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Wash Away Your Sins in Peru’s Sacred Valley

Do yourself the favor of fully experiencing the aptly named Sacred Valley of the Incas.

You’ve flown into Cusco because you are, inevitably, en route to Machu Picchu. Visions of an ancient mountaintop city dance in your head. But in order to get there, you must make your way from the former seat of Incan rule through the Sacred Valley. And while the name and the pictures should’ve tipped you off as to how special this place is, you’re still caught off guard. You don’t expect the quiet and cool calm that envelopes you, the rare steadiness of heart engendered by close proximity with the truly divine.

Maybe it’s the way the brilliant light slices across the farmlands that flank the Urubamba River, which carves its way through the center of the valley. Maybe it’s the humility that grounds you as you stare up at the Andes towering above, its peaks lancing through the clouds. Maybe it’s because Cusco is 11,000 feet above sea level and the fog of altitude-induced dizziness is finally sloughing off. But as you descend into Peru’s Sacred Valley, you can’t help but feel like you’re being gently submerged in cleansing water.

There’s no wrong way to experience such a wonderful place, but there’s something to be said for having someone to guide you through your time in the Sacred Valley. Perillo’s Learning Journeys, with its years of experience crafting tours that not only take you to the place itself but provides an enlightening context, has applied that expertise to its Peaceful Peru tour. Perillo’s Learning Journeys’ guides you through the Sacred Valley so that when you do find your way to Machu Picchu, your experience is illuminated by all that you’ve learned and felt as a result of having the wonders of this special and sacred place wash over you.

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Urubamba River

The Incans recognized the long, winding river as a terrestrial mirror of the Milky Way. Its celestial significance is just one of the ways in which the Urubamba River played a large role in what made the Sacred Valley so highly prized by the Incas. The river acted as the water source for a plethora of crops, allowing the valley to flourish as one of the most prolific agricultural centers of the entire Incan empire. It’s entirely worth finding a good vantage point to appreciate how beautiful it is, but if you’d like a more close-up (and adventurous) way to experience the Urubamba River, it’s also a site for white river rafting.

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Awana Kancha

Awana Kancha, a small farm and textile mill, provides the perfect opportunity to get some face time with all four types of South American Camelids: llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas. If you’d really like to get up close and personal with some of the llamas and alpacas, all you have to do is wave a little alfalfa in their direction. Being in the presence of these creatures allows you to feel at once in harmony with nature (it’s impossible not be charmed by an alpaca’s fluffy, doe-eyed face) but to have that balanced by the reassurance that part of that harmony is its indifference (llamas don’t care how much alfalfa you’ve just given them, they’re going to spit any which way that pleases them).

And while just about any market, shop, or hotel boutique in the Sacred Valley is going to feature colorful woven textiles, Awana Kancha makes it possible to get a sense of how they’re made. Artisans demonstrate how they make their multicolored wares, from the creation of the dye they use to the actual weaving.

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Pisac Market

Offering a quintessential market experience, Pisac Market is filled with artisans selling their wares just about any day of the week (although Sundays are traditionally when people from outside communities travel to the town of Pisac). But it’s not just the sellers who fill up the open air market in the central plaza that are worth a visit, but the good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar shops. When you visit Joyeria Pisac Pachamama (which is located on the main square), you can glimpse the workshop where the jewelry was made and get a sense for the skill and artistry that goes into creating each work.

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Hacienda Huayoccari

Hacienda Huayoccari is less about having a meal and more about the actual feeling of discovery one feels when visiting this beautiful hideaway, which is part restaurant and part museum. The food on the menu is simple and hearty with many traditional Andean offerings. But, really, the draw is the setting. The grounds that surround the property are filled with lush and colorful flora. The interior of the building features an impressive collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art and artifacts can be found on display throughout the hacienda. It’s such a unique experience to dine in a room while surrounded by the collected art and historic décor while simultaneously taking in a stunning view of the mountains in the distance.

