24th January 2010
Source: Daily Mail
Jeeves would have been impressed. Our butler Juan scampered up and down the steep wooden steps to fetch our dinner some 100ft below, while we sipped chilled champagne watching the blood-red sky turn inky black over the jungle.
We were sitting on a platform high above the canopy after crossing a series of wobbly suspended walkways. Beneath us, the carpet of luxuriant foliage was so thick we couldn't see the forest floor.
Brightly-coloured parrots flew past at eye level, and as darkness enveloped us, the lights of fireflies flickered nearby while shooting stars exploded above.
After a dinner by moonlight, we made our way to a treehouse perched in the cleft of a massive cepanchina tree to camp out for the night.
Sleeping arrangements were basic, with two single beds either side of the tree trunk, a chemical toilet plonked beside it and a small washing bowl. But it was an unforgettable experience to be woken at dawn by a deafening cacophony of cackles, screeches and howls just outside.
I felt I was totally isolated in impenetrable greenery but in fact we were just a few minutes' walk from our eco lodge, situated in a small clearing beside the Madre de Dios river in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica lies some 45 minutes downstream from the nearest town, Puerto Maldonado, and is accessible only by boat. Wreathed in dense, steamy rainforest, its pretty thatched cabanas are built on stilts.
Mine was situated right on the riverbank. Safely ensconced within its flyscreen walls, I could lie in my hammock watching weaver birds build their intricate nests while flashes of red overhead turned out to be scarlet macaws.
You don't even need to leave the grounds to see wildlife. In the hotel gardens, large tail-less rodents called agoutis sat nibbling brazil nuts and wild boar ambled across the grass.
On our first jungle walk, we had barely left the lodge before a family of squirrel monkeys leapt across the palm fronds just above us, their little black faces peering down as they swung from branch to branch, curling their long tails around the boughs.
Following close on the heels of Elias, our guide, I stepped over gnarled roots and rotting logs as trailing vines and creepers brushed my face. He was an expert at identifying plants, pointing out trees to cure arthritis and malaria, and breaking off leaves for us to taste and smell.
Once darkness fell, nocturnal creatures ventured out. Furry black tarantulas clung to the tree trunks. A bright green monkey frog sat camouflaged in his leafy hideaway and an orb spider spun a huge wheel-shaped web with amazing alacrity, the gossamer threads turning silver in the torchlight.
Walking back along the river, Elias pointed out caimans lying in the mud below. 'Hold the torch up to your ears,' he told me. 'It is easier to spot their red eyes.'
We were to see caimans close up on a visit to the Tambopata National Reserve, just across the river. Gigantic palm trees, their roots immersed in water, towered over us as we paddled silently along the banks of Lake Sandoval in our dugout canoe.
The tips of the caimans' heads were just visible above the water as they lay in the shallows, inches from the boat. Cobalt-blue butterflies, the size of small birds, settled on my hand and turtles basked in the sun.
It was hot and still but suddenly there was a flurry of activity in the middle of the lake. A family of giant otters were diving for fish, their shiny black heads surfacing momentarily for air. 'They are extremely rare now,' Elias told me. 'We are lucky to see them.'
We found we were gasping for air ourselves the next morning when we stepped off the plane into the rarefied atmosphere of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas. In the space of half an hour, we had been catapulted from virtually sea level to two miles above it.
To combat altitude sickness, we gulped mugfuls of Mate de Coca tea as soon as we checked in at our hotel. The coca leaf, chewed by the Incas, helps alleviate symptoms and is still used widely today.
We were staying at La Casona, a beautiful colonial mansion originally owned by one of the Conquistadors. It's hidden away behind the main square, the Plaza des Armas, and the aromatic scent of palo santo ('holy wood' oil) wafted through its inner courtyard, which was decorated with antique wall hangings.
The city itself is a unique blend of Spanish and Inca architecture. The narrow cobblestone alleyways are lined with finely carved Inca walls, the massive blocks fitting together as snugly as a jigsaw. The baroque cathedral was constructed with stones from the nearby fortress of Sacsayhuaman, and at Qorikancha the cloisters of Santo Domingo monastery are built around a former temple complex.
The Incas must have been brilliant stonemasons. As I stood in the doorway of one of the temples, I could see how the walls tilted inwards to withstand earthquakes.
'The whole building would have been inlaid in gold,' my guide told me. Outside, Indian women with embroidered hats, brightly coloured shawls and full skirts posed for photos with their recalcitrant llamas.
Llamas and alpacas roamed the barren hillsides around the city. Travelling through the Sacred Valley, we stopped at Awana Kancha, a local co-operative, to feed them. Some resembled rastafarians, their shaggy hair touching the ground. Others, more like supermodels, gazed at us disdainfully with their kohl-black eyes and long lashes.
Nearly 250 Quechua families from the highlands are involved in the project and come down from their villages to work for ten days at a time. The women sat on the ground spinning and weaving on their handmade looms, while the men showed us how to make natural dyes. The beautifully crafted articles are superb quality and worth buying at premium prices.
We continued past clusters of adobe houses and ancient terraces clinging to the hillsides before boarding a train at Ollantaytambo for the one-and-a-half-hour journey to the fabled Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
Although they were discovered nearly 100 years ago, there is still no road through the deep gorge linking them to the outside world. The narrow-gauge railway hugs the cliff face while the churning waters of the Urubamba River crash over the rocks far below.
We joined hordes of tourists queuing to enter the site early one morning-The remains of terraces, temples and palaces are draped over a mountain ridge. Clouds rolled in over the citadel, creating an almost mystical atmosphere, as all around us the ghostly forms of junglecovered peaks faded into the swirling mist.
In such an extraordinary setting, it was easy to see why the Incas worshipped-nature. Stone sculptures, positioned to catch the first rays of the sun, had religious significance and as we scrambled up the steep pathways we came across sacred rocks, their outlines mirror-images of the mountains behind them.
At our hotel, I joined our guide Carmen on a twilight walk to our own sacred rock shrouded in lush vegetation in the gardens. Leading us by candlelight to a cliff wall scarred by the branches of a strangled fig, she pointed out prehistoric symbols etched into the granite.
After a silent prayer, she passed round handfuls of dried coca leaves for us to place gently on the ground, our own offerings to Mother Earth.