Nestled deep in the Peruvian Andes against a back-drop of snow capped peaks, flowering meadows, deep crystalline lakes and abundant forests lays the enigmatic Sacred Valley, a place stepped in ethereal natural beauty and cradle of the once glorious and illustrious Inca Empire. This narrow strip of land running from the old imperial capital of Cusco to the mysterious might of Machu Picchu contains some of the best soil in the region, boasting extraordinary geographical and climatic qualities, referred to as Sacred because it was not only a part of the Empire, but the property of the Emperor himself. Today, the Valley is a land deeply immersed in Andean history and culture, home to Peru’s main tourist attraction, Machu Picchu, and with a vast collection of small towns and Inca archaeological sites that offer a full representation of the ingenuity, accomplishments and operation of the once mighty Inca Empire.
Located deep in the heart of the legendary Sacred Valley, Perol Chico ranch and riding operation offers exceptional riding experiences throughout this mystical land with National Geographic selecting their Sacred Valley Ride as being one of the top ten horseback rides in the world………. the die had been cast, it was time to return to the Andes once again. Having ridden in the majestic mountain range of the Andes twice before, the stunning vistas, endless stretches of wilderness and spectacular natural scenery were not my only motivation……….my true incentive for choosing the Sacred Valley Ride was the promise of riding the Rolls Royce of horses, The Peruvian Paso.
Descended from the horses of the Conquistadors, the Peruvian Paso is “hot-blooded” possessing the royal heritage of pure Spanish breeds. No outside blood has been introduced to the breed since it landed on Peruvian shores; instead it was selectively bred for its distinctive amble, the velvety smooth Paso Llano, at the time there was a need for an effortlessly fluid and comfortable ride as there was no other mode of transport that could link the valleys, provinces and villages of the coast with those of the mountainous regions further inland. Today’s Peruvian Paso is the result of over 400 years of highly selective breeding making it the ultimate horse for riding pleasure and one of the country’s greatest treasures.
Arriving to Cusco in the early hours of the morning I was forever thankful to check into The Loreto Boutique Hotel and crawl into bed……the few hours of exhausted slumber I managed curled up on the floor of Lima International Airport helped to revive and charge my batteries somewhat, but my body ached for more sleep. Located just ten meters from the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square, Loreto Boutique has an interesting and unique history. Built over 600 years ago during the reign of Inca Pachacuteq, the impressive walls of this cosy lodge once belonged to the House of the Virgins of the Sun or Ajiila Wasi. The Ajila Wasi was an exclusive centre for the chosen virgins to worship the great deity Viraqocha, the Sun and the Inca………. everything in Cusco is steeped and marinated in ancient history.
With a maximum altitude of 4,350m reached during the Sacred Valley Ride, a day to acclimatise in Cusco is highly recommended. After a quick refresh I set about exploring and it wasn’t long before I found myself wandering aimlessly along the beautiful cobbled streets, drinking in the culture and getting lost in the realms of coloured textiles in the many markets. Relaxing in the sun at the Plaza de Armas I was soon approached by a hawker selling his wears……what happened next was possibly one of the most random, fun experiences of my travelling career! I live and travel with a general belief system that if you have fate, good intention and a confidence that people are generally good and are not intentionally trying to harm you, you will be fine. I also listen to my intuition a lot, if something feels okay roll with it, if not run. Antonio and I ended up chatting, joking, laughing so I went with him to experience “real Cusco” and found myself meandering through tiny, cobbled back allies until we arrived at a bar well off the beaten tourist track, dingy and dark this was a local’s bar, and I was the only Gringo…….and I could not have been made more welcome! You may expect that this story will end with me being robbed of my camera and currency or being placed in a compromising position as a solo female traveller……sorry to disappoint. I shared beers with Antonio and his friends, none of which I was allowed purchase, we talked about our respective cultures and life experiences and they taught me how to salsa dance. At the end of the night they walked me back to my hotel, thanked me for my company and we parted ways, my camera and wallet untouched and my faith in humanity reinforced.
Head a little fuzzy from the unexpected excesses of the previous night it was time to meet my fellow riders (8 of us in total), leave Cusco and enter the Sacred Valley, let the adventure begin!! The Sacred Valley Ride offered by Perol Chico not only endeavours to showcase an unbelievably scenic riding adventure amongst the majestic peaks of the mighty Andes, but also entwines the unique culture and ancient history of the area with a two night stay mid-trip in Cusco and a visit to the legendary Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.
