Explora Sacred Valley Review
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The Best Luxury Active Travel Hotel in Peru
I have wanted to explore Peru for many years. Like many travelers, I was primarily drawn to this area by fabulous photos I'd seen of Machu Picchu and Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain). When I discovered that the Explora group had a new location in the Sacred Valley, I was eager to have the same experience in this country, as I did at their Chilean Patagonia location. Two years ago, when I was contemplating this first stay at an Explora Ecolodge, like many frequent travelers I had a budget to consider and was initially hesitant. Since I typically self-plan and execute almost all of my international adventures, the value of what they offered was initially not clear. But we made the decision to go and my experience at their Patagonia location, completely changed my mind. I was hooked. Pedro Ibáñez, the president and founder of Explora, beautifully expresses their unique brand philosophy as ‘the Art of Travel’ - a way of experiencing the land and the local culture in a physically active and in-depth manner, and then also providing “comforts and pleasures that reward the efforts made”. Read more about Pedro’s vision and the Explorer’s Manifesto here.
When I refer to hybrid traveling, this simply means that my husband and I prefer to experience a variety of accommodations and activity levels during a trip to a foreign country. Farm-stays, local guesthouses as well as luxury eco-lodges or hotels are all mixed into our itineraries. We both feel that this mix contributes to a comprehensive travel experience, as well as serves as a type of exchange for that experience – an opportunity to interact with and support a local community, as reciprocity for the experience that place and those people give to us. In addition, we enjoy mixing Active Travel with Leisure travel. Not only do we stay fit and see the country much differently on foot or by bicycle, but we also get to nurture our personal well-being as we do. You can read more about our hybrid travel philosophy here.
So this is why I feel that the Explora group is the best at what they do: beautifully intertwine active, immersive exploration of remote areas with luxurious accommodations and terrific service.
Modern design in a Historical setting
Surrounded by corn fields and the snow-capped peaks of the Urubamba mountain range, Explora Valle Sagrado is situated in a quiet, remote rural area of the Sacred valley, only a ninety minute drive from Cusco. The property design includes several long, low buildings made of neutral-colored materials that blend unobtrusively into the landscape. Clean wooden walkways, high vaulted ceilings and large glass windows showcase the view of the mountains as well as the Incan and pre-Incan terraces. The beautifully-designed restaurant, full-service bar, fireside lounge, and small gift/gear shop are located in the main building. As it was at the Patagonia lodge, Wi-Fi service was available in the lounge but not in the rooms. This didn’t bother us as our travel attitude aligns with the aspect of Explora’s philosophy that encourages detachment from the outside world so that you can fully engage with your present surroundings.
The Pumacahua Bath House sits on a corner of the property, a five minute walk from the main building. Once a 17th century colonial home, it has been beautifully restored and includes an outdoor pool area with two hot tubs that face the mountains, a sauna, a yoga studio and private treatment rooms. Although we didn’t make time to experience any of the body services that the spa offered on this trip, the setting was tranquil and absolutely gorgeous.
How it works
A stay with Explora,Valle Sagrado includes all transfers to and from the hotel, transfers to and from explorations, all meals, drinks (including a full bar and wine), the use of the pool, sauna / hot tub and experienced local guide services. Our experience began with our private transfer from our hotel in Ollantaytambo, a forty-five minute drive away. When we arrived, we were personally greeted by Lucy, the manager, who graciously gave us a tour of the property, and showed us to our rooms. We were then encouraged to eat lunch and join the afternoon excursion in order to get an introduction to the area and get a feel for how we were acclimating to the higher altitude. Each evening, after we had returned from our hikes (~5pm), we’d shower then relax by the fireplace in the lounge with a cocktail, glass of wine or beer, while we were served a light appetizer. Similar to the Patagonia location, the guides then came around with a map and discussed which explorations we had interest in for the following day.
The difference at this location is the altitude. Whereas in Patagonia, guides simply had to assess our fitness level for some of the more difficult hikes, here guests also needed to be monitored for their ability to tolerate activity at higher altitude. I liked this, as it made me feel as if the staff had my
best interest at heart.
And the guides were understandably firm about this, sticking to a gradually building order for some of the explorations
TIP - If you are a fit hiker and are interested in doing some of the higher elevation, alpine explorations offered at this location, plan to arrive early in Peru. We recommend spending 4-5 days acclimating, as we did, prior to your arrival at Explora. If the hotel is your first stop after arriving in Cusco, the guides will be reluctant to plan these more advanced hikes with you, unless you spend more than 4-5 days at the hotel. This is for the safety of the guests as well as the guides simply acting responsibly.
The Sacred Valley, despite its beauty, is unfortunately often bypassed en route to Machu Picchu. Although offered as a separate-cost exploration by the hotel, we opted to see the ancient citadel on our own beforehand and save the days we were at Explora for adventures unique to their location. The offered explorations are of varying intensity and recommended in a manner that considers a guests interest, fitness level, and acclimation to the altitude. There is something for everyone here. From easier, downhill walks through local salt mines to high-altitude treks through glacier-lined passes, both full-day and half-day expeditions cover a variety of exploration desires. As an additional feature, this location also includes mountain bike tours of the region.
