Sacred Valley High – Cusco, Sacred Valley, Peru

Walk in the shadow of the Inca Empire with a Vermont-based tour organizer.

Peru

The world was shaped from llama fat. No one in the Andes questions that. The world was shaped from llama fat, which is why the eldest of three Andean priests sitting before you in Cuyuni, a Peruvian village perched in the Andes about two hours outside Cusco, adds a bit to the collection of objects at his feet. He wraps the entire offering in paper and carries it over the hill to place it beneath a brick of smoking cow manure. There, it burns. Someone beats a drum, blows a whistle, plays a flute, and together with rest of the Cuyuni tribe—Mestizo descendants of the ancient Incas—who’ve come to witness the ceremonial offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, you amble through the mist at 13,700 feet, chewing coca leaves, in pursuit of something much bigger than Machu Picchu.

You just don’t know it yet.

The so-called Lost City of the Incas is, of course, the main draw for many visitors to Peru. And with good reason. Lying unknown to the modern world for half a millennium, hidden in the cloud forest one and a half miles above sea level, Machu Picchu is, simply, a marvel. Blinking at you from Intipunku (or the Sun Gate), the archaeological site has become a bucket-list adventure for some 73,000 visitors who trek the Inca Trail each year. But since 2002, you’ve needed a certified guide to do it—which is where VBT comes in.

The New England-based adventure outfitter specializes in bicycling vacations (hence the name Vermont Bike Tours) as well as walking excursions, such as the eight-day Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley experience in Peru. It’s a boutique vacation ideal for the active traveler but lazy planner.

Comfort comes in reliable transportation and high-end lodgings such as Casa Andina Private Collection Valle Sagrado, where each room has a private terrace or balcony that captures transcendent views of the surrounding Andean foothills. The tour’s 16 meals offer tastes of tradition: Incan delicacies such as guinea pig and corn beer test iron stomachs, while pisco sours and fresh ceviche soothe them. VBT’s value, however, lies in its four local guides, who rotate in pairs to lead each trip and serve as proud proprietors of the land’s culture and history. They ensure that the thoughtful and creative itinerary touches your every sense, awakening, delighting and provoking each in turn as you walk in the shadow of the Inca Empire and its living legacy.

And walk you will. You’ll hike some 25 miles as you explore more than a dozen Inca sites that weave the civilization’s myths into a historical tapestry you can reach out and touch. But before the Vistadome train drops you off at the 104-kilometer marker and your hike to Machu Picchu begins, VBT takes you back to pre-Inca times with a visit to the Urubamba outdoor farmers market, often overlooked by tourists. The locals come here to shop and sell: In place of alpaca scarves and Peruvian tchotchkes are squealing swine and guinea pigs, produce galore and fragrant spices piled high in sacks that sit open on the ground. Buy a bunch of small bananas, which come fresh from the cloud forest each morning and make our fruit taste candy-artificial in comparison.

Later, you visit the Moray archaeological complex. Though its amphitheater of concentric circles makes it look like a parting gift from otherworldly visitors, Moray was more likely an Incan agrarian laboratory of sorts. From there, the guides lead you across a deserted landscape and down a snaking agave-lined trail that unwinds without warning almost on top of the salineras de Maras—the salt mines.

Reflecting from the reddish-brown mountainside into which they were built, 3,000 shallow, angular pools form muddy terraces that, at first glance, appear snow dusted. But it’s all salt—Maras salt. The mud pans capture hot water from a subterranean spring, crusting over with the white mineral as the pools evaporate under the sun. Planks of wood allow you to cross the mines, greeting the occasional worker from the Maras community, who’ve tended and harvested the beds for more than 1,000 years—long before the Incas even had a name.

You’ll spend the next 48 hours cursing that name in awe and pain, going weak in the knees and hardening your muscles against the strain of near-vertical ascents—often at the same time. The hike to Machu Picchu takes your breath away, both in physical beauty and demand, testing your limits for each. After a guided tour of the main site, you’ll be given the option to see the Inca Bridge. Take it.

Carved into the cliff and threatening 1,900-foot drops, the Inca Bridge is actually a 20-foot gap, linked by two tree trunks, on a narrow stone path that leads west of Machu Picchu. It protects the citadel, a defense against intruders who’d be left without a means of crossing when the trunks were removed. The nearly half-mile drop is still there (without a guard rail) and the stones are slippery, but—as is the case throughout Peru’s Sacred Valley—the view and living history are worth the danger, too enchanting to miss.

Traveler’s Checks
– For CDC-recommended vaccinations, check out the Walgreens travel clinic, a one-stop shop for getting your shots.
– Skip the June solstice in favor of milder weather and fewer crowds in April, October or November.
– Pass on the Lima pre-trip extension, but don’t miss the Amazon basin at Puerto Maldonado.

VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations 614 Monkton Road, Bristol, Vermont (800-245-3868) vbt.com

This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2015, issue of The Improper Bostonian.