Our accommodation in the Sacred Valley was at the Sonesta Posada del Inca Yucay hotel located approximately 5 minutes from the village of Urubamba and only a short drive from the stables. Entering this remodelled 18th century Monastery is akin to entering a fragrant Garden of Eden, accompanied by the perfumed aroma of radiant bouquets of local flowers we were led to our luxurious rooms nestled beneath the imposing shadows of the indomitable Andes. Despite the ride being progressive, we would be returning each night to this idyllic paradise, each morning starting earlier, each evening returning a little later. Eddie used to offer camping trips in the Sacred Valley with his riding tours, however over time he discovered that most people wanted comfort and luxury…… experience the adventure during the day but return to a piping hot shower and Egyptian cotton sheets at night, so in the interest of maintaing a strong, viable business, he gave the people what they want. I’ve camped in the Andes previously and I know how the temperatures plummet, I’ve woken up to sheets of ice glazed decoratively across the top of my tent, to icicles dangling from my guy ropes and to my glacial breath causing puffs of smoke each time I drew breath…..but I also slept soundly to the soft nickering of the horses grazing nearby, opened my tent to their silhouettes framed against the rising sun and allowed the roaring lick of flames from the nightly campfires to warm my bones……I will always prefer to forgo opulence and luxury, to suffer the elements, to experience the little moments of magic and unforgettable moments that nature and wilderness demonstrate to those willing to see.
On reaching the Sacred Valley, our first day and a half was mainly focused on acclimatisation to the high altitude. We visited the quaint village of Ollantaytambo, explored the impressive Inca ruins of the Fortress and its terraces, wandered along its labyrinthine network of narrow byways past stone buildings and babbling irrigation channels, completely immersed we stepped back in time as we explored this last surviving example of Inca city planning.
Back at the ranch we were introduced to the Peruvian Paso and Peruvian equitation under the ever-watchful eye of Eddie. An extremely passionate horseman, Eddie is an advocate of and practices the principles of Classic Equitation, be prepared to sit astride a stone wall whilst he explains this method of deep seated, long legged riding! Thankfully for me it wasn’t much of a deviation from my own style of riding…..I’ve always favoured riding long to maximise use of the inner thigh, this method increases security and balance in the saddle and also aids in the correct distribution of your weight on the horse……sitting deeply in this vertical position also forces you to carry your upper body, thus you are active and effectively riding, not just lazing as a passenger having the horse do all the hard work! The horses are Eddie’s pride and joy, their health and well being are his main priority so he is painstakingly selective about matching horse with rider and scrutinises your abilities on several his noble steeds, keeping you in anticipation, only revealing his choice the morning of your departure into the untamed wonders of the Sacred Valley. A beautiful stallion by the name of Cruz de Jaime caught my eye, captured my heart and became my faithful companion for the six-day riding expedition.
Over the following days we were truly immersed in the stunning scenery and ancient history of the Sacred Valley, our horses worked tirelessly and courageously as we improvised mountain trails, traversed remote, inaccessible craggy passes and deep, rocky gorges. Traversing the Urubamba River, we climbed steadily uphill passing the salt pans, a relic from the Incas still being used by the locals today to extract salt from the mountain spring water. We danced the Paso llano through typical Andean villages, hooves echoing loudly on the cobbled streets, the sound reverberated a reflection of the past. High in the Andean altiplano we were encapsulated by breath-taking views, the snow-capped peaks of Chicon, Veronica, Pitusury, the Cordileras, Vilcabamba and Urubamba became our picnic lunch backdrop. We roamed across farmland and carpets of wild flowers, smiling Quechua children busily herded their sheep and cattle, farmers worked the land in the traditional way with oxen hitched to a wooden plough. Herds of alpaca and llama watched us curiously, large eyes fixed and unblinking as they followed our course. Crystalline mountain lakes glistened in the sunlight, as we reached our summit at 4,350m, the horse’s legs earning a well-deserved massage from the cool calming waters. Delving once more into the past we followed the great Inca Empire’s road system, the Qhapaq Nan, a 30,000kms network that ultimately linked Cusco to the Empires far-flung domains, our ever-gallant steeds floating heartily over the cobbles.
