This Andean Escape Is an Adventure-filled, Crowd-free Alternative to Machu Picchu
Because no one has time to deal with lines of people taking the same darn selfie.
For travelers who want to see the Peruvian citadel of Machu Picchu, the rules are in a state of flux. Last year, the Peruvian government split admissions into half days, a change meant to limit entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site. But it actually increased ticket sales, according to statistics on the Machu Picchu government website, making it possible for more than 6,000 people to enter the already overcrowded sanctuary each day — twice the UNESCO-recommended limit. Meanwhile, its 70-year-old switchback highway is near collapse, and planning is underway for a controversial $20 million cable car system to zip travelers to the Inca ruin in record time. While Machu Picchu’s iconic vistas are worth a visit, Peru’s fertile Sacred Valley has emerged as an awe-inspiring alternative, where hikers can trek past Inca ruins and through unspoiled mountain terrain without the crowds.
Enter two-year-old Explora Valle Sagrado, a modern, low-slung lodge set on the site of a 15th-century corn plantation. Designed by Chilean architect José Crus Ovalle, it’s an elegant study in responsible design, constructed of indigenous woods and reinforced adobe. But the lodge’s parent group, Explora, sees itself less as a hotel collection than an exploration company. It has added five new explorations, including its second expert-level trek, Pachatusan, which ascends to 14,046 feet, revealing as-yet-uncovered archeological sites and an ancient, still functioning irrigation system; and a hiking and biking trip alongside storage areas built into the mountains by the Incas. And it has finally completed a years-long project to excavate and restore Casa Pumacahua, a colonial-era home built on Inca foundations and once owned by Peru’s most famous revolutionary.
Considering that Explora guides sometimes develop an exploration trail for more than a year, its additions are big news. In Peru’s Sacred Valley, explorations reach high into the Andes, where hikers see no other souls but locals thanks to agreements with the people who live on and cultivate these areas of the altiplano.
On a recent trip, I covered nearly 50 miles of hiking in the five days I spent at Explora, including a six-mile hike of Cinco Lagunas, which starts at an elevation of 13,000 feet and rises to nearly 15,000, looking down into lagoons that reflect the snow-capped peak of Sawasiray. Along the way, my group of hikers collected stones to pile in a ritual heap — an offering to the apu — or leave a coca leaf as thanks for Pachamama (Mother Earth). We passed through an isolated mountain potato farm, where farmers shared from their pachamanca, potatoes freshly dug and cooked underground as they work. And we followed a virtually forgotten system of Inca trails from the village of Chincheros straight into the heart of Explora.
Nearly every arable acre is farmed here, many using the same buttressed walls the Incas built in the 15th century. One of these very same walls, stretching through Explora’s own fields, guides guests to its new Casa Pumacahua. The 18th century colonial home, using Inca walls as its foundation, once belonged to Mateo Pumacahua, the Peruvian revolutionary who led the Cuzco Rebellion of 1814 in the War of Independence. More specifically, it had housed a favorite concubine, to whom Pumacahua would have made frequent visits. Painstaking excavation in cooperation with Peruvian archeological authorities revealed ornate murals of Corinthian-style columns crawling with ivy, winged putti, and powerful military figures — the work of indigenous Peruvian artists replicating the baroque European style of the time. And though Explora isn’t actively promoting this spa, it is on an evening visit here that the Explora philosophy gels for me. Lying in what might have been a colonial bedchamber in this hacienda surrounded by quinoa fields, the smells of nearby cooking fires wafting in as they would have two hundred years ago, its murals visible only by flickering candlelight, I am experiencing yet another part of the Sacred Valley that few people get to see — as authentic here as its most remote mountaintops.