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Urubamba may be the largest town in the Sacred Valley, but even as you walk its streets, you’re never out of sight of the mountains and you’re unlikely to find yourself overwhelmed by any hustle or bustle. There’s a meditative quality to taking a short stroll in the Plaza de Armas or appreciating the quiet beauty of the Iglesia de Urubamba. But perhaps one of the more unique and enlightening stops one might make is a visit the workshop of Pablo Seminario, whose pottery and ceramic work have been on display in the Chicago Field Museum and featured at the Smithsonian Institute. Seminario’s work draws on pre-Colombian ceramic making traditions, with pieces featuring traditional Andean iconography made with local red clay.

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El Huacatey

The experience of dining at El Huacatey is akin to having dinner is tucked away off a narrow, unassuming street in Urubamba. And once you step within its walls, you find yourself on a lush outdoor patio where—if you find yourself dining after dark—twinkling string lights mingle with the stars clearly visible just overhead. The indoor space is just as enchanting with its warm, intimate atmosphere.

You will find plenty of distinctly Peruvian ingredients on the menu—quinoa, trout, even alpaca—that have been prepared in a myriad of creative ways, with Mediterranean and Asian cuisine providing inspiration for the menu’s many delicious dishes.

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Hotel Sol y Luna

Hotel Sol y Luna in Urubamba feels like a secret magical garden you would steal away to in a homey fairytale. The grounds are filled with lush flora, guests stay in colorful “casita” style accommodations, mouthwatering Andean cuisine made in a traditional wood-burning oven is served on a terrace with stunning views of the mountains. Oh, and the horses dance.

The hotel hosts a daily Peruvian Paso horse show that includes a demonstration of marinera dancing. In this variation on the traditional romantic dance, a mounted rider and horse “dance” with a woman (sans mount). It’s the rare

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The Salt Ponds of Maras

The history of the Salinas de Maras goes back long before the Incas—before the formation of the Sacred Valley itself, as a matter of fact. Geologists believe that this area had been part of the ocean floor, and when the Andes formed, the ocean waters were trapped inland—leaving a halite (salt) deposit that’s been feeding the spring ever since. The geometric, interlocked pools are a completely unique sight, the stark white of the salt standing out against the earthen tones of the mountainside.

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High in the hills above the town of Ollantaytambo is the small community of Huilloc. The people of Huilloc eschew modernity, living as their Andean ancestors have for hundreds of years. Here, Quechua is the dominant language. They dress in the traditional Andean style: men wear ponchos; women wear a manta (a blanket worn like a cape) and a montera (a hat that’s fastened under the chin with a woven strap). They farm the land for potatoes and the river for fish, and they honor Pachamama (an Andean earth and fertility goddess) with rituals that have been handed down through generations. Instead of street numbers, their homes simply bear the names of the couples who live there.

Even in a place renowned for its textiles, the weavers of Huilloc are in a class all of their own. The artisans who make the various blankets, scarves, and other textiles become acquainted with their craft at a young age, as most would have watched and learned from their mothers. Consequentially, the designs and the quality of the weaving is second to none. The village hosts a market where visitors can purchase these unique works of art.

But above all else, it’s the emphasis on community that is stunning. When getting a glimpse of what day-to-day life looks like in Huilloc, you’re inevitably seeing what it means to have everyone working to support—and in turn, supported by—their neighbors. It’s “community” stripped of any geographical associations you might have with the word.

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The majority of tourists on their way to Machu Picchu will pass through the town of Ollantaytambo, but this gateway to the “Lost City of the Incas” is more than a mere waypoint. Indeed, you find yourself encountering the unparalleled engineering of the Incas long before you even approach the main archaeological site. Ollantaytambo is sometimes called the Last Living Inca City because so many of its streets and structures and aqueducts are just as functional as they were in the 1500s.

The main archeological site—which notably features terraces that climb up the hillside and a temple that’s been forever frozen in a state of mid-construction as its creation was interrupted by the arrival of the Spanish—is ideally experienced in the late afternoon on a day that’s chilly in a way that sneaks up on you as the sun gets lower in the sky. The air and the light take on a crispness that doesn’t allow for the weight of artifice. When you climb to the top of the stairs and look down at the rest of Ollantaytambo and the stretch of the Sacred Valley, the distinction between archaeological site and town, old and new, feels almost arbitrary. It hits how the valley is much more than an avenue to Machu Picchu. You start to get a sense—not just rely on what you’ve been told—for what made this aptly named valley of such agricultural, military, and spiritual importance for centuries.

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