Peru and All it’s Glory
by Jackie Kotsovos
I flew from O’Hare, connected in Bogota and finally landed in the Inca capital of Cusco. To better adjust to the high altitude of around 3,400 m (11,200 ft), we decided to go lower, and spend our first night in Peru in Urubamba, the largest town in the Sacred Valley. It is at a lower elevation than Cusco – about 2,900m (9,514ft), and with so many gorgeous hotels to choose from in the area, you’ll want to definitely spend some time here!
We checked in to the charming boutique hotel, Sol y Luna. We then proceeded to lunch and just in time for their daily horse show they put on at their restaurant, Wayra. The food was EXCELLENT, and we had our first taste of Peruvian potatoes (which are actually not that impressive and we learned they don’t even export potatoes!) and a yummy yellow pepper sauce called Huacaina. The artsy feel, and fun color pallet made it the quaintest stay in the valley. The real highlight of the hotel is the Sol y Luna Intercultural School that supports the children of the local community. Make sure to “pack for a purpose” if you plan to stay here, and definitely tour the school!
I also had the chance to pop by two more hotels – Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is nestled in a breathtaking location, and the few activities which are included will make you want to stay longer than a day; while Explora’s clean lines make for the perfect stay for those who love a contemporary aesthetic and an all inclusive property.
Back to Cusco – we stayed at Belmond Monasterio. Just off the Plaza De Armas. We were upgrade to the Junior Suite on arrival and it had the perfect view over the rooftops looking out to the main square, Plaza De Armas. Even though the room was lofted with an extra twin upstairs, it was very small! As an old monastery, I’m sure there were restrictions, but overall would probably put clients at the Belmond next door, Nazarenas.
Our central location made it easy to get lost in the Centro Historico district and San Blas neighborhood, but there are a lot of steps – especially climbing up to San Blas or even further up to the archaeological site, Sacsayhuaman. Remember to take it easy since the altitude can catch up with you! Drinking Coca Tea helps, and every hotel has oxygen in case you’d like a little boost.
What are all first timers really coming to Peru for though? Machu Picchu of course. However, we didn’t want to simply hop over and hop back to Cusco as most do. Enter – Mountain Lodges of Peru. MLP has designed multiple lodge-to-lodge journeys for small groups catering to the novice to the experienced hiker, and beyond.
We embarked on the 5-day Lares adventure that took us through various areas of the Sacred Valley, visiting lesser known Inca sites, towns, and trails that most don’t experience when they visit. Every day you get the option to do either a hike (difficulty & duration vary each day) or a cultural experience, so even if you are traveling with someone who is not as intense a hiker as you might be, there is something for everyone on the Lares adventure. While MLP was once only focused on hiking journeys (their Salkantay itinerary is 10 days of hiking), they have recently begun to offer destination designed experiences that focus on local festivals, wellness & yoga, and Andean Mysticism.
A quick snapshot of our five days in no particular order:
Visiting impressive archaeological marvels such as Pisaq, Ancasmarca, Pumamarka – and having them nearly all to ourselves, made for a huge wow factor.
Visits to markets, local homes, a brewery, and staying in cozy local accommodations with delicious Peruvian cooking (and a much-loved pizza night)!
After all that – we had finally made it to the last days of the trip and Machu Picchu was our final destination with MLP. We took the Inca Rail train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town) and checked in to Inkaterra Machu Pichu Pueblo Hotel. The property is 12 acres of whitewashed Andean homes nestled in lush flora and fauna, and our spacious yet cozy junior suite made for the perfect home. However, our suite was facing the train that comes into town and this get REALLY loud! After a good meal and a good night’s rest, we were ready to take on the ancient Citadel.
We went by bus to Machu Picchu though it is possible to hike up. It was less then 15 minutes to reach the top. You may have heard it before – but get there EARLY! It is so worth seeing the majesty of this city with fewer people (and far less midday heat). We did not have a choice in our time heading up, but that did not take away from the grandeur of seeing it with our own eyes. After snapping a few pictures, and a few fast facts from our guide, we made our way into the belly of the beast. Our guided tour took us to every area of the city in about 2 hours time. It was incredible to learn the uses of the different areas (did you know part of Machu Picchu was thought to be a school?). It is truly the mecca of of well preserved archaeological sites and a must for any traveler who is fascinated by ancient civilizations!
And just like that we were down the mountain and enjoying our last lunch as a team at Inkkaterra. It was a whirlwind trip but seeing a multitude of sites beyond Machu Picchu made for a most memorable trip to a fascinating (and delicious) country!
On that note I’ll leave you with this. A shout out to our favorite eats in the country and where you can get yours in Chicago:
Have you heard of Chifas? These are Peruvian Chinese restaurants in Peru! You’ll see Lomo Saltado (a stir fry dish of sirloin, onions, tomatoes with French friend and rice) on menus everywhere not just at Chifas. My personal favorite dish – Aji de Gallina – comprising chicken cooked with yellow chili peppers, walnuts, spices, garlic, and turmeric. And the CEVICHE! Talk about an umami of flavors! To round it all out don’t forget to order a pisco sour or chicha, which is a sweet purple drink made of corn. The Peruvian culinary scene is booming, and if your craving something in Chicago, you should check out Tumi in Logan Square for no frills authenticity, Tanta by the famous Chef Gastón Acurio, or Stephanie Izard’s Cevicheria concept, Cabra, at the Hoxton Hotel.