By Laurette Veres
“It’s really hard to get to, and when you get there the altitude will get you.” Mom
Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Incan citadel, is the best-known archaeological site in South America. This bucket list destination was built around 1450 AD and abandoned a century later when Spanish conquistadors invaded the region. The Spaniards marched inland from the Pacific destroying most significant Incan settlements, but never discovered Machu Picchu. Hidden nearly 8000 feet up in the Andes, it was unknown to the outside world until American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham set out to confirm a myth about the lost city of the Incas in 1911.
Getting here is a planes, trains and automobiles adventure. LATAM Airlines out of JFK to Peru, change planes and fly to Lima then Cusco. LATAM’s premium business experience makes the plane trip bearable: seats recline into beds, gourmet meals are created by renowned chefs and wines selected by an award winning sommelier. In Cusco we hop into one of Viajes Pacifico’s automobiles and transfer to the Ollantaytambo train station, and ride PeruRail’s Vistadome train, with 90% panoramic views so we can appreciate the beauty, to Aguas Calientes.
As we roll out of Ollantaytambo the famous Inca Trail is nearby and we see backpackers crossing the scenic Urubamba River, embarking upon a four-day athletic adventure. Our adventure is different, we step off PeruRail’s Vistadome in Aguas Calientes and hike four short minutes to the town’s only five star resort: Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel.
My introduction to the Incan culture is magical and mystical thanks to the Peruvian and Andean cultural immersion at the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, spectacularly located on the banks of the Vilcanota River in Aguas Calientes. I left my Houston home nearly twenty-four hours ago, but I’m not tired, I’m invigorated. The luxury 62-room property has recently renovated guest rooms and public spaces featuring historic Peruvian and Andean themes and symbols while featuring world-class modern amenities. The best amenity is Sumaq’s location. Most people visit Machu Picchu from Cusco and spend a big part of their day in transit. The bus ride up to Machu Picchu from Sumaq is less than 20 minutes and you can spend your day taking in the historic sights.
Food is a big part of our adventure. We learn to prepare Peruvian Ceviche and Peru’s flagship cocktail, the Pisco Sour at a cooking demonstration before heading to Qunuq for a six-course degustation tasting meal. Qunuq creates innovative dishes with ancient Peruvian culinary traditions and exciting flavors. Salmon trout cubes, lamb shank and avocado risotto are menu standouts.
Finally, Machu Picchu. Early morning hikers head up Hiram Bingham Highway. We bought tickets days ago and were lucky to get some of the limited seats on the bus. We stand in line in the center of town on Av. Hermanos.
Machu Picchu is considered the heart of the Incan culture. Built with polished dry-stone walls, many buildings have been restored to their original glory. We join the crowds to enter the site and quickly make a dramatic turn around a bend to reveal the first of many terraced landscapes. The landscape is simply breathtaking and quite unbelievable. These terraces were used to grow crops at various temperatures and seem to go on forever. Even though we are 7972 feet up, there are two other hills that are much higher; I see hikers on one of them. A member of my group tells me has has hiked there. Gulp. Our group entered the site at the main entrance. Others enter at the Sun Gate, (a higher point) have made the four-day trek. We walk carefully on the narrow and steep stone steps and winding trails to look down upon the main city where the Incas lived and worshipped. It’s symmetrical and green. As you stare at all the stone, it’s impossible to understand how the Incas got it up here.
Shaman Willko Apaza leads “Mystical Machu Picchu Experience,” exploring the spiritual side of the legendary site. Using his natural gifts, and traditions from ancestors, he introduces us to his Andean beliefs and the Incan culture. His message is one of a new beginning. As he chants and dances around us clearing negative energy, we are invited to imagine all the peace and love in the world, feel the weight of the sacred rock, absorb the sun’s rays and connect to each other in a new way. Going beyond a historical lesson and sight seeing excursion, Willko also reveals the mystery of Machu Picchu and the magical connections with the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and sacred temples.
Rituals and ceremonies are part of the Incan culture. Offerings to Mother Earth are part of daily life for locals in the regions around Machu Picchu. Shaman lead them to a realm beyond the physical world where they are open to emotional and spiritual healing. Coca is a Peruvian symbol of community and respect and plays a significant role in these ceremonies. We participate in the ceremonies; some of us have our Coca leaves read.
Arac Masin is a traditional Andean wedding. We witness the magic as one is performed on the hotel’s terrace. With the terrace draped in greenery and flowers, a shaman calls upon the Incan gods to guide relationships to last eternally. Available to engaged as well as married couples, guests immerse in the Andean culture with this ceremony.
Overall, the trip to Machu Picchu is worth every minute. There are crowds, but they all seem to be in awe, as I am, and very respectful. Plan to take your time and take it in. You’ll be glad you did.
It’s a long way to Machu Picchu. Here are some helpful hints:
Temperatures vary greatly due to altitude. Dress in layers.
We highly recommend traveling as light as possible. Some of the trains have luggage restrictions.
Elevations vary and altitude sickness can be an issue. Here are the elevations:
Machu Picchu: 7,972 ft.
Cusco: 11,152 ft.
Lima: 505 ft.
NOTE: Coca is widely used throughout Peru as a treatment for altitude sickness. Drinking coca tea is highly recommended, especially if you find yourself suffering any of the symptoms of altitude sickness – dizziness, headaches, nausea or vomiting.
The electrical current is 220 volts throughout Peru.
The Peruvian Nuevo Sol (PEN) is the national currency. Locally, people say “Sol” or “Soles” – plural.
The official language is Spanish, with Quechua also widely spoken (the language of the Incan empire).
Essentials: latam.com, viajespacifico.com, perurail.com, sumaqhotelperu.com
The eight-hour Mystical Machu Picchu Tour costs $400 per person, including transportation, entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, private guide and authentic Peruvian shaman. For further information and reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free 866-682-0645. www.sumaqhotelperu.com