Watching the first light of dawn break over the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, I caught a glimpse of what I had heard so much about since arriving in Peru.
A magical aura allied to an awe-inspiring natural beauty has made the citadel one of the most revered archaeological wonders of the world.
The city is certainly spectacular and the setting breathtaking, but it’s the admiration it provokes for the Inca civilisation that has the most profound impact.
The rebel leader Che Guevara, who visited the ruins more than 50 years ago when aged just 23, is perhaps the most famous of those to have been moved by the Machu Picchu.
His pilgrimage, retold in the new Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries, left the young Guevara with a deep sense of regret for the destruction of the Inca race.
He lamented their demise at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors and with his passions aroused, went on to become an icon for political youth across the world.
The Motorcycle Diaries shows the young Che wandering amid a virtually deserted Machu Picchu, but the reality is that about 1,000 people a day now visit the ruins hoping for a similar epiphany.
The only way to get them is to stay overnight at the exclusive 31-room Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at the site.
By 7am, trekkers and backpackers are already starting to flood in, but for one golden hour you get to watch the sun rise over the ruins before anyone else has even arrived.
The image of the citadel is now so familiar that it’s hard to believe it was only rediscovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham less than 100 years ago.
The ruins sit high in the Andes between two iconic peaks on a multi-levelled ridge above the Urubamba river. Its history is the stuff of myth, rather than hard fact.
But whatever the truth, visiting the Machu Picchu is guaranteed to leave you marvelling at the Incas’ ingenuity. Astronomy, mathematics, geometry, medicine – the Incas knew them all and their empire once spanned half of South America.
Che and his friend, Alberto Granado, made their journey to the Machu Picchu on a battered Norton 500 motorbike. Most visitors today either trek the gruelling four-day Inca trail or catch the backpackers’ train. But there is now a more luxurious way. A new Orient Express-operated service runs between the historic Inca capital of Cusco, Peru’s second largest city, and the gateway town of Puente Ruinas.
The train, named after Hiram Bingham, is beautifully appointed, the waiter service and brunch five-star, and the journey through the Sacred Valley spectacular.
Legend tells that Cusco, the starting point for any visit to the ruins, was founded in the 12th century by the first Inca, Manco Capac. Its oldest districts are a mix of the original Inca-built walls and Spanish colonial architecture, criss-crossed by narrow, cobbled streets that run between several stunning plazas.
We stayed at the magnificent Hotel Monasterio, a converted 16th-century monastery, constructed on the site of an old Inca palace.
Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo di Caprio was a recent guest and there was something about the experience of staying there that felt almost cinematic.
Its central courtyard, framed by the monastery’s original cloisters and shaded by a 300-year-old cedar tree, would provide a fitting backdrop to any film.
The city also has some great restaurants and bars, one of the best being the Fallen Angel, just across from the Monasterio. It has a kitsch, art deco interior including glitter balls, heart-shaped sofas and bath tub fish tanks doubling as tables, designed around a fire and ice theme. Most importantly, it also serves fantastic cocktails.
An afternoon spent horseriding is definitely one of the best ways to see the myriad Inca ruins that surround Cusco, even if you get saddled with a horse as wilful as mine. The scenery is terrific and the ruins fascinating.
The most well known is Saqsaywaman, or "sexy woman" as the site is affectionately referred to. The Incas conceived Cusco in the shape of a puma, one of their holy trinity of animals, and Saqsaywaman was supposed to be the head, with its striking zig-zag walls the teeth.
But even more impressive has to be the ruins of an Inca fortress at Pisac, about 30 minutes’ drive from the city.
Perched high on a mountain side with deep gorges either side, the ruins offer breathtaking views across the Urubamba valley, well worth braving the vertigo-inducing, cliff-hugging footpath for.
Before leaving Cusco, don’t miss La Cathedral in the heart of the Plaza de Armas. It houses an impressive collection of colonial art, but the highlight is Marcos Zapata’s depiction of the Last Supper with Christ and the disciples feasting on Peruvian specialities.
At the heart of the table is Peru’s most feted delicacy, a roast guinea pig with its feet in the air.
Any journey to Peru from Europe inevitably begins in the capital Lima, a typical sprawling South American metropolis.
An afternoon sightseeing in the city is best spent in its Spanish-built colonial heart, the Plaza San Martin, and the Monasterio de San Francisco, famous for its underground catacombs.
I stayed in the luxurious Miraflores Park Hotel in the heart of Lima’s most stylish and affluent suburb. The hotel stands on a vast, sweeping arc of coastline and has superb views across the Pacific Ocean, best appreciated from the panoramic rooftop pool.
If you get chance, it’s well worth spending a couple of hours at the Museo Larco; an 18th-century viceroy mansion which houses a collection of 50,000 ceramic pots.
The museum is renowned for its collection of pre-Colombian erotic pottery, which depicts with remarkable explicitness, the sexual activities of Peruvian men, women, animals and even, bizarrely, skeletons.
And if the memories of Machu Picchu are perhaps the best souvenir of Peru to take home, a replica pot comes a fun second.