Posted on Friday, February 1st, 2013
A “Piece of Heaven” in the High Andes
For those with a passion for horses and adventure travel, head for the mythical and historic Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco, Peru. A purely by chance surf on the Internet led me to this piece of heaven, and I will forever hold the experience close to my heart.
The Sacred Valley Ride is the brainchild of Eduard van Brunschot Vega, who left Holland a decade ago to return to the country of his birth and follow his dreams. Now internationally recognized as the premiere riding centre in Peru, his ranch offers exclusive riding vacations across the altiplano of the Andes to remote villages and captivating Inca ruins, combining culture, history and breathtaking scenery in an unforgettable odyssey for the privileged few.
The meeting point for the ride is in Lima, from where an awesome flight takes you over the snow-capped Andes to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco (3,338 m). At a later part of the journey you have more time to explore this charming town – a home to native Quechua Indians, steeped in history and bustling with backpackers – but for now you are spirited off to the ranch and the allure of the adventure that lies ahead.
It is not long before you are calling Eduard “Eddy”, because all guests are literally welcomed with open arms and treated as part of the family. At his impeccable ranch nestled against a majestic mountain backdrop, Eddy introduces you to his cherished Peruvian Paso horses – direct descendents of the mounts of the 16th century Spanish Conquistadors. These noble and fast-paced but gentle horses have a unique, inherited four-beat gait called the paso llano, in which the centre of the horse’s gravity remains very still, resulting in an extremely smooth ride that is further enhanced by the use of traditional Peruvian tack.
Before the ride begins there is a day or two of relaxation in order to acclimatize, including a visit to the nearby Inca ruins and village of Ollantaytambo – site for the royal estate of the Inca Pachacuti and the only inhabited settlement that has retained its original Inca layout. Trudging up the steep terraces to examine the exceptional stonework, there was a moment when I thought my heart might burst out in a re-enactment of “Alien”. Although in awe of my surroundings, I confess this reaction was solely due to the altitude….but luckily I was able to adjust!
Back at the ranch we were treated to sumptuous three-course meals and given instruction on the principals of classic Peruvian equitation, admirably demonstrated by Eddy and his top chalon (Peruvian Paso horse trainer), José. Horses are carefully matched with riders according to weight, riding ability and personality. I was assigned a grey stallion (Misty), and was initially a little dubious about managing this testosterone-driven steed, until about 15 minutes into the ride when I realized he was the most well-behaved and sweet-natured horse I had ever encountered (well I did say they matched our personalities…).
The first day of the ride involves a steep climb to the high planes of the Andes, and thereafter you are surrounded by incomparable scenery and peace. Layer upon layer of mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, mirrored in cobalt blue lakes and shrouded in cloud and snow. As you trot down the cobblestone streets of Andean villages and through the rural countryside dotted with piglets, calves and laden donkeys, you are afforded a glimpse into the heart of the “Forgotten People of Peru” – local Indian families who barely survive as subsistence farmers. Despite their poverty and harsh living conditions, they will readily share what little food they have with you, including the local delicacies of alpaca and guinea-pig. Farming techniques are primitive, with oxen hitched to wooden ploughs, but the highly effective system of hillside terraces and irrigation developed by the Incas is still evident and in daily use.
Eddy himself leads the ride and provides a wealth of information as interpreter and guide, while José keeps a watchful eye at the rear of the procession. The horses have saddlebags in which you can keep such essentials as sunscreen, camera, water bottle and rain jacket, while lunch provisions are carried by three errant llama under the supervision of local Quechua herdsmen. We had a tense moment when one llama tried to make a getaway with the cutlery, but he soon chose to re-join his shaggy friends!
The sure-footed Pasos take you along stone-paved roads originally used by Inca messengers, past ruins such as Chinchero and the agricultural terraces of Moray, and up steep, narrow paths to heights of 4350m. At the end of the third day’s riding you reach Cusco, where the horses have a well-earned rest and riders stay in four-star hotel luxury, reveling in such rudimentary pleasures as having a bath, before heading back up the mountains. Four nights are spent camping at remote, picturesque sites, including the courtyard of an ancient Spanish church and several lakes of unsurpassed beauty. The campsites are accessible via 4×4 vehicles and are set up before your arrival – you literally do not even have to carry your luggage to your tent or make a cup of coffee, as everything is done for you in line with Eddy’s creed of excellence and perfection. After a great deal of food, merriment and stories shared in the warmth of the dining tent, nothing quite beats falling asleep to the sounds of horses grazing contentedly nearby, wrapped up in their blankets as snugly as you are.
The Sacred Valley Ride culminates in a trip to the spellbinding lost city of Machu Picchu, and a final dinner at the ranch before lump-in-the-throat farewells and the inevitable return to your own reality. Having arrived in Peru alone, I left with a treasure chest of memories and several new friends from across the globe, bonded for all time by our shared adventure and completely in love with the Peruvian Paso horse and the land it treads.
Judging not only from my own experience but the accounts of numerous others, you cannot fail to be profoundly moved by this journey, and are bound to return rejuvenated, inspired and at peace with the world.