Explora Valle Sagrado
A Journey Through Exotic Peru
By Hideaway Report Editor
October 2, 2017
Few countries are as endlessly fascinating as Peru. A succession of ancient cultures can be dated as far back as 3200 B.C. And in the 16th century, the Incas administered what was probably the largest empire in the world at the time. When their last stronghold, Vilcabamba, fell in 1572, Peru’s gold and silver became the foundation of Spanish wealth and power. Today the inhabitants of Lima are mostly mestizo or of European descent, but 45 percent of the country’s people are still Amerindians, and in the mountains, indigenous populations continue to speak the native languages Quechua and Aymara. Peru’s terrain rises from stark coastal desert to the glaciers of the Andes — Peru has 37 peaks over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) in height — and then descends steeply to the Amazon jungle.
Alas, Peru is not an entirely straightforward country in which to travel. Although there are hotels that meet the Harper standard, they tend to be concentrated in a few areas, chiefly in Cusco and the adjacent Sacred Valley of the Incas. For example, I have long tried to find a suitable property close to the famously enigmatic Nazca lines etched into the southern desert but have so far drawn a blank. And although there are a number of jungle lodges, none that I have experienced is exceptional, and the best way to see the Peruvian Amazon is still on a river cruise operated by Aqua Expeditions. Politically, Peru is volatile, and its economy is relatively weak. In some areas, shocking levels of poverty persist, and on my recent visit, I was inconvenienced by strikes called by poorly paid public-sector workers that led to blocked roads and train lines, as well as the temporary closure of the airport at Juliaca on Lake Titicaca.
In addition, the country’s capital, Lima, is very much an acquired taste. True, the historic center contains grand Spanish Colonial architecture, and the districts of Miraflores and Barranco offer some vibrant restaurants and galleries, but from April to November, the city is usually covered by a foggy drizzle known locally as garúa, the result of the cold Humboldt current, which flows up the Pacific coast of South America to mingle with warm water at the Equator. Only from December to March does the sun reliably put in an appearance. Outside of this period, I would consider a brief stay at the best airport hotel, Wyndham Costa del Sol Lima Airport, before heading directly to the mountains.
When the weather is sunny in Lima, cloud and intermittent rain descend on the Andes. There, the high season is June to October. July and August provide cloudless skies and epic views, but this is when the crowds in Cusco and at Machu Picchu are at their most overwhelming. If I had to choose one period in which to travel to Peru, it would probably be in September and October.
For many years, my recommended hotel in Lima has been Belmond Miraflores Park. Located in an upscale residential neighborhood, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, it remains a good base, with comfortable, if slightly utilitarian accommodations — insist on an ocean view — a small rooftop pool and a pleasant indoor-outdoor restaurant, Tragaluz, serving Asian, Mediterranean and Peruvian cuisine. On this occasion, however, I decided to try Hotel B, a boutique property that opened in 2013. It is located in Barranco (Spanish for “ravine”), which was developed in the early 20th century as a seaside retreat for the Limeño aristocracy. After a long period of decline and neglect, Barranco is once again prosperous, fashionable and home to many of Peru’s leading artists, musicians, designers and photographers. MAC Lima (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo - Lima) also debuted in 2013, on Avenida Miguel Grau, a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
Housed within a stately white Belle Epoque mansion, built in 1914 by the well-known French architect Claude Sahut for the wealthy García Bedoya family, Hotel B created an immediately favorable impression. The reception staff were genuinely friendly and hospitable, with none of the self-congratulatory hauteur familiar at some other “design” hotels. The spacious, high-ceilinged lobby, with its long sofas, bucket armchairs and striking modern art collection, had clearly been designed to provide a social center for the neighborhood. To one side, I glimpsed a library — where a colorful breakfast buffet was set out on a long wooden table — and an adjoining leafy patio, while to the rear of the ground floor, a bar with a substantial counter (a peerless spot for a pisco sour) led to an intimate dining room with round marble bistro tables and tall shuttered windows.
