Touring Peru’s Sacred Valley with Choose Life Sober Adventures offers opportunities to see stunning landscapes and soak up Peruvian culture. Read on to share the adventure.
When I visited Machu Picchu last summer, I expected the famous structures to intrigue me. But as I stood in the 15th-century temples in the early morning, the mountains most captivated me on my Machu Picchu sober hiking tour. Taller and skinnier than the mountains in my Pacific Northwest home, shapely and shrouded in mist, zapped by sunbeams, they were delightful. How could the Incas have resisted building here? Even if it meant dragging materials up a ridiculous elevation gain. I could only imagine how hard that was—it was enough for me to get my body and day pack up that trail the day before.
Visiting Machu Picchu was the showpiece of my week-long tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley with Choose Life Sober Adventures. We experienced Peruvian culture while supporting each other in our desire to see the world alcohol-free.
Starting in Cusco
Our group of nine travelers, plus two trip leaders and a local guide, met up in the courtyard of the gorgeous Hotel Abittare, where we were staying. Our friendly and energetic guide, Jose “Pepe” Soldevila, led us on a city tour of the oldest part of Cusco. We started our Inca education at Qurikancha, once the most important temple of the Inca Empire. Some of us visited the Chocolate Museum and Catfetin, Peru’s first cat café, during our free time.
Pro tip: Visit the cat café in the morning, because by 4 pm, the gatos are peopled out.
On our first night, we went to dinner at Tunupa, a big showy place on the main square. Pan pipes dominated the band, which had a soft spot for Beatles covers. Boisterous tourists came from around Latin America. As the night grew later, costumed dancers in animal masks took the stage.
Back at the hotel, we had the trip’s first recovery meeting. We’d talk about a different subject each night and get to know each other better.
Archeology and Hiking
The trip was billed as a mix of culture and outdoorsy pursuits. The second day featured a six-mile hike from the archeological complex of Chinchero through the Sacred Valley to the little village of Urquillos. It was all downhill—good for elevation-stressed lungs, challenging for knees. Everybody was happy about the beautiful views and relieved when we finished our hike. The next day in yoga class, there would be a collective groan when we stretched our quads. We stayed in the gorgeous Hotel La Casona de Yucay for two nights. The grounds are lush, and the rooftops and surrounding mountains demanded repeated attempts to get the perfect photo.
On our third day, we visited the archeological site and the town of Pisac, tucked away in the Urubamba Mountains. We became acquainted with the ubiquitous Inca stone stairs as we gazed at terraced hillsides and the remains of buildings. I was fascinated by the nearby cemetery hill, where Inca mummies were placed upright in holes. Most have been raided by foolish grave robbers looking for gold; everybody knows that people who mess with mummies suffer from the mummy’s curse.
Lunch in the Mountains
Lunch in the village of Huayllafara was our most off-the-beaten-track activity. There were a lot of closed eyes and some praying going on as our small bus wound its way up death-defying dirt switchbacks for at least 20 minutes. When we arrived at Huayllafara, town elders in traditional Peruvian garb awaited us with a delicious lunch featuring quinoa, potatoes, the purple corn drink chicha morada, and other local dishes. Then they explained traditional agriculture and did a demo with fava beans. Huayllafara is one of the only communities still farming with traditional Inca tools.
Labase Lamay, a community travel program, works with Huayllafara and three other small villages. Celinda Humilde, an English-speaking guide who accompanied us to the village, told me the program’s point was to help support local communities “without changing their lives. They just experience a day with travelers.”
It was a learning curve for the Quechua-speaking communities, who were shy and unaccustomed to outsiders.
Humilde translated for me to interview Segundino Mamami, the group leader. “We’re happy to share our food and traditions. It also improves our economy,” he said. “I was surprised some people wanted to stay with us for three or four days.”
According to Mamami, tourism has improved their standard of living, letting them make their houses more comfortable. It helps them remain in the village while younger people usually move away.
Lake Day at Piuray
We enjoyed one relaxing day at Piuray Lake—a reprieve from a busy itinerary. Alongside the lake was a whole adventure camp featuring hiking, biking, bird watching, kayaking, a row of tents, and even an espresso cart.
We spent the day hanging out by the lake, paddle boarding, and experiencing a pachamanca feast. This authentic meal is prepared in an in-ground oven with hot stones. It was quite a production as our hosts buried vegetables and meat in the ground, then poured a soda offering to the Earth Mother before lighting the fire.
While at the lake, we gained an additional guide, Wilfredo Huillca. An accomplished musician, he played his pan flute for us as we huddled around the bonfire. Camping was a fun idea, in theory. But when the temperature dropped to the thirties, I missed hotel living. Choose Life has since updated its itinerary to eliminate camping.
Hiking to Machu Picchu
We awoke early from our chilly campsite. It was time for the main event: Machu Picchu! Our bus drove us to the train station at Ollantaytambo. Foreign train stations are one of those places where local guides come in handy. Pepe and Wilfredo wrangled us into the right line and checked our tickets so that we could board easily. The views through the huge windows were terrific as we descended into the cloud forest.
About half of our group opted to get off the train at km 104 and hike the last seven miles to Machu Picchu, while the others rode on to the town of Aguas Calientes for a more relaxing day. I was glad I chose the hike, although I saw enough uneven stone Inca steps to last me for quite a while. We gained 1800 feet of elevation in the first three hours of the hike. Our hike took us through the Winaywayna archeological site, where we were the only ones there. It was like a mini Machu Picchu, but just us.
Wilfredo, who traces his people back to the Incas, was especially excited to share the hike with us. He gestured towards the vine-covered hillsides as we walked up and up the trail. “There’s more out there,” he said, certain that the foliage conceals more ancient temples. After all, the jungle hid Machu Picchu for 400 years.
Wilfredo has guided the four-day Inca Trail hike 350 times. Both he and Pepe were extremely kind to us. I had to stop and pant frequently. But still, it was doable. And the views were insane. Steep, shapely mountains towered over the river winding way below. As we climbed, the river got smaller and skinnier, and we could see how much progress we were making.
Exploring Machu Picchu
By the time we reached Machu Picchu, it was late afternoon, a quiet time to visit because most of the tourists had already left. The 15th-century Inca citadel was huge and beautiful, just like all its famous pictures.
The next day, we returned for a more official archeological tour. Wilfredo and Pepe explained terraced agriculture and pointed out the various temples. I was especially intrigued by stories of “ice maidens” sacrificing themselves to appease angry gods and Incas carrying mummies around and including them in ceremonies to tap into their power.
A couple of our group members went on the optional hike up a vertical mountain called Huayna Picchu. It rises nearly 1,000 feet above Machu Picchu. Steel cables provide support during part of the climb; other times, you’re just one misstep from freefall. I’d had enough Inca steps the day before, so instead, I got my thrills from imagining mummies and sacrifices.
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A Machu Picchu Sober Hiking Tour
What’s the difference between traveling with Choose Life or arranging your own trip to Machu Picchu? Community. “We go to places that are relatively accessible. If you just wanted to go to Machu Picchu or Costa Rica, you could do that,” Cole Bressler, the founder of Choose Life, told me. “People choose us because they want to have this experience with a group of their fellows, a group of people that have a similar life experience.”
And it really showed. Our group shared our problems openly—whether it be elevation sickness, salmonella, a thorny divorce in progress, or doubts about maintaining sobriety—much more than on an average group trip. If you’re in recovery and want to see incredible parts of the world with a supportive group of people, Choose Life will take good care of you. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more adventure travel and other sober travel adventures. We also have more articles about things you can do when you travel to Peru.
Machu Picchu Sober Hiking Tour