Sacred Valley of the Incas
What an ADVENTURE this was! This is how one can vacation in Peru without visiting Machu Picchu! The story about this trip just might be more fun than the images. When people think of Peru, they instantly think of Machu Picchu and that’s usually a must-have on their list of places to see on their trip to Peru. Well, I just came home from the trip of a lifetime without visiting Machu Picchu and can vouch that Peru has SO much more to offer. Grab a coffee and get comfy, this one is a long one, but packed with adventure!
Laura Grier of Beautiful Day Photography loves to plan trips and has recently created retreats and workshops that her friends can join her on. This Andeana Women’s Retreat Peru trip was centered around indigenous women and curated experiences that are related to her hat business (Andeana Hats) and the women of Peru.
I’ve known Laura for years and years…about 6 years but feels like 13. She’s been EVERYWHERE. The furthest I had traveled with her was to Mexico to help her shoot a wedding in Playa Del Carmen a few years back, so I always felt ridiculous that I’ve never been able to go on one of her group retreats due to me having other events scheduled, or whatever other reason. A friend of mine, writer-extraordinaire, Kathleen, who was going on this Peru trip who also went on Laura’s Uganda trip last year really really wanted me to go as well. I had a potential wedding booked and a few other shoots so I wasn’t thinking it would happen, which was a huge bummer because Peru was on my top 10 places that I really wanted to travel to.
On the night of March 7th, covered head to toe in paint because I was painting the walls of my hallway, I see several missed calls and “CALL ME NOW” texts from Laura. I’m thinking “Oh crap, this can’t be good, she’s leaving for Peru tonight!” Someone had to regretfully back out of the trip last min and there was a pre-paid, open spot available. Laura, while on her flight to Cusco, demanded I jump on the next plane out of Los Angeles and fly to Lima. As I’m standing there, covered in paint and un-showered while communicating with her about this, I’m like “….ok! I guess I’m going to Peru!” And the next thing I knew, I was ferociously looking at flights to Lima that left LA in the next few hours. I didn’t even have enough time to pack according to the itinerary for the whole trip because I didn’t have any time to read through it! I literally scooped clothing off the rack in my closet and threw them into a suitcase. While doing this, I’m also snickering at the thought of not telling my friend Kathleen, who’s already been in Peru for a week prior, surfing in Huanchaco, that I’d end up joining everyone on this trip after all. I’d just randomly show up and surprise her…
After about 24-hours of non-stop travel which included one layover in Mexico City, landing in Lima, then hopping on another flight to Cusco, then a two-hour drive into the Sacred Valley, I finally made it to our adorable little hotel, the Parwa Guest House, just 10 minutes from the main square of Ollantaytambo. This town is really dark and dimly-lit at night, so I couldn’t really see how it looked until morning. All I knew at this point so far was that I’m somewhere in the Andes, bumping up and down in a car on cobblestone roads, and through some translation app, the driver was reassuring me that I was in a safe car (haha). Through my broken Spanish, I assured him that I was comfortable and I trusted him. Though I know enough Spanish to get by, I wish I had known more so I could talk with him since we were in a car together for over two hours.
Once I arrived at the hotel, after walking up lots of cobblestone stairs with my heavy carry-on bag with all my gear and feeling very light-headed, I was breathlessly greeted by the VERY high altitude and friendly hotel staff. Laura pointed me to the room I’d be sharing with Kathleen (who still had NO idea I was coming!) and I walked in. Not realizing she was inside, Kathleen was bent over her suitcase with her back turned. I very swiftly grabbed my phone to record my surprise entry and got her completely shocked expression as I’m standing there, IN PERU, in her room, with all my luggage! Best surprise ever!
The next morning, we all sat down in the common area to breakfast the hotel staff made for us – best papaya I’ve ever had! Our tour van was picking us up at 9am to take us over to the Willoq community that consists of women Andean artisans who are experts in weaving and manufacturing all their clothing. They still use the ancient Incan techniques to weave everything from bracelets, scarves, to the most intricate details in their skirts! The patterns tell stories and all have meanings. It’s literally a unique language of its own: Quechua. It’s only spoken and woven, not written. We spent the morning learning how the Quechua women of this community use 100% of the natural elements around them to create everything they have. Starting from the alpaca wool that they spin themselves onto a spool, all by hand, to how they create the different colored dyes by using plants, florals, and even beetle blood (seriously)! This an ancient art form, perfected and still going strong in the Andes Mountains by these wonderful women in the Willoq village in the Sacred Valley.
