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WE SAT BY THE FIRE with pisco sours in hand and our trail-worn legs curled beneath us to choose the next day’s outing. Half of us wanted something low key; a hike that didn’t require two walking sticks or an assistance alpaca, maybe? The other half, myself included, wanted higher, harder, more.
Our first few days as guests at Explora Valle Sagrado (explora.com), an elegant, 50-room resort set in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes specializing in outdoor excursions, had been necessarily easy-ish: We’d been acclimating to the altitude, and slow and steady was better than paying the price for going too high too fast. But I was determined to hike Incañan — the lodge’s most physically-demanding exploration — up and into the Andes before the week was over, and that meant keeping my upward trajectory going. At more than an 11-mile climb to nearly 20,000 feet, tackling the mountain would require stamina, multiple layers of clothes, and probably more than a little self-delusion. But the views, I was told, were unlike any I’d ever seen.
The younger version of me would have been confused. I didn’t appreciate, or even consider, hiking for fun until I was married. I probably didn’t even own a pair of non-fashion shorts until I met my husband, Bob, who instilled in me an appreciation of not only the beauty of nature but also of overcoming its obstacles. I learned how to be dirty, sweaty, tired, hungry, buggy, and if not entirely to love it — though, turns out, often I did — at least to sit with it. I hadn’t hiked without him since.
Until now. There were five of us here in Peru: Andrea S., Andrea B., Mary, Judy, and me. Doing our part to help bolster the surge in female-only travel, which in the past decade has become a billion-dollar business, and women’s adventure travel in particular, we had left the husbands and boyfriends back at home. We were not strangers, though not quite friends, either: We’d each traveled before with at least one other woman in the group: Andrea S., who’d organized the trip, and I had gone to St. Bart’s together a few years back; Judy and Mary had met on a group trip to South Africa. We were convinced we’d all get on well enough, even though some of us were meeting for the first time. The only known commonalities, other than our gender, was a shared love of travel, spirit of adventure, a longing for someplace — something — new, and the sort of easygoing-enough personalities required to spend a week abroad in the company of relative strangers. Each of us was drawn to Peru for different reasons: for Mary, who at 34 was the youngest of the group, it was the country’s burgeoning food and wine scene, of which the Explora resort was on the forefront. For Judy, a mother of two busy young boys, it was the promise of a sort of quiet she’d long thought was impossible.
And me? Besides the fact I’d never been to Peru — itself trendy, its popularity among American travelers growing year over year — I had been experiencing some wanderlust. My house felt a little small, my life a little routine. I was on the brink of 42 and feeling, I don’t know, uncertain? Restless? Go on a yoga retreat, someone told me, because isn’t that what women do when they want to go “find themselves,” or their contentedness? While I’ve got nothing against yoga trips — I’ve got two on my calendar this year — that wasn’t quite what I was after.
Instead, what Andrea proposed we’d experience in Peru — muscle-burning hiking, good conversation with women who could most likely relate to everything I was feeling, stiff cocktails and great steaks at the end — seemed far more suitable. The hotel would be a splurge, but flights to Cusco — though not direct, requiring a quick stop in New York and then Lima — were reasonable, at less than $800. There would be time and space for reflection, but also sweat, hard work, and something stronger than green tea to wash it all down.
Part of what has helped Peru grow its appeal to tourists is its concerted effort to diversify, and reinvent its image as a one-trick-pony. In recent years, Peru’s Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, has been positioned as a far less crowded alternative to the country’s increasingly trampled Machu Picchu, which has long served as a bucket list pilgrimage for many a midlife traveler — and now has the wear and tear to show for it. By 2018, Machu Picchu’s switchback highway was near collapse, opening the doors for a proposed cable car system that proved controversial. Last year, the Peruvian government restricted admissions to half days, but the numbers of travelers didn’t slow.
The country is now beginning work on new alternative access routes to slow the historic sanctuary’s deterioration, but in the meantime, the government — and savvy hoteliers — have begun looking for new places to send travelers.
The Sacred Valley, a 60-mile-long stretch of small, colonial villages nestled in the Andean highlands along the winding Urubamba River, should hardly be considered a second choice. Although the more than a million people a year who visit Machu Picchu may give the impression that it’s the country’s only historic landmark, the epicenter of the Incan Empire was actually in the Sacred Valley. The area offers hikes that are just as challenging, views that are just as spectacular, and a spiritual experience no less meaningful — and perhaps even more so because it’s not shared with the up to 6,000 people per day who crowd Machu Picchu. The landscape is ripe for both adventure and relaxation with scenic trails to explore by foot or bike, plus ample opportunity for slower bird-watching and stargazing (all available through Explora). It’s also extremely fertile, with terraced crops of giant corn and alfalfa, and locals still farming in the traditional way. What’s more, the valley’s moderate elevation of 9,500 feet — some 2,000 feet lower than the gateway city of Cusco, 30 miles away — makes for easier acclimatization, and generally milder temperatures. We went in June, and temperatures were in the 50s and low 60s at the lodge; temps average about 5 to 10 degrees warmer in April and May.
