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Long Read: Peru’s Sacred Valley is Like Nowhere Else on Earth

Travel editor Neal McLennan takes on Peru’s other-worldly Sacred Valley—and it might just be cooler than Machu Picchu.

“Do you know how many types of potatoes Peru has?”

It’s day two at the new Explora lodge in Peru’s Sacred Valley and our guide, Vigner, is using the Socratic approach to keep our minds off the combo of hiking and thin air—namely, to quiz us on Peru factoids.

“Over 4,000,” I reply with as much gusto as my spent lungs can muster at 13,000 feet.

My fellow hikers—two Brooklyn hipsters on a short break and a quartet of impossibly good-looking Brazilians—seem seriously impressed, so I’m loath to burst their bubble and tell them that Abel, my guide on yesterday’s hike, had already quizzed me.

Some guests get up close and personal with the high alpine in the Sacred Valley.

But before he can ask us about the intricate road system of the Incan empire, we round a corner and are struck dumb by the panorama before us—our lodge, located about 4,000 feet below us, and the twin peaks of mountains Sahuasiray and La Veronica towering 6,000 feet above us. And we’re only on an acclimatization hike.

If visitors to Peru know anything about the Sacred Valley, it’s the quaint little archaeological site called Machu Picchu—with its cool 1.4 million visitors a year—that sits at the valley’s western reaches, but ironically it’s the sparsely visited area between bucket-list central and the colonial city of Cuzco that features the area’s most spectacular vistas and hiking. This outdoor playground was long the secret purview of two groups: the backpackers who came across this area while taking the cheap way to Machu Picchu and fell in love, and hard-core mountain bikers. Being neither of those, it took the luxe eco-chain Explora opening an architectural marvel to ping the destination on my radar.

You’ll be happy to be embraced by the luxury of the lodge on your return.

Like many of Explora’s properties, the combination of remote location (it’s set among acres of mature maize fields) and high design (architect José Cruz Ovalle used traditional materials in crafting the radically modern facade and spartan interiors) screams James Bond villain. But the reality is—given that you’re here to basically hike, bike and eat—you end up having much more meaningful interaction with the staff here than at many resorts. Take, for example, your nightly consultation with the guides: after a dinner (a blend of Michelin-level preparation with at least one of those 4,000 varieties of potatoes) that seems more at home in the food-obsessed capital of Lima than at this isolated outpost, you cozy up to a corner of the great room with a guide and a slew of topographical maps to plan the following day’s adventures. Each night my routine is the same: acting like a child at some dessert buffet by pointing to the highest, toughest hike, only to have my guide tactfully ease me into a hike I might be able to complete.

You’ll likely have the terrain all to yourself, save for a few random signs of ancient civilization.

The added issue here is the very real possibility of altitude sickness (the resort’s highest hike brushes 16,400 feet in elevation), so for a weekend warrior who lives at sea level, precautions must be taken, which is why the first two days are spent on acclimatization hikes, where less time is spent at high altitude, allowing the body to slowly get used to the thin air. But after those few preparatory days I feel ready to summit something, so my guide grudgingly agrees to take a few of us across the valley for a full-day hike that gets real high. There’s a giddy excitement as four of us pile into a van to chug toward the trailhead—we had all acclimatized well and we are taking the preventive drug Diamox, so we feel ready to tackle some elevation. As the van switchbacks up the side of the mountain, the dense verdancy of the valley gives way to smaller groupings of trees and, finally, as we near our starting point, no trees at all. The Incan empire may be long gone, but make no mistake; this is still very much Incan territory. Quechua is more widely spoken than Spanish, the traditional garb of oddly shaped ten-gallon hats for the men and bright handwoven blankets used as shawls is ever present, and while there are roads and modern trucks, they’re often used to transport teams of oxen to plow fields much the way they would have three centuries ago.

One of the more popular hikes is the Incan archaeological site of Moray, where terraces of farmland were used as sort of an early crop experiment,

And, 15 minutes into the hike, everything does look like it must have three centuries ago—fences made of stacked stone, the rare shepherd’s cabin burning peat for warmth—and we walk miles without ever seeing another soul. But as rich as the cultural backdrop is, it pales in comparison to the natural beauty. One of our group says it reminds her of northern Scotland, another, the Ural Mountains. To me, it looks like a happier version of Mordor, but we ultimately agree it’s fundamentally like no place we’ve ever seen. Imagine if the lichen you see on a mountain rock found a way to spread over an entire rugged landscape and you might have an idea. And, for the most part, the scenery is so striking that we forget the effects the exertion and thin air are having. For the most part. The steep pitches, which are thankfully few, resemble scenes from mountain climbing documentaries—slumped shoulders, one step at a time, sucking air through your teeth trying to get some fuel for your lungs. As we near what seems like the summit, I pull out my iPhone and pull up my newly installed altimeter app. It reads 14,432 feet. I would belt out a yahoo if it weren’t for the expenditure of oxygen required. But soon enough (well, not really soon enough, but well before passing out) we’re descending, moving past a series of still lakes—and, in a peculiar inverse thanks to the ever-thickening air, the tired legs perk up with each step. By the time we set up a little picnic in the open ruin of an old farmhouse, I’m almost ready to start hiking back up again. Almost.

Pulling back into Explora after an eight-hour day, the near necessity of the lodging’s luxeness seems evident. I can’t wait to amble back into my beautifully minimal room and let the rain shower pelt my tired muscles, and the rewarding pint of Barbarian craft beer from Lima seems sent from heaven (which, by my estimation, is only slightly higher than we were today). The night unfolds in a melange of ceviche, Chilean pinot, potatoes and me pulling out my altimeter to show the recently arrived guest what they’ll be doing in a few short days.

New heights are literally reached each day. On subsequent days, Incan ruins factor in, as does some gnarly but satisfying downhill mountain biking, and my one brush with altitude sickness on a steep descent is immediately put in abeyance by my guide, who reaches into his backpack for a Ziploc bag of green leaves.

“Chew on these,” he says, and within minutes of loading a wad the size of a tennis ball into my mouth, my headache disappears. And then my mouth turns briefly tingly before zoning completely out to full numbness. Even before I can ask “what is this?” I know the answer: coca leaves, legal in their raw state and part of the cultural fabric here.

By week’s end I’ve ironically reached full acclimatization just in time to have to go. I ask about the possibility of bringing some of the headache-alleviating leaves with me, but the answer is a polite, but firm, no. Take only your memories, as the saying goes, which, in this place, I’m just fine with.


(Photo: Ksenia Ragozina.)

Machu Picchu

Whether you lose your mind over Machu Picchu or can’t figure what all the fuss is about, you’ve still got to see it if you’ve spent all the time and money required to get to Peru. So, an insider’s tip: spend a little more (well, a lot more, actually) and have Explora book you on the Hiram Bingham train, a time machine built out of mahogany, white-jacket service and bubbly that will see you arrive at the very crowded destination all smiles and dignity. From $475, belmond.com

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