For my 40th birthday trip I wanted to go on a proper adventure, to a place I’d never been before. I was looking for a place far from New York, but not too far; Enter Peru, which is only a 7.5 hours flight from NYC to Lima (only a little over an hour longer than my usual stylist commute from New York to Los Angeles). In particular, The Sacred Valley has a perfect balance of culture and natural beauty that captivated me. I didn’t know much about the mysterious land and what made it so “sacred,” but seeing pictures of the mystical Incan site Machu Picchu always intrigued me.
After describing my dream formula for the ideal adventure trip, a friend suggested I connect with the renowned travel company, Explora. Once I read their countless amazing reviews, I was impressed. I liked that Explora was experience-focused with an educational element. Everyday was a new adventure between hiking in the Andes Mountains, exploring ancient Incan ruins, visiting surprisingly untouched cultural villages, biking on the Urubamaba River, or choosing one of their 36 other daily excursions on offer. The excursions are graded by level, and you can choose between a full or half day in case you need some spa or chill time—and trust me, you will.
Travel plan: Fly into Lima from New York City, connect to Cusco (leave approximately 2 hours between flights), followed by a 2 hour drive from Cusco to The Sacred Valley.
Where I Stayed: Everything was included in the price (which is so nice not to think about)—from the airport pick-up, accommodations at Explora Valle Sagrado, excursions (besides Machu Picchu which is extra), food and drinks. The rooms are very comfortable with a simple and eco-chic vibe, which is the perfect setting for appreciating the lush valley surroundings.
Warning: There is no WiFi in the rooms on property; plan to actually enjoy the epic views and have quiet reflection time. Don’t panic, WiFi is available in the main areas of the hotel.
The lodge is tucked away in the remote Urquillos farming community, surrounded by fields of corn and quinoa and framed by the breathtaking Andes Mountains. I couldn’t ask for a more picturesque scene for my base camp.
Time of Year: Since my birthday was in late October, I needed to go somewhere that worked with that time of year. Springtime in Peru fit the bill; the temperature is pretty consistent throughout the year, but there are two “seasons” in the Valley. The dry season May-October, and the rainy season November-April. Traveling to the Valley in the shoulder season meant less people than in their high season (June- August). Springtime also means green vegetation blanketing the Valley and just harvested foods at every meal.
Trip Duration: 8 days. 5 nights at Explora and one night (two days) in Cusco. Peru is only one hour behind EST so was no jet lag for us. As long as you sleep on the overnight flight, you can get up and go in the morning without wasting a travel day.
Tour Group: I went with my husband. It was the first trip we had alone from our two toddlers in 3+ years. It was great to remember how much we enjoyed each other’s solo company. At Explora, you may have 1-8 other people on your excursions daily, but since it was off-season, all of our excursions were shared with 1-2 other travelers. The guides were all local and extremely knowledgeable about the terrain, history, and the Valley’s ethos.
The Best Thing I Ate: Alpaca and guinea pig are very popular in The Sacred Valley, but I’m not that adventurous an eater. I did eat my weight in potatoes and corn, which are the Valley’s staples, and even had some delicious purple potato ice cream. It had a lovely rich and earthy flavor, so much so that I forgot to take a photo before I gulped it down.
Don’t miss…Machu Picchu, ancient Incan ruins, textiles, Pisco Sours, 4,000 varieties of potatoes, and 1,800+ species of birds (many only exist in Peru’s unique ecosystems).
Travel Tale: We gave some local Andean women and children some extra untouched food we didn’t eat from our lunch and as a thank you in return one of the women gave me what looked like a 100 year old potato from deep in her sac. Of course, I had a to have a hefty bite not be rude (since I was being watched by the whole local clan). My guide told me after these potatoes could indeed be 30 years old as they have been essentially petrified (soaked and then dried out). Although the texture and flavor of the potato was pretty unpleasant, it was a funny and sweet interaction I won’t soon forget.
Trip Highlights: Seeing Machu Picchu with my own eyes, completing the arduous hike in the Andes that was the highest I’ve ever been at over 14,000 feet, and meeting the locals in their communities seemingly untouched by globalization.
Travel Tip: The altitude on these hikes and climbs is no joke. The air is paper thin up there. I heard many scary stories of friends that went and got very sick—so I took no chances. I started taking a Diamox prescription two days before my flight and every day while in the mountains. I tried to drink gallons of water and didn’t drink alcohol for the first couple days. They say it is also best to avoid high-fat foods, but I can’t say I did that.
