Jose "Joey" Koechlin von Stein, a Peruvian entrepreneur, waved a paperback at me. "This book," he says, "took 25 years to compile." The cover features a picture of a tropical plant. "It contains descriptions of 1,266 species." Silence fell, as he let this nugget sink in. "For 30 years," he continued, "we have been collecting information on what is out there in the Amazonian rainforest, in order to understand how it relates to each other... and not only to preserve it, but also to provide jobs."
We were dining at Joey's villa, a beautiful, candlelit museum of Peruvian art, silverware and pre-Columbian artefacts in Monterrico, an upmarket suburb of Lima. Running an eye over Joey's mounted collections of Incan huacos (clay funereal figurines), stone carvings from the pre-Incan Chavin cult and wooden doors salvaged from the old presidential palace in Lima, I was not surprised to learn that his glamorous wife, Denise, is an interior designer.
Avuncular, charming, sixtysomething and softly spoken, Joey is a contact-monger-cum-facilitator whose father served in the Peruvian Congress and whose younger brother ran for President in 2006 on the Green ticket. He backed Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about a mad 19th-century Peruvian rubber baron who hauls a boat across a jungle. "Fitzcarraldo took four years to shoot," said Joey. A resigned look flashed across his face. He hasn't produced a film since.
Now, the entrepreneur's ecological agenda has come to the fore. Inkaterra, his present project, is a not-for-profit organisation aimed at conserving Peru's natural environment and "cultural and archaeological resources". Joey has cast himself as a latter-day Noah, saving species from the deluge. Inkaterra is paid for by a group of hotels and lodges which brings environmentally responsible travel in from the wilderness, so to speak, and put it on the beaten track. These hotels parade their ecological credentials with luxurious interiors by Denise, and hot and cold running staff. The company claims to be the first carbon-neutral travel provider in Peru.
Joey founded Inkaterra in 1975. It has taken a while for the age of the "eco-evangelist" to catch up with his vision but, now that it has, Inkaterra is expanding fast, thanks to executive input from Denise's MBA graduate son Ignacio Masías. By the end of this year, Inkaterra will have six hotels located at Peru's greatest hits: Lake Titicaca, the Amazon, Cusco, Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Lima.
According to Joey, environmentally responsible tourism is the only way to sustain the industry in Peru without trashing the nation. "Few places on Earth have the raw conditions to achieve this. Peru has very strong potential."
Peru is a large, uncompromising territory divided into areas of desert, mountain and jungle, with very few soft, rolling bits in between. It contains jewels of archaeology, anthropology, nature, wildlife and scenery all underpinned by an ancient indigenous culture and the best food in Latin America. It is rare to find a country so beautiful and civilised, yet so unspoilt. Most tourists head straight to Machu Picchu, which, as Joey delights in pointing out, "is a 26-hectare plot in a country more than twice the size of France".
I visited Inkaterra's launch hotel, the Reserva Amazonica, in the Amazonian rainforest near Puerto Maldonado, a rubber outpost on the Madre de Dios river, an hour's flight east of Lima, in the Tambopata National Reserve. Bolivia is just over the horizon, but Maldonado is a frontier town in more than just the geo-political sense.
Three hundred metres beyond the last discarded oil drum, you hit "primary forest". Welcome to an ark of indigenous species, including thousands of unique strains of flower, bird, butterfly, insect and monkey. Humans are represented in the shape of the Ese'ejas tribe, whose warrior ancestors rebuffed both Inca and conquistador, but who eventually succumbed to the latex barons of the early 20th century.
The rainforest is also the larder of the anaconda, bushmaster, rare black cayman, puma, armadillo, anteater, sloth and the elusive spotted jaguar (spotting its disappearing tail is about as much as you can hope for).
Threats to this fragile environment abound. A new Transamazon Highway is being built that will bisect South America laterally. It runs slap-bang through the middle of Maldonado. Vast concrete abutments of a bridge spanning the Madre de Dios are already in place. "In three years," shrugged Joey, "it will cut the present road journey from coast to coast by 4,000km." I'm sure the fictitious Fitzcarraldo would have been proud of it.
Tourism is on the rise: when Joey opened the Reserva Amazonica in 1975, his was the sole lodge in the area. Now there are 32. With the expansion of Puerto Maldonado and the tourism industry, and now this inter-oceanic lumber-and-soya superhighway, Noah has his work cut out. And I haven't even mentioned the oil and gas programme, the gold- and mercury-mining operations, and the slash-and-burn agriculture.
"Are there laws to govern the exploitation of primary resources here?" I asked one of Joey's staff. The girl looked at me as if I were mad: "This is Peru. The word 'illegal' does not exist. This is the law of the jungle."
I boarded a long, thin, wooden waterbus and whined downriver to the Reserva Amazonica, 45 minutes away. Turkey vultures soared overhead and a cayman impersonated a piece of driftwood on the riverbank as I snacked into a bag of chifles (plantain chips).
