Into Thin Air

Peru’s Sa­cred Val­ley may be home to tourist-mag­net Machu Pic­chu, but it also has 20,000-foot peaks, epic hik­ing and moun­tain bik­ing far from the madding crowds.

Western Living - - CONTENTS - by NEAL McLEN­NAN

Travel editor Neal McLen­nan takes on Peru’s other-worldly Sa­cred Val­ley—and it might just be cooler than Machu Pic­chu.

“Do you know how many types of pota­toes Peru has?”

It’s day two at the new Ex­plora lodge in Peru’s Sa­cred Val­ley and our guide, Vigner, is us­ing the So­cratic ap­proach to keep our minds off the combo of hik­ing and thin air— namely, to quiz us on Peru fac­toids.

“Over 4,000,” I re­ply with as much gusto as my spent lungs can muster at 13,000 feet.

My fel­low hik­ers—two Brook­lyn hip­sters on a short break and a quar­tet of im­pos­si­bly good-look­ing Brazil­ians—seem se­ri­ously im­pressed, so I’m loath to burst their bub­ble and tell them that Abel, my guide on yes­ter­day’s hike, had al­ready quizzed me.

But be­fore he can ask us about the in­tri­cate road sys­tem of the In­can em­pire, we round a cor­ner and are struck dumb by the panorama be­fore us—our lodge, lo­cated about 4,000 feet be­low us, and the twin peaks of moun­tains Sahuasiray and La Veron­ica tow­er­ing 6,000 feet above us. And we’re only on an ac­clima­ti­za­tion hike.

If vis­i­tors to Peru know any­thing about the Sa­cred Val­ley, it’s the quaint lit­tle ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site called Machu Pic­chu— with its cool 1.4 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year— that sits at the val­ley’s western reaches, but iron­i­cally it’s the sparsely vis­ited area be­tween bucket-list cen­tral and the colo­nial city of Cuzco that fea­tures the area’s most spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas and hik­ing. This out­door play­ground was long the se­cret purview of two groups: the back­pack­ers who came across this area while tak­ing the cheap way to Machu Pic­chu and fell in love, and hard-core moun­tain bik­ers. Be­ing nei­ther of those, it took the luxe eco-chain Ex­plora open­ing an ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vel to ping the des­ti­na­tion on my radar.

Like many of Ex­plora’s prop­er­ties, the com­bi­na­tion of re­mote lo­ca­tion (it’s set among acres of ma­ture maize fields) and high de­sign (ar­chi­tect José Cruz Ovalle used tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als in craft­ing the rad­i­cally mod­ern fa­cade and spar­tan in­te­ri­ors) screams James Bond vil­lain. But the re­al­ity is—given that you’re here to ba­si­cally hike, bike and eat—you end up hav­ing much more mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion with the staff here than at many re­sorts. Take, for ex­am­ple, your nightly con­sul­ta­tion with the guides: af­ter a din­ner (a blend of Miche­lin-level prepa­ra­tion with at least one of those 4,000 va­ri­eties of pota­toes) that seems more at home in the food-ob­sessed cap­i­tal of Lima than at this iso­lated out­post, you cozy up to a cor­ner of the great room with a guide and a slew of topo­graph­i­cal maps to plan the fol­low­ing day’s ad­ven­tures. Each night my rou­tine is the same: act­ing like a child at some dessert buf­fet by point­ing to the high­est, tough­est hike, only to have my guide tact­fully ease me into a hike I might be able to com­plete.

The added is­sue here is the very real pos­si­bil­ity of al­ti­tude sick­ness (the re­sort’s high­est hike brushes 16,400 feet in el­e­va­tion), so for a week­end war­rior who lives at sea level, pre­cau­tions must be taken, which is why the first two days are spent on ac­clima­ti­za­tion hikes, where less time is spent at high al­ti­tude, al­low­ing the body to slowly get used to the thin air. But af­ter those few prepara­tory days I feel ready to sum­mit some­thing, so my guide grudg­ingly agrees to take a few of us across the val­ley for a full-day hike that gets real high. There’s a giddy ex­cite­ment as four of us pile into a van to chug to­ward the trail­head— we had all ac­cli­ma­tized well and we are tak­ing the pre­ven­tive drug Di­amox, so we feel ready to tackle some el­e­va­tion. As the van switch­backs up the side of the moun­tain, the dense ver­dancy of the val­ley gives way to smaller group­ings of trees and, fi­nally, as we near our start­ing point, no trees at all. The In­can em­pire may be long gone, but make no mis­take; this is still very much In­can ter­ri­tory. Quechua is more widely spo­ken than Span­ish, the tra­di­tional garb of oddly shaped ten-gal­lon hats for the men and bright hand­wo­ven blan­kets used as shawls is ever present, and while there are roads and mod­ern trucks, they’re of­ten used to trans­port teams of oxen to plow fields much the way they would have three cen­turies ago.

