The Ultimate Way To See Peru’s Sacred Valley
Why high altitude and ancient Inca ruins are the best antidote to our always-on culture
Incañan hike in the Sacred Valley. Photograph courtesy of Explora
Holidays are supposed to be blissful and relaxing, and often aren’t. Switching off your emails, sitting by a pool and ordering a cocktail is all well and good, but it also tends to leave you in an uneasy segue state where you think things like “I wonder what’s going on in my emails”, and “I hope that thing I left sort-of-half-done turns out OK…” (it never does).
In the early stages of a break, I find this is accompanied by a slightly terrifying Lovecraftian feeling that there’s something I should be attending to, out there in the cosmos, but don’t know exactly what. And it’s not because I’m some saintly workaholic (as a straw poll of the MR PORTER office confirms – thanks everyone), but because the reality is that when you spend much of your life plugged into emails and social media and various other awful things, it’s very difficult to calm down and switch off. That is, unless you’re fortunate enough, at some point, to find yourself 3,700km above sea level, standing on the side of a mountain and looking down, a little breathlessly, at the interlocking, zig-zagging slopes of Peru. Yes, that’ll do it.
The discovery of this particular life hack comes courtesy of the Chilean travel company Explora, an adventure-focused operation founded in 1993 by entrepreneur and nature enthusiast Mr Pedro Ibáñez, and still owned by his family. Explora’s ethos, explains CEO Mr Gonzalo Undurraga, is that “luxury is about having the time to stop, to reconnect with nature, and in that process to reconnect with yourself and others.” In short, it’s something of an instant antidote for the always-on nature of the modern workplace.
In the past 25 years, Explora has introduced travellers to some of the most remote, and beautiful landscapes of South America, from Patagonia (the site of the company’s first hotel, or “base-camps” as it prefers to call them) to the vast flats of the Atacama Desert (which, I’m told, are perfect for stargazing, thanks to the clarity of the night sky), to Easter Island (of big heads fame). “Each destination is unique,” says Mr Undurraga. “At Explora, we co-brand with the territory. We study it for years in order to understand from where and how to explore it. The goal is that the real protagonist is the territory and its culture. And we focus on allowing our explorers to discover it in the most genuine way.”
In 2019, the company will be relaunching its property in Uyuni, Bolivia, and in 2020, opening up its first site in Argentina, but at the time of writing, the Peruvian site, which opened in 2016, is the newest. Nestled in the midst of corn fields near the small village of Urquillos, it was more than a decade in the making thanks to the peculiar challenges of planning and construction in what is known as the Sacred Valley, an area full of ancient Inca structures. To get to the base camp, you fly into Cuzco, and drive for an hour and a half; it’s a fairly gruelling trip from London, about 19 hours, with a stopover in Bogotá, Colombia, but Explora does its best to make it as smooth as possible, with the cost and admin of the airport transfer (there and back) included in the booking. More importantly, for easily pleased people, there is also a bundle of lovely merchandise waiting for you on arrival. This includes a tastefully designed booklet detailing the ethos of the place, a waxed paper map of the area you’ll be exploring, and a branded water bottle, which, this high above sea level, you need to glug from almost constantly, lest you keel over from altitude sickness.
Exterior of the Valle Sagrado Hotel. Photograph by Mr Roland Halbe
For those used to the more run-of-the-mill 24-hour room-service type of luxury hotels, the Explora model might seem a little unusual. There’s no TV or Wi-Fi in the rooms and no minibar. Though the Sacred Valley outpost – a delicately sprawling neo-modernist design from Chilean architect Mr José Cruz Ovalle, all gliding ramps and wooden struts – is a wonderful place to be and, yes, has a spa, a pool, hot tub and yoga room, as well as a well-stocked bar and restaurant (both all-inclusive), but the general idea is that you’re not supposed to spend much time there at all. Instead (and, yes, even as soon as you arrive) you’re encouraged to book yourself in for one of the many half and full day “Explorations” that are run by the guides who live and work on the site. “In traditional hotels, they prefer people to stay in the hotel during the day because they will consume,” says Explora Valle Sagrado’s general manager Mr Jose Rosenberg, who joined the company shortly before the site’s launch in 2016. “That way,” he says, “they’ll increase the ticket for food and beverage. But we’re trying to push our guests to get out. For us, the best days are when there’s no one inside having lunch, because everyone is outside exploring the area.”
He’s not kidding. On the day of arrival, I get about 15 minutes to rest before I and five or six others are taken out on a 7km hike through Racchi – a mid-level route which takes you across dry slopes covered with bristling cacti and painterly swathes of red- and purple-hued soil before finishing with the aforementioned panorama of the valley and, delightfully, a pop-up table of beers, cheese and crunchy snacks. After a 20-hour journey, this might sound a little stressful, but it’s actually the opposite – the jetlag, the physical exertion, the altitude and the visuals combine to bludgeon you into an unthinking state of blissed relaxedness almost instantly. Plus: snacks.
