|Taking in the sights aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train|
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Monday, 20 October 2014
For the Incas, the Urubamba was known as the Rio Sagrado or Sacred River, and reflecting this belief, many temples, ancient dwellings and agricultural sites were built in the surrounding valley.
The Sacred Valley is only 30 miles away from the Inca capital, Cuzco (reviewed here), and links that city with Machu Picchu, along the banks of the mighty Urubamba River.
As most archeological remains of interest beyond those in Cuzco and Machu Picchu lie in the Sacred Valley, for this part of our trip, we spent a couple of nights there to visit these sites. This is also where we planned to board the magnificent Belmond Hiram Bingham Train (former Orient Express) to Machu Picchu, more of which later.
Where to Stay
Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado
The Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado is situated in the heart of the Sacred Valley, on the banks of the Urubamba River, in a wonderfully peaceful spot that offers a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Cuzco.
Part of the Belmond Collection, Hotel Rio Sagrado is set among green fields and snow-capped mountains. It has extensive, well tended gardens alongside the river, with baby alpacas and llamas roaming freely around the site.
There is also an outdoor heated swimming pool with stunning views of the valley, and it is a great place to cool off after a day’s trekking, horse riding or sightseeing.
Our Garden Junior Suite was elegantly designed with neutral cream and white tones contrasting with vibrant traditional Peruvian colours and décor in the soft furnishings. It had a huge, floor to ceiling glass window and door accessing a private terrace, which overlooked the hotel’s fields and the Urubamba River.
To maintain a sense of tranquil relaxation befitting its location, the hotel has a policy of no TV in its rooms. But the suite was by no means Spartan; it featured heated wooden floors in the bathroom, an iPod docking station, and a well-stocked minibar.
Breakfast was taken in the El Jardin restaurant, and included a generous array of breads, juices, yoghurts and made-to-order eggs and pancakes, as well as excellent coffee.
The flower-beds outside the restaurant's windows attracted a lot of humming birds, and it was a great treat to be able to observe them so closely over a morning coffee.
The Belmond Rio Sagrado Hotel is an idyllic spot in which to recharge the batteries before or after a trip to Cuzco or Machu Picchu and I highly recommend it to any travellers in the region.
Where to Eat
Dinner at El Huerto Restaurant, Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado
Dinner is served in the warm glow of candlelight at this restaurant in the gardens of the hotel or outdoors, despite the chill of high altitude, thanks to the large wood fire that is lit each evening.
The menu featured a number or traditional Peruvian dishes with a contemporary interpretation including Aji de Galina and Cui (roasted guinea pig) both ordered. Starters were all priced at £10 while mains ranged from £15 to £20.
We started with Panquitas – these are traditional Peruvian pancakes made from creamy corn and Parea cheese. The Panquitas were delicious, seared and served with a fragrant Huancaina sauce (made from fresh white cheese, aji amarillo, evaporated milk and salt, this tastes better than it sounds!).
Our second starter was a delicious Aji de Galina, one of my favourite Peruvian dishes – this is a creamy yellow chilli (aji amarillo) chicken stew made among other things with Parmesan cheese, eggs, potatoes and olives.
For main course, we had a delectable alpaca tenderloin (£15) served with quinoto (a risotto made from quinoa and cream), this was flavoursome and perfectly cooked - pink and tender. To accompany our meal, we shared a bottle of Tahuam 2011 Malbec, from Mendoza Argentina (£48), with stalky berry fruit flavours and plenty of tannin, it partnered particularly well with the alpaca tenderloin.
We finished our meal with a refreshing and aromatic dessert made from baked strawberries with rosemary, thyme, white wine and eucalyptus, served with vanilla ice cream (£7).
Lunch at Sol y Luna Hotel, Sacred Valley
Just a half a mile's walk or a short taxi ride away from the Hotel Rio Sagrado is the Sol y Luna Hotel. French owned since 1996, and a Relais & Chateaux property, this hotel started as a private house, and has grown over the last twenty years into the luxury hotel it is today.
The hotel has two restaurants headed by Peruvian Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. There is a fine dining option at the Killa Wasi Restaurant, or a more casual choice at the hotel’s open air restaurant and wood oven cooking, and it was here that we headed to.
This restaurant is also a great place to enjoy the display of dressage by four horses and their poncho-wearing riders, with musical accompaniment, which the hotel offers during lunch hours.
The set lunch is priced at US$60 (around £40) per person, and started with freshly baked bread and local empanadas which were delicious, as well as a tomato and avocado salad.
To follow, we had a platter of antecuchos de corazon (skewers of marinated beef heart) tamales and fresh corn. We had a variety of aji sauces, of which I particularly enjoyed Chalacita, made from aromatic rocoto chillies, salt and pepper, onion and coriander.
Next came the selection of meats and fish, including suckling pig and chicken, along with rainbow trout, all grilled over hot coals and served with a variety of local native potatoes baked in the wood oven.