As we thanked the community for the gift of their time and the beautiful woven bracelets they made for us, we hopped back on the bus toward the Wayra Ranch resort for a delicious al fresco lunch by the pool. Their menu is created by using all organic ingredients, harvested on-site. Followed by our delicious meal, we were treated to an entertaining Caballo de Paso show with their resident horses who pranced around for us in perfect unison.
After our visit to the ranch, we all piled into the air-conditioned van and headed to the other side of the sacred valley to Pisaq. We enjoyed over an hour or so of mesmerizing landscapes and extraordinary views of the colorful and vibrant mountains. Our first stop was the archeological site of Pisaq, which offered an incredible view of the valley down below. After that, we stopped in at the artisan market in Pisac to squeeze some shopping in. Most of the vendors were beginning to close for the day as there was a storm rolling in soon. Our journey continued as we headed back to the Urubamba Valley for dinner at Pakaritampu, a buffet-style restaurant that was walking distance to our hotel.
By the time we got back to our hotel and got settled in our rooms, in came the storm. Being from southern California, we never get to see thunder and lightning, or even rain for that matter, so I had to open the window and listen to the sounds of thunder and rain while drifting off to a very pleasant sleep.
The next morning, we were off to the Ollantaytambo Fortress, which was conveniently walking distance from our hotel. It’s an archeological citadel made up of several stone terraces, almost comparable to Machu Picchu, but smaller. In the Incan days of the Spanish conquest, it was used as a retreat for the Incans and it’s one of the last remaining strongholds in the Inca kingdom. The way the Incans have constructed these fortresses throughout the cities is absolutely mind-blowing. They basically invented Legos. These ruins aren’t really ruins so-to-speak. They’re still standing and are still in immaculate condition. They’ve survived many large earthquakes. Photos don’t really capture the details of how these stone blocks were cut and designed to create precise and intricate walls that you couldn’t even squeeze a credit card through. If you aren’t fitting Machu Picchu into your trip to Peru (it’s totally fine if you don’t, Peru has so much more to offer), this offers a very similar experience!
For lunch, we walked over to Pachamanca at El Albergue, which sits inside of a farm in the middle of Ollantaytambo. They’re known for cooking heavily spiced meat and vegetables buried in the ground amidst hot stones. Think of it as a Peruvian “luau” – like how they traditionally roast a suckling pig in the ground in Hawaii. While lunch was cooking, we were treated to a welcome pisco cocktail, a tour of their on-site distillery where they make their own coffee and liquor, and had the opportunity to get up close and personal for some “selfie time” with their resident alpacas.
After our lunch at the farm, we hopped in our van and made our way to the Moray ruins and then the ancient salt flats of Maras. It’s very surreal to see hundreds of feet – up and down, far and wide – of salt terraces that have been there for centuries, still in use today! Gives new meaning to the phrase “salt of the earth”. I kept everyone waiting when the group was trying to leave because I was buying so many bags of different types of salts! Smoked BBQ black salt; come on! I could almost eat that with a spoon!
From there, we drove to our hotel, the El Retablo in Cusco and had dinner at Limo Restaurant. After that, Kathleen and I somehow got separated from the group and found ourselves sort of lost in the pouring rain, trying to find our way back to our hotel even though it was only 900ft away! I’m going to be real honest here; I LOVE being lost in cities I’m unfamiliar with. It’s the best way to experience being somewhere and tapping into having to use your own devices on finding your way around without relying on a tour guide or a local. It doesn’t go without saying of course that you need to make sure you’re in a relatively safe city and not one of those make a wrong turn down a dark corner and you’re in hot water kind of places. Cusco isn’t a dangerous place, but that still doesn’t mean we don’t need to have eyes in the back of our heads and keep our wits about us. Luckily, we did find our hotel and once I realized where we were, the area became instantly familiar and after that, I felt comfortable with the idea of breaking away from the group if I wanted to.
