By Ellen Barone
As if on cue, the veil of clouds that had shadowed our morning climb lifted to reveal a picture-perfect panorama of Machu Picchu. Sunlight filtered through the swirling mist, spotlighting the mythical citadel, the distinctive horned peak of Huayna Picchu and snaking below, the silvery streak of the Urubamba River.
It was our second day of exploring Machu Picchu. Each step presented a new vista more impressive than the last as we ascended the narrow granite staircase and steep sixteen hundred foot climb up Mount Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) – the southern sister to the iconic Huayna Picchu (New Mountain) –for a bird’s eye view of the ancient metropolis.
The sacred Lost City of the Incas is a bucket-list destination for travelers and one I’d dreamed of visiting for decades. But not all Machu Picchu visits are created equally. As part of Butterfield & Robinson’s Peru Walk, of the 2,500 visitor passes issued each day, we were among the exclusive few to stay at the 29-room Orient-Express Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only lodging located at the ancient Inca citadel.
Sunset at Machu Picchu
As a result, while most visitors scurried to board the final buses down the dusty serpentine dirt road to the seedy tourist town of Aguas Calientes (last stop before Machu Picchu), we enjoyed a sunset champagne toast at Intipunku (Sun Gate), the stone portal entry point of the Inca Trail. And with the place practically to ourselves, a private tour of the citadel, seeing parts of the site where most people never go.
“To be here alone, is a rare and wonderful experience,” said B&R guide, Ana María Meneses, gesturing toward the now-silent and vacant citadel illuminated in golden light by the setting sun. A passionate Peruvian and knowledgeable Inca historian with years of experience leading tours, Ana María’s love and appreciation of her heritage were palpable as she pointed out this ingenious Inca feature and that architectural characteristic with increasing enthusiasm.
“Look at the way this massive block of granite has been precision-cut,” said Ana María, directing our attention to an enormous slab of granite so heavy that it is slowly sinking into the ground. “Come closer to see the building guidelines that are still visible…”
As I watched Ana María excitedly sketch out the highlights of Inca construction and history, I was reminded of how much travel is enhanced by the expertise and careful planning of a good guide.
Letting the Pros Mind the Details
Anyone who has traveled independently in the developing world knows how all-consuming the logistical and bureaucratic challenges can be. Having our luggage delivered to our rooms; water, snacks, bug repellent, sun block and walking sticks available for the asking;, van support; reserved entry passes; and expert on-the-trail historical and cultural interpretation were part of the package. All this left us free to give our full attention to majestic Inca landscapes and Peruvian vibrancy we had come to experience.
If avoiding the crowds at Machu Picchu and exclusive lodging just steps from one of the Seven Wonders of the World wasn’t enough, B&R had more in store for us.
“During a scouting trip some fifteen years ago, a couple of our guides came across an adventurous young European couple, Marie-Helene (Petit) Miribel and Franz Schilter, paragliding over the Valle Sagrado in search of property,” walk leader, Tyler Dillon, told us en route to Hotel Sol y Luna, our base camp in the Sacred Valley.
Today, Petit and Franz play host to one of the Valley’s most stylish escapes: A paradise of lush gardens, local ceramics, indigenous woods and private bungalow accommodations. For three blissful nights the spa resort provided the perfect retreat to recharge and restore after days of trailblazing up and down cartilage-crunching Inca terraces and high Andes mountainsides.
Giving Back in the Sacred Valley
Beyond our comfort, however, lies Sol y Luna’s true purpose – a school for local children. Adjacent to the hotel property, the Colegio Sol y Luna, a B&R Fund supported project, provides an innovative means for Petit and Franz to give back to their adopted community, in addition to providing a quality education for local children, including their own.
“Yes, that’s my son’s classroom,” Petit told me when I recognized a grey-muzzled German Shepherd, asleep against a Grade 4 classroom doorway, as one I’d seen earlier on the hotel grounds. “Let’s go in…”