This, really, was just the warm-up though. In the course of my five nights at Explora Valle Sagrado, I go on a wide range of adventures. Day two is visiting local hand-weavers in Cuper Alto, then walking up to take in the historic town of Chinchero (where, in the colonial period, the Spanish plonked their town atop the existing Inca structures) and returning to the hotel via a route – terraformed by ancient stone steps and gulleys – that was once used by the Incas to send messengers between their mountain outposts. Day three is a technical bike ride from Qenco, which takes us 1,000m downhill through perilously steep, winding, mountain paths. (I fall off. Twice. My poor Arc’teryx.) On day four, we do more touristy things – the archaeological site of Moray, the incredible stepped terraces of the Salineras salt farms – where, awfully but hilariously, an Instagram influencer stalks up and down in bare feet and a floaty dress, her sad boyfriend trailing behind with a camera, salt farmers doggedly hoisting 50kg sacks of salt below. But even for these more well-trodden areas, Explora has designed routes that approach them via scenic hikes that take us away from the bus tours and tacky gift shops. On day five, the guides deem a few of us ready to go on one of the higher explorations, Llocla, which rises to 4,400 puff-inducing metres before descending through tiny mountain farms, herds of grazing alpaca and giant lagoons. It’s all madly beautiful and completely overwhelming and by the end of it I feel like I’ve been on about 13 holidays all at once, and seen a huge variety of people, places and things.
This, says Mr Rosenberg, is very much the point, and deeply influences how Explora plans the range of different trips that it offers. In the case of the Sacred Valley, he says, they make sure not only to cover the two major mountain ranges that border the territory (Urubamba to the south, Vilcabamba to the north), but also three different levels of altitude. They’re currently planning two explorations that go higher than 4,500m above sea level, so that the resort not only offers a full range of landscapes, but something for everyone (for the record, guests skewed towards 30 upwards, but there were a wide range of ages represented, from recent graduate school finishers from New York to a group of 60-something retirees from Australia). “The higher you go, the more memorable it is,” says Mr Rosenberg. “You start feeling more and more like the real people working and getting on with their lives up there.”
Salt mines at Salineras de Maras in the Sacred Valley. Photograph by Mr William T Armstrong
Another part of what makes these explorations particularly memorable, and satisfying, is the expertise and engagement of the guides. At Explora, a guide meets you very evening before dinner (which, by the way, is very nice), while getting stuck into the pisco sours (the one infused with coca leaves is particularly good) and being served up a few amuse-bouches (NB: for me, this offered a much nicer way to eat the local delicacy of guinea pig, which, on the roadside stalls, is skewered on a stick and deep-fried). The idea is that they help you to choose your next day’s exploration, and the advice is 100 per cent useful. When you embark on the trip – you tend to be paired up with someone different each time, in groups ranging from two to eight people – the chat is also top notch.
Clearly, the company has worked hard on training and recruiting – during our bike trip, our guide Eric explains the whole process to us and it sounds impressively rigorous – a little bit like judges’ houses on The X Factor, but with more mountains. You would expect as much, because the guides seemingly know everything, and not in a rote way. If you ask why the soil is a certain colour in a particular place, they can tell you. If you ask about local folklore, or the realities of living and working at these barren altitudes, they’re also well-prepped. I have to say that, generally, I hate guided tours, but found it difficult not to like Explora’s take on the whole thing, in which there are no set speeches, but plenty of useful and fascinating information, if you want it.
All this, I am given to understand – and later see, when encountering a very shouty group tour at the salt farms – is a cut above the general standard in the Sacred Valley, where Explora has been a frontrunner in establishing a more nuanced and off-the-beaten path approach to tourism. Historically, says Mr Rosenberg, people have spent very little time in the Sacred Valley – the general itinerary features a trip to Machu Picchu, perhaps another archaeological site, and then a swift flight somewhere else. But the average length of stay in Explora’s base camp is four nights, and they’re always looking for ways to extend that. “The Sacred Valley provides the opportunity to do lots of things,” says Mr Rosenberg. “We have culture, the archaeological sites – that’s why most people come. But there’s also great nature, scenery, you can do cycling, hiking, sports in the river, all that. So there’s a great deal of possibility.”
There’s also plenty of possibility, of course, in this mode of experience-based tourism in general. As Mr Undurraga points out, these days, “younger people are more connected to the experience economy and more interested in the value of nature. They care about the deeper issues.” And one of the other projects the company is working on for 2019 is taking the experience one step further, by relaunching what Mr Undurraga calls “our nomad experience”. This involves a five-, six-, seven-night trip from Atacama to the world’s largest salt flat at Uyuni in Bolivia. “You move from one location to the other with an Explora guide and spend the nights in totally isolated mountain lodges,” says Mr Undurugga. “It’s an experience I am sure nobody could forget.”
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