By Nicholas Asheshov
July and August are always the top weeks of what has become a year-round rain-or-shine season for the Cuzco tourism industry though things have been slow following powerful flash floods in January. Global-warming rains suddenly quintupled the volume and speed of the monsoon water in the Rio Vilcanota, the one that wraps around Machu Picchu, slashed out big slabs of the narrow-gauge railway line that chugs tourists from Cuzco over the mountains and down a dramatic canyon to the ruins.
Machu Picchu Cut Off! Tourists are increasingly coming to see other things like the Manu and Iquitos jungles, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca. Whatever: no Machu Picchu, no tourists.
The railway, a concession run by Orient-Express Hotels, OEH, is, six months later, not fully operational but the last 25 miles is open again with crawl-along speeds on the recently-repaired bits. But, hey, who cares if it takes a half-hour extra to get to such a stunning destination. Presumably by next year it’ll be back to rock-a-bye normal where on the only straight stretch top speed at the best of times is 25 mph.
This year, on this evocative little line another change is taking place. The Orient-Express monopoly is ending, a subject on which I am a world authority as a founding Director of Andean Railways Corp, the feisty challenger. We led a ferocious three-year regulatory battle against the PeruRail –Orient Express– monopoly. Today it’s all smiles, a bit guarded for sure, but those of us, starting with Bob Booth himself, who remember the glory days of airline regulation and outrageous protectionism, need no elbow-jogging to know the lengths to which monopolies will rise to keep the bacon to themselves.
The tourist industry in Cuzco has improved enormously in just a few years. Orient Express, a decade ago, brought five-star hotelier skill and style to their Monasterio, Cuzco and Mach Picchu Lodge and, using their panache and marketing zap, completely up-heaveled Cuzco. They quickly trained their amiable but one-star personnel to international levels and raised the comfort bar, with breath-taking prices to match. Good for them and today there’s a lively range from $10 to $1,000. No one in Cuzco, pre-OEH, knew even how to spell croissant. Today the Brescia-Libertador group, together with Starwood, are opening, next door to my own adobe riverside, woodland home, a spiffy $52mn Luxury Collection spa, lovely views of river and snow-peaks up-valley from MaPi itself. Marriott is putting up a new Olde Inca tambo in cobbled Cuzco, and there’s half-a-dozen charming luxury-boutique hotels already open. They meld in well with a daily roster of religious processions and up-the-workers down-the-politicians rallies.
There’s suddenly a flurry of snazzy restaurants with names like “Jack’s” and “Chicha” offering Novo Andino guinea-pig aux fines herbes and carpacho de alpaca. And, Dios mio! Starbucks is opening next to the Catedral. Cuzco’s been a 24/7 party since the beat-bearded ’70s so it’s just getting better. Even Barry Walker’s Cross Keys pub, which recalled the gun-slinger saloon in Star Wars, is in new, non-creaky quarters just off the Plaza de Armas with Manchester xxxx-ale and loos that work.
Today LAN is running 14+ flights a day to Cuzco, using A319s, TACA two (A319,A320), Star Peru two, and Cielos de Peru, a start-up, two more. No night flights, thank goodness. I can remember when CUZ, 11,300ft asl, would get one or two DC-3s and DC-4s wing-tipping it between the glaciers below the summits.
One example of the new upper-crust tourism involved the other day none less than Pedro Heilbron, COPA’s CEO, and Matias Campiani, CEO, Pluna, Montevideo, leading a lively bunch of top Young Presidents from all over: I had pleasant chats with South Africans, Greeks, Mumbai Indians, Francaises and most other breeds. Pedro, together with Alberto Beeck, the Peruvian financier, had asked me to tell them in a fireside chat How to Find a Lost City, an interest of mine since my National Geographic days. I told them that the way not to do it, about which I know a lot, is to look for a blank spot on the map and say, Aha! that must be where El Dorado is. I told them about people, including friends, who had come to a sticky end doing this, and that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are about to shoot a movie in Bolivia about Col. Percy Fawcett, the Lost World Brit who disappeared into the Mato Grosso in 1925.
My new computer-controlled hydraulic Parker-Cummins-powered DMU-autowagons, vaguely reminiscent of a San Francisco tram painted with parrots, is called, of course: The Machu Picchu Train –The Lost City Traveller. They have cost me and my partners slightly less than late-model Dreamliners with the advantage, I suppose, that if they run out of gas at least we can push them home.
Letter from Urubamba, July 23, 2010