeavor. 

In silence, you can listen to the wind, breath the pure air of the Incas, and smell the green/mineral air. Take a protein bar (to munch discreetly) and water. Find a quiet trail or spot beneath a tree and linger.

‘Lost City of the Incas’ by Hiram Bingham (Phoenix) is essential, atmospheric reading. Other earlier French explorers and local farmers knew the region well—but it was Bingham whose tenacity and grit also discover other lost Inca cities.

‘A Sacred Landscape The Search for Ancient Peru’ by Hugh Thomson. He is equally obsessed with the Andes, and writes in-depth about Bingham, Machu Picchu and the Nasca lines. Highly illuminating.


Photographs of Machu Picchu, and late afternoons and early mornings in the Andes published here exclusively, by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

A note about photography and planning: 
I was fortunate to stay at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. It’s a comfortable lodge and it affords privileged access directly into Machu Picchu. I was able to shoot images very early in the morning when just a few hardy trekkers (identifiable by the many bright red mosquito bites on their legs) were hiking the trails. Some hikers/trekkers camp on the mountain to enjoy this early access. 

As a Sanctuary Lodge guest I lingered on until security guards made one final sweep before closing time. Most visitors, including Peruvian families, arrive between 11am and 2pm. After 3pm, many are leaving to catch the train back to Cuzco. Check bus and train times carefully to linger early or late.

Hotel and Train photography: 
Courtesy Belmond, used with express permission.

Reservations and information for Belmond Hiram Bingham train and all Belmond hotels:


Karena said...

A dream of a trip Diane! Thank you for taking us along on this magical journey!

The Arts by Karena

Benjamin Dhong said...

Thank you for taking us with you to Macchu Picchu! It's one of those experiences everyone talks about BUT which does NOT disappoint. We were quite brave (or lazy) and took a dodgy Russian helicopter through the Urubambu Valley and to the base of MP....such an adventure...though the return trip by train was sublime.

What I loved most was the hours you could spend in solitude --- contemplating the culture who raised these amazing structures.

Thank you again Diane!


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Karena

I love hearing from you. You have a fantastic eye…and would love Machu Picchu and its graphic delights and drama…best--DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

dear Ben-

Yes…things have changed in Peru, and I believe there are no more dodgy helicopters.
Now Peru Rail takes trains up to the mountains…pretty much the only way to get there easily and pleasantly.
I had known about the HIRAM BINGHAM train…and had always wanted to travel on it. It is so romantic…sort of like the ORIENT EXPRESS that goes from Paris--Venice--Istanbul…very dreamy classic interiors.

I was momentarily disappointed that the train trip is about 2-3 hours…and then the end o the line at AGUAS CALIENTES and it was onward to MP…in this funky town you take the Mercedes bus up and up and up…winding hairpin bends…grinding up the steep jungle mountainside…to MP. There, my luggage was unloaded and taken into the Sanctuary hotel.
I loved meeting trekkers and hikers--who had done the whole four-day trek…and were covered in mosquito bites, hair wild, teeth unbrushed…and so very very happy and thrilled at their great accomplishment. Bravo to them. I adored Machu Picchu…and bravo to the Peruvian people who protect is and love it and worship it…for everyone to visit. best--DIANE