The Reserva Amazonica is a cluster of 35 thatched cabins in a clearing hacked into the rainforest. César, the chief guide, took me on a beginner's stroll through the jungle. At a glance, the forest looks much like any other tree-growing opportunity: trunks, dead branches, tangled undergrowth and a carpet of mulching leaves.
The first clue that you are in an alien environment comes when you shut your eyes and concentrate on the rainforest soundtrack. Imagine a group of children let loose in a Hollywood special effects department. Doors on squeaky hinges and things that go "boing" are the obvious sounds. Further disentangle the aural spaghetti and you can identify individual voices in an animal choir of bleeps, chirrups, jingles, cricketing, whistles, saws and whoops, all thanks to myriad birds, bugs, creepy-crawlies and monkeys.
The birds make the most amusing sounds. One birdsong consists of a three-note arpeggio with what sounds like someone jumping off a diving board in the middle. The wittiest bird is the yellow-rumped cacique, the local Rory Bremner. It is a brilliant mimic of birds far bigger than itself, hawks and eagles, as well as other eavesdropped sounds, including mobile telephone ringtones and even human snoring. Perhaps the strangest noise in the jungle is a low, continuous roar like a jet engine. I asked César if it emanated from the local u o airport. "No, it's a red howler monkey," he said. "The loudest animal in the jungle."
The closer you examine the forest, the more secrets it throws up, yet the stranger it becomes. I saw a downward-growing strangler fig tree; a punk-style tree studded with a million needle sharp spikes; and a bicycle-chain creeper which held water in its joints for birds to drink from. The weirdest tree I saw stands up on its roots like a stilt walker. By discarding old roots and putting out new ones, the tree "walks" – one metre every 20 years. "In a few million years, these trees will be wandering about," said César.
The Amazon doesn't do big animals. Instead, you get bats, birds, butterflies and beetles (and that's only the "Bs"). The Amazon is believed to host 2.5 million species of insect. Who knows if these species are coming or going? Was I looking at nature's laboratory of prototypes that will go on general release in a forest near you, or is this nature's Death Row of doomed species whose evolutionary P45s will help make way for more viable ones? How many species are there out there that we won't know enough about until it's too late? Thank goodness for Joey.
Near the Reserva Amazonica is Sandoval, the most beautiful lake in Peru, an oxbow that once formed part of the Madre de Dios river. In and around its suspiciously calm waters lurk black caymans (a smaller version of a crocodile), anacondas, bushmasters, piranhas and giant otters.
In a canoe nailed together from bits of driftwood, my guide Erik and I set off down a creek which led to Sandoval Lake. When a baby black cayman eased itself into the water and swam off, Erik made the soft, swallowing noise that mother black caymans make to their babies. This one wasn't fooled. He probably thought it was one of those pesky yellow-rumped caciques.
The early evening stilling of the lake was punctuated by hoatzin birds thrashing about in the undergrowth. This bird is a missing link between birds and dinosaurs: its face has blue scales and the chicks have claws on each wing.
"Would you like a swim?" I thought I heard Erik say.
"I'm sorry. I thought for a moment you asked if I'd like a swim."
"What? In this water, infested with anacondas, caymans and piranhas? You must be..."
"Ha ha! Caymans never attack people except when protecting eggs. Piranhas only attack if they smell blood, but they have terrible eyesight. Anacondas might attack if hungry. I am 31 and I have never heard of a swimmer being attacked."
Erik helpfully told me how to react to an anaconda – keep quiet, walk slowly backwards and look at it in the eye. If the serpent strikes, jump out of the way; if it bites you, well... you need help. It has grappling hooks for teeth and an embrace that will take your breath away.
"One night, while hunting rodents in a creek," said Erik, "my father and I spotted a rabbit. We shot it and the rabbit disappeared into the water. Then we saw another rabbit and shot that one too. It disappeared in the water, too. We wondered where the rabbits had gone. Peering in the water, we saw this great anaconda: 12 metres. We killed it and pulled it out of the water. It was this wide [Erik clasped an invisible barrel]. We cut it open and found inside a cayman and two rabbits. Locals call the anaconda, yacu mama, meaning "mother of the river". If you kill one, the level of the river will rise. The day after my father killed the anaconda, it rained heavily."
Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire, is a 45-minute flight from Puerto Maldonado up into the Andes. The Inkaterra property here, La Casona, is an 11-suite boutique hotel in a converted 16th-century manor house that belonged to Diego de Almagro, a Spanish conquistador. It was still a hard-hat zone when I visited, but one of the most comfortable hard-hat zones I've ever seen. It is due to open next month.
When Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cusco in November 1533 with 160 men, he must have been amazed at Sacsayhuaman temple, which is built in Inca megalithic style from 125-ton blocks fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. What really caught his eye, however, was the gold that adorned buildings and people. (Curiously, the Incas only ever used gold as decoration, never as money.) The conquistadors seized the gold, melted it down and shipped it to Europe. Relations between Cusqueños and Spaniards have been tense ever since.
