Photo by Marley Gibbons
SACRED VALLEY & MACHU PICCHU
The Urubamba River valley, known as the Sacred Valley, was the cradle of the Inca civilization in the 11th to 15th centuries. It’s home to Machu Picchu as well as other archaeological sites and modern-day villages. We suggest spending 3 days to explore the region, including Machu Picchu, before heading back to Cuzco.
The 15th-century citadel of Machu Picchu is the item every visitor to Peru wants to check off their bucket list—and it really does live up to all of the hype. The level of detail, the advanced technology in evidence, the pristine appearance (everything in Peru is well preserved, thanks in part to the country’s unique and diverse climate)—everything about the place is mind-boggling.
Note that new regulations, intended to limit human impact on these sacred grounds, mean that you can only visit Machu Picchu in one of two daily shifts, morning or afternoon. The afternoon shift tends to be less crowded, but it’s rare to get a photo without a few other tourists in the frame. We usually recommend taking the train from your lodge, although hiking (including a “glamping” option run by Belmond) is available to hardier souls. Tip: Take the state-run Vista Dome train one way—preferably in daylight so you can appreciate the scenery through the panoramic windows—and return after dark on the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham, when the distractions of its historic fittings and swank dining car are more welcome.
Beyond the ruins, it’s worth exploring the living culture of the Sacred Valley. One worthwhile excursion organized by the Explora lodge (see “Where to Stay” below) starts in the small village of Cuper Bajo, where you will meet the local women who spend months weaving the gorgeous, iconic fabrics, scarves and rugs you see all over Peru—and have an opportunity to purchase directly from them, supporting the local economy (and avoiding inflated prices you’ll find elsewhere). That’s followed by a challenging hike up a shepherd's path to vistas of the lagoons and farmland below. The trip ends up in the town of Chinchero, home to a colonial church the Spaniards built on top of an Incan masterpiece—an example of the region’s fascinating mix of ancient and colonial styles. On my visit, I was lucky enough to watch local children perform a traditional ceremony dedicated to the sun god.
Where to Stay: As at the company’s better-known locations in Chile, everything about the Explora Valle Sagrado exceeds expectations, from the food to the staff to the organization and quality of the experiences. What Explora does right in Patagonia and Atacama—namely, immersing its guests actively in the local environment and disconnecting from the outside world—is amplified here by Peru’s living culture. Explora’s activities allow guests to not only get exercise and experience the beautiful terrain on foot, but to learn so much about this cradle of civilization.
Tambo del Inka lacks some of Explora’s authenticity, but it’s great for families who need connecting rooms and kid-friendly rooms and entertainment. Also, its large number of rooms makes it somewhat more affordable and available for last-minute bookings.
Other options include the ranch-like Sol Y Luna, which gets raves for its family-run hospitality, extensive gardens, and cuisine (it’s a Relais & Chateaux property); and the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, a sprawling resort on the Urubamba River that’s especially desirable if you want an end-to-end experience with Belmond, which dominates the luxury scene in Peru. (But rest assured that if you book with Skylark, your trip will be seamless wherever you stay.)