A llama perches among the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. | All photos by Jim Benning / Westways
Hurtling past llamas and alpacas and sheep in a taxi 12,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, I caught a glimpse of the valley below. It was framed by towering mountains. Their slopes gleamed with every imaginable hue of green, from deep forest to eye-popping emerald. In the distance, icy peaks disappeared into misty clouds. On the valley floor, the muddy Urubamba River, a mere wisp, snaked past small towns.
Travelers associate this region mainly with Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel made famous by American explorer Hiram Bingham. Although the Yale University professor raved about the ruins he “discovered” with the help of local farmers in 1911, he also waxed rhapsodic about the scene now before me. “There is no valley in South America,” he mused in a 1913 National Geographic Magazine article, “that has such varied beauties and so many charms.”
That’s why, while I was headed to Machu Picchu, I was in no hurry to get there. Reaching the ruins from Cusco, the nearest big city, requires a few hours’ travel through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and I was determined to slow down and savor a few days here. There’s good reason to do so. Flanked by Cusco at one end and Machu Picchu at the other, the 60-mile-long valley once lay at the heart of the Incan empire, and archaeological sites dot the area. The valley is also home to some compelling 21st-century developments. Two attention-grabbing restaurants recently opened here—one helmed by the Peruvian chef presiding over one of the world’s top-ranked restaurants and another cantilevered dizzyingly over the side of a mountain. New hotels keep popping up, and PeruRail has debuted a luxurious twist on its popular train service. I wanted to get a taste of the old and the new.