Boarding the plane in Miami, I could hardly contain my excitement. After five hours and 40 minutes, we landed in Lima. Located on the coast of the beautiful Pacific Ocean, Lima is the gateway to all of our excursions in Peru. After a night in the city and tour of Lima’s churches, convents and the market the following day, I boarded my one hour and 20-minute flight to Cusco and prepared for my explorations of the Sacred Valley and the famous Machu Picchu.
My adventure hosted by our Peruvian on-site partner, Aracari, in Cusco began at a local llama farm. Here I found countless beautiful weaves made from local textiles and dyes by young women from the area. I also discovered that corn comes in many different shapes and sizes. There are more than 3,000 different types of corn grown in the area!
Feeling hungry from all the talk about corn, my group and I decided to visit Hacienda Sarapampa for lunch, a working family farm located 45 minutes from Cusco. Sarapampa, which means cornfield in Quechua, proved to be a fascinating place to spend the afternoon. Yusuf and his sister Jasmine, second-generation proprietors, were wonderful hosts and made me feel incredibly welcome. While giant white corn is a specialty to this area, our seven-course lunch included vegetarian ceviche, trout and alpaca. The white corn ice cream served at the end of the meal reminded me which corn is king! The setting was serene and natural with a table beautifully decorated with a colorful, floral runner, wood bark topped with dried corn, fresh rosemary sprays, and a fresh flower tied to the napkin on your place setting.
After lunch I was treated to an interesting tour of the farm, beginning with a display of the corn memorabilia that offers a small history of its evolution. Then we were led to the Guinea pig room where this Peruvian delicacy is kept in perfect condition. This room serves as a safe haven to raise them to maturity as nights in the Andes get very cold. As we toured the grounds I was astonished at the Pre-Inca farming traditions still being practiced, mostly the use of natural herbs as pesticides. We further discussed that the ‘Inca corn,’ which is sold at Trader Joe’s in the USA, comes from this area.
Next, we visited the market in Pisac. Though it is open every day, Sunday is the busiest day when the market swells to more than twice its size! Bargaining in the stalls with local vendors is the key for a good price for items ranging from colorful blankets, knitted scarves, alpaca clothing, jewelry, ceramics and other trinkets native to Peru. The vendors were proud to show off the colorful array of handmade items, and I was impressed with the amount of creativity displayed before me.
I set off to the Ollantaytambo train station, where trains leave the Sacred Valley for Aguas Calientes. As I boarded the Belmond Hiram Bingham, I was met with lively music played by local musicians, each of who played traditional Quena flutes. The passion the musicians had for their culture and music was so infectious, that I found myself dancing along with them! They shared glances with me and the others encouraging our participation in their performance, which made it that much harder to continue on the adventure yet to come!
Onboard the Hiram Bingham, I felt as if I had stepped back into time. The interior of the train gleams with wood-paneled interiors and brass finishes which are similar to classic 1920’s style parlor cars.
With a glass of champagne in hand, we listened to one of the folklore stories about the coca leaf. In the story, the severed body of Kuka Mama (mother coca), the goddess of health and joy, grew into the first coca plant. Since the spiritual significance of the coca leaf remains to this day, we paid homage to the Peruvian ancestors and Mother Earth by burning the leaf which is known to bless visitors with safe travels.
Once onboard, the three and a half hour journey zigzagged through some of the most breathtaking scenery. We went through the Urubamba River Valley, which showcased lush landscapes and Andean villages, as we continued toward the Andes Mountains. Here I enjoyed a three-course lunch complete with wine, an avocado salad, and as the main dish, beef tenderloin with potatoes paired with a delicious dulce de leche for dessert.
Upon arriving in Aguas Calientes, we had the option to hike six hours up to Machu Picchu, or if limited on time (as we were), you can take a 20-minute shuttle to the entrance. Holga, our guide, first took us to the caretakers’ hut to get a panoramic view of the city and surroundings. Then as we weaved through the main Temple, the Royal Tomb and the Sacred Plaza, I was awestruck at the wonder of this city and what the Incans built nearly 500 years ago.
Steep mountain peaks were surrounded by delicate terraces of stone wall ruins and bright emerald green grasses seemingly painted by an artist’s brush. Irrigation channels interlaced among the hillsides demonstrated the ingenuity of the Incan habitats. From there, the mountain fell away in all directions to the cascading Urubamba River in the valley over 1,000 feet below. The echoing calls of the Inca wrens and hummingbirds swarmed the skies around the ruins contributing to the pleasing aesthetic.
After an eventful day at Machu Picchu, we made our return trip to the Sacred Valley where I spent the night at Sol y Luna Lodge and Spa. This is one of our Frontiers favorites because of its elegant primitive Peru and avant-garde style. Sol y Luna also offers remarkable views of the Andes and is in close proximity to various archeological sites.
En route to the hotel, I was able to visit Maras to see the salt evaporation ponds. Situated between Urubamba and Cusco, the salt ponds have been in use since Incan times. Terraces direct the flow of water through an intricate system of tiny channels from a small, salty subterranean stream deep below the earth. As the water flows from terrace to terrace, the water eventually evaporates allowing the locals to harvest salt. While visiting the ponds, the sun’s reflection off the salt was an almost-blinding white glare, which made them only visible when I slipped on my dark sunglasses!
A short drive from Moray, we stopped for a picnic lunch, which Aracari organized in a beautiful and secluded area of the Sacred Valley. I loved the idyllic setting, with its vast openness devoid of trees and civilization as far as I could see, ending with the setting framed by the snowcapped Andean mountain range. We were greeted by uniformed staff wearing white gloves and handed a wet cloth and a welcome passion fruit drink. I was impressed with the wide selection of food — including salads, quinoa, empanadas, chicken, ceviche, beef, potatoes and corn. An array of cookies and tarts capped an excellent sampling of the local flavors.
My final experience of the afternoon allowed me to immerse myself in more of the local culture. An Andean priest accompanied by a young musician, both with a strong connection to Mother Earth, demonstrated a ritual consisting of three parts. First was the reading of the coca leaves, which aid in finding love, health and work. The second was an offering of various nuts, beans and corn to Pacha mama imploring her protection, health, good jobs and good fortune. Lastly, there was an offering of beads, cookies and flowers, which was meant to revitalize and energize the soul. I was intrigued by the use of more materialistic elements such as beads in this part of the ceremony since the priest was such a person connected to the earth.
For me, a heartfelt and deeply moving part of the ceremony was in the end when the priest gave me three coca leaves and asked me to think about what I wished for from Mother Earth. I was given several minutes to walk off with the leaves and think about it for some time. With my thoughts deeply hidden away in my heart, I returned the leaves to the priest. After he said a prayer over the leaves, he released them into the wind, freeing them to find their way back to Mother Earth, with my petitions locked in their fibers.
With all I witnessed on this trip, this simple yet powerful experience will forever be ingrained deeply in my heart.
Some photos courtesy of Belmond.