Cusco is definitely one of those cities I wish we had more time to stay in. The best way to explore and experience a place is to WALK around in it. The sacred valley wasn’t the best place to walk around, you definitely need a car for that, but Cusco is for sure an on-foot-friendly place. *Pro-tip: you want flat, slip-proof shoes with traction for Cusco; the sidewalks and roads are made of smooth, ancient polished stone and cobblestones and you could find yourself slipping on the steep sidewalks if you’re not careful.
Our first visit of the day was Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun and Cusco’s Cathedral. It’s one of the most sacred temples in the entire Inca Empire. The walls and floors used to be covered in pure gold! Nearly all of the gold Baroque art and vigils are still preserved inside today, where absolutely no photos of the artwork are allowed, not even cell phone photos! It’s also home of the black Jesus, who they believe has special “powers” and they take out for large current and local events. That day, it was rumored he’d be making an appearance in wake of the current Coronavirus outbreak, even though it hadn’t made its way into Cusco at the time.
After the cathedrals, we explored the San Pedro Marketplace for some shopping. Kathleen and I had to buy another bag to bring home because of the amount of stuff we bought! After shopping, we sat down for lunch at Pachapapa Restaurant where I tried alpaca meat that Laura ordered for the first and last time in my life! When in Peru, I suppose! After a delicious meal and mucho Pisco Sours, we headed to the Sacsayhuaman fortress, which is almost jokingly pronounced “sexy women” …so naturally, we had to compose a sexy women Vanity Fair-esque shot of all of us. Nailed it! We also made stops to Tambomachay and Qenqo Temple just outside of Cusco which offered a gorgeous view of the city of Cusco from the top.
For our farewell dinner, we dined like kings at Calle de Medio, where I finally got my hands on mezcal cocktails, rimmed with the same salt I purchased at the salt mines and finally got to taste it! Delicioso! Cristobel and Maria gave us farewell gifts and we would then head back to our hotels for one last night at our hotel and then get ready for our second leg of our trip; four days in the AMAZON!
I’m sure I speak for us all when I say I could have totally done another few days in Cusco. That was such an excellent city to explore. There’s so much to experience and it can’t be done in one day so that gives us all reason to go back again.
While in the air on our way to Iquitos, I glanced out the window and saw what looked like a huge brown snake in lots of greenery. That was the mighty Amazon River and the rainforest canopy, up at several thousands of feet! What we were about to experience for the next few days hadn’t fully sunk in yet. I didn’t know what exactly to expect. When we landed, we all gathered into the van the Treehouse Lodge provided for us for our two-hour drive through the shanty jungle towns and villages that would take us to the port where we then walked down the dock to our motorboat that took us for another hour-long ride to the Treehouse Lodge, right on the Amazon which would be home for the next three nights. Laura had done this exact trek many times, however, most of us were going into this not realizing what staying in the jungle actually meant!
Once we arrived and docked the boat, we walked up the stairs and were greeted by the most friendly staff of Treehouse Lodge, offering us a fresh passion-fruit beverage after our long trek from Cusco. Once we relaxed a little and checked out the main lodge common area, we hopped on a fishing boat for a sunset ride, in search of pink river dolphins. What a magical ride this was. We were treated to the most beautiful sunset, paired with dolphins teasing us with appearances, swimming around our boat. Once we arrived back to the lodge, the sun had gone down and it was time for dinner.