The hotel’s 17 accommodations come in three categories. I suggest that you opt for one of the four “Ateliers,” which surround a peaceful and attractive private lounge on the second floor. Ranging from 333 to 452 square feet, these are not especially spacious, but they come with 16-foot ceilings, as well as king-size beds, separate sitting areas, writing desks and vintage armoires. Our Atelier featured a contiguous white-marble bath, at the center of which stood a glass-enclosed steam shower. Despite being unconventional, I found the room to be both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, though I would have liked a tub in addition to the shower. Some would doubtless be unhappy at the lack of an entirely separate bath.
Hotel B has few amenities aside from a roof terrace with loungers, kilim-covered decks and a view of the neighborhood. There is no pool, spa or gym. The restaurant is under the supervision of noted chef Oscar Velarde. His menu combines Peruvian and Mediterranean flavors, with many of the ingredients coming from his own farm. Expect appetizers such as ceviche, charcoal-grilled octopus, and crostini with avocado and anchovies, and mains like pork loin medallions with escalivada (grilled vegetables), and excellent grilled fish from the Pacific.
Hotel B is a fashionable and stylish boutique property that will appeal to those who don’t normally care for such places. I found it delightful in every way and devoutly wish I could discover many more such imaginative and distinctive small hotels.
Hotel B 94
Imaginative and attractive interior; ideal location; friendly staff; excellent restaurant.
Some of the accommodations are quite small; there is no fitness center.
Good to Know
Several interesting museums are within walking distance, including MAC Lima and MATE - Museo Mario Testino, established in 2012 by the celebrated Peruvian photographer.
Rates: Aposento King, $450; Atelier King, $575
Address: Sáenz Peña 204, Barranco
Telephone: (51) 1-206-0800
It is an 80-minute flight from Lima to the Andean city of Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire, which lies in a valley encircled by rounded hills, at an elevation of 11,200 feet. There are numerous daily departures aboard modern Airbus aircraft, though their cabins can be rather scruffy, and on my plane there was only coach-class seating. Cusco’s present airport is small and crowded; a new one is planned and will be able to accommodate larger aircraft from international destinations. However, as Cusco (population 430,000) already receives more than 2 million visitors a year, this potential development inspires in me profound misgivings. Thirty years ago, Cusco was a remote and otherworldly place; now it is a bustling city that, thanks to tourism, is expanding rapidly beyond its historic core. (Tourism is one of the few bright spots of the Peruvian economy.) Fortunately, most of the new buildings are low-rise, and on the drive in from the airport, I spotted only a single egregious glass-and-steel construction.
The heart of Cusco is the grand Plaza de Armas, formerly the Huacaypata, or “place of tears.” Each territory conquered by the Incas had some of its soil taken to the Huacaypata to be symbolically mingled with the earth there. Today the square is dominated by a massive early 17th-century Baroque cathedral. The surrounding historic city is a network of narrow cobbled streets, with Spanish Colonial buildings constructed atop massive Inca stone foundations. To the north of the plaza, a steep hillside rises to the grand Inca ceremonial center of Saksaywaman, which overlooks the city.
Just a few blocks from the cathedral, the Plaza de las Nazarenas is a green and peaceful public space, with two modest expanses of grass, a dozen trees and a scattering of wrought-iron benches. Amazingly, it is also the location of three hotels that I enthusiastically endorse. Belmond Hotel Monasterio is housed within a converted 16th-century monastery, at the center of which is a magnificent cloistered courtyard. The 122-room property offers atmospheric public areas, with timbered ceilings, stone fireplaces, terra-cotta floors, venerable furniture, silver sconces and original paintings from the Cusqueña school of art. For some years now, the Monasterio has been almost universally regarded as the grande dame of Cusco hotels. I do not dissent from this view, although tour groups are not unknown, and some of the accommodations are rather small, their original purpose having been as cells for the monks. I strongly recommend that you opt for a Junior Suite.
