Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Peru's Sacred Valley.
"Word is starting to get out that there's more to Peru than Machu Picchu," said Nikki Ekstein at Bloomberg. With the Incan citadel being swamped by ever-larger crowds, the Peruvian government has finally begun promoting the country's more overlooked treasures, such as the Sacred Valley, the fertile, archaeologically dense region of the Andean highlands that lies between Machu Picchu and the city of Cuzco. "Here, petite andinas wear intricately patterned skirts in saturated hues, wide-brimmed ornamental hats, and thick braids." Men work in construction or as herders, guiding flocks of llamas and alpacas across the rugged terrain as it shifts from mountains to high plains to Andean jungle. "The only thing in the shepherds' path is the odd Inca ruin here or there."
My journey in the valley begins at Cuzco airport, where my husband and I catch a shuttle van to a new luxury lodge operated by the adventure-tourism outfit Explora. We pass tin-roofed buildings and "fields of corn that look like pointillist paintings" on the two-hour drive to the tiny town of Urquillos. When I check in at the lodge, my guide, Felipe Sumire, introduces himself as an explorador. "This is a center of exploration," he says. "Not a hotel." Sumire leads us on hikes that steadily build in intensity, eventually reaching altitudes well above the lodge's 9,500 feet. One involves a visit to a weavers' collective, where women in traditional dress teach visitors to spin alpaca fibers into yarn and transform it with dyes made from cochineal bugs and tree bark. Afterward, we walk an alpaca-trodden path through the hilly farmland to lakes that mirror the canary-colored mountains.
Travelers willing to take a switchbacking drive up to 14,500 feet can — if the weather's clear — glimpse an unforgettable sight: the snowcapped peak of La Verónica. At the final outlook, "it's not just the altitude that steals your breath." In the distance, macaws swoop in and out of a green valley, while the swirls of cloud wrapping the ice-blanketed dark rock of Verónica's summit "look like the manifestation of an Andean god." To the south stretches a razor-thin ridge that we "walk like a balance beam" before descending into a glacial valley.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article featured an erroneous photograph. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.