Ever since a bus full of well-heeled Chinese tourists ran my motorbike off the road near Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, I’ve become painfully aware that the remote wonders of the world are not the exclusive province of “adventure travellers”. Indeed, that fateful incident did more than give me a shock; it shook my faith in the virtues of budget travel.

Until that day, I believed that somehow the authenticity of a travelling experience was directly proportional to the difficulty and suffering involved. Following this logic then, my appreciation for those Khmer ruins should have far exceeded the Chinese tourists’. After all, I had rode hundreds of harrowing miles in the back of pick-up trucks packed well beyond capacity with humans, livestock and sacks full of all manner of things just to get there, while the Chinese probably hopped on a flight from Shanghai and were comfortably shuttled around the ruins in an air-conditioned bus.

But that evening, as I was picking gravel from my wounds, I did not find myself cursing the tour group. Rather, I envied them. There I was in my mildewed shack of a guesthouse nursing not only fresh cuts and scrapes but also a persistent case of food poisoning. And there they were in their luxury hotel, tucked into fine cotton sheets, content after a four-course meal and glasses of imported wine. Or so I imagined.
Although it still seemed slightly obscene to shell out the equivalent of Cambodia’s annual per capita income for a night in a hotel, dare I say I was curious to know what sort of experience that kind of money could buy. Several years later and half a world away, I found out.

Somewhere in my stash of loosely held dreams lingered a trip to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. It wasn’t a life-long dream, where all the particulars had been worked out in semiconscious visualizations and flights of fancy. But I held a definite picture, a sketch really, of what it might be like to visit the lost city of the Incas. Chief among those imaginings were visions of trekking through the Andes along the Inca Trail – verdant valleys sweeping below, jagged snow-covered cliffs rising high above and children in colourful hats and ponchos nestling alongside baby llamas.

Arriving in Lima, I learned from the gazillion posters and brochures hawking Peru’s national treasure that this was a pretty common vision. But no matter, I wouldn’t have time to visit the ruins this time around anyway. I was there to report on a story in Peru’s capital and, tempting as it was, I couldn’t spare the week it would take to get to the mountain city of Cuzco and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Hotel receptionists and taxi drivers were much chagrined to learn that I would travel all the way to Peru and not visit Machu Picchu. Surely a gringo like me could find time in their schedule to go where over half a million other gringos go every year.

“That would be like going to New York and not seeing the Statue of Liberty,” a taxi driver said.

“True,” I replied.  “Except the Statue of Liberty is a 10-minute ferry ride and Machu Picchu is a four-day hike through the Andes.  Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of the time.”
“You could take the train,” he suggested.

I could take the train. But that would severely compromise the picture I had of the experience. And so I held firm and would visit the ruins someday when I had more time. Or so I thought.
Apparently, word had got around Lima that there was a rogue tourist on the loose who was determined not to visit Machu Picchu. And one evening, I returned to my hotel to find a voicemail with an offer I couldn’t refuse: three days and two nights in Cuzco and a trip to Machu Picchu all wrapped in five-star luxury.  My curiosity of what it would be like to be a wealthy Chinese tourist visiting a remote wonder of the world trumped my dream of hiking the Inca Trail.

Flying from Lima to Cuzco, you go from sea level to 11,000 feet in one hour. From this rapid change in altitude, half the passengers feel little or no effects and the other half suffer from throbbing headaches and nausea. I fell hard into the second group.

Fortunately, I was staying at the Hotel Monastario, part of the Orient Express group, where, upon check-in, the concierge provided me not only with the above unscientific statistics, but also cups of coca leaf tea, a local remedy for altitude sickness.

For those, like me, who are resistant to the placebo effects of coca tea, the 18th century Spanish monastery has been so fully converted into a modern luxury hotel that it even includes oxygen-enriched rooms. But alas, these were all full.

I checked into my oxygen-deprived room and collapsed on the bed. Five minutes later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a bellhop with a bowl of fruit in one hand and a small green scuba-looking tank in the other. The fruit was a little welcome gift; the tank was full of oxygen. There were always a couple of bottles on tap for when the coca tea fails, the bellhop explained.

Looking not unlike my emphysemic grandmother on her deathbed, I found myself quickly adapting to this style of travel.

