Great Adventure

In Peru's Sacred Valley, an Immersive Hotel Takes Food and Adventure to New Heights

by Daniel Schwartz
All photos by Daniel Schwartz.

The Sacred Valley is one of Peru's (and the planet's) most prized places, but its beauty extends far beyond the ruins of Machu Picchu. With the help of a world-class chef, an adventure-centric hotel is giving its guests a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Covid-19 note: Explora Valle Sagrado is scheduled to reopen September 30, 2020.

SACRED VALLEY, Peru — It may be on your bucket list already: The ancient Incan ruins, enchanting colonial towns, and stunning natural formations of Peru’s Sacred Valley, a roughly 40-mile stretch of fertile farmland in the foothills of the Andes, once the heart of the Incan Empire. This cradle of civilization is a treasure trove of cultural, culinary, and terrestrial delights. (There’s more to the valley than visiting Machu Picchu, eating guinea pig, and buying alpaca sweaters). Short of learning Quechua and trekking through towns yourself, there's almost no better way to experience the place than through Explora Valle Sagrado, a very special, all-inclusive eco-lodge that takes care of the adventure planning for you.

Expeditions gather here, in reception, every morning. Photo courtesy of Explora Valle Sagrado.
Rooms and outdoor spaces have a natural, minimal feel.
The main lodge, which houses the bar, restaurant, common spaces, a small shop, and plenty of space to plan adventures in full view of the Sacred Valley. Photo courtesy of Explora Valle Sagrado.

The hotel is located spectacularly off the beaten path (a signature of the Chilean hotel group), in a part of the valley most tourists breeze past on their way to Machu Picchu. The shuttle ride from the airport in Cusco takes an hour and a half. The entrance to the hotel is down an unnamed dirt road in the rural town of Urquillos.

It’s out there.

Built on land that once housed a Spanish hacienda and, before that, gardens for an Incan emperor, the property looks like something from a postcard. It’s situated around a stunning piece of farmland (planted with corn and colorful quinoa when I visited) with incredible views of the Urubamba mountains. The hotel itself — a complex of long, low, minimalist buildings linked by elevated walkways — is designed to highlight this surreal landscape, with vaulted, light-filled public spaces, outdoor terraces, and picture windows in every guest room.

The road to Moray.
The ancient Inca ruin of Moray.

And that’s just the start of it. Days here revolve around more than 40 custom, hands-on, immersive excursions led by expert local guides. Every evening in the main lodge, guides meet with guests one-on-one to plan out the following day’s activities. Guests have the option of whole-day treks with lunch on the road, two half-day excursions with lunch at the hotel in between, or free days at the hotel recuperating at the spa, located in a refurbished colonial bathhouse from the 17th century. (It’s as dreamy as it sounds.)

If you’re starting to wonder whether a workout regimen is required before a stay here, it’s not. Excursions are conducted in small groups, come in all difficulty levels, and range from walking tours of overlooked archeological sites to hikes up some of the area’s most challenging mountains. There are so many fantastic ones, you’ll want to do them all.

We hiked to the ancient agricultural site of Moray, a series of concentric circles carved into natural craters once used as an outdoor greenhouse by the Incas. We took a back road, past rural farm houses and herders trailing caravans of donkeys, that let us out at the rear of the remains, dodging the buses full of tourists that line up at the front. From a distance, we had the whole place to ourselves.

A women's weaving collective in Chinchero.
Wool, natural dyes, and weaving equipment.
Weavers spin wool around the clock, while farming, tending house, even cooking.
Naturally dyed llama, baby llama, and alpaca wool.

Another day, we visited a women’s weaving collective outside the city of Chinchero, where traditional Peruvian textiles like hats, scarves, and rugs are produced over the course of weeks or months the old-fashioned way, with hand-looms, llama bones, and natural materials like alpaca wool and dyes extracted from herbs and seeds. We were treated to a demonstration of the dying and weaving process and given the chance to purchase textiles directly from the individual maker. I walked away with two scarves and a hat, though the rugs, which take the longest to make but are moderately priced (for hand-woven rugs), are the real ticket.

