It makes most sense, or rather the only sense, to stop off in the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu – which is the objective of 99% of first-time visitors to Peru. That means going up from the sea-level of Lima to the 11,207 feet above sea level of Cusco, but more of that, and altitude sickness, later. The Sacred Valley is less than 8,000 feet above sea level, so you can acclimatize more slowly. Another good reason for stopping off in the Sacred Valley, says the gal, is the beauty of the place, a lush valley surrounded by the Andes. It also has a luxury hotel, the idyllic stress-free retreat Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, where you want to stay and stay, partly because it is run by the fascinating Patricia Pinillos, who, 20 years ago and newly-divorced, with four little children, decided she could not be a housewife all day long so why not study tourism?
Even getting to Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado is memorable. On the hour-long drive down from Cusco you pass a delightful family-run cultural centre, an initiative that introduces you to different alpaca and llama types. You see local ladies spinning and weaving. One girl, who should have been in school, said she is ten, and carried on spinning. And we carried on driving, until we turned left, over the railway line that carries people to Machu Picchu, and a quick right took us into the gates of the House that Rafael Maurique built. He, an executive with a helicopter company, was persuaded to sell to what is now Belmond, which has expanded, and enhanced, and added a divine outdoor pool heated year-round by dozens of solar panels.
Of the 22 rooms, 12, a semi-detached villa, is handy for the pool, and closest to the main restaurant. It also gives ideal views across the lawns to the hotel’s llamas, bottle-fed twice a day. Every afternoon a local lady, in full colourful regalia, sits cross-legged on the lawn, with an array of softest alpaca scarves and sweaters to sell. Beyond, the rushing Urubamba river offers rafting, or just gazing. Some people who stay more than one day go horseback-riding, or order a yoga trainer. Some take market-and-cook classes, and enjoy spiritual ceremonies. Many will relax with an Andean herbal wrap in the spa, and all will admire, and buy, from the really superb hotel-run boutique, which has local jewellery and clothing from Michell Group’s Sol Alpaca. And as the sun sets, everyone will gather around the blazing log fire out on the terrace of El Huerto restaurant.
I dined local, starting with a Km zero salad from the produce terraces here – leaves, sweet potato, pickled onion. A real highlight was a quinoa salad, so beautifully presented (there would be quinoa bread on tomorrow’s breakfast buffet, too, thoroughly recommended). I walked the 20 yards home, past my private outdoor dining area, for four, and relished the fact that all rooms have under-floor heating, ideal for drying swimming gear and overnight laundry. A hot water bottle, in a cover that looked like a lamb, complete with head, was in the bed, and a chocolate rested in a little wicker box. I looked at the brightly-coloured artisan mats, embroidered in thick wools, on my coffee table and desk, and thought how brilliantly this luxury hotel gives a sense of place. The WiFi, by the way, is excellent, and free.
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