I ascend a steep Andean incline with Rafael, my guide from Explora Valle Sagrado, an all-inclusive hotel that operates a bit like an African safari lodge. They offer each guest a customized daily adventure, with options chosen from nearly 40 unique hiking and biking outings, small group or individual excursions that take you on lesser traveled trails and to lesser known archeological sites. I’ve been awed by visits to Machu Picchu and to the verdant Sacred Valley before, but hiking at 12,000 feet toward some pre-Inca ruins called Pumamarca, overlooking a spot where the Patacancha and Yuracmayo rivers intersect, we see no crowds — not even another trekker. A few farmers work some terraced plots as we pass, and goats, cows and sheep oversee our efforts. The air smells of eucalyptus. “See that moss on the rock?” asks Rafael. “That indicates how pure the oxygen is up here.” And, yes, I’m drawing all that thin, fresh air into my lungs like medicine. This moment, enwrapped by so much peaceful nature, is the cure for everything.
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At the end of the day, I hike again. This time I go to the Maras salt fields, with another Explora guide, Pancho, and a coterie of fellow guests from Mexico, Germany and Brazil. We trudge through flowered fields and meadows to a patchwork of pre-Inca-era salt ponds that glimmer as they zigzag down a hillside. Here, ancient people extracted salt; here, locals still draw it from the earth via a spring-water evaporation method. Highly prized, the salts are used worldwide by chefs such as Virgilio Martinez, who personally favors the pink salts for their purity. Infused in the late afternoon’s otherworldly violet light, I buy bags of salt from a vendor to take home. The salts, which come in various colors, sparkle like pouches of magic dust.
What we love:
- The location. Approximately two hours from Cusco among an expanse of quinoa fields, beneath eucalyptus trees and with views of the Andes, this riverside hotel occupies the grounds of an ancient hacienda in the storied Sacred Valley.
- The architecture: Archeologist and architects combined their efforts to place this sleekly rough-hewn building amid Inca ruins. Evoking a train to somewhere fantastical, the horizontal architecture features both contemporary elements (fixtures, furniture) and wooden elements, both modern and rugged. Luxurious but cozy, mountain casual and inviting, the architecture sets the mood for this hiker’s wonderland lodge experience.
- The food: With a farm-to-plate philosophy, the kitchen is managed by the laudable Michelin-starred Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. Indigenous recipes with a modern spin incorporate products grown only in this tiny region.
- The spa: Set across a field from the main hotel building, the spa, Pumacahua Bath House, lies in a 17th-century manor house. Amid gardens with period frescoes, the structure and grounds sport a pool, steam-room, and herb-scented sauna. Locally inspired treatments rule the day.
- The programs: Included in your stay are more 50 biking and hiking activities offered daily. Each fitness and culturally-oriented excursion will include a guide. Groups are small. You may be the only one! Each guest works with a staff member to create their daily, customized itinerary of adventures.
Need to know:
- While you can organize a trip to bucket-list Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley by train, Explora’s purpose is less to showcase the icon than to introduce the rest of the region’s trove to athletic travelers. Thus, the 50-plus included hikes/rides, ranging from easy to extreme, stand out as the focus for visitors. Most guests are return visitors to the area, as I was, and do not bother visiting Machu Picchu at all. I enjoyed delving deeper into the Sacred Valley’s largesse.
- Pisco Sours must be sampled. Don’t miss a tipple or two, but be careful, as they’re strong and you’re at high altitude.
- Guests fly into Cusco, the heart of the Inca Empire and a motherlode of Spanish-Colonial architecture. Add on a few days to investigate the city, then head to Lima where ceviche is king.
- If you’re brave, consider tasting guinea pig, a local favorite.
- Packing for the Explora Valle Sagrado trip can be tricky, as temperatures vary from moment to moment and weather can be mercurial, as in all mountain locations. Pack layers, bring something nice for the city, and be prepared to buy one thing, at least, from Explora’s store.