Despite its magnificence, the Sacred Valley is often viewed as a thoroughfare on the way to Machu Picchu. But the sprawling Inca city is just one of the draws. At Explora, the staff of 20 guides lead expeditions of varying intensity into the surrounding area, including forays to a nearby salt mine and a high-altitude trek to the glacier of Mount Veronica.
Exercise helps acclimatise to the altitude, which works on the body like a slow-breaking fatigue; but so does spending time at the hotel, where open-plan sitting rooms have leather butterfly chairs, nooks for curling into with a stiff drink, and a bar and dining room with stripped beams, all set beneath a cathedral-high ceiling. The effect is restrained and Scandi-smart, letting the views be the centre of attention. The food and service, too, is of a sophistication that belies the hotel’s location. Perfectly tender lamb chops, quinoa tabbouleh, corn tortilla soup and alpaca steak are served by waiters who mostly hail from within a few miles’ radius of the hotel.
Unlike at Explora Patagonia, where isolation is the draw, here people are as important as the landscape. Driving through the valley, the owners of roadside restaurants shake skewers of roasted guinea pig at passing traffic, and in the villages surrounding the hotel, Quechua women dressed in full skirts, cardigans and Panama-style hats walk with babies strapped in the colourful shawls on their backs. On an afternoon hike to Raqchi, across hilltop farmland dotted with low adobe houses, we come across a group of small, pink-cheeked children in woollen hats walking around in circles over a pile of cut grass with a donkey, its hoofs working to separate the crop. A boy sitting backwards on a mule crosses the footpath heading home.
Ways of life here are deeply ingrained. One morning, taking a breather on a mountain pass, my guide Ediht Cerrillo, who grew up in the Sacred Valley, makes an offering of tea to Pachamama, the Inca earth mother, by pouring it into the ground. The opportunity to understand local customs and beliefs is one of the joys of the Explora experience. As is the valley itself. A day’s trek to several high-altitude lakes is unforgettable for the shining blue coins of water, fast- moving shadows over granite peaks and families of llama and alpaca eating at the water’s edge. The air is so rarefied my heart beats like an insistent clock in my chest. It equalled my day at Machu Picchu, which was made wondrous for the company of my guide, Abel Santander, for whom the site is a source of enduring, intoxicating mystery.
Sidestepping the crowds with a manner of gentle studiousness, Santander shows me mirror-like pools where Inca astrologers studied the stars in their reflections, temples where priests worshipped the solstice and rocks in the shape of condor wings, each piece of information delivered with a caveat: ‘But maybe not. We don’t really know.’ What a treat not to know, I tell him, to have the opportunity to escape into the realms of possibility and adventure and allow the imagination space to breathe.