On the opposite side of the square, Inkaterra La Casona is a very different property, a true hideaway, with just 11 suites contained within an exquisite 16th-century manor house, which can boast both Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro and “El Libertador” Simón Bolívar as former guests. Here the timbered public areas are enlivened by Andean textiles, restored frescoes and hand-painted furniture. The accommodations come with fireplaces, tapestries and surprisingly lavish modern baths. The property has no amenities other than a small but excellent restaurant, serving dishes that fuse modern cooking styles with traditional Peruvian ingredients. La Casona will appeal to those who prefer smaller hotels. Indeed, it doesn’t really seem like a hotel at all. I have always enjoyed the sensation of being a fortunate guest in an exceptionally romantic and atmospheric private house.
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas
On this trip, I chose to stay at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, which opened in 2012. Built on Inca foundations — the site is thought to have been occupied by the family home of the Inca emperor Huayna Capac — the palace was constructed in the mid-1500s as a private residence. In 1644, it was acquired by the Jesuits, and in 1715 it was turned into a beaterio, a convent for the daughters of the local aristocracy. A complex and lengthy restoration project, involving the construction of a modern annex, resulted in the present 55-suite hotel.
As at the Monasterio next door, the historic structure opens onto a large courtyard centered on a fountain. Throughout the hotel, there are surviving Inca water channels, some of which still irrigate the flower and herb gardens. Our suite was located on the second floor, overlooking the courtyard, and was accessible by both an elevator and a flight of stairs. Inside, we found a living room with plain white walls, a polished wooden floor topped by area rugs, heavy furniture, a long sofa, leather-backed chairs and carved wooden doors. The décor seemed elegant and traditional, but also austere and masculine in a recognizable Spanish style. A corridor led to a spacious bedroom with a king-size bed backed by a carved headboard, a large armoire and two wingback chairs. The adjacent bath came with a sizable soaking tub, a walk-in shower and two vanities topped with white marble and backed by silver framed mirrors. Herbal bath salts, handmade soaps and generous bottles of bath products all revealed commendable attention to detail. Overall, our suite was tranquil, exceptionally atmospheric and one of the nicest places in which we have stayed for a considerable period of time.
Junior Suites in the original building also come with small sitting areas with dining tables and chairs, plus courtyard views. Studio Suites are found throughout the hotel. Some of those in the new annex have outdoor balconies with views of Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood and, on the horizon, the snowcapped 20,945-foot peak of Ausangate. One Bedroom Suites offer views over the hotel’s gardens. All the accommodations can be supplied with oxygen via the air-conditioning system to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness. (I felt lethargic for the first two days, especially after meals, as the elevation temporarily slows down the digestive system. The standard advice is to eat carbohydrates, drink as much water as possible and avoid alcohol. By day three, my body had manufactured additional red blood cells, and I felt completely normal. I even found myself taking the stairs in preference to the elevator.)
A maze of alleyways and passages extends from the central courtyard, one of which brings you to the peaceful Hypnôze Spa, with its bougainvillea-draped relaxation area and five treatment rooms (in the floors of which glass panels reveal Inca structures below). Even after two days, I found the complex layout of the Palacio Nazarenas to be slightly confusing, and it was invariably with pleasure and a degree of surprise that I would emerge onto the unexpectedly spacious pool deck — this is the only hotel in Cusco with an outdoor pool — next to the bar and Senzo Restaurant. The menu at the latter offers regional specialties that include grilled fillet of paiche (an Amazonian fish that can weigh up to 400 pounds) served with crispy cassava, confit of guinea pig with stuffed peppers, and grilled alpaca with sun-dried potatoes. Less adventurous diners will be reassured to find a variety of more-conventional options.
