Notes From the Road:
Magical Peru

Although you’ll most likely encounter me on the phone at B&R where I serve as a Trip Advisor, I occasionally get to venture out on the slow road. This year, I was lucky enough to make my way to Peru.

One of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Peru was, of course, was once home to the Inca Empire—at its height, the largest civilization in the world, ruling over ten million subjects. My visit was one of the most magical trips I’ve ever been on. Here’s what I saw, what I did, why I loved it, and why you, too, should experience Peru.

The Journey Begins: The Sacred Valley

Once you arrive in the Sacred Valley, it becomes immediately apparent why this area is so special—working farms dot the valley floor with shots of colour everywhere, while centuries-old Incan terraces are easily seen on the surrounding mountains, a constant reminder of the glorious past.

We started out with a walk along the valley floor, giving our first taste of the rich history in the area. From the town of Yucay, we slowly make our way uphill past a system of ancient irrigation channels laid with precise stonework. It doesn’t take long to figure out these channels are still in use, as some branches run dry while others are in full flow, feeding their farms. The farmers in this area have a system for sharing the flow of water that goes back generations.

Culinary Discoveries Await

Peru is quickly becoming known as one of the world’s top culinary destinations, and once I got my first taste of its offerings, the bar was set for the rest of the trip. I ate an incredible tomato and mozzarella salad in Cusco and I have to say, that tomato was life-changing. It was, by far, the best-tasting one I’ve ever eaten in my life. (And I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes).

Consider that the growing regions here are, first off, blessed with wonderfully fertile soil, compounded with the fact that the tomato actually originated here in the Andes…so centuries of perfecting the art of growing certainly may have had something to do with my reaction. To be honest, nearly everything I ate here was some of the freshest and most delicious-tasting produce I’ve had. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it actually shocked me how delicious certain ‘ordinary’ fruits and vegetables tasted—vegetables that we often take for granted, like lettuce (or that aforementioned tomato).

Hundreds of Years of Agriculture

The way that farmers are able to coax such incredible flavours out of the land is immediately apparent when one visits Moray, a series of circular terraces, some of which are almost 100 feet deep. A remarkable temperature difference of over 12°C (21°F) has been registered between the top and bottom terraces, leading many to believe this was a key site for agricultural research and experimentation.

We made another culinary pit stop to the salt pools of Maras, another example of Incan architecture that has stood the test of time. Fed by a subterranean saltwater stream, these salt pans have been producing high-quality salt for centuries, a process that remains unchanged to this day.

Later on in the trip, we ventured even deeper down the valley to Pumamarca, a site composed of imposing Inca granaries perched way up on the hill. Each room features visible ventilation slits to allow the wind whipping down the valley to keep crops cool and fresh; once again, I’m amazed by what humans were able to accomplish here centuries ago. (At one point, the Inca Empire was producing so much food, they could have fed a population four times their own).

The Pachamanca: Earth’s Oven

All my learning about agriculture went to the next step in the traditional Pachamanca, the Sacred Valley equivalent of a backyard cookout. After heating a pile of carefully selected stones over a fire, a pit is cleared and dug, and various ceramic pots of stews are placed in the hot earth oven.

After covering them with a layer of rocks, the chefs follow with an assortment of 50(!) different types of potatoes, followed by an array of different meats such as chicken, pork, and lamb. This entire pile of deliciousness is then covered with large leaves, cloth, and then buried underground, all while smoking with the heat from the rocks. (Remarkably, the whole array takes just about 20 minutes to cook once everything is covered!)

I thought my mouth was watering when everything went “on the grill” (or, in the earth, as it were), but a new level of hunger awakened as I eagerly witnessed the Pachamanca slowly get taken apart. Not only did everything look good, but the fragrant smells coming off the rocks were without comparison.

Needless to say, after a long day of walking, this meal was well-deserved, and around the table, nothing was heard but the sound of hungry travellers enjoying an incredible feast.

We Go Slow. Inca Trail Passes Go Fast.

We don’t make exceptions to the whole “Slow Down to See the World” thing lightly, so believe us when we say: this one’s worth it. Inca Trail passes are limited, so book our Peru Walking trip early in order to commune with this ancient and fascinating culture in person.

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Incan Ingenuity

The sophistication and advancement of Incan technologies is something that will astound you; nowhere is this more obvious than at the site of Ollantaytambo, where the eponymous fortress continues to stand watch over the town. It’s the site of the only Incan victory over the Spanish conquistadors, and it is clear why.

Not only are these stunning views without compare, but you can see for miles in both directions: towards Cusco or back towards Machu Picchu; a defensive position to be envied. Eventually, once faced with the Spanish colonizers, ruler Manco Inca and what was left of the Inca Empire would retreat past Machu Picchu and into the jungle, but Ollantaytambo remains one of the most important places in Incan history.

Over in Cusco, I had a chance to visit the important ruins of Qenqo and Sacsayhuaman, located just a short drive up the hill from our hotel. Sacsayhuaman in particular, astounds, with perfectly carved and fitted boulders larger than pickup trucks routinely used in its (mortarless!) construction.

The Big Reveal: Machu Picchu

On the day we were scheduled to arrive at ‘Mapi’, we were all filled with anticipation from the get-go. Ascending by scenic train, we got off at a seemingly random spot, deposited right at the 104-kilometre marker on the legendary Inca Trail. I’ve had the pleasure of walking in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but none quite compare to the epic adventure that unfolded over the course of the day.

Our long climb began, accompanied by the comforting sight and sound of the rushing Urubamba River, along an ancient trail that just oozes with history and energy. On the six to seven-hour walk, we ambled by waterfalls, through Incan ruins seemingly hidden in the jungle, and past some absolutely jaw-dropping views. You almost think that each part of the Inca Trail seems to get better and better…until you finally reach that long-awaited destination: the Sun Gate.

There’s something about setting eyes upon Machu Picchu for the first time after hours of unforgettable walking at high altitudes. The citadel seems to rise out of nowhere, perched precariously on a ledge that looks far too small, with Huayna Picchu standing guard behind.

Standing here just feels…right. After walking miles and miles of steps and stone trail built over 400 years ago, it’s clear this moment, this view, this vantage point is no accident—the nature of our arrival and the labours of the long journey worth every step. This is what the Inca wanted us to see. You’ll soak in this miraculous view for what never feels like enough time. Take it all in and savour this moment. You’ve made it!

Although I felt a bit of disappointment at tearing myself away from the view, luckily, on the following day, a sunrise walk over the ruins was a final option to look at this beautiful view once more. For the first time in days, everything looked to be obscured in a frustrating haze of clouds…would we be able to see the vistas of the Sun Gate once more? With our fingers crossed and after 10 minutes of patient waiting at the summit, sure enough, the clouds parted, and Machu Picchu graced us with yet another jaw-dropping view.

By trip’s end, everything I learned about the history of Incan culture began to click into place, and as they did, the importance of the ruins around me intensified. Everything in this part of the world was built for a purpose, both cosmically and functionally, and while not much is known about Machu Picchu or why it was built, it’s so obvious that each stone was laid with intent. To be able to walk in the footsteps to appreciate the legacy of a civilization who, using their ingenuity, knowledge, and sophistication, carved out an enduring place in the annals of time, is something I’ll never forget.

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