The Sacred Valley is brimming with historical ancient sites and glimpses into the past and we visited some of the Incas great feats of engineering and ingenuity……the cold-storage areas of the Cheqoq ruins that were used to preserve the agricultural produce of the region and the agricultural terraces of Moray were scientists discovered climatic changes of up to 15 degrees Celsius between terraces, allowing growth of a variety of crops in the many different ecological zones present at this single site.
Exploring the unique Andean culture, we learned about the traditional techniques of spinning, dying and weaving wool at a textiles workshop in Chincero……all the rich colours produced from natural plants and vegetables such as cauliflower, sweet-corn, lemon, lime and multiple combinations of the same. Pablo Seminario, renowned ceramicist and artist, a local legend amongst Cusquenos opened the doors of his workshop to us, filling us with the dreamy artistic creativity that exists in this special land.
Midway through our Sacred Valley explorations we relaxed in the Empire’s ancient capital, Cusco. Located in the Centro Historico, the Hotel Costa del Sol Ramada became our home for two nights. Originally a 17th century colonial mansion, the prevailing essence is one of historical architecture. Wandering through reception it was the exquisite courtyard that caught my eye, fragrant bouquets of flowers spilling forth from hanging baskets, a central fountain erupting with colourful blossoms, slabs of Andean slate created a path of stepping stones through this secluded utopia encased amongst chalky limestone columns, the perfect location to enjoy a refreshing Pisco Sour or some medicinal Coca Tea! Our exploration of Cusco took us wandering through the National History Museum and the Art Museum…..both brimming full of stories and culture. My favourite museum however was the Museo del Pisco (Pisco Sour Museum!), where we sampled a wide and varied selection of Peru’s finest beverage, combinations to tantalise every discerning palate! As beautiful as Cusco is, I yearned to be reunited with my magnificent Cruz de Jaime and once again wander in the wilderness, discover the hidden jewels of the Sacred Valley and dance the Paso Llano………
A wonderful nine days of fantastic horse-riding, awe-inspiring scenery, discovery, exploration and adventure had passed quickly, but we still had one final treasure to unveil. Machu Picchu has captivated the hearts, minds and souls of the modern world since Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. It is generally believed that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (1438 – 1472), but there are many myths and legends surrounding the “Lost City”. Raising long before sunrise, the world still cloaked in darkness, we sleepily arrived at Ollyantatambo to board the train, one of the most spectacular in the world, a breath-taking journey of panoramic vistas, we meandered intricately through magnificent peaks, the vegetation changing from barren mountainous terrain to lush, verdant forest illuminated splendidly by the climbing sun until we reached the end of the line at Aquas Caliantes. Swimming amongst a swarm of bodies we hurried to the bus station for the last push towards Machu Picchu, spiralling skyward along narrow paved roads, shrouded in clouds, we finally entered its grandeur and mystery. It is every inch as spine-tingling as depicted in photographs, there is an intense energy emanating from every rock and pore of Machu Picchu that literally took my breath away. Instead of hiring a guide, a few of us decided to explore ourselves, to drink in the atmosphere and listen to the whispers on the wind, to forage deep beneath the surface and allow the ancient voices of the past tell us their story, to get lost amongst the mystical clouds and allow the magic and legend envelope us, to sit in quiet contemplation, captivated by the beauty.
The one thing that did strike me about Machu Picchu was the sheer volume of people, a blanket of ants sprawling into every available space……..I found it too much to be honest, I found it distracted from Machu Picchu’s glory, distracted from it’s captivating spell. Thankfully, the Peruvian Government have also recognised this and as of July 2017, new regulations to preserve the facilities of this Wonder of the World have been enforced. There are now only two entrance times (06.00 – 12.00 and 12.00-17.30) and the capacity of the citadel is limited to 2,500 visitors per day.
After three hours of complete immersion and enthrallment in Machu Picchu’s aura, we decided to leave the masses behind and seek some serenity, solace and coca tea through the winding cobbled streets and plentiful craft markets of Aquas Caliantes before returning to the ranch for our final farewell dinner. As the train chugged slowly towards Ollyantatambo I was lulled into a peaceful sleep, my head floating with the images and sounds of The Sacred Valley………. I had unlocked and experienced one of the magical tapestries of Peru’s exquisite weavings, The Amazon and Lake Titicaca patiently waiting for my visit……….
The Sacred Valley Ride October 2014.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)