Peru - Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu
Land Based Adventures
Like everyone, I had always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. So many friends had described the unique magic of the place and how it had fascinated them. Yet what I didn't know about Peru when I set off on my journey at the end of a rainy November was that I would be so moved by this lush, green landscape, these wonderfully warm people and the ancient culture that binds them together. Given the opportunity, knowing what I know now about the beauty of this place, I would definitely like to travel in Peru again and again.
My journey began in the bustling city of Lima. The friendly guide who met me at the airport was quick to point out the do's and don'ts for any visitor to this busy metropolis, along with answering my many questions about landmarks, culture and people. My hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection Miraflores, was located in a lively district filled with crowded cafes and shops. This beautifully appointed hotel surprised me with its artful and comfortable furnishings and many amenities. A tour of Lima offered me a look at modern Lima's attractive shopping centers and office buildings by the sea, as well as some lovely Spanish Colonial architecture in the more bohemian Barranco neighborhood.
After an early flight to Cusco the next day, I was whisked away from Cusco's extremely high altitude of over 10,000 feet and taken in a comfortable van to a lower altitude where I had my first glimpse of Peru's Sacred Valley. Nothing had prepared me for the exquisite beauty of terrace after terrace of leafy green cultivated fields tucked neatly between towering peaks haloed with clouds. I was awestruck. As I'm writing this I'm finding it very difficult to describe how moved I was by my first real awareness of this culture that had the persistence and vision to grow food on hillside terraces that must have taken generations to complete. My visit to the Pisac Ruins in the Sacred Valley showed me how from the early 13th Century to the 1500's, the Incas used sophisticated techniques to move water to their homes and down through fields, and how the lifestyle that evolved worked in tandem with the forces of nature.
This first day in the Sacred Valley continued to surprise me. The Pisac Market was colorful and filled with friendly vendors who knew my guide and wanted to chat. A stop for empanadas and to see a guinea pig castle was a fun oddity. Lunch at Hacienda Huayoccari, a Spanish Colonial hacienda overlooking the terraced fields was delicious as well as breathtakingly beautiful. Hiking up the 200 stairs of Ollantaytambo to see the majestic Incan citadel at the top gave me an even clearer respect for this highly productive culture. And finally my hotel, Sol y Luna was literally one of the most lovely hotels I've ever seen, and I've inspected and stayed in hundreds of hotels during my travel career.
My second day in the Sacred Valley was just as wonderful. My guide and I started out in Chinchero, a tiny village way up in the Andes where the Spanish had built a church directly on top of an Incan sacred site. The church and the ruins together were a chilling combination of one faith hoping to dominate another. Still, I had one moment there as I stood on a cliff edge surrounded by peaks and clouds, which resonated, I think, with some of the original power of the place before any faith had claimed it. It was remarkable.
The women who make up the Chinchero weavers collective greeted me at the gate of their workshop with a snack of purple and golden potatoes, some of the over 250 varieties of potatoes grown there. Traditionally dressed women in black skirts, red jackets and bowl-like hats showed me how they spun, dyed and wove their marvelous patterned fabrics. I was fascinated by the plants they use to create all the different colors. An English-speaking young woman from Cusco interpreted for me as I asked questions about the weaving process and about the ages of the children who played in the courtyard. What a neat way to get to know the women of this region. I loved this!
After a boxed lunch from Sol y Luna we headed to Moray, a set of tiered Inca fields arranged on a steep hillside in a harmonious circular pattern. My guide said this had been a plant laboratory where different plants were grown at precise altitudes on each terrace. The effect of these concentric circles carved out among the mountain peaks was hypnotic. Next we headed to the Maras salt flats where families had been running a very salty river through clay beds to extract the salt for over 300 years. A different family owned and maintained each salt bed, letting the water evaporate and then gathering the salt in sacks. The pattern made by these beds laid out all the way down the hillside had its own kind of beauty.
I left Sol y Luna early on Day 4 of my trip with great anticipation as I headed to the Ollantaytambo train station for my journey to Machu Picchu. My train was called the Vista Dome because it had great overhead windows I could look out to see cloud-wreathed Andean peaks as we traveled toward Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. After securing my luggage at my hotel, Inkaterra, a maze of plantings, charming casitas and understated elegance, I boarded a bus to Machu Picchu and was finally on my way to this mysterious Incan temple or fortress or mansion--no one really knows what--to experience it for myself.
And experience it I did. The placement high in the clouds, the architecture of carved stone against stone the building of which must have been a herculean task, the thousands of stairs from level to level, and the hush that falls over every visitor as they stand up near the Gate of the Sun and look down on Machu Picchu as every Inca from this place must have before them, is an experience not to be missed. It's hard to say in words how extraordinary Machu Picchu truly is.
The following day I had a choice between going back to Machu Picchu, as some might, to climb Wayna Picchu, or to stay at Inkaterra and experience what this amazing lodge has to offer. I decided to take a tour of the orchids and plantings that surround this Condé Nast winning property, Inkaterra, and I wasn't disappointed as hummingbirds, butterflies and exquisite flora were my reward. Later that afternoon I took the train back to Cusco where I finally had the opportunity to explore this fascinating town. My day and a half in Cusco was filled with shopping, dining, people watching, museums, churches, talking with local people and general delight. Cusco is wonderful place to end this journey into a different way of life and a seemingly different time.
If you asked me what I liked best about my Peru trip, I'd have to say how excited I was to discover that the ancient relationship between the earth and the people working the land lives on in Peru so we can get a sense of how rewarding that relationship can be. I'd have to say that my favorite thing about Peru is knowing that there is still a place where growing things and living together in community has produced a magnificently rich culture including an extraordinary feat of architecture known as Machu Picchu. After this trip, I firmly believe that Machu Picchu should be on every single traveler's "bucket list".