Let me tell you, night time is when the rainforest REALLY comes to life! Things started to get real! The moment we saw our first tarantula of the trip was when one of the girls in our group, Nish, almost stepped on it on the bridge. While we all have our phones out, recording this really magnificent species just walk along like it ain’t no thang, one of our guides casually goes over to it and tries to pick it up and hold it in his hands and instead of it just sitting there and allow itself to be handled, it FREAKS OUT and sends all of the girls into hysteric shrieks as it’s scrambling to get away – and for a quick moment – crawls up and then darts through Laura’s legs before it finally gets away and then crawls underneath the bridge. Not exactly the experience we had expected, at least not yet. Some of us would prefer to be eased into these insect and arachnid situations! After that hilarious moment, it was time for dinner, and then the night tour for those of us who were brave enough. I have a personal fear and phobia of insects that fly and swarm, so that was my struggle; beetles with audibly flapping/buzzing wings, jungle roaches that fly and jump, moths…omg. I could do everything else all day. Our night tour consisted of LOTS of bugs flying into you and on you. They’re attracted to light, and we had flashlights for this, so…yeah. However, this is when to find all the rainforest LIFE. Spiders the size of dinner plates, lethal snakes, frogs the size of basketballs…it’s all there! I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t done it yet, but you never know what you’re about to stumble upon! It’s a real adventure. After we survived the night hike, it was time to go to our rooms, aka our TREEHOUSE! All the treehouses are different, but all of them are situated up in the canopy, about 50ft or more above the ground. We’re talking, IN the jungle, up IN a tree. You’re living and sleeping with nature. Most of the rooms require walking across a suspended bridge more than 50ft high. Here’s the kicker: at night, these bridges are covered in bugs and frogs and that’s the ONLY way to and from your room! Saddle up and put your tough face on if you want to get to your room without falling down the stairs…insects LOVE visitors! Kathleen and I were roomies again, and we were given the FURTHEST and HIGHEST room from the main lodge. It took two suspended bridges and many flights of stairs to access it. Upon doing the trek, the reality of truly being in the rainforest was starting to kick in, hard! Our phobias were starting to shake us. I repressed how many times a jungle roach flew/jumped onto me and how many times I squatted mosquitos who gave zero f*cks about the bug repellant. I look back on this, laughing hysterically at it, but at the time, it was every man for themselves. I almost shoved poor Kathleen down the stairs a few times so I could literally run away from all the insects buzzing and flying into our ears as we’re carefully trying to navigate our way to and from our room. Once we actually arrived in our first room (we were So-Cal girls freaking out and made them move us), it was surprising to us to see how much of that nature was inside, and not just outside. Since that’s to be expected, the beds are “sealed” with nets so guests can sleep comfortably without waking up with mosquito bites and other surprises lurking about. We were almost ready to accept that mission until we noticed a tarantula inside our room, in an area too high to capture it and have it tossed outside. There was also a mouse in the bathroom sink and that’s Kathleen’s phobia so this just wasn’t going to work.
Luckily we were able to be moved to another room, closer to the ground, and closer to the main lodge. The trek to our new room was a lot easier and displayed a lot less nighttime nature! While in our new room, the most hilarious thing happened. We heard a faint yet blood-curdling scream come from the room we were in previously and Kathleen and I just looked at each other and started giggling. I guess they left the tarantula there for the guests who arrived after us!
When we woke up the next morning, I saw a banana I accidentally left out in our room had a hole eaten into it by a mystery creature, and a pile of poo left on the floor by the front door by what I assume is from the same mystery creature! As horrifying as it was, it’s equally really really funny. Then immediately after, I see something moving on the backside of one of the curtains by Kathleen’s bed and instantly recognized the shape of its silhouette; a freaking scorpion! I thought it was awesome, Kathleen did not. Ha! I tried to shake it off so I could capture it and toss it back outside, but it disappeared and never found it again. Oops. Turns out, all of us have our own stories and accounts of rainforest nature that found its way inside our treehouses! The same night, Laura had to discreetly throw a towel over a tarantula that sneakily crawled out from under Nish’s bed just as she zipped her bed net closed and threw it outside. It’s amazing what we’re truly capable of when we’re forced to face our phobias and for me, the rainforest was it. Although some things in the jungle are poisonous, many things actually aren’t. Tarantulas can bite, but they’re not poisonous to humans, nor are the roaches, most beetles, and some other spiders. Even the large constrictors aren’t, and are usually not even aggressive (provided they’ve eaten recently)! Once the sun comes up, nocturnal nature recedes back into the jungle, just as the tide recedes back into the ocean. I found the early mornings to be the most peaceful. You’re in your bed, safe and secure, literally surrounded by nature. Howler monkeys to the left, a toucan to the right, frogs ribbit-ing below, insects chirping all around…there is nothing else like it! What you hear on those white noise machines, you actually get in the jungle. It’s real! And ironically, I was able to sleep very very peacefully and I absolutely LOVED waking up to that every morning. It was the gift of surviving the night.
