Abercrombie & Kent in Peru
By Steve Jermanok
Few sights I’ve seen are as majestic as Machu Picchu. After a 2-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo, you arrive at the town of Aguas Calientes and switch to a bus for a 20-minute drive on a series of switchbacks up to the base of Machu Picchu. Once here, you better have one of the coveted timed tickets to enter these late 15th-century Incan ruins that miraculously the Spaniards never found. Row after row of stone walls leads up the steep hillsides creating a far vaster archaeological wonder than one can imagine on that quintessential photograph from above Machu Picchu.
I was on Day Five on an 8-day tour with the outfitter, Abercrombie & Kent, to Lima, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Cuzco. We arrived at Machu Picchu a little after 2:30 pm, when the crowds were already thinning, to feel the smooth rocks of the temple, see the maze of aqueducts, and find the sundial that was used to predict summer solstice. The tightly knit stone structures are impressive, but to be honest, pale in comparison to the surrounding landscape, a panorama of jagged peaks that lead to the snow-capped Andes in the distance. This includes Huayna Picchu, the striking peak you see behind every photo of Machu Picchu. We had the opportunity hike this peak the next morning at 7 am, but I chose to hike part of the Inca Trail rising above Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate. Every step you took on the 3-hour round-trip trek was another breathtaking view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. Fantastic!
Abercrombie and Kent really earn their money on this portion of the trip. We have all heard of the overcrowding at Machu Picchu and by the time I arrived back from my hike on the Inca Trail around 10:30 am, there were hundreds of people on the Machu Picchu grounds. But the past day, we really saw the site in relative quietude. We arrived mid-afternoon the day prior when the crowds were less (after having a memorable lunch aboard our train), stayed at the base of Machu Picchu at the only hotel on the grounds, the Belmond Sanctuary (only 31 rooms, booked a year in advance by Abercrombie and Kent), and then received one of the few tickets the following morning to enter the grounds at 6 am when there were few if any people around. Walking above Machu Picchu as the sun rose and the clouds cleared proved to be an unforgettable experience.
A&K’s Philanthropy Day in Sacred Valley was another highlight of our trip. We started the morning at a mountainous village some 12,000 feet in elevation, where the community is known for their exquisite weavings. They showed us their technique, cleaning the alpaca wool and using dyes, all from nature, like the beet red coloring they would find from squeezing a cactus beetle. The yarn is then used to create hats, tablecloths, purses, and dolls, and sold in the market in Cuzco. We then visited a school called Children of the Rainbow serving underprivileged and undernourished children in the region. It was started by a woman from the Netherlands who was backpacking on the Inca Trail and became enamored with the kids. She came back and adopted 18 children, all of whom went on to college, and have now unlocked the chains of poverty. She then went on to create this school, giving 170 kids ages 3 to 13 and their families hope for a better future. The children were adorable, eating lunch when we arrived. We were shown the new library and the new playground, all recently built thanks to the help of Abercrombie and Kent and their clients.
A&K also recently launched Wellness-Inspired Luxury Small Group Journeys to Peru, India, Kenya, and Southeast Asia. On my last day in Cuzco, I received a small taste of what they offer on these itineraries when a shaman from a mountain village in the Sacred Valley met me at the outdoor courtyard of my hotel, the Belmond Monasterio, a former 400-year-old former convent, and performed a healing ritual honoring both my family and the Mother Earth goddess Pachamama. The hourlong ceremony united Mother Earth with the mountains, signifying the union of female with male, as he created a circle of local spices like anise, candies, even a condor feather. Then the shaman wrapped it all up in a cloth to bring back to his village and burn as an offering. He learned to be a shaman from his grandmother and his last words to me were “keep a pure heart.”
Working as a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, contributing editor at Budget Travel, and regular contributor for The Boston Globe, Men’s Journal, and Yankee Magazine, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,500 articles on 80 countries. He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. With his wife, Lisa Leavitt, Steve launched a boutique travel agency, ActiveTravels.com, in May 2012. His clientele includes many people in the travel business, including Steve Kaufer, founder of TripAdvisor (designed his honeymoon to Turkey), and Mark Snider, owner of The Winnetu Resort on Martha’s Vineyard and The Nantucket Hotel on Nantucket. You can follow him @ActiveTravels