Comparisons are invidious, so they say, but sometimes they are unavoidable. The Monasterio is an extremely distinguished hotel, with grand public areas, a choice of restaurants and a menu of activities that includes cooking classes and art tours. The Palacio Nazarenas is a smaller, more intimate property that offers both a spa and a swimming pool. And being suites, the accommodations tend to be more spacious. Both properties offer a peerless (and identical) location, as well as a consistently high level of personal service.
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas 96
Atmospheric 16th-century main building; spacious and stylish suites; tranquil spa.
Outdoor tables at the restaurant are too close to the edge of the swimming pool.
Good to Know
Guests have dining privileges at Belmond Hotel Monasterio next door.
Rates: Inca Studio Suite, $645; Deluxe City View Studio Suite, $945; One Bedroom Suite, $1,145
Address: Plaza Nazarenas 276, Cusco
Telephone: (51) 84-582-222
The Sacred Valley of the Incas begins just north of Cusco and follows the course of the fast-flowing Urubamba River for more than 60 miles to Aguas Calientes, where most visitors alight at the train station to take the bus ride up the switchback road to Machu Picchu. To the north of the valley, the Urubamba mountain range rises to several prominent snowcapped summits, including Veronica (19,394 feet) and Sahuasiray (19,008 feet), while to the south, the Vilcabamba range is dominated by Salcantay (20,574 feet). The majestic landscape had sacred significance to the Incas, who considered the Urubamba to be the earthly counterpart to the Milky Way. More prosaically, the valley was the source of the prized giant white corn, paraqay sara, each kernel the size of a thumbnail, a variety that refuses to prosper elsewhere.
At one time the Sacred Valley was chiefly a place where people would pause on the way to Machu Picchu or to acclimatize, its elevation being 2,000 feet lower than that of Cusco. Nowadays, however, the valley is a destination in its own right. The principal resorts have spas and swimming pools and are extremely agreeable places in which to relax. Although the major archaeological sites at Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo can be quite crowded in the summer high season, more-adventurous travelers, especially those willing to hike, will find enigmatic Inca ruins that are relatively unfrequented.
The property in the valley that has proved consistently the most popular with Harper members is Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, a 23-room hideaway set on a pretty hillside above the river, five miles from the rapidly growing town of Urubamba. (I am told that a planned extension will significantly increase the number of accommodations in the relatively near future.) Although the rooms are rather small, Garden Junior Suites are sufficiently spacious and come with private balconies and patios. As well as an attractive outdoor pool, the resort offers a small spa, with whirlpool tubs and a sauna. Undoubtedly, the hotel’s most distinctive feature is a private train station, from which PeruRail’s Vistadome departs daily to Machu Picchu, two and a half hours away. Between January and April, Belmond’s Hiram Bingham luxury train also leaves from the hotel; during the remainder of the year, it operates from the Poroy station near Cusco.
explora Valle Sagrado
Although I stayed briefly at the Rio Sagrado and was pleased to discover that the food, service and general condition of the property are as commendable as ever, my principal base on this trip was the new explora Valle Sagrado, which opened in July 2016. The explora group’s first resort debuted in Patagonia in 1993. It was followed by properties in Chile’s Atacama Desert and on Easter Island in the Pacific. I recommend all three. The company’s philosophy is to provide sophisticated comfort in wild areas and to encourage guests to immerse themselves in nature on “explorations,” chiefly hiking and mountain-biking excursions.
The new 50-room lodge is located 25 miles north of Cusco and six miles east of Urubamba, in a peaceful rural location near the village of Urquillos. All the explora properties have been designed by Chilean architect José Cruz Ovalle, whose sensibility is austerely modern and often seems more Scandinavian than South American. However, the designs are extremely refined and aesthetically pleasing. The Peruvian resort is no exception and features unvarnished wooden walls, stripped beams and pillars, elevated walkways, vaulted ceilings and panoramic windows. Our elegantly simple, light-filled room came with a king-size bed, alpaca-wool blankets, wooden floors, a writing desk, ample hanging space and a color scheme of gray and sage green. The bath provided a walk-in shower, twin sinks and a whirlpool tub (which proved very useful for soothing aching muscles). Expansive windows looked out across fields of quinoa and corn to the Urubamba range, the snowcapped summit of Sahuasiray being visible over a vertiginous intervening ridge. Accommodations lack televisions and Wi-Fi, though the latter is available in the resort’s public areas.