Our agenda on this day consisted of exploring the Amazon in search of wildlife and piranha fishing! We strapped our swimsuits on and made our way down to the main lodge for breakfast, then piled back into the fishing boat for a day on the water. We managed to spot some monkeys, a caiman lizard swimming across the river, and even bats camouflaged on a tree trunk! After cruising through the dense marsh, and several twists and turns down the river, we found the perfect spot for fishing. Laura had an idea plotted out in her head for days now that she was finally able to execute: fashion wire to her GoPro and pin raw meat into it to capture RAW footage of piranhas going crazy and let’s just say, they did not disappoint! Let’s just say, never ever go swimming in the Amazon with an open wound. I had never gone fishing before, so I was really pleased that I was able to catch a few piranhas. I released all but one, to simply keep for a meal.
After we all caught our dinner, we had the opportunity to cross off a major bucket list item for most of us: jump in and swim in the open Amazon River! It felt SO good! There were swirls of hot and cold water all around you.
Once we made it back to the lodge, we had lunch, then got ready for the next part of the day: our day hike, a visit to the giant lily pads, and then a brief visit to the Campesina Community of 30 de Agosto (all of the communities along the river are named after the dates they were founded). The day hike (a lot more comfortable than it is at night!) was brief, yet still exciting. We saw a centuries-old Kapok tree that stood several hundred feet tall.
During our visit to the see the huge lily-pads, our guide spotted a baby pit viper snake, one of the most lethal reptiles in the jungle! We made it to the Campesina Community just as the sun was setting and the storm was rolling in. It was so beautiful, listening to the children gather and sing at their community church while watching the lightning in the sky from afar. We left the community as the sun had gone down, and now we were in search of caimans. Since it was too dark to photograph anything, I chose to focus on photographing the lightning storm that continuously lit up the entire river. I eventually got a shot of the lightning bolt, and the sky and river all lit up with Laura and a few others at the front of the boat. Essentially, Laura and her intrepid self, in her natural element. I’ve got to say, personally, this was probably the most magical moment in the Amazon for me on this trip. I find lightning and thunderstorms to be so majestic and cleansing. I really resonate with the rain. Sitting in a boat, watching the lightning light up the sky and the open amazon river was just so…magical! I can’t really find the right words to recreate the moment! You just have to do it yourself.
The next day was our visit to the protected Pacaya Samiria National Reserve community. Here, they make a special serum that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. It’s made with extraction from a special berry that grows atop of a tree that they climb with a makeshift “straddle” that they use to climb all the way up the treetop to pluck these berries. They then compress them and bottle up this serum onsite. It contains Vitamin-D, Vitamin-B, and several other antioxidants and is formulated to help with hair growth in areas where hair has stopped growing, skincare, etc. Basically, it’s like a fountain of youth in a bottle and for 20 Peruvian soles, you can take a bottle home with you!
In the evening, a shaman came to visit us at the lodge and did a special chant and blessing for each of us individually. He even brought real authentic ayahuasca tea that he brews himself and offered us the experience to us. After we realized the conditions we were in may not be the most desirable for a full ayahuasca ceremony, he did have us taste some. While none of us got high or experienced a trip, I did have some VERY peculiar dreams that night. I do wish we had time to fast and prepare for an actual ceremony. Peru is THE place to do it.
As we awoke to our last day in the Amazon, our main agenda was to visit a community with a rescue sloth, and then to our surprise, stop by a community that had a captured ANACONDA! These were also bucket list items! As Kathleen and I woke up before the sun came up, we boogied our way down to the main lodge, chugged some coffee, and jumped back into the boat to visit 20 de Agosto, the community that was home to Pablito, a sweet sloth they rescued and still care for. I almost cried from the sheer joy you get from holding a sloth in your arms.