The lunch finished with a platter of fruit, mousse of physalis and whole physalis coated in chocolate, and freshly baked biscuits.
With coffee, we had some hot picarones – ring-shaped Peruvian doughnuts made of pumpkin, deep-fried and served with a generous coating of sugar molasses. Picarones were among the best sweet treats I found in Peru.
If you are there at the weekend, or at any time if you are in a group of at least 10, it is possible to enjoy the fabled Pachamanca - a traditional Peruvian feast in which an oven-like cavity is dug in the ground and filled with an array of beef, chicken, alpaca, many types of potato, cheese, sweet potato and corn. These are then buried to cook under scalding hot stones. Sadly this is to be tried on our next trip to Peru.
What to Do
Visiting the many sites in the Sacred Valley
To visit most of the archeological sites and museums in and around Cuzco, a Boleto Turistico del Cuzco (Cuzco Tourist Voucher) is useful. At a cost of around £30 per person, it is valid for 10 days and allows entry to 16 sites in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley. A half ticket is also available for 1 day only, which gives entry to up to 6 sites at a cost of £17. These are available from the Tourism Office near the Plaza de Armas.
We covered some of the sites in Cuzco Part 1 (see review here). During our time in the Sacred Valley, we made good use of our Tourist Voucher to explore the many fascinating sites in the region. Although it is possible to use the luxury vehicles and guides from the hotel, it is actually very easy and extremely cheap to flag down the collectivo vehicles which ply up and down the road behind the hotel, linking the main sites of the valley.
The magnificent ruins at Pisaq are well worth a visit. Its massive agricultural terraces are still in use today, and there are Inca religious buildings, and a fortress much of which was destroyed by Pissaro's men during the Spanish conquest.
In the new town of Pisaq, the alongside and behind the “Mercado de Abastos de Pisaq” is a market with hundreds of stalls selling local artifacts and food.
The massive fortress of Ollantaytambo was built in the mid-15th century, by the Inca emperor Pachacuti, who undertook extensive works of terracing and irrigation in the Urubamba Valley.
Also in the Sacred Valley is the important religious centre of Tambomachay, in honour of the water goddess.
The remains are a fine example of Inca architecture made up of platforms, niches and fountains which still function today, as water flows down through them from a spring higher up in the hills.
An insight into Inca agricultural methods is to be found at the impressive and mysterious circular terraces at Moray, which has a sophisticated irrigation system.
Because of the design and orientation of the terraces, there is a temperature difference of 15 °C between the top and the bottom. Some believe therefore that the terraces were used by the Incas to study the effect of different climatic conditions on crops.
For foodies, it's worth noting that very close to Moray is the otherwise unremarkable town of Maras, from where derive the lovely soft crystals of Maras salt beloved of the top chefs in Lima.
Take an Excursion from the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado
The hotel offers a wide range of activities for those who want to do things beyond acclimatizing and soaking up the atmosphere in this beautiful and peaceful part of Peru. These include horse riding along the river or to the Maras salt mines, or to the archaeological site at Pumawanka. White water rafting is also offered, and off-road driving with a quad-bike. There are guided walks in the valley, cycling tours to the Inca site of Moray, as well as guided visits to the many Inca sites of the valley.
Leaving the Sacred Valley Aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train (formerly Orient Express)
For our journey to Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley, we took the spectacular Belmond Hiram Bingham Train. Deciding that it was unlikely I would be returning to Machu Picchu, I thought that there would be no other way to make this trip truly unforgettable than to arrive by this train.
Originally a collection of 1920s wooden train carriages from South Africa, the Belmond Hiram Bingham train was transported to Peru and restored to its former glory, with polished wood and brass, and large comfortable armchairs. Today, the train has two dining cars, an observation/bar car and a kitchen car, and can carry up to 84 passengers.
Passengers are seated in the dining cars, at tables set with gleaming crystal and polished cutlery. The maître d' then offers a gastronomic dinner, with cocktails and wines included in the ticket price of £250.
We were served an impressive four-course dinner that included a wonderful leek and potato soup made from dried and rehydrated morada potatoes cultivated at an altitude of 3000 metres, as well as a magnificent tenderloin of alpaca with all the trimmings.
Guests are invited to the bar car, to enjoy cocktails and live music. This was a lot of fun, with many passengers getting up to dance and play percussion.
The only other experience I have had which is anything like this was the Orient Express Train in London (reviewed here), and it really is an unforgettable journey that will add the finishing touch to any trip to Machu Picchu.
Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado
Our Garden Junior Suite is currently being advertised at a rate of £190 per night.
Hotel Sol y Luna
Fundo Huincho lote A-5
Tickets for the Belmond Hiram Bingham trains are available from purchase online direct from Peru Rail at: www.perurail.com. If yo would like to learn more about the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train, visit their website at http://www.belmond.com/hiram-bingham-train/
Prices vary somewhat depending on the time and day of travel, and the Hiram Bingham train costs in the region of £250 per person including dinner and alcoholic drinks.