The hike to Chinchero.
Andeans Lupins produce beans called tarwi, a staple of the local diet.

Afterward, some of us took a steep hike to the Andean village of Chinchero, stopping at a plateau overlooking the hotel along the way. On the hike, our guide told us stories about how climate change has affected food availability in the region and how mining has disturbed the local community (Quechua believe their ancestral spirits reside in mountains). He pointed out fields of dead lupins, which produce, in addition to beautiful flowers, a bean called tarwi, a staple of the local population. We stumbled upon a patch of potatoes left in a field called chuños, which can keep for twenty years after baking in the sun.

The town square in Maras.
On the road to the salt pans.
The salinas of Maras.

One windy afternoon, we trekked to the salt pans (or salinas) of Maras, a wondrous, multi-colored, man-made cascade that captures salt water running out of the mountains. (Bring a kerchief for the journey; it’s dusty). The pans are managed just as they were in pre-Inca times, one pool per family, and are a sight to behold, especially in the afternoon, when the red soil from the surrounding hills casts a warm glow in their reflections. Though you can't walk right up to the pools themselves, you can purchase some of the salt (in chocolate form, too!) as a souvenir from the nearby stands.

This being my first trip to Peru, I chose to dedicate one of my days to visiting Machu Picchu (you have to), even though that meant missing out on more original excursions (with way fewer crowds) and paying extra (as if to say, “it’s not all about Machu Picchu,” this is the only excursion not included in the package). It was worth it: Our guide took us on a hike to the Sun Gate, where we admired the ruins while eating alpaca sandwiches (a little morbid, but delicious!) before leading us into the old city in the late afternoon, just as the crowds were thinning out. This, as well as visiting on a Monday, is the way to do Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu in the late afternoon.

Perhaps it was the altitude, but each of these days felt like its own spiritual experience.

Mornings started with coca tea (a caffeine kick and a healing beverage at such heights), brewed with hot water from a thermos delivered to the room the night prior, one of Explora's many thoughtful, sustainable practices. WiFi is only available in the main lodge, so rather than scroll through my smartphone upon waking up, I rolled up the black-out curtains in my room and gazed as the sun rose over the mountains of the Sacred Valley, cutting through the faint smoke of cover crops burning in the distance.

In the evenings, I joined the friends I made on the day’s excursion at a fire pit under the Milky Way, a glass of house-made Pisco sour or a Sacred Valley craft beer always at arm’s reach. When it was time to retire for the night, Peruvian chocolate left at turndown service, a cup of soothing Andean mint, or muña, tea, and a soak in the jet tub in the bathroom were more than enough to induce a good night's sleep.

Mountain views (at all hours) from the property.

Every detail one could desire is accounted for and executed flawlessly, down to (and most especially) the food. To wine and dine guests between excursions, Explora brought on none other than Peru’s premier chef, Virgilio Martinez, to run the food program at Valle Sagrado, effectively turning the hotel into a destination restaurant. If you travel for the food (or have seen Chef’s Table on Netflix), you know this is a big deal.

The Michelin-starred chef has been a tireless student of Peruvian cuisine for more than a decade, and a major player in its explosion worldwide. He’s also somewhat of an adventurer himself (and a very down-to-earth one at that), and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Through his work at his scientific and social research center, Mater Iniciativa, which he runs with his sister, Malena, Martinez embarks on journeys similar to those offered at the hotel to catalogue indigenous ingredients around Peru and empower the people whose livelihoods exist around them.

He shares this wealth of culinary knowledge alongside his wife Pía León at their outstanding restaurants CentralKjolle, and Mayo in Lima; Mil at the ruins of Moray (if you can snag a reservation during your stay, it’s worth it for the full Martinez experience); a soon-to-be restaurant in the Amazon; and with curious, hungry travelers at Valle Sagrado.