As mentioned, the guides were very responsible and carefully assessed each guests acclimation to altitude. Most treks follow routes that ranged between 2500 meters (~ 8200 feet) to 5000 meters (~ 16, 400 feet). Although we had already been in Peru five days and had more hiking experience than most of the current guests, their insistence at seeing how we fared at lower elevation walks, was reassuring, even if at times my ego found it mildly annoying. These guides are knowledgeable, experienced and care about the guest experience.
After we fared well on our first two hikes, we were allowed to take on two of the more difficult routes – Tastayoc and Incañan, otherwise playfully known as ‘the Gringo Killer’.
Both treks were indeed very challenging but offered some of the most extraordinary landscapes I have seen anywhere in the world. And I am happy to report, this 'gringa' is still alive and kicking.
The room we had was quite large and beautifully designed - a sort of Scandinavian feel - with light colored wood beams, accented geometric lattices at varying angles. There was plenty of storage for gear and clothing and a large double sink area was bookended by separate rooms for and shower/tub and toilet/ bidet. The bath products were of nice quality. However, I was puzzled by the fact that with the Explora brand being so sustainability-minded, they were still using small, individual plastic containers for product, instead of re-fillable ones. I am betting this will be modified over time. Being open only two years, this hotel is still a fledgling in the Explora family, and is growing, modifying and responding to input on a regular basis.
Outlets for both USA and european appliances were available in the room and I loved nice touches like oversized bath towels, heated towel warmers and nightly turn down service - complete with hot tea bottles and chocolates . We loved the view of the mountains from our window and although the rooms did not have A/C due to the cooler, high-altitude temperatures, the windows did open if we needed fresh air. But on a few mornings that we slept with windows open, we were glad we had earplugs. Part of the immersive experience at this Explora location sometimes includes early morning wake-up calls by surrounding farm roosters and braying mules. ;)
The food served at this location were quite delicious. Explora puts an emphasis on the use of local ingredients. I enjoyed this not only from a sustainability standpoint but also as part of my local ‘food exploration’. I loved that we had the opportunity to try dishes like alpaca and local river trout ceviche, all served by local employees eager to represent the Explora brand. During our stay, Juan Carlos and Zoraida provided excellent service. And although Zoraida spoke enough english to greet us, take our order and describe the dishes as they were presented,
I loved that we overheard her reciting and practicing, in a quiet murmur, new english phrases she picked up from us, as she left the table. That kind of engagement and desire to improve guest experience is Explora's signature!
Breakfast was a plentiful buffet combined with hot entrees that we could order off the menu. On our last morning when we had a VERY early start, they even opened up the restaurant fifteen minutes early so we could get a hot meal before we left for the day. The lunch and dinner menu always had choices of an appetizer and a main course, followed by selections for dessert. There were many familiar dishes, such as pasta and salads as well.
A sense of community
More pronounced than at the Patagonia hotel, at this location, the local people are as integral a part of the Explora experience as the landscape. As we drove to the start of each days exploration, we passed through local villages where Quechua women dressed in colorful skirts and with chubby-faced babies slung across their back, walked to work. On most hiking routes, we passed through farm land where small children came out to greet us, a land-owner lamented about her lost herding dog or teens escorted straw–laden mules from field to storage. The guides always stopped to engage, translate or offer fruit to a small child.
One morning, driving up to a trailhead, we passed a young boy no older than seven, late to school and jogging up a steep, winding road with thumb extended.
With very little discussion and our enthusiastic approval, our guide Erick had our driver pull over. I loved this gesture. And the boy made it to school on time with a grateful ear-to-ear grin.
At this Valle Sagrado hotel, Explora gave us opportunity to not only bask in the solitude of the mountains, but to gain an understanding about local traditions, beliefs and a way of life. This is one of the pillars of the Explora experience. And because of it, Peru has been imprinted on my heart and mind forever. I yearn for more. And I know I will be back.
I deeply inhaled the pure air at the top of our last trek – we were up over 15,000’. Although my heart was beating a rapid, staccato rhythm from the exertion, I felt only a privileged joy at that moment, like the end of some spiritual quest. Our guide Santos, whose family lived a few villages away from the hotel, had made this day-long trek with just the two of us. And although he had completed this route many times before, it was evident that he was equally intoxicated by the grey-blue skies, the granite peaks emerging intermittently from behind fast-moving clouds and the vast open spaces.
But the Sacred Valley is not just about by jaw-dropping landscapes, it also represents a way of life. And showcasing both features to the guests, is one of the true highlights of the Explora Sacred Valley experience.
At the end of this long and challenging trek, Santos introduced us to the tradition of showing gratitude to the Incan earth mother, Pachamamma, by way of purposefully spilling tea onto the ground before we ourselves drank. “We do this to thank her for blessing us with good weather, and our safety today”, he explained. Pachumamma - I felt like I had already met her, up high on that summit. But I liked the formal acknowledgement and tipped my cup with understanding. I was, and am still, grateful – grateful for her blessing as well as how much I absorbed in the four short days I spent in this beautiful valley.
Read more about all Explora destinations, as well as their upcoming new location in Argentina here.