THE spectacular Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and the bustling city of Cusco have emerged as the star attractions in most Latin American programmes.
The trek into the mountains had long been the preserve of hardy backpackers - but now they are packaged by a number of UK operators. Orient-Express Hotels has been quick to realise the potential in this influx of higher spending visitors, ploughing money into the region. In addition, a group of investors led by Orient-Express Hotels holding company Sea Containers won the tender to acquire ENAFER, the Peruvian State Railway, last month.
Orient-Express Hotels recently spent $10m to acquire a 50% stake in two properties owned by Peru Hotels. The properties provide a base from which to explore Peru's two most impressive attractions.
The five-star, 123-room Hotel Monasterio, a converted 16th-century Spanish monastery, is located in Cusco at the head of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is the main jumping off point for those following the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
At the other end of the trail, 3hrs 30mins by rail from Cusco, is the 32-room Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel permitted at the ruins of the ancient Inca sanctuary which attracts 350,000 visitors a year.
According to Orient-Express Hotels president Simon Sherwood, Peru was an obvious choice for the company to invest in.
"We already had a foothold in Latin America with the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro so it was a logical step for us to look around the area. But we wanted to make sure that it was a safe environment to go into," he said.
Sherwood admitted the two properties were the only ones he felt could offer the sort of experience his clients expect. "Our guests like to be educated and want adventure. The hotels have personality, but at the same time they must have a certain level of comfort."
Orient-Express Hotels has already assumed managerial responsibility for the two hotels but it must wait until permission is granted before improvements can be made.
The properties are continuing to accept guests and will not be closed while work is carried out. Proposed work to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which has spectacular views of the ruins themselves, is likely to see it upgraded with a nearby site developed to provide extra accommodation.
The recently vacated Nazarenas Convent, adjacent to the Hotel Monasterio and also acquired by the joint-venture company, will be transformed with additional rooms, gardens and a pool. Sea Containers' purchase of ENAFER sees the company take over two lines -the Southern Line which runs from Cusco to the port town of Mollendo via Lake Titicaca and the Machu Picchu Line which runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Completion of the transaction is scheduled for September 21 and while it is not linked to the purchase of the hotels, it is likely that tour operators featuring them, which include Cox and Kings and Latin America Travel, will package a rail journey with the accommodation.
However, clients should not expect a Venice Simplon-Orient-Express-style product, particularly on the Machu Picchu Line, where a dome-roofed train and improved catering will be among the only additions to the Machu Picchu and Cusco service.
On the Southern Line, which has three different routes varying in length from 5hrs to 11hrs, a two-class service will provide an upmarket product with overnight sleeping accommodation more in line with a traditional Orient Express service.
Access: 10mins by car from Velasco Astete airport (direct air access from Lima), or a 10hr drive from Lima.
Description: former 16th-century Spanish monastery. Hotel's guest rooms and restaurants are based around a cloistered courtyard, the centrepiece of which is a 400-year-old Cedar tree.
No. of rooms: 123, including 19 suites and a presidential suite.
Facilities: two eating areas offering Peruvian and international cuisine.
Sample rates: double/twin $145-$160 (commission 10%). Rates include breakfast.
Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge
Location: Machu Picchu.
Access: 3hrs and 30mins by rail from Cusco or 25mins by helicopter.
Description: simple, with a garden terrace overlooking green jungle peaks.
No of rooms: 32, including one suite. Nine have views of the ruins and the Andes.
Facilities: one snack bar and one restaurant, serving a la carte menu at dinner but catering for several hundred visitors a day with set lunch menu.
Sample rates: double/twin: $210-$235. Includes breakfast (commission 10%).
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