Where to stay
El Albergue Ollantaytambo A super spot to stay
overnight, or longer, before catching the train to your
next stop-off. The rooms are charming, the food is tasty
and the beer from the local cervecería is worth the trip
in its own right. Doubles from £73. Estacíon de Tren,
Ollantaytambo, 00 51 84 204 014, elalbergue.com
Inkaterra La Casona One of a small chain of luxe
eco-friendly hotels, this is the closest anyone gets to
peace and quiet in Machu Picchu. The menu in the main
dining room makes delicious use of the hotel’s own
farm. There’s also an orchid garden and plenty of exotic
birdlife. Doubles from £340. 211 Plaza Las Nazarenas,
Machu Picchu, 00 51 610 0400
Tambo del Inka In Quechuan, tambo means a refuge. This is a palatial building-cum-resort on the fringe of a small town with little going on, and it’s the only hotel around to boast its own private train station to Machu Picchu. Doubles from £210. Avenida Ferrocarril, Urubamba, 00 51 8458 1777, tambodelinkaresort.com
The Sacred Valley is a region in Peru’s Andean highlands, which, along with nearby Cusco and the ancient city of Machu Picchu, formed the heart of the Inca Empire. Flights from the UK take around 20 hours, with one or two stops. Trains – run by perurail.com – connect key cities. Currency is the Peruvian sol (PEN). and time is 5 hours behind GMT. In December, the average high temperature is 18C; the average low, 7C.
Avianca flies from London Heathrow to Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco with one stop in Bogotá. avianca.com
LATAM Airlines has flights from London Heathrow to Cusco with one stop in São Paulo and another in Santiago. latam.com
Promperú is the official tourist board and its website is packed with up-to-date information, guides and maps to help you get the most out of your travels throughout the country. peru.travel
Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams (Plume Books, £10.99) is an account of the writer’s 2011 attempt to retrace explorer Hiram Bingham’s 1911 Andean expedition during which Bingham ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to the Sacred Valley, go to climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 3 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £22.49.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, with a glass of beer or wine,
unless otherwise stated
Café Inkaterra This cool café-restaurant is a longhouse between the tracks
leading to the Machu Picchu railway station, and an outpost of the nearby
Inkaterra hotel. The colourful salads and vegetable dishes are fresh and full
of flavour. It’s always packed at lunchtime but walk in and you’ll probably get a table. From £17. Machu Picchu Pueblo, 00 51 610 0400
Chicha Por Gaston Acurio Easily the best restaurant in Cusco, championing local produce and culinary traditions. Choice ingredients are handled with skill and imagination. Try the alpaca tartare or a trout ceviche with artichokes and toasted corn, followed by the baked quince and cheese mousse. From £20, excluding wine. 261 Plaza Regocijo, Cusco, 00 51 84 240 520
Cuchara de Palo Its name means ‘wooden spoon’, but you imagine the
kitchen kit is rather more high-tech than that in this high-end joint on Pisac’s
main plaza. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, visitors can expect organic,
locally grown ingredients featuring in traditional dishes with a modern twist. From
£20. Plaza Central, Pisac, 00 51 84 203 062, cucharadepalorestaurant.com
El Parador de Moray Fall off the grass lawn in front of this colonial hacienda and you could end up somewhere near the bottom of the Incan circus ring that is Moray. The offering is fresh, right down to the glass of homemade lemonade handed to guests on arrival, and the regional Cusqueñan dishes are a winning combination of salads, stews and parrilla (barbecue). The trout baked in a salt crust is recommended, being both succulent and sweet. From £30. 23 Portal de Carnes, Valle Sagrado, 00 51 84 402 213, cuscorestaurants.com
Food and Travel Review
Legend has it that the Incans built their capital, Cusco, in the shape of a puma. Saqsaywaman, its fortress citadel, formed the head and its snout pointed towards the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley. On the map, this starts as a narrow rift following the Urubamba River meandering towards Machu Picchu, 100km away. En route, it passes through Spanish colonial settlements such as Pisac, Lamay and Ollantaytambo. The image, however seductive, can be misleading. Beyond the town of Urubamba, the valley opens up into a vast sierra. In the rainy season it’s green, turning purple with quinoa. During the dry season, when Quechua people till the burnt ochre soil with teams of oxen, it’s an empty High Plains Drifter landscape. Moray, an agricultural amphitheatre of terraces, and the crazy paving of the saltpans at Maras tell a more vivid story of Inca life than temples, pyramids and palaces ever could.
