“What are you doing here?”
I’m standing on a dirt track in the tiny highland village of El Viacha, Peru, taking in the grand panorama of the Sacred Valley, the heart of the former Inca Empire. Busloads of tourists disgorge in Pisac, an ancient Inca site on the valley floor; however, our driver has carried us here, to an elevation of 3,600 metres, giving us an entirely different perspective on the hilltop citadels and terraced slopes of the archeological site below. And, apparently, startling a passing farmer with two donkeys on leads.
“Nobody ever comes up this far,” he remarks to our guide in Quechua, the language of the Incas.
That is exactly the point for Explora, a Chile-based travel company that promotes in-depth exploration of remote places in South America. Most visitors to the Sacred Valley fly into Cusco and head by train to Machu Picchu (Quechua for “Old Mountain”), the famous 15th-century Inca fortress discovered in 1911. They either skip the Sacred Valley that connects Cusco and Machu Picchu, or take a quick day trip to notable sites such as Pisac. But Explora offers 38 hikes and walks in the Sacred Valley itself, and requires a three-night minimum stay at its hotel, located, naturally, in a remote corner of the valley. The hotel’s 18 guides — mostly locals — take out small groups for an up-close look at the secrets of the Incas’ success.
The story unfolds slowly as guests walk the hills and the Inca Trail, marvelling at the Incas’ masterful grasp of agriculture and stone masonry. Intact military and religious buildings stand as testaments to their huge multicultural empire, which at one time covered more than a third of South America and united millions of people from different ethnic groups until the Spanish arrived in 1532.
Built at the entrance to a gorge, Pisac was both a military post and a ceremonial centre, with terraced irrigation fields cut into the hills and a citadel at the top, along with water channels, ancient burial sites and a ceremonial bathing complex. We take the long route – of course – through each of six sections of ruins, clambering up and down narrow staircases and squeezing through rock tunnels, huffing and puffing as we climb to nearly 3,000 metres elevation. When our guide points out that builders used to scurry along these footpaths carrying huge boulders for construction, I wonder how long I would have lasted in the Inca Empire.
By day’s end, I feel like I’ve run a marathon and am ready for the third pillar of the Explora experience, what they call “essential luxury:” rest and relaxation in minimal but high-end surroundings.
To get to the Explora hotel, we turn off the valley’s main road and follow the Urubumba river uphill, past adobe huts, flowering cactus plants and eucalyptus trees. The red earth road narrows to a bumpy one-lane pathway and the van lurches along until I begin to wonder if there is a hotel.
Suddenly, we arrive on a beautiful plateau planted with potatoes, corn and quinoa and overlooking the spectacular Vilcabamba mountain range.
It took Explora 10 years to build their 50-room property, situated on a 32-hectare former hacienda. While digging the foundations, construction workers unearthed several Inca agricultural terraces, as well as part of a Spanish colonial home, which now houses a gracious spa and herb garden. “We had to work with three archeologists and are still restoring more Inca walls by hand as they would have done,” says Jose Rosenberg, the hotel’s affable manager. “Our hotel is inspired by the mountains.”
The property consists of five low-slung buildings connected by wooden ramps. The design is sparse, all exposed beams, vaulted ceilings, and polished floors. It is a television-free zone, with Wi-Fi only in the lobby. Outdoor fireplaces beckon guests to take in the bracing views. An onsite restaurant features a well-stocked bar and offers fusion food including soups, ceviche, lamb chops and fish.
After dinner, Explora guides gather in the bar and individually customize each guest’s next-day adventure. A 10-kilometre hike at high altitude? A visit to an archeological site by van? Flying down a mountain on a dirt bike? Or perhaps just chilling in the spa, watching the corn grow.
“We are not a trekking company,” says Rosenberg. “We’re more like an exploration company that aims to show people the history of this area. We also believe the magic happens in the mountains and like to get people as high up as possible.”
“We believe the magic happens in the mountains and like to get people as high up as possible.”
The guides size me up and decide I’m not quite ready for the big hike at 4,300 metres. Instead I choose Ollantaytambo, a living Inca village at the northern end of the Sacred Valley. Walking its cobblestone streets the next morning, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time 500 years. Farmers till their fields with foot ploughs; women use hand looms to weave their textiles. Looming above it all is an unfinished fortress with piedras cansadas (discarded rocks) around the Temple of the Sun and old storage sheds.
In the afternoon, I visit Cuper Bajo, a village at 3,600 metres located above another ancient Inca site, Chinchero. There, I meet the delightful Nellie Huarhua, who wears a traditional Quechua ensemble consisting of a full skirt, red sombrero and woven jacket. Nellie heads up the village’s weaving cooperative and is also a star soccer player. She spins baby alpaca wool into yarn, and demonstrates how to dye the wool. Squeezing a white insect found on the prickly pear cactus produces a deep ruby red. Orange comes from citric acid and the bark of a Yanali tree, and brown from special moss. Her weavings tell stories: “When I am angry at my husband, I choose dark colours, and my textiles are green and black,” she says. “When I’m in a good mood, I dance and sing and even kiss my husband.”
She weaves five hours a day, three days a week and it takes her a month to make a single blanket. I could listen to Nellie all day, but have to walk down to Chinchero before the sun sets at 5:40 p.m. or else, my guide tells me, “We may meet the devil in the hills.”
By day three, I’m ready for Puna, a cold, arid plateau above 4,000 metres. There is a hike that loosely translates as “Kill the Gringo,” but I know my limits and choose the Five Lagoons, a nine-kilometre hike that my guide, Henry Jara, swears is more gentle. “In fact,” he says, “we will see nobody on this hike because nobody goes there but Explora.” Of course!
We start in Sapaccto village, where two shepherds in traditional dress are herding a flock of sheep. Beyond, a farmer tends his corn with a wooden hoe. “Do you like my mountain?” he calls out. “Do you have any coca leaves?” Alas, no; only chocolate and passion fruit.
The hills are still and silent except for the distant braying of a goat and the burbling of a mountain stream. The air is fresh and raw. The water on the lake gleams turquoise blue and my heart nearly stops as I spot my first llama in the wild, munching on grass. Several alpaca prance by, elegant and smaller in stature than the llamas. Henry makes an offering to Pachamama, the Inca earth mother, pouring hot tea into the ground. We eat lunch – potato soup and sandwiches — in a shepherd’s hut with stone walls, no roof and a mud floor. Sitting on a pile of hay, I feel thankful to be out of the high winds and hail that have suddenly come up.
We finish in mid-afternoon, having covered the nine kilometres in four hours. Our van driver awaits with an impromptu picnic of fruit and chips and dip. On our drive back through the valley, we pass by the town of Lamay on the main road. A two-and-a-half-metre-high statue of a grinning guinea pig stands outside a restaurant, enticing customers to come in and sample cuy or guinea pig. Before the Spaniards arrived, with their horses, cows, donkeys and dogs, cuy was an important source of protein. It is still a popular delicacy, but I’m holding out for a ceviche salad.
By the end of my stay, my quads are sore and my ankles creaky, but I feel restored, with a kind of energy that only comes from walking in remote places and pushing one’s limits. I carry with me the silence of nature, the earthy smell of alpaca, and the splendour of the mountains and the people who live there.