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Peru - Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu

Amelia Tockston

  • Machu Picchu
    Machu Picchu
  • Museo Rafael Larco Herrera
    Museo Rafael Larco Herrera
  • Incan agricultural pots, Larco Herrera
    Incan agricultural pots, Larco Herrera
  • Incan ornamentation
    Incan ornamentation
  • Sacred Valley
    Sacred Valley
  • Lunch at Wayra, Sol y Luna, Sacred Valley
    Lunch at Wayra, Sol y Luna, Sacred Valley
  • Peruvian Paso Horse Demonstration
    Peruvian Paso Horse Demonstration
  • Ruins of Pisac, Sacred Valley
    Ruins of Pisac, Sacred Valley
  • Sol y Luna
    Sol y Luna
  • Deluxe Guestroom, Sol y Luna
    Deluxe Guestroom, Sol y Luna
  • Dyeing the wool
    Dyeing the wool
  • Chinchero Weavers
    Chinchero Weavers
  • Agricultural Incan ruins of Moray
    Agricultural Incan ruins of Moray
  • Sacred Valley
    Sacred Valley
  • Mum and me, Maras salt ponds
    Mum and me, Maras salt ponds
  • En route to Machu Picchu
    En route to Machu Picchu
  • Machu Picchu
    Machu Picchu
  • Machu Picchu
    Machu Picchu
  • Machu Picchu
    Machu Picchu
  • Cusco

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Peru - Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu

Amelia Tockston

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Prior to visiting Peru, the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu stood in the forefront of my mind. I could not help but imagine my trip as a kind of pilgrimage toward its mysterious stone vestiges and sweeping terraces. Yet, while Machu Picchu was undeniably a highlight for me, two weeks of encountering different climates, elevation levels, archeological sites, villages and cities, quickly revealed to me the many layers and facets that make Peru the dynamic and diversely fascinating country it is today.

During the first week, I had the opportunity to bring my mother along to explore the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, including Lima and Cusco. The second week was then dedicated to inspecting three different regions: Lake Titicaca, Arequipa and Colca Canyon, and finally Paracas and the Nazca Lines. Throughout the journey, we were met and accompanied by a private English-speaking guide and driver. This was a new experience for me, as I had always traveled in a group on previous expeditions. But, what a difference it made to have one-on-one dialogue with the guide and flexibility with our daily schedule.

In the footsteps of the Incas: Week One--Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

After an all-night flight and brief morning nap, we awoke to enjoy a beautiful buffet breakfast at the Hotel Atton in Lima's San Isidro neighborhood. Later, our local guide, Miluska, met and accompanied us to Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, home to the world's largest collection of Pre-Columbian art (45,000 pieces). With white-washed 18th century mansion walls garlanded with bougainvillea and cantu flowers, the museum is a work of art unto itself. Before touring the collection, we paused before a diagram illustrating the civilizations that preceded the Incas--the Nazcas, Chimu, Moche, etc--which were eventually absorbed into the Incan Empire through peaceful, yet persistent means. Inside, we found bowls, urns, and pots, each with their own unique style and designs...gold-plated headdresses and ornaments, and macaw-feathered mantas. The symbolism, usage, and in some cases humor were brought to life by our impressively knowledgeable guide. I honestly can't think of a museum I've enjoyed more.

Sacred Valley
The next morning, we caught our one-and-a-half-hour flight to Cusco. Passing through blue skies and billowing white clouds interspersed with the occasional craggy outcropping of mountain top, we arrived in the former Incan Empire capital and nearly 11,000 feet in elevation gain. Enyer, our guide for the next three days, greeted us with sign in hand, loaded our luggage into the Mercedes shuttle, handed us each a bottle of water, and off we went to explore the verdant "El Valle Sagrado" (Sacred Valley).

The Incan site of Pisac, about 20 miles from Cusco, sits perched above Pisac village and is admired for its agricultural terracing. The views from here are spectacular and book ended by two gorges. Visitors keen to hike can take the two-hour trail from the village, but most opt for the road access as we did. Atop the terraces are well-preserved rooms and temples, as well as hundreds of honeycomb-like tombs notched into the cliff. Our guide pointed out the flagstone stairs in the terrace walls and a few sections undergoing erosion repair--apparently the first renovations needed since its construction in the mid-1400s!

For lunch, we were treated to a Peruvian feast at Wayra Restaurant at Sol y Luna, our hotel for the next two nights. Wayra is no ordinary restaurant. Offering a culinary and cultural experience appealing to the five senses, Wayra introduces guests to the flavors of the Sacred Valley while entertaining with colorful local traditions, such as a Peruvian Paso horse performance, ceramic workshops, dance, music, and theater.

