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Travel Tips

Exploring the Mysteries of Machu Picchu

No matter how many pictures you've seen with how many Instagram filters, that first glimpse of Machu Picchu provides a jolt of life-affirming wonder. Emma Sloley takes us on tour.

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As the train pulls away from the station at Ollantaytambo, I look up and see nothing but blazing blue sky above me. To enjoy such clarity of vision, it helps to have a train with a clear glass bubble as a roof, as this one does. My husband, Adam, and I are riding the rails from this one-llama town in the Sacred Valley to the village of Aguas Calientes via PeruRail’s "Vistadome" train, a leisurely journey with a delightfully time-warp feel that affords panoramic scenery of the Peruvian countryside. Outside there are towering craggy mountains, a river raging and foaming its way over rocks, Inca archeological sites carved into hillsides and miles of rainforest. On board there is music, dance, Andean costumery and some very strange snacks.

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An hour and a half later we chuff into the station at Aguas Calientes, a vibrant, scrappy, slightly ramshackle town set along the banks of the Vilcanota River at the foothills of Machu Picchu. It has the air of a frontier town: this is the last stop for most visitors before venturing into the ancient Incan city, and the streets and markets are teeming with hippies, hikers, stray dogs and hawkers peddling everything from selfie sticks to hand-woven Andean dolls. A short stroll from the station and we’ve escaped the low-level chaos by checking in at Sumaq, an upscale family-run hotel whose privileged location at the quiet end of town draws the kind of traveler who long ago outgrew dorms and tepid showers.

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Each of the 62 rooms overlooks the river and the towering mountains shrouded with atmospheric tendrils of mist. This is the kind of place where you don’t mind waking at an obscenely early hour, which is just as well given that visiting Machu Picchu is an outing best started in the wee hours. There’s also a long wait for the bus, which follows a vertiginous path up the mountain, but it’s all worthwhile with the first sighting of the famous Incan citadel.

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No matter how many pictures you’ve seen with how many Instagram filters, that first glimpse of the ruins, set improbably on a steep ridge between ragged mountain peaks with the turbulent Urubamba River 2000 feet below, provides a jolt of life-affirming wonder. Our guide, provided by the hotel, is a shaman called Willko, a genial, preternaturally zen Andean soul who fills us in on the area’s folklore while plucking handfuls of coca leaves from a woven bag and pushing them into his cheeks. He leads us up a steep path to an elevated clearing overhung with a rock shelf called La Roca Sagrada (The Sacred Rock). Here he performs the mystical “Hayway” ceremony—a Quechua word meaning a personal or physical offering to the cosmos and Mother Earth—that includes a cleansing session with condor feathers and floral essences to vanquish negative energy (part of Sumaq’s new “Mystical Machu Picchu” Experience.) Thus blessed, we troop back down to explore the site in all its awe-inspiring, mobbed glory. Back at Sumaq, we decompress over killer pisco sours and what I’m just going to call the best ceviche on the planet. Along with providing a swanky environment in which to rest your weary legs at the end of an active day, the hotel is also known for its shamanic and Andean offerings, like the "Payment to the Earth" ritual, a traditional dining experience called "pachamanca," in which potatoes, meat and corn are wrapped in leaves and cooked slowly underground, and an Andean wedding ceremony called "Arac Masin." Adam and I sign up for latter, figuring it will be a fun way to combine vow renewal and playing dress-ups (couples are decked out in full tradition Andean costume.) Willko performs the elaborate ceremony on a tranquil terrace, and while we don’t understand a word or fully comprehend the rituals involved, it’s all surprisingly moving—we both end up misty-eyed.

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On the train trip back to the Sacred Valley, we pass villages where every rooftop is adorned with a pair of ceramic bulls. These are known as "Toritos de Pucara," and are variously considered symbols of love/relationships and prosperity. We disembark at Tambo del Inka, a contemporary resort whose calling cards are monumental scale—soaring ceilings, vast grounds, a floor to ceiling stone fireplace—and a design scheme heavy on beautiful natural textures, timber, cane, stone, copper. There’s a serene swimming pool encased in glass with views of hills studded with fragrant eucalyptus trees. We retire to our room, fascinated by the glimpses of the Chicon glacier out the window.

I forgo my usual glass of vino for "chicha," a popular, if luridly colored, Peruvian drink made with purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon and sugar. Restored to full health the next day, we venture on to Cusco, the sprawling city in the shadow of the Andes that was once the capital of the Incan empire. The old city is a warren of cobblestone streets, dominated by the Gothic fabulosity of The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Here, age-old traditions—like vendors selling guinea pig, blue corn and alpaca jerky at San Pedro Market—rub up against 21st century bustle and au courant restaurants full of well-heeled Peruvians.

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Calm reigns at the JW Marriott, a 16th century Augustine convent-turned-luxury digs that fuses centuries-old architecture with modern bling, most notably the Swarovski chandelier in the lobby, which contains 76000 crystals representing the sun. The hotel also lays claim to one of the best restaurants in town, Pirqa, which dishes up Peruvian-inspired plates like trout ceviche and sautéed alpaca. Fully sated on paradigm-shifting food, pisco sours and Peruvian culture, we prepare to head home and back to earth, wondering how we’re ever going to get used to life at sea level.

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