When Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador, returned from the New World he was asked to describe Peru. Ever a man of action, he crumpled up a sheet of paper and dropped it on the table: "It looks like that," he said.  This is a land that is best described in Spanish as muy accidentada. Uneven, jagged, notched, it is 'accident-prone' in the extreme.  The highland people will not dream of beginning a journey without asking for protection from either the spirits or the saints. Even such a simple thing as a sip of mountain water or a little pad of coca leaves are never taken before a share has been dropped on the ground to placate the most powerful of goddesses. "Para Pachamama," they say - for Mother-Earth.


It seems fitting that in an area with the unpredictable geological temperament of Peru 'the Earth Mother' should be particularly revered. At five times the size of the UK, this magnificent country encompasses a variety of terrain that is almost unmatched elsewhere in the tropics. To the west, shimmering deserts spread down to a thousand miles of wave-smashed coastline, while, in the east, the rainforest (covering half the country) is defied only by the tumbling cascades that give birth to the Amazon. On the southern border lie the harsh Altiplano highlands and hovering over it all, at every turn, the towering peaks of the Andes. 

This is the longest mountain chain in the world, stretching 4,500 miles along the western edge of the continent. It is scoured by quebrada (gorges) that are often too deep for the sun to penetrate, and roofed by soaring ice-capped peaks and the belching cones of more than forty active volcanoes. Only the Himalayas and Pamirs of Asia rise higher than the Andes and Peru's Mount Huascarán (soaring to 4¼ miles above sea-level) is the world's tallest tropical mountain. The jungle valleys might be drenched in thick cloud-forest, but trekking through the páramo highlands you find only tough clumps of rubbery vegetation, protected from the high altitude sunlight by its waxy, green-grey surface. It is not surprising that - apart from declining numbers of mountain lions and a few deer - the only large animals that live on the highland steppes are members of the camel family. Domesticated llamas and woolly alpaca graze near the villages and, out on the wind-swept steppes, their fleet-footed cousins the vicuña and guanaco roam free. Highland versions of the iridescent hummingbirds of the rainforest, some here as big as European blackbirds, buzz busily in the afternoon heat but go into semi-hibernation to survive the freezing mountain nights. Above you, as you trek the great knife-edge ridges, a condor (the world's biggest flying bird) wheels effortlessly on its ten-foot wingspan.

Only specialists have evolved to survive in the harsh environment of the High Andes. And the people are no exception. Studies have shown that the literally 'big-hearted' people of the Andes have unusually efficient hearts that help to counteract the effects of life at high altitude. Life goes on much as it ever has for the Andean people of Peru. Far beyond the red-tiled roofs of old Inca towns like Ayacucho, Tayabamba and Huancavelica you come across the grey-thatched and adobe-walled mountain hamlets. These places often don't appear on the maps and can be so remote that even a chair is considered an 'imported' item of considerable luxury. A tin roof in a village like this is the mark of a rich man. Cargo trains of bad-tempered llamas now shuttle such 'luxuries' as plastic buckets and enamel cups between villages and the cries of the arriero drivers still echo up the canyons as they did long before Pizarro brought the first horses to these latitudes.

Half of Peru's population lives in rural communities and a quarter are Quechua-speaking Andean people. ("There were never any Indians here," they'll tell you, "that was just one of Columbus's mistakes.") Most struggle to scratch a subsistence living as farmers or as miners, as they did at the time of the Spanish conquest, in silver and copper mines. They plant their corn and potatoes - among other things, the Incas were famous for inventing freeze-dried instant mash - and brew their cloudy chicha beer (made from fermented corn)...always spilling a few drops for luck before they raise their cups. "Para Pachamama."

In these timeless and isolated villages it can be difficult to remind yourself that this was once the heartland of the greatest empire in the western hemisphere. Before the arrival of the Spanish, this was the administrative and cultural centre of an estimated 25 million people and its influence stretched all the way from Colombia to Chile. Cuzco is still known in Quechua as Qosq'o - 'the navel of the world' - and there are few visitors to Peru who can resist a visit to this historic town. The most famous spot in the entire Andes, however, is certainly the 'Lost City of Machu Picchu.' It is not quite as 'lost' as it once was and these days you can arrive here by train or even on a helicopter from Cuzco. But to do Machu Picchu justice you must approach it as the great Inca architects intended: step by weary step, following the chain of mysterious ruins and ancient pathways that make up the Inca Trail.

Pacamayo (‘Hidden River’), Runkuracay (‘Heaped Ruins’), Sayacmarca (‘The Hanging Village’), Abra de Huarmihuanusca (‘Dead Woman’s Pass’). Straight out of ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ or a Tolkien novel, the names of landmarks on the Inca Trail seem to be specifically designed to increase anticipation. Many experts believe that this mounting suspense throughout the trek is more than coincidental. The writer Peter Frost, has lived in the region for 20 years, and says that the Inca Trail is a deliberate work of art that was designed 'to elevate the soul of the pilgrim on the way to Machu Picchu.' Few who have made the trek would disagree with him.

You camp at night in beautiful highland meadows and wake in the frosty dawn to huddle around the coffee pot, waiting for the blessing of the sun as it finally rises over the eastern ridges. On a cold Andean morning you can feel a real affinity for the Inca people, who called themselves 'Children of the Sun.' But within an hour or two it is hot again and you must take the climb slowly You chew a little bunch of coca leaves (the perfect herbal remedy for mountain-trekking) to give a subtle injection of power at the bottom of each successive pass. At times you are stunned by mind-boggling views over both rainforests and ice-fields. Raised walkways that were built by Inca engineers 500 years ago lead you under shady canopies to deposit you (panting with adrenalin and exertion) on rock-faces high over tumbling rivers. Despite the hundred-foot drops it is impossible to stop your eyes from wavering towards views that do indeed seem to be too perfect to be accidental.

These immense panoramas emphasise the pilgrim's insignificance and inspire a feeling of humility that was perhaps exactly what the priest-kings of Machu Picchu expected from their visitors. The paving and stonework of Inca stonemasons survives all over the Andes, from Colombia to Chile, but nowhere is it as perfectly preserved as around Machu Picchu. The descendents of the Incas have always lived in the area, planting their potatoes around the Royal Palace and grazing their llamas in the complex's great Central Plaza. They must have been somewhat bemused when the archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the site in July 1911 and, with great excitement, informed them that it had been 'lost' for more than 500 years. It was another 30-odd years before the locals thought to mention that there was another great ruined complex - Huiñay Hauyan, the fabled 'Forever Young' - just 5 miles up the trail. Rumours abound that there is still an even greater city - t  which Machu Picchu was merely a gateway - hidden in the rainforested mountains to the east...but the Andean highlanders are saying nothing. Pachamama still has a few secrets hidden in the Peruvian Andes.