We were seated on the terrace overlooking the gardens and equestrian center. Served family-style in beautiful ceramics, rustic-gourmet dishes steadily filled our table one by one: empanadas, tamales, beef heart skewers, assorted roasted potatoes, pork roast, chicken, grilled trout in cilantro pesto, chicha morada (traditional Peruvian drink from purple corn and the famous Pisco sour). For dessert, we delighted in caramel-dipped gooseberries, shortbread cookies, custard tumblers, and local fruits. Renowned lead chef, Nacho, stopped by to personally meet and shake our hands, and in the next moment, four horsemen in white ponchos and hats entered the garden and performed a lively Peruvian Paso horse demonstration! They were then joined by two Spanish dancers to present what Peruvians call the "Marinera"--a courtship performance.

By early afternoon, bright blue skies welcomed us to another major Incan site in the valley, Ollantaytambo. This fortress served as royal estate to Inca emperor Pachacuti, and later as Manco Inca's temporary stronghold against the Spaniards during the conquest. We climbed the large, steep terraces towards the top, pausing occasionally to admire the mind-boggling Incan masonry and to catch our breath... Our guide pointed to the quarry some six kilometers away, high above the opposite bank, from where these massive stones were transported by thousands of men--an inconceivable feat. The temples walls were never completed, Enyer explained, since their construction was interrupted by the Spanish conquest.

Evening found us back at our hotel, Sol y Luna, for dinner and relaxation. Our lovely deluxe casista was love at first sight with dramatic high ceilings, brightly colored art, stone fireplace, marble bathroom, and even a plate of marzipan and chocolate-covered strawberries. At sunset, someone came by to light our patio lantern, and following our gourmet dinner in the hotel's Killa Wasi restaurant, we came home to find an embroidered hot-water bottle nestled in our perfectly turned down French linens and sweet jazzy lullabies singing from the iPod. Sol y Luna was truly an extraordinary sanctuary for a good night's sleep!

Travelers could spend days exploring the Sacred Valley, visiting archaeological sites and communities, and taking full advantage of multi-sport activities from rafting and horseback riding to kayaking, ATVs, and paragliding at Sol y Luna. Our second day included the Center for Weavers of Chinchero, the Incan terraces of Moray, and the Salinas de Maras salt pans.

As a textile artist herself, in rug hooking and braiding, my mom greatly appreciated the craftsmanship shared with us at Chinchero. Our host, Carolina, provided a complete demonstration and narrative as we sipped our infused coca leaf tea. Beginning in the late 1970s, these weavers have worked as a group organized by Nilda Callanhaupa to preserve ancient weaving techniques and patterns. And, in 1996, they joined the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, which supports weaving communities to ensure 2,000-year-old textile traditions are not lost.

Seated on the lawn, about three dozen traditionally-dressed weavers were busy at work on the looms, their fingers orchestrating hundreds of threads. The patterns, Carolina explained, are woven with sheep, alpaca, and llama wool, and all-natural dyes are prepared by infusing the yarn with wild flowers, plants and insects: the cochineal insect for red, the chilca leaves for green, and lichen for yellow, etc. The finished products are displayed for purchase in the adjoining gift shop. While the prices are comparatively high, the textiles are not only 100% natural and traditional, but are of the highest quality and generate sustainable income for the weavers and their families. A personalized card with the artist's name and photo is included with each textile. The card on my purse read: Estefanica (90% sheep, 10% alpaca).

Moray is yet another of the many remaining Incan terraced agricultural sites. However, unlike most terraces found etched to the sides of mountains, Moray is sunken into the earth like a submerged coliseum. It is speculated that Moray was used by the Incas for agricultural experimentation to determine in which conditions their crops would grow best. The acoustics are phenomenal; from our distant vantage point, we could hear conversations from a visiting group of students far below. After admiring the terraces, the three of us found a grassy knoll overlooking the magnificent Andes to enjoy our box lunch of alpaca steak and marinated grilled vegetables. Under the warm mid-day sun, I closed my eyes, and laying both hands on the earth, breathed in deeply the crisp, fresh Andean air. In what clearly is God's country, it was no small challenge to identify with the ancient Peruvians unwavering faithfulness to Pacha Mama.

Leaving Moray, we headed to the Maras salt pans where a trickling salt-laden hot spring feeds hundreds of salt evaporation ponds. Dating back to pre-Incan times, the pans resemble a darker, smaller version of Turkey's hot springs at Pamukkale. Once a pan has filled, the farmer closes the water-feeder for the evaporation process to begin. After a few days, only the dry salt granules remain and the plot is ready for harvest.

Our last evening in the Sacred Valley was bittersweet. The two days in the valley made a marvelous and lasting impression, but we were full of anticipation for our next famous stop.