And, 15 min­utes into the hike, ev­ery­thing does look like it must have three cen­turies ago—fences made of stacked stone, the rare shep­herd’s cabin burn­ing peat for warmth—and we walk miles with­out ever see­ing another soul. But as rich as the cul­tural back­drop is, it pales in com­par­i­son to the nat­u­ral beauty. One of our group says it re­minds her of north­ern Scot­land, another, the Ural Moun­tains. To me, it looks like a hap­pier ver­sion of Mor­dor, but we ul­ti­mately agree it’s fun­da­men­tally like no place we’ve ever seen. Imag­ine if the lichen you see on a moun­tain rock found a way to spread over an en­tire rugged land­scape and you might have an idea. And, for the most part, the scenery is so strik­ing that we forget the ef­fects the ex­er­tion and thin air are hav­ing. For the most part. The steep pitches, which are thank­fully few, re­sem­ble scenes from moun­tain climb­ing doc­u­men­taries—slumped shoul­ders, one step at a time, suck­ing air through your teeth try­ing to get some fuel for your lungs. As we near what seems like the sum­mit, I pull out my iPhone and pull up my newly in­stalled al­time­ter app. It reads 14,432 feet. I would belt out a ya­hoo if it weren’t for the ex­pen­di­ture of oxy­gen re­quired. But soon enough (well, not re­ally soon enough, but well be­fore pass­ing out) we’re de­scend­ing, mov­ing past a se­ries of still

One of the more pop­u­lar hikes is to the In­can ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Mo­ray, where ter­races of farm­land were used as sort of an early crop ex­per­i­ment.

lakes—and, in a pe­cu­liar in­verse thanks to the ever-thick­en­ing air, the tired legs perk up with each step. By the time we set up a lit­tle pic­nic in the open ruin of an old farm­house, I’m al­most ready to start hik­ing back up again. Al­most.

Pulling back into Ex­plora af­ter an eight-hour day, the near ne­ces­sity of the lodg­ing’s lux­e­ness seems ev­i­dent. I can’t wait to am­ble back into my beau­ti­fully min­i­mal room and let the rain shower pelt my tired mus­cles, and the re­ward­ing pint of Bar­bar­ian craft beer from Lima seems sent from heaven (which, by my es­ti­ma­tion, is only slightly higher than we were to­day). The night un­folds in a melange of ce­viche, Chilean pinot, pota­toes and me pulling out my al­time­ter to show the re­cently ar­rived guest what they’ll be do­ing in a few short days.

New heights are lit­er­ally reached each day. On sub­se­quent days, In­can ru­ins fac­tor in, as does some gnarly but sat­is­fy­ing down­hill moun­tain bik­ing, and my one brush with al­ti­tude sick­ness on a steep de­scent is im­me­di­ately put in abeyance by my guide, who reaches into his back­pack for a Zi­ploc bag of green leaves.

“Chew on these,” he says, and within min­utes of load­ing a wad the size of a ten­nis ball into my mouth, my headache dis­ap­pears. And then my mouth turns briefly tingly be­fore zon­ing com­pletely out to full numb­ness. Even be­fore I can ask “what is this?” I know the an­swer: coca leaves, le­gal in their raw state and part of the cul­tural fab­ric here.

By week’s end I’ve iron­i­cally reached full ac­clima­ti­za­tion just in time to have to go. I ask about the pos­si­bil­ity of bring­ing some of the headache-al­le­vi­at­ing leaves with me, but the an­swer is a po­lite, but firm, no. Take only your me­mories, as the say­ing goes, which, in this place, I’m just fine with.

Ice, Ice Baby Some guests get up close and per­sonal with the high alpine in the Sa­cred Val­ley.

E for Ef­fort The high-al­ti­tude hikes are not for couch pota­toes, but you’ll likely have the ter­rain all to your­self (above), save for a few ran­dom signs of an­cient civ­i­liza­tion (bot­tom, left). You’ll be happy to be em­braced by the lux­ury of the lodge (above, left) on your re­turn.

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