Soaring over 5,000 meters above sea level, the Sacred Valley in the Peruvian Andes is breathtaking. Covering over 100 kilometers, the Sacred Valley is blessed with snowy mountain peaks; sheening salt pans; misty river valleys; plains of ancient grains and an abundance of historic ruins—including the most famous of them all, Machu Picchu. But to visit only the Inca citadel is to miss out. Here’s how to take your trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas to new heights:
Yes, Manchu Picchu is the area’s strongest tourist magnet (and it certainly lives up to expectations), but it’s only one of many well-preserved ruins worthy of attention.
Check out the surreal Salinas de Mara, a series of terraced salt pans that pre-date the Incas. Salt is still harvested onsite by the local community, and the town square of Mara retains a Spanish colonial feel with its crumbling adobe church. Another fascinating site is Moray: though it looks like a sunken amphitheater overgrown in mossy green grass, Moray is thought to be an Incan agricultural laboratory where the circular terraces were used to observe the effect of altitude on the crops, as each terrace has its own micro-climate.
The Pumamarca ruins, high above the village of Ollantaytambo, is another unspoiled site of Incan agricultural terraces that largely remains unknown to international travellers. (Ollantaytambo, too, has its own Incan ruins including terraces; a fortress; storehouses called qullqas; and the Sun Temple, which was thought to have been used as a calendar.)
Assisting in the spectacle of the man-made marvels is the sprawling natural backdrop of varying topography that’s best taken in through a series of hikes and bike rides. Luxe-adventure outfit, Explora Valle Sagrado is a trailblazing wilderness retreat in the heart of the Sacred Valley that offers over 30 half-and full-day excursions with local guides through the region’s most mind-blowing landscape (and the sites mentioned above) as part of their impressive all-inclusive offering. As the altitude is lower at Explora, it also makes for a sensible —as well as scenic— base for adventures.
Besides the archeological explorations mentioned above, for a hit of pure nature go for the full-day Cinco Lagunas hike, which starts high in the mountains, showing off snowy views of Sawasiray, one of the highest mountains in the Urubamba range of the Peruvian Andes. The descent takes you down a ravine flanked with gleaming lagoons and herds of domesticated llamas and alpacas.
On the Cuesta del Sapo bike ride, a half-day adventure covering about 20 kilometers, steep slopes give way to verdant trails along the Urubamba River and panoramic valley views.
Civilizations first settled in this area because of the fertile soil, and this is still very much an agricultural society. Farming is still done the old fashioned way here, using plows and donkeys, and the daily diet is remains centered on hundreds of varieties of native tubers and maize. Also, ancient grains are very much (ahem) ingrained. While exploring, you’ll pass gilded fields of grains and orchards. Even Explora is tucked into the hillside by blankets of ancient fields of corn and quinoa, which the Andean people have been feasting on since before it was on-trend.
But ancient doesn’t mean boring, and to prove this, the family-owned Explora has recently partnered with Virgilio Martínez, the hot Peruvian chef behind Central in Lima, which is voted The Best Restaurant in Latin America and currently ranks fifth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Explora’s new, Martínez-designed menus combine hyper-local Andean ingredients that show off the region’s vast biodiversity with cutting-edge culinary showmanship.
You’ll try things you’ve never even heard of while you’re in the Sacred Valley, like native kiwicha grains; “Andean caviar” (an alga that only grows at altitudes above 3,000 meters); and over 300 hyper-local varieties of potatoes. Many of the rare, ancestral Andean ingredients that Martínez uses in his dishes are under threat of extinction, which is why Martínez—and the local farmers he collaborates with—are working so hard to reintroduce them into modern-day menus. Each dish is distinctly representative of the surroundings; try the duck ceviche with tarwi (an edible lupine flower) and black quinoa, or the seared alpaca with a smoked emulsion of yellow chili peppers. Whatever you choose, wash it down with a well-shaken pisco sour, the country’s national drink made with egg whites and grape brandy, or a refreshing chicha morada made with purple corn.
Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 3553 9647) is the UK’s leading specialist in travel to Latin America. A 13-day holiday to Peru (including four nights at Explora ValleSagrado) starts from £5,605 per person, which is inclusive of flights, transfers, first-class hotels, most meals and excursions.