Inca gold in Peru

The van stops and starts as we weave our way along the windy road from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley. It’s a bumpy journey, and although I do my best to stay awake and watch the locals go about their business, eventually the movement lulls me to sleep. When I open my eyes, I’m met with one of the best views I’ve ever witnessed: a patchwork of lush greens and soft browns glisten in the afternoon sun. “That’s Valle Sagrado,” our driver declares. “That’s where we are heading.”

The Sacred Valley (also known as Urubamba Valley) is a striking expanse of quaint villages, ancient ruins and verdant countryside spread across a broad plain at the foot of the Peruvian Andes. Many travellers whizz through the region, focusing on spending most of their time in Cuzco and Machu Picchu; but the picturesque valley is definitely an attraction in its own right.

Dramatic landscapes make for some of the most scenic trekking opportunities in Peru; friendly Quechua communities offer a glimpse into a life not yet ruled by selfies and hashtags; and that’s not to mention loads of well-preserved Inca archeological sites well worth dedicating plenty of time to. There’s a lot more to this area than just Machu Picchu! Which is why I’m here for three days and three nights staying at the brand new explora Valle Sagrado.

An explora is not just a hotel; it’s an exploration company with a number of plush properties in remote locations. The concept is that guests come to submerge themselves in the natural surrounds and the properties serve as comfortable bases; explora Valle Sagrado is the first opening outside Chile

The focus points at every explora are the “expeditions” – and here there are 20 on offer (half-day and full-day options), spanning everything from hiking and biking to visiting Machu Picchu (by train and bus). The concept encourages flexibility of choice and there’s no need to pre-book activities – guides sit down with guests each night to go through the choices for the next day.

Although explora offers a Machu Picchu excursion (which includes the train, bus and guide), I opt to take the legendary (and a little more extravagant) Belmond Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu instead – for a dose of supreme luxury. Named after the American academic and explorer who rediscovered the Inca marvel, the train can carry up to 84 passengers in true elegance. 

I’m greeted with a flute of champagne as I step into an elegantly-appointed 1920s Pullman-style carriage and then enjoy a lavish thee-course meal (white tablecloths, leather menus, silver cutlery and all the fancy trimmings) while marvelling at the Andes as the train knits its way along the narrow track. Before I know it we’ve arrived at Aguas Calientes, the access point to Machu Picchu (you can hike up or take a bus), where we meet Luciano, our guide for the day.

Luciano sure knows his way around this phenomenon and is clearly thrilled to share his insight with us. He chaperons us around the historical sight, offering plenty of information about the Incas as we clamber up and down the mammoth stone stairs. The Incas were physically small people (when their skeletal remains were discovered it was initially thought they were a predominantly female population because of the size of their frames), but even I find the chunky stone stairs somewhat challenging to navigate.

Luciano points out stunning temples and colossal stone gates, typical Inca three-walled constructions (called wayrana) and niftily-assembled doors. And although the site feels immense, Luciano explains that we can essentially only see around 30 per cent, with the rest of this ancient empire veiled in dense foliage. We hypothesise as we roam around, dissecting various historical theories about this forward-thinking civilization. Which structure was the guard’s house? Why did the Incas build so many cavities within the walls? Was the Intihuatana stone (a distinctive sculpted granite rock) a solar clock or calendar? One thing is for sure: the Incas were indisputably well ahead of their time. 

The next day I join an explora hike to Salinas de Maras (the salt pans of Maras) – another example of the Incas’ progressive and sophisticated thinking. The Sacred Valley has many Inca archeological treasures (including the citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo), but the salt pans are considered one of the most striking attractions. 

We drive to the town of Maras to begin our hike, first strolling through the charming village to acquaint ourselves with the locals. Although the Incas originally built the salt washing and extracting pans, the residents of Maras continue the work today and the salt manufactured here is legendary across Peru for its superior quality. 

Before we get to the salt pools however, we hike past Moray, yet another testament to the brilliance of the Incas. The terraced platforms are set in a spherical formation in a large bowl-like depression, covered in abundant grassland typical of the fertile Sacred Valley. 

Abel, our explora guide, explains there are various theories about why the Incas created this mammoth cropping area, but one of the common beliefs is that the terraces were designed in this layer-like formation so the Incas could cultivate an assortment of crops at varying temperatures. As we loop our way down towards the salt pools, I’m able to appreciate the view from various angles and grasp the sheer scale of the venture.

When we do get to the salt pans, my wonder for the Incas once again emerges. Twinkling in the dappled sunlight, the white and ivory salt pools stand out against the backdrop of jagged emerald peaks. We linger here longer than anticipated, admiring the pastel pink and auburn hues that dusk brings.

By the time we get back to explora Valle Sagrado, it’s pitch black and the bar is buzzing; so I join the fun, order a pisco sour and sink into a sofa next to another smiling face as we share the tales of our day’s adventures.

Casting an eye over tonight’s menu, alpaca (a local favourite) is one of the options; I decide I’ll order the slow-roasted alpaca shoulder and a Peruvian Malbec – I’m all about sampling the local produce.  

As my thoughts drift to my last day, a guide materialises beside us to discuss tomorrow’s exploration options: There’s a 33-kilometre biking escapade that traverses the valley on the south side of the Rio Urubamba – a scenic pedal passing cornfields, farmland and ancient manor houses. There’s a van adventure that takes in Qoricocha lagoon, Valle De La Papa and includes a stop at a textile-manufacturing workshop. There are plenty of hikes on offer too. 

There’s only one way to decide. I order another pisco sour and contemplate the options. If only I had more time…

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