The open-plan main lodge contains spacious lounge areas before open fires, a long and convivial bar, a library and a spectacular dining room with a cathedral ceiling. There the food is relatively simple — local trout with butter and capers, lamb chops with chimichurri, quinoa tabbouleh — but well-prepared and served by enthusiastic and engaging young staff. In general, both the guests and the employees are youthful, the average age of the former probably being less than 40. (In contrast, Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado seems to appeal chiefly to baby boomers.) This is undoubtedly due to the nature of the experience. Despite having a spa, housed within a 17th-century hacienda a short walk from the main lodge, the explora Valle Sagrado is a resort where people come chiefly to engage in strenuous exercise. Each evening, guests have one-on-one consultations with the guides, to select the following day’s program and discuss the level of fitness required.
Understandably, given the splendor of the mountain scenery and the rich local culture, hiking is the most popular activity. On our first afternoon, we opted for a gentle three-hour walk. Having been driven for 45 minutes to the end of a dirt road on the southern slope of the Sacred Valley, we set off with our guide through potato fields surrounding immemorial ocher-colored villages, at an elevation of about 11,500 feet. The path was smooth, and the ascents were undemanding. Along the way, our eyes were constantly drawn to the glaciers descending from Sahuasiray and the neighboring Chicón (18,143 feet). Eventually, we arrived at a viewpoint from which we watched the sun decline and the shadows deepen in the Sacred Valley below.
The following day, we decided to be more adventurous and signed up for a 10-mile full-day hike. This began in a remote Andean village at an elevation of 13,000 feet. For the first two hours, we descended a winding path that occasionally provided arresting views of Veronica’s glaciers and snowfields. Eventually, we came to a plateau from which we could gaze down at the extraordinary circular Inca terraces at Moray. Apparently, these were designed as a kind of open-air laboratory for agricultural experiments, but seen from above, their symmetry and scale appear otherworldly, and you would not have to be especially credulous to imagine some extraterrestrial role in their construction. After an excellent picnic lunch — smoked trout, rare roast beef, quinoa salad with lima beans — brought to a suitably scenic location by an explora vehicle, we continued to descend, through the sleepy Spanish colonial town of Maras and then the nearby Inca salt evaporation ponds, until finally, seven hours after we had set out, we reached the banks of the Urubamba River. Although somewhat footsore and badly in need of a whirlpool tub, we felt invigorated rather than exhausted.
Although many of the activities at explora Valle Sagrado are suitable for any moderately athletic person, some of the more spectacular ones are quite demanding. For example, it is possible to make a daylong trek to one of the glaciers that descend from Veronica, but steep slopes at an elevation of 16,000 feet require a heightened level of physical fitness. Overall, this property is ideally suited to a family vacation: for parents who are in good shape and their adventurous teenage children. The location is memorable, the architecture is exhilarating, the guides are engaging and well-trained, and the activities are extremely well-organized. However, it is not a place that is luxurious in any conventional sense.
explora Valle Sagrado 96
Striking architecture; exceptional guides.
The spa and swimming pool are too far from the main lodge to be convenient.
Good to Know
This is a resort best suited to the fit, active and comparatively youthful.
Rates: Standard Room for two, $1,130; Suite for two, $1,600 (all meals, drinks and airport transfers included; three-night minimum stay required)
Address: Fundo Salabella-Silvayoc S/N, Urquillos, Urubamba
Telephone: (51) 84-300-000