Explora Valle Sagrado is the hotel operator’s first lodge outside of Chile. Like at the company’s other lodges (I’d also been to Explora Patagonia), adventure is on the menu — the company sees itself more as exploration business than hotel collection — but there’s plenty to satisfy all abilities and ages. Most Explora guests are couples or friends in their 40s and 50s, according to the hotel, but children and solo travelers are welcome and frequent. Rates start at $1,000 per adult for two nights (the rate for kids is about half, and there’s a 20 percent discount for stays of four nights or more). That’s pricey but it includes pretty much everything: all airport transportation, meals and snacks, open bar, and all excursions (spa services are extra). Bilingual guides extensively trained at Explora’s School of Guides arrange and lead more than 40 possible hiking and biking explorations at any given time, year-round, to ancient ruins and emerald lagoons, through traditional towns and past plenty of alpacas, as well as to Machu Picchu.
After an easy outing on the first day, the guides sort guests into groups based on fitness level and interest and candidly recommend that they do or don’t choose certain excursions so that they are neither too advanced nor too novice. Travelers will have plenty of people to hike with. You’ll want to bring your own hiking clothing and gear like backpacks, but walking sticks are provided and the lobby shop at the hotel offers a range of merchandise in case you forget anything.
Above all, Explora offers a trademark camp-like camaraderie, where guests and guides sit around talking and drinking and reading and deciding how to spend the next day. At night, guests return to a cozy fireplace-filled Scandinavian-style lodge offering a refined take on authentic Peruvian cuisine — locally-caught trout with mashed native potatoes, Andean pasta with sauce made from the local tarwi plant, and, although not for me, alpaca — as well as a wine list front-loaded with options from Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Most days, my four traveling companions and I picked an outing as a group. But not all days. In some cases, we gave one another gentle pushes to say yes to a hike or bike ride that looked thrilling but maybe a little tiring. In other cases, we gave one another a break. It was both comforting and freeing to travel together as a group but be alone at times.
You can cover quite a lot over, say, a six-hour hike, where walking single file can also make it easier to ask and answer questions you might not have otherwise. And we did. The five of us covered everything on those walks — how fun and hard and confusing it is being a mom, a stepmom, a daughter, a second wife, a widow, the breadwinner, the low-earner, independent, dependent. We discussed what dry shampoo we use, how we manage our money, what we make for dinner (or how often we order out), the best brand of jeans, Botox yes or no?
We walked and talked in pairs and we walked and talked as a group. In between the talking, we walked in silence. We ate simple lunches prepared and packed for us by the hotel that we often shared with potato farmers we met along a seemingly little-used system of Incan trails . We piled stones in ritual heaps and looked down into lagoons that reflected snow-capped peaks. I was in the early stages of training for a marathon and so particularly speedy, earning me the nickname Mountain Goat. Judy drank a lot of water, and if she fell behind it was usually because she was crouching on the other side of a queñua tree. Her nickname became the Sneaky Sprinkler. I learned a lot about my fellow travelers in a short time, and I learned a lot about myself, too.
I never did make it to the Incañan hike. By the final day of our seven-day trip, I had covered more than 75 miles and was ready for a rest — and, well, I was on vacation, so I gave myself one. Besides, no one else was up for it, and that day I didn’t feel like going alone. Andrea B. opted for a massage in the hotel spa, set in a colonial-era home once owned by a Peruvian revolutionary and restored in collaboration with the Archaeology Institute of Peru; Judy took an easy bike ride to the Urubamba River, through cornfields and old haciendas. Mary took a car to Mil (milcentro.pe), a restaurant she wanted to try set high above the ruins of Moray, an ancient Incan agricultural lab, and dined on local yucca and tomato salad, Cusco bread, and cauliflower with wild Andean mint. (Mil’s chef, Virgilio Martínez, has since also designed the menu at Explora Valle Sagrado.)
Later that night, we gathered around the fire to share a bottle of Carménère and the details of our day, relative strangers no more.
Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport. Follow her on Instagram @alyssagiacobbe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.