Machu Picchu
The clouds hung low in the sky the morning we caught the train from Ollantaytambo. In just an hour and a half, snaking along the Rio Urubamba, we watched the semi-arid Andean landscape transform itself into a Jurassic Park-like cloud forest. We pulled into the town of Aguas Calientes and followed Eyner to the main street to find the line-up of mini-buses that depart every 15 minutes. The 30-minute ascent zigzagged slowly up the steep mountainside and each switchback offered a more cinematic view than the last. The drop-off point faces the five-star Sanctuary Lodge with nearby restrooms and a few small snack shops (there are no restrooms at Machu Picchu, so be sure to bring some soles, Peruvian money, for the restroom outside the park! The 2,500 daily visitors (or less, but never more) must pass through the secured entrance with an official ticket from Cusco.

The anticipation-steeped trail leading to the ruins is short but exhilarating. Rounding the bend, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu felt like the surprise page of a pop-up book--more beautiful and animated than any photograph could capture, with endless intricate dimensions and angles... We stopped briefly for photos and for our guide's historical narrative. Though the ruins were below us, Enyer led us first further up the mountain via part of the Inca Trail. This route afforded the best views and some time for the crowds to pass through the central areas.

The complexity of Machu Picchu is astounding. Like a giant multi-dimensional puzzle, each piece fits perfectly into the next... Temples, tombs, homes, ceremonial baths, and plazas--all with a purpose and aesthetic appeal--all built in harmony with one another and with the natural state of the landscape. As I walked up ancient stone stairways, through trapezoidal doorways, and by running aqueduct-fed fountains, the term "ruins" seemed all at once logical and vastly short-sided. Though the Incas reigned for barely a century, their legacy thrives today through artifacts, legend, and mesmerizing archaeological sites, with Machu Picchu being the most known and revered. And, the energy of Machu Picchu is indisputable...as if the water flowing through the nearly 600-year old channels still breathes life into its walls. At 7,874 feet in elevation, the site reaches for the heavens bordered by a staggering display of canyons, mountains, and rivers. Llamas feed on terraces, and flowers, trees and plants splash color on otherwise beige framework. Spiritual seekers conduct rituals, and visitors hail from around globe to experience this uniquely sacred place. Though the Incas are gone, Machu Picchu is alive and well today.

Our one overnight in Aguas Calientes was spent at the lovely Machu Picchu Hotel - Inkaterra. A luxury boutique hotel nestled into terraced hills, Inkaterra features 85-whitewashed bungalows with exposed wooden beams, red-tiled floors, fireplace in some suites, and a private Jacuzzi. In the main lodge, the fireplace and cozy lounge areas provide the perfect place in which to collapse after a long day of trekking and strolling through Machu Picchu. Upon check-in, guests are handed a voucher for a welcome pisco sour. For dinner in the candle-lit dining room, I tried guinea pig for the second time--guinea pig confit, to be exact. Guests at the hotel may also indulge in the spa, sauna or Jacuzzis, or may stroll through the expansive grounds on a guided nature walk. Special activities are also available with reservation, such as tea-making workshops.

Our second day at Machu Picchu was slower paced, as our guide had returned to Cusco the previous day. In the morning, we walked to the famous Inca Bridge by following a narrow trail that hugs the towering cliff. Unaffected by heights and the nearly 1,900-feet drop to the riverbed (unlike her daughter!), my mom led the way. To think that the Incas used trails such as these daily is astounding. The last 30 feet of the trail is lined with a rope railing bolted to the rock. I clung to this tightly while making my way towards the lookout. The actual bridge is constructed of wood and links a twenty-foot gap in the carved cliff edge. The view from here is remarkable, but I was thankful and relieved once we returned to the trail head and signed our names under the "returned time" column of the guest book...

Having packed a snack for the road, we found a grassy terrace with yet another enchanting view of the ruins below. We noticed other visitors snoozing on backpacks, reading, and taking photos. Very little chatter was heard. People were simply content to lie or sit and just soak up the intense beauty before them. The couple next to us whispered their conversation to not "disturb the peace."

The following day, we boarded the train in Aguas Calientes, this time headed to Cusco, about three hours down the tracks. I was looking forward to a free day in the city for strolling through the markets, sampling the restaurant fare, and admiring the UNESCO World Heritage recognized architecture. The picturesque Plaza de Armas, by day and by night, was an easy highlight, and the Centro Artesanal, Cusco's largest indoor handicraft market of over 150 small stalls, was the perfect afternoon excursion for a mother-daughter travel team.

After seven fun-filled days together, my mom boarded her plane home-bound to the U.S. as I prepared to continue on for another week of travel inspections... Looking back, we could not have wished for a better Peru experience together! We reminisce often and have hundreds of spectacular photos to share with family and friends.

Click here to continue the adventure with Amelia as she starts the second chapter of the trip: In the Footsteps of Incas: Week Two--Lake Titicaca, Arequipa and Colca Canyon, Paracas, and the Nazca Lines