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2013 and earlier

From the Incas to the Amazon

Peru's Amazon basin teems with captivating wildlife while Inca mysticism lives on in Cusco, writes Wendy Driver for the 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, and as darkness enveloped us, the lights of fireflies flickered nearby.

After a dinner by moonlight, we made our way to a treehouse perched in the cleft of a massive cepanchinatree to camp out for the night.

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.

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.

We were to see more wildlife on a visit by dugout canoe to the Tambopata National Reserve, just across the river. The half-submerged heads of caimans 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. As soon as we checked in we gulped mugfuls of tea infused with coca leaves, once chewed by the Incas and still used widely today to combat altitude sickness.

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.

Llamas and alpacas roamed the barren hillsides around the city. Travelling through the Sacred Valley, we stopped to feed them, then 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.

We joined hordes of tourists queuing to enter the site early one morning. The remains of terraces, temples and palaces were draped over a mountain ridge. Clouds rolled in over the citadel, creating an almost mystical atmosphere, as all around us the ghostly forms of jungle-covered peaks faded into the swirling mist.

In such an extraordinary setting, it was easy to see why the Incas worshipped nature. As we scrambled up the steep pathways we came across sacred rocks, their outlines mirror-images of the mountains behind them.

Back 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.

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