Sadly, not all the gold was shipped abroad. Take Cusco cathedral. Completed in 1669, it's worth a look – if you can bear it. The tonnage of 22-carat gold and silver plate it contains could sustain the Peruvian economy for years. Much of it is nauseatingly overwrought and needs dark glasses to look at.
The cathedral was built to evangelise the locals. In order to make Christianity palatable to the Quechans (the name of the native Andean people), the conquistadors had to Inca-ise it. So its Last Supper stars Francisco Pizarro as Judas – and the disciples eat roast guinea pig, boiled black corn, strawberries and small papayas.
The Incas' vegetable garden is the Sacred Valley, a 40km corridor just across the mountains to the north of Cusco, carved out by the Urubamba river. It grows everything from onions, broad beans, potatoes and strawberries, to the finest maize in the world. Besides being the Incas' back garden, the Sacred Valley was their route in to the jungle and the lowland areas. The two main towns in the valley are Pisac, famous for its textile market, and Ollantaytambo, a formidable Inca fortress that caused the Spanish no end of headaches.
The Inkaterra hotel here comprises five Urubamba Villas in "folkloric style" with pitched roofs, wood beams, rough plaster walls, wooden lintels, wooden dressers, red-tiled floors, open hearths and open-plan kitchens. The gardens are ablaze with fuchsia, bougainvillea, jasmine and begonias. It's like staying in a private home.
This part of Peru is famous for its colourful knitwear. Now, a little bit of Inca goes a long way back in Britain, but if there is one item to buy, it is the chullo: the alpaca Incan hat with ear-flaps. In production here for thousands of years, the chullo has finally made it on to the catwalks thanks to John Galliano (who visited Peru two years ago for inspiration, but fell ill and got no further than Lima) and Benetton.
The best place for chullos and Andean textiles is at Pisac market. The ponchos, rugs, jerseys and hats hit you with explosions of colour.
A two-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo, down the Sacred Valley away from Cusco, brings you to Aguas Calientes, the station for Machu Picchu, at the western extremity of the valley. In 1980, Joey bought a narrow strip of land and developed "Inkaterra Machu Picchu", a group of villas hidden among avocado trees, breadfruit trees and palms, in the biggest orchid garden in the world, with 372 recorded species. Joey's timing proved ill-starred: 1980 saw the birth of the Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist movement whose 12-year campaign against the rural areas of Peru all but wiped out tourism too, until its leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992, whereupon Joey's investment began to look a lot smarter. Today, the place is booming.
Although celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, David Blaine, Demi Moore and Heidi Klum have all checked in en route to Machu Picchu, the real celebrities at Inkaterra Machu Picchu are the birds. The Cloud Forest Garden is home to 33 types of hummingbird, as well as rare species like the green-and-blue motmot with its distinctive pendulum tail-wag, and the cock-of-the-rock, the Peruvian national bird.
You can't come this far and not visit Machu Picchu. My first thought, upon arriving at this mountaintop cash-llama of Peru's tourist industry perched above a U-bend of the Urubamba, was that you have to take your chullo off to those Incas. Not only did they manage without horses, wheels and iron, but they knew a good view when they saw one.
When the conquistadors reached Cusco, the Incas fled Machu Picchu to build a new city at Vilcabamba, a three-day walk to the south, an inhospitable region of mountains and jungle between the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers, 130km west of Cusco. Ironically, the Spaniards never did find Machu Picchu, but they did locate Vilcabamba, in 1572 – and destroyed it. This was the Incas' last stand. Or was it? "Last year I went into the jungle, where some Indians told me there are still Incas living in the jungle between Peru, Brazil and Colombia," said my guide.
Treasures are being unearthed in Peru all the time. Two weeks before my visit, a helicopter crew spotted a previously unknown tribe of Amazonian Indians. In the Andes, people are stumbling over Inca finds every month. Five years ago, archaeologists at Machu Picchu found three mummified bodies and Inca artefacts. Maybe the Inca still lives. Leave it to Joey to find him.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Peru. You can fly to Lima via Madrid with Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com); via Miami with British Airways/American Airlines (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com); and via Amsterdam with KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com). LAN (0800 977 6100; www.lan.com) and Air Comet (0808 234 5186; www.aircomet.com) fly via Madrid, using Iberia and Air Plus Comet respectively for the London-Madrid sector.
The writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 221; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers 12-night packages to Peru from £3,190 per person. The price includes flights with LAN from Heathrow, transfers, accommodation at the Country Club in Lima, Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, Inkaterra Urubamba Villas, Inkaterra Machu Picchu, Libertador Cusco, certain meals and excursions.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Country Club, San Isidro, Lima (00 51 1611 9000; www.hotelcountry.com).
Inkaterra properties (Reserva Amazonica Lodge, Puerto Maldonado; Urubamba Villas, Urubamba; and Inkaterra Machu Picchu): 0800 458 7506; www.inkaterra.com
Libertador Palacio del Inka, Cusco (00 51 8423 1961; www.libertador.com.pe).
Peru Tourism Board: www.peru.info