Favorite Explorations: It’s important that you gradually increase your altitude on excursions day by day, so as not to over exert yourself and your lung capacity. Here are a few of my favorite excursions in the Sacred Valley that are not to be missed:
Visit Ollantaytambo, an old 13th Century Inca city with so much history in its winding ancient stone streets. I climbed to the top of the unbelievable terraces to get a birds eye view of the city.
Take a hike in the Andes (Explora called this hike “Paru”); the hike starts at around 12,000 feet and marches straight up the famous Inca trail from there. After an arduous climb to the first summit in the Andes mountains, we navigated peak-to-peak with beautiful emerald lagoons in between. The only life I saw on the hike were alpacas and sheep, no humans. They say you can experience four seasons in a day in The Scared Valley, and on this day I did! When we started it was 70 degrees and sunny, and as we approached the peak we were pelted by hail while walking into a wall of wind.
Pay a visit to Chinchero’s ancient colonial streets the most authentic market for textiles (rugs, blankets, knitwear, etc.). I started my day with the ladies of the Cupper community who demonstrated the arduous process of making their intricate textiles. Many of the patterns they use are handed down from generation to generation. They have an incredibly lengthy process of washing, hand spinning, and dying the wool using only the natural elements around them (like the blood from the cochineal parasite that grows on cacti to make the color red) for dyes. Their blankets can take months to complete.
Shopping Tip: This is, by far, the best place to buy traditional Andean blankets made of baby alpaca. Baby alpaca is the softest and most expensive material, and called “baby” because the wool is from the first shave of the animal. The thicker wool blankets can be used as carpets as well. I bought so many I needed to buy another piece of luggage in Cusco to take them all home! Make sure you bring Sol (local currency) to the market as most people won’t accept credit cards or other currencies.
On Machu Picchu: No doubt a wonder of the world and a check on my bucket list. Even though it is not easy to get to Machu Picchu is definitely worth the travel. It’s hard to believe your eyes when you see the ancient sanctuary high atop the mountain. It really made me appreciate the great learnings the Incas passed on to the rest of the world regarding health and wellness, architecture, and agriculture.
The day trip that felt like it went forever…It started with a one-hour drive from Explora to the Ollantaytambo train station, followed by a 90-minute train to Machu Picchu. We took a 20-minute bus ride to the bottom of the site, and then did a one-hour hike to The Sungate (Intipunku). There are fewer people than at the main site, a unique viewing point, and it’s fun running into wild llamas on the way.
We then spent three hours exploring the Machu Picchu main site, before we did the entire day in reverse to get home. We left the hotel at 6:30a.m., and got back after 9p.m.—it was a long day to say the least.
Expert Tip: There are only bathrooms at the base of Machu Picchu! Make sure you use them before you head out.
On Cusco: Cusco is a beautiful ancient Inca capital city at an altitude of 11,152 ft altitude (much higher than the 7,972 ft of Machu Pichuu to put it in perspective), so it’s best to visit last once you are acclimated to the area. I stayed at the Belmond Montaserio steps away from Plaza de Armas. The beautiful hotel is an ancient monastery that has been at the heart of the city for centuries and the perfect jumping off point.
I started the day early eating breakfast in the gorgeous hotel courtyard and went straight to the famous ruins of Saqsayhuaman just outside the city. I then made my rounds at Cusco’s Cathedral, Inca Museum, and popped in and out of shops and galleries and charming alley ways.
Best Night Out: Limbus Bar for drinks with the best view of the entire city at sunset. Dinner at Pachapapa in the charming artistic district, San Blas, followed by wandering in and out of happening bars to hear live music. We ended up on the The Plaza de Armas steps for late night people watching. Limo looked great too, but we didn’t have the time.
Confession: I had two pisco sours and felt extremely drunk (and later terribly hungover). Drinking in this crazy high altitude makes you feel like you are drinking double what you actually are—beware!
Word to the Wise: My husband almost plummeted to his death when pausing on our Urubamaba River ride for a photo opportunity on a cliff with me. He looked to see how much room he had to step back by looking behind me instead of looking behind him (which had an indent out of the cliff) and he stumbled, inches away from the edge, of a very long drop into the rushing river below. Remember: No shot is worth your life!
I Wish I Had…One more night in Cusco to get lost, a day and night in Lima for their exciting culinary and art scene and Pacific ocean views, and visited the Salineras (the Salt mines in the Sacred Valley).
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