There are three trains that run from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. For about $65 roundtrip, you can take the backpackers train, which takes about four hours and offers a faux authentic Peruvian train experience. (That is, the train is a bit more rickety and the seats are upholstered with Inca designs). For a little more comfort and panoramic windows, you can pay around $100 to ride the Vista-dome tourist train. But as this is likely to be only a once in a lifetime opportunity, I recommend you pull out all the stops and hop on the Orient Express’ Hiram Bingham train. For a mere $476 roundtrip you can cruise in opulent comfort to the majestic ruins.

At first blush, the idea of naming a luxury train after the man who, by sweat and toil, discovered the lost city of the Incas seems a bit crass. But upon further inspection, it is actually quite appropriate. For, after a pious upbringing, the American Hiram Bingham married an heiress to the Tiffany fortune and thus was able to spare little expense when it came to organising his wild expeditions.

The Hiram Bingham departs promptly at 9am. I was told to be there half an hour ahead of time, and when I arrived a cast of white-gloved servers were milling about. I checked in with a man carrying a clipboard and was directed towards a table full of champagne and mimosas.

Champagne at 8.30am at high altitude is a glorious thing. After a glass, my lingering headache quickly gave way to a fuzzy sort of bliss. And I was quite giddy by the time a trio of Peruvian guitar players struck up the music. Picture, if you will, a subdued Mariachi-type band playing in a high mountain valley against a backdrop of royal blue and gold-trimmed rail cars.

The train seats about 84 people, but there were just eight of us when the whistle sounded. We filed into a stately dining car and after they removed the extra 75 or so place settings, the train began chugging along.
The lush green fields of the Sacred Valley rushed past the windows, my loosely held dream realised in fast motion. I was just finishing my smoked trout with fava bean salad when we slipped alongside the boiling waters of the Urubamba River. The bilingual guide was at the microphone pointing out terraced fields and little villages when, suddenly, he directed our attention to a mountain on the left-hand side of the train. Gringos on the Inca Trail!

At that point, we were into the second hour of our trip; the hikers were on their second day. After brunch, I retired to the bar for an espresso. The early morning drinking and large meal had tempered my excitement for reaching the ruins. I needed to recharge.

At about 12.30pm, the Hiram Bingham arrived at Aguas Calientes, a small tourist-fed village at the base of Machu Picchu. For most, the steep switchback up from Aguas Calientes is the most gruelling part of any trip to the ruins. We just had a short walk to the bus.

As our tour bus climbed the mountain, passing troops of weary hikers, I couldn’t help but feel that I was travelling in a parallel universe. This was effortless. I wondered if the reward would be the same in the end.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Sanctuary Lodge, where, for $675/£359 a night, you can stay in the only hotel rooms with views of Machu Picchu. We were scheduled for high tea there at 4.30pm. Until then, our guide would show us around.

Saddling a mountain ridge and surrounded by dramatic granite peaks, shifting plays of light and morphing cloud formations, there is hardly a more breathtaking spectacle than Machu Picchu. Everyone was in awe and everyone expressed the same disappointment: too many people. It was a busy day. Hordes of people dressed in colourful rain parkas were meandering through the green grounds like a bunch of billiard balls on an oversized, terraced table. Any chance of tapping into the spiritual energy that the mountain purportedly holds was duly thwarted.

In our dreams there are never crowds or entrance fees. But that’s not what you remember anyway. For me this time around, it was not where I was going, but how I actually got there. ¦
For more on Orient Express and the Hiram Bingham, go towww.orient-express.com

Getting there

London-Lima There are no direct flights from London. The best routing is via Amsterdam using KLM from Heathrow.  Return fares: business class £2,014, economy class from £624. There is no first class available.
New york-Lima First class varies $7,602 to $6,176; business class varies $6,174 to $1,800; full coach $2,956 to $1,400; five-day day apex $769-low season; $953-high season; recent sale $495. Lan Airlines operates a daily non-stop service from JFK and Continental operates a daily non-stop service from Newark. The best daily connections are American Airlines via Miami and Delta Air Lines via Atlanta; both offer flights from all three New York City area airports. Continental offers a daily connection via Houston, Air Canada connects via Toronto on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Copa operates via Panama City on Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Los Angeles-Lima First class varies $7,190 to $5,794; business class varies $7,188 to $1,910; full coach $4,546 to $1,514; three-day apex $687-low season; $818-high season; recent sale $298. Lan Airlines offers the only non-stop service, which is daily. The best daily connections are Aeromexico via Mexico City, American Airlines via Miami or Dallas, Delta via Atlanta, Lacsa via San Jose and Continental via Houston. An alternate routing would be Mexicana Airlines via Mexico City.