Chicon took some persuading to let me touch him, but after a good 40 minutes of purring and trilling and pleading, he stood still long enough for me to sink my fingers in his silky soft fluff.
He was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
As I smoothed down his fringe and straightened the coloured pom-poms dangling from his ears, I could only hope he had no idea that just a few days previously, I’d been eating his cousin.
I knew Peruvians ate guinea pigs but I didn’t know alpacas were on the menu, too. And llamas – less tasty because they’re bigger, I’m told. Baby alpaca tastes best. I could hardly look Chicon in his big, brown, trusting eyes…
Peruvian food is all the rage these days – Lima, a new Peruvian-with-a-twist restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia, has been booked out since it opened in July and has plenty of dishes to enjoy other than the aforementioned rodents.
You certainly won’t starve on a holiday to this South American country.
We started in Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city with nine million inhabitants. Also called the City of Kings, it features the grand architecture of many former Spanish colonial cities – cathedrals and churches, big squares, mansions and public buildings.
Sightseeing must-dos include the vast Plaza de Armas, a Unesco World Heritage Site, with the government’s Palacio, cathedral and town hall, plus the San Francisco Church and Monastery at its edges. The Casa Solariega de Aliaga, a colonial mansion occupied since 1535 by 16 generations of the same family, can be visited by prior arrangement.
But for your first Peruvian lunch, head for one of the city’s oldest traditional taverns, Cordano’s, for a delicious ham sandwich and your first pisco sour.
Pisco is a strong grape brandy created by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and it’s mixed with lime or lemon juice, syrup, egg white and Angostura Bitters for this classic cocktail. Sightseeing seems a whole lot more fun afterwards, though I do have to have a small lie down at my hotel before dinner.
Opened in 1997 and refurbished in 2005, Orient-Express’s Hotel Miraflores has a spa, rooftop swimming pool and views over the Pacific. Its reworked restaurant, Mesa 18, offers a Peruvian-Japanese fusion menu, less unusual than it may sound as Peruvian food has been affected by many outside influences including Spain, Africa, Japan and China.
Traditional Peruvian food includes tasty yellow potatoes mashed into causa; fish soups, or chupes; tamales with cheese and spices; beef sautéed with lashings of onion, tomato and chillis called lomo saltado; and the famous ceviche, finely sliced or cubed very fresh fish marinated in a piquant sauce of lime juice and chillis.
Many of these dishes are being given a modern twist by chefs such as Virgilio Martinez, who opened that aforementioned Peruvian restaurant in London.
All this means there are dozens of great restaurants in Lima. Just round the corner from our hotel, we found Pampa de Amancaes, and I tucked into lomo saltado, very tasty indeed, and another pisco sour. You can get a taste for these things…
It’s best to lay off the booze when you move to Cuzco, though. Set among mountains, it is 3,310 metres above sea level, so you can suffer breathlessness if you try to do things too quickly.
Cuzco was once the capital of the Inca empire, so sightseeing includes the archaeological site of Sacsayhuamán on the outskirts of the city, an ancient sanctuary and temple to the sun with walls formed from massive carved rocks.
There’s Santo Domingo Monastery, built in the 17th century on the foundations of the Qoricancha Temple of the Sun, too, and the Plaza de Armas (or Weapons Square, the name many Latin American cities use for their main square), with another massive cathedral, Santo Domingo, home to a painting of Christ attributed to Van Dyck.
Central Cuzco is very handsome indeed, and it’s here you’ll find the newest Orient-Express hotel, Palacio Nazarenas, opened in June. Created from a former palace and 16th-century convent, it has 55 oxygenated rooms as well as Senzo, a gourmet restaurant overseen by the aforementioned chef Virgilio Martinez.
As Chef Director, Martinez ensures every ingredient is sourced from within 100km of the hotel. Everything I ate here was absolutely delicious, including the mini alpaca kebabs passed around during pre-dinner drinks.
Guests can book a Taste of Cuzco tour that includes a trip to a local market and a cooking lesson. During mine, Martinez introduced me to ‘tiger’s milk’, his marinade used to make truly delicious ceviche.
We spent the afternoon wandering around the city’s San Blas area, shopping for souvenirs in the many boutique handicrafts shops and trying not to get out of breath.
Next day, I climbed aboard a train for the three-and-a-bit-hour ride to Machu Picchu. The luxurious Hiram Bingham train comprises two dining carriages where brunch is served en route and the bar has a small observation deck, the ideal spot to take great pictures as you wind your way through the Sacred Valley.
From Aguas Calientes where we alighted, it’s a half-hour slow, windy bus or cab ride up. Finally, I’d arrived − the ruins of the Inca city lay before me, more than 200 buildings of chiselled stone perched 2,380 metres up on a saddle of land between two mountain peaks.
The location is absolutely spectacular and I was even more impressed than I’d expected. Some scholars now believe Machu Picchu was a kind of Inca university rather than a citadel and was home to 1,000 people; 2,000 visitors now arrive every day.
Climbing around the site is exhausting though so take my advice – book yourself into Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, another Orient-Express property, which is literally only a few minutes’ walk from the entrance gate.
This means you can be at the gate at 6am sharp and have at least 30 minutes to contemplate the wonder of it all before the hordes arrive. It’s even more awesome in the peace and quiet.
Later, before we left for our next destination, I spent some time in the hotel’s little orchid garden and watched jewel-coloured hummingbirds flit between feeders. Gorgeous.
My trip to Peru ended with a few days in the visually stunning Sacred Valley of the Incas at the heavenly Hotel Rio Sagrado. The hotel, 3km from the town called Urubamba, has a gorgeous riverside garden, a very good restaurant and a lovely spa. I wished I’d booked a week here, it’s so peaceful.
That would also have given me more time with Chicon, too. He lives here with his chum, a brown llama, also only 18 months old, and nearly as adorable. I played with him for a while before heading for the al fresco table where a delicious lunch was served – ceviche, barbecued fish, succulent steak. But absolutely no alpaca.
Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941, www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers a luxury seven-night trip to Peru, staying at Orient-Express hotels throughout, including two nights at the Palacio Nazarenas, Cuzco, from £2,920 per person, including flights (including Edinburgh or Glasgow to London), transfers and accommodation with breakfast, and return tickets on the Vistadome train to Machu Picchu and guided visit. Return tickets on the Hiram Bingham can be included for an extra £295pp. For more visit, www.peru.travel