Scenes from a hike around the altiplano.

What exactly does this mean for guests? Hyper-local, ever-changing lunch and dinner menus delivered in a variety of formats (sit-down, buffet, backyard barbecue, lunch on the high plains, you name it) that highlight the culinary riches the Sacred Valley has to offer. (Breakfast, a spread handled by the house, is an embarrassment of riches.) Basically, it’s like eating a Michelin-star-quality meal — the kind people normally wait a lifetime for — every. single. day.

At a preview dinner hosted by Martinez, the menu was studded with wild, wonderful ingredients, including mashwa (a colorful local tuber), “mushrooms of extreme heights” (the name says it all), and cushuros, small, clear capsules of fungi resembling caviar that form in ponds at the top of mountains. This, alongside tender rib steaks, marinated pork necks, cactus-cured trout, and a cornucopia of corn, quinoa, and potatoes in all colors, shapes, and sizes. This meal, and those that followed, felt like their own excursions: Every ingredient had a story and a name I needed help pronouncing.

As part of his partnership with Explora, Martinez is taking this concept — of food as a vehicle of appreciation and understanding — to the next level, curating immersive culinary excursions centered around his greatest passions: foraging for local ingredients, learning about indigenous food-ways, and connecting with native growers and purveyors.

Manuel Choqque showcasing Peruvian potatoes.
Every potato represents one year's yield. The more colorful ones are the most recent.
The mother of Manuel Choqque (right) gathering potatoes at the family farm.

On one such excursion, we visited the farm of Manuel Choqque, who (with support from Mater Iniciativa and the rest of his family) works to cultivate, preserve, and reengineer the 300-odd species of potatoes found in the Sacred Valley. (There are more than 4,000 species throughout the whole country.) His collection is nothing short of impressive.

Overlooking the Andes, Choqque cut open potatoes grown over the course of more than a decade to demonstrate the effect of selective breeding for color, flavor, and nutritional potency. The stock he grows now are rich in color and antioxidants and more closely resembles the potatoes of old, which were as much a cold remedy as a pantry staple.

He showed us potatoes that that looked like experimental art pieces, including one called the pusi qachun waqachi, or “the one that makes the daughter-in-law cry,” a bulbous, bumpy potato given to women by their future mother-in-laws to peel by hand as a test before marriage.

A huatia (left) and a variety of native potatoes.
Virgilio Martinez (right) with live musical accompaniment at the farm of Manuel Choqque.

He even prepared a huatia, a traditional Quechua oven made of rock and soil used to cook potatoes. The making and breaking of it is also a spiritual practice and symbolizes gratitude toward the Pachamama (the mother of Earth and time) during harvest season.

After our tubers were done baking, we sat down with Choqque and his beaming family under tents pitched on his property for a banquet prepared by Explora. Though Martinez was present (he visits the hotel regularly to oversee the kitchen but isn’t normally on these excursions), he deliberately took a backseat, shining the spotlight on Choqque, the land, and the humble potato.

That is, after all, the order of the day around here.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Fly into Alejandro Velasco Astete Airport (CUZ) in Cusco. Explora will arrange a shuttle to take you to the hotel (a 90-minute drive). Make sure you have your travel details straight before touching down: The airport does not have free WiFi (as of this writing) and it's easy to get flustered by a crowd of would-be taxi drivers, especially if you don't speak Spanish.

What to Bring
I went in June (winter in the Southern Hemisphere and dry season in the Sacred Valley) and did just fine with a jacket and some layers. A big coat isn't necessary, though it can drop below freezing at night. Hiking boots and comfortable walking shoes are recommended — you'll be walking a lot here. Bring a bathing suit to enjoy the beautiful pool and eucalyptus sauna and steam rooms in the spa. Though the hotel is luxurious, people keep it pretty casual. Well, merino sweater-casual.

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A Travel Photographer Navigates Peru's Sacred Valley

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