After wanting to be Pablito’s mommy for the rest of his life, we left and headed back over to the 30 de Agosto Campesina Community where the anaconda was being housed. The fishermen accidentally caught her in their net and she ended up with some puncture wounds so they decided to keep her in their community, isolated on her own cage, until she heals. If you leave a bleeding animal in the Amazon, they instantly become prone to the piranhas and had they done that with her, she would not have lived. During her time of being nursed back to good health, we had the opportunity to have our own meet and greet with her….and eventually have her slimy, massive self be held by us all for a group photo. She was SO heavy! And dare I even say, sweet?! Apparently, well-fed constrictors aren’t typically aggressive. She didn’t show any signs of being aggressive either. Probably could have smooched her right on the face and she wouldn’t have flinched.
After our final Amazon activities, we had to say our goodbyes. Even though I craved sleeping in my bug-less bedroom, I knew I’d really miss this place. Once we were in the boat and making our way back to the port in Iquitos, all of our luggage in tow, we were hit from the side by an oncoming boat at full speed! Apparently they just didn’t see us. The tip of the other boat that hit us was on the inside of our boat, and just missed the shaman where he was seated. The wireframe of the window flew and landed on top of my seat and just missed my head, just like a game of ring-toss. Before any of that set in, the staff on the boat saw the water on the ground and immediately yelled “LIFEJACKETS ON!” and then things suddenly got real. The possibility of the boat going down in the middle of the Amazon became very real. I was instantly thinking “I can float to the shore with my whole camera bag with all my gear on my head, right?” The idea of losing all my images and content of this trip scared me more than losing my own life at that moment. These are real photographer thoughts, unfiltered, coming in hot! Eventually, we all realized that the water inside the boat came from the initial crash and we weren’t sinking, so all we could do was carry on and finish the journey back to the port. No one was hurt, and we weren’t going to sink. We’re all very thankful we escaped that incident without a single scratch. Oh and the guys who hit us had one injured passager who appeared to have broken ribs, and just took off in the other direction! You can sort of see him through the window in the photo below…
Since our flight out of Iquitos to Lima wasn’t until later in the day, Laura had scheduled an afternoon of some poolside R’nR at the floating restaurant, Al Frio y Al Fuego, which requires a boat ride to enter. We spent the afternoon in our swimsuits, sipping cocktails, swimming in the pool, and playing with Laura’s drone for some fun aerials. It was the perfect way to end the most epic trip!
It was really difficult to come back to Los Angeles because, by this time, the city had changed drastically from when I left it a week prior. Shutdowns for bars, restaurants, and most non-essential businesses had begun shutting their doors due to the Coronavirus outbreak. As we were standing in the Lima airport, it was announced that president of Peru would be closing the borders at midnight. My flight was scheduled to leave Lima at 12:45 am! This sent some of us into a mini-panic as we all said our goodbyes to each other, and made our way to our different airline counters, deal with the incredibly long lines, check our bags, and hope like hell we can get back to the states so none of us are stuck in Peru. Luckily, our flights were some of the very last out of the country before they shut down the border and we were fortunate enough to make it back on US soil the next morning. For me, this trip was non-stop insane adventure and fun, from the moment Laura demanded I catch the next flight out of Los Angeles to Lima, to us standing around in Lima, wondering if we’re going home or living in Peru for the next several weeks. It was a life-changing trip, even more so to come home to our everyday lives being completely changed during this strange time. Experiencing the Amazon for a few nights has reminded me to always brace yourself for the unknown. Life is bountiful, but also never guaranteed. We are all one, we all share the planet and call it home, yet it doesn’t belong to any one of us.
And that is how to vacation in Peru without visiting Machu Picchu!
Fun fact: I had always said out loud while talking to someone many, many times, “I really want to visit Peru!” or “Peru is on my top 5 places to visit next.” Maybe it’s just a delightful coincidence, or maybe it’s proof of the importance of verbally saying out loud the things you desire. They are delivered, just maybe not always in the ways you imagined. A lot of things on this trip that we as a group have discussed and verbalized to one another, totally manifested. From me wanting to go on the trip, to Laura wishing to see an anaconda, it all came true. Peru has proved itself to be an incredibly magical place, better than I had ever dreamed it would be.
Most images by Kelli Hayden.
Other images by Laura Grier.
Other images also a mixture of iPhone photos from everyone on the trip.