Patabamba, a commune of 100 Quechuan families, looks down on the river. Reaching it is a 40-minute scrabble along a winding dirt track. Here is where the tourist trail hits the buffers. ‘Don’t be lazy, don’t lie and don’t steal’ were the three Incan precepts. In the village, life revolves around them. At 4,000m above sea level, farming doesn’t involve ox and plough. The handkerchief-sized parcels of land are worked by hand.
Farmers toil side by side, digging plots where they can grow potatoes, maize or quinoa. Their system, which they call minca, translates roughly as, ‘Today I work for you; tomorrow you work for me’. What binds the social order on the land also applies when they build houses from adobe bricks.
To celebrate a birth or a harvest they prepare pachamanca, or earth pot. They heat up a pyramid of loose stones over a fire and when they’re hot enough, the master cook brushes them with salty water before dismantling the roof. In the ashes underneath he buries potatoes and meat, before re-covering with the hot stones, then a layer of aromatic grass, and finally earth.
The women here weave for a living. In Cusco, traditional Peruvian ponchos are factory-made but in Patabamba they painstakingly card, spin and dye the wool by hand. Each poncho sold will have earned them around 25p per hour.
Pisac’s main square is packed with stalls selling Quechuan clothing. Designs are like signatures, with each pattern displaying the creator’s personal stamp. Because of the ruins nearby, the town is evolving into a traveller’s destination. Cute children carrying baby alpacas expect visitors to pay for a snap to show the folks back home. Down a side street, 200-year-old Horno Colonial San Francisco serves empanadas made using a soft bread dough stuffed with chicken, beef, cheese or tomato and oregano, before being baked. They’re a chewable step back in time.
En route to Machu Picchu, roadside townlets vie for their fair share
of travellers’ time and soles, be they backpackers or jetsetters.
It’s a genuine 21st-century pilgrims’ way. Urubamba, buzzing with
tuk-tuks, has three luxury resorts on its fringes: Tambo del Inka,
Hacienda Urubamba and the Rio Sagrado.
Lamay promotes itself as a cuy (guinea pig) capital. Cars stop by roadside stalls, their drivers jumping out to buy them spit-roasted over the embers. Ollantaytambo, another Inca stronghold (its pink- granite Wall of the Six Monoliths has defied interpretation by archaeologists), is a midway meeting point. Everyone ends up at the railway station to drink the cold craft beers on tap from the Cervecería del Valle Sagrado and catch up on the local news.
All trains from Cusco, including the luxurious Hiram Bingham, stop here. They chug the last 30km of the narrow-gauge line to Aguas Calientes, AKA Machu Picchu. There’s no question it merits its rating as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The town, the constant streams of buses wriggling up the steep mountainside to reach the site and the football crowd-sized queues at the entrance do their utmost to demystify it. They fail because it’s such a magical place, perched among the clouds and surrounded by tutelary mountains.
Salinas de Maras has more poignant magic. A thin stream of brackish water trickling from a cleft in the rock feeds an opencast mine that has seen salt harvested since pre-Incan times. Its patchwork of miniature saltpans are tended by the 460 families who own it. They evaporate the water in the same way their ancestors and their forebears did. The finest flor de sal goes to the top restaurants in Lima, such as Central or Astrid y Gastón, but the flamingo-tinted table salt is used daily by villagers.
A baked salt crust swaddles the large river trout served at El Parador de Moray, a Cusqueña restaurant that stares down on the concentric rings of Moray. In its own right it’s a ‘wonder’. Believed to have been designed for growing crops, the circles have a variety of microclimates. The crater is almost 30m deep and it allowed the Incas to compare the effects of light and temperature when growing their staple crops. The lessons they learnt about their basic foods still thrive today in the agricultural practices of their Quechua descendants.
Journey through the Sacred Valley and it’s tempting to feel nostalgic for a lost civilisation. The truth is, though, it isn’t lost. It survives today in the lives of the people living here. Yes, there’s the gloss of multicoloured caps on wizened natives and guided tours but the spirit, even after 300 years of colonial rule by Spain, has remained very much intact.
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