Field Notes from Peru

High above the wild Urubamba – with James and Rob

We’re a restless bunch at Black Tomato. It’s never been enough for us to rely on hearsay, to take things ‘as read’. Long before we plan your trips, we head out into the wide, wild world to uncover new ways of seeing it for ourselves.

To put it bluntly, research is everything. And when we go about creating our luxury Peru vacations, that research becomes the bedrock of the trips that you, our travelers, actually take.

This special edition of Field Notes documents Co-Founder James and Head of Special Projects Rob’s recent journey into Peru, where they charted an entirely new route above the ancient Urubamba. While the region’s best-known landmark is the floating castle of Machu Picchu itself, we wanted to dig deeper – to look closer. This is how we put your luxury Peru tours together.

And you can watch our latest film, which documents their eye-opening journey, below.

To begin with a beginning

Peru travel
Peru travel

First steps, first tastes

When our final route plan was hammered out – an email, dropping late at night – the subtitle said it all: “four amigos, a thousand landscapes, countless new memories”. This was the result of precise, imaginative work between our UK and US-based teams and our local guides. Pierro and Patty, on the ground, admitted this straight away: “words always fall short”. Trips to Peru – like this – will never quite be contained by the language we use to describe them. But we have to try.

The journey itself would last ten days, kicking off in Lima and rounding off in Cusco. Between these poles stood experiences, it’d turn out, that would near change our lives; or, at the very least, would dislodge our expectations about Peru. We didn’t know that yet.

The first night was a rousing, flowing meal at Central, the home base of chef extraordinaire Virgilio Martinez. For years, it’s been considered one of the greatest restaurants in the world. This year – only days ago – it was voted the best. Their entire methodology is about taking ancient Peruvian ingredients and cooking techniques and re-imagining them through a modern lens. You’re basically eating history, tasting the landscapes that have so dramatically shaped the cultures and history of Peru. It’s an honestly unforgettable dining experience.

Rafting in Peru
Rafting in Peru

White-water rafting along the Apurimac

In the rugged uplands of southern Peru, the Apurimac – flowing with glacial meltwater – carves its way through gorges that are as much as 3,400 metres deep. With all its tendrils, it’s also technically the farthermost source of the Amazon River proper.

Yes, it’s an outrageously beautiful waterway; caramel and shimmering in the high sunlight. But it’s not a river easily navigable by pathway and foot, so steep are its wild banks. It was only fitting, then, that we raft our way down it.

But this was no ‘in and out’ affair – no rapid bolt. Instead, we spent three glorious days making our way along a section of the river known as the ‘black canyon’. The pictures speak for themselves.

Peru travel
Peru travel

Trekking high above the Urubamba

Our notes from Sergio – a thoughtful email before we set off – gave a compelling introduction to the trek we were about to embark on:

“North of Cusco, in the fertile Andean highlands of the Urubamba Valley, lies a stretch of mythical pre-Columbian ruins, Inca villages, and tiny colonial towns surrounding by snowcapped peaks, shimmering lakes, and f lowering meadows protected by sacred Apu mountain spirits.”

You’d be hard pressed not to feel stirred by this. Some of the original passes we’d intended to trek were too deeply buried in snow, so this required a rapid, albeit elegant, shifting of plans. Instead, we’d trek above the valley to a pass some 4,500m above sea level; before descending again to a meadowed mountain plateau to set up an overnight camp. It was from here that – the next morning, early – we’d ascend to a nearby peak to watch the sun rise over the Andes. Again, this might be one of those times that words fail us. What can really be said about all that raw majesty, that beautiful silence?

On our way down we stopped for an al fresco lunch at Hucuy Qosqo. In Quechua it means ‘little Cusco’, which may refer to the long-abandoned 13th century ruins hidden high up in these mountains. A mirror of the ‘big’ Inca city. The landscape here is crumbling and biscuit-brown, with small lakes and snow-capped mountains visible in the distance. As you descend, the flora begins to transition from altiplano to something more tropical and exotic. The ruins themselves – perhaps due to the isolation of this place – are remarkably well preserved and provide a nuanced counterpoint to the obviously more dramatic ‘castle’ of Machu Picchu itself. Perhaps this is what ‘everyday’ life looked like for the Inca population. You wonder what they felt, looking out across this corrugated, mountain-capped vista. What was it like to live here?

Peru travel
Peru travel

A word on Peru hotels

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the places we stayed and how we slept – and how we unwound. For much of our trek and our rafting, we were camping – but in real comfort and style; making use of a ‘light’, adapted version of our Blink service.

But there were also ‘real’ rooms and proper hotels. In Lima, the pitch-perfect paradise of Hotel B – which I’ve frequently heard referred to as the city’s most beautiful and indulgent hotel. It’s located in a lively and buzzing neighbourhood; a deep bench of churches, boutiques, cafes, restaurants. This spot provides a real sense of subtle grandeur before the hiking and wilderness we were about to embark on.

We’d also rest our heads at Palacio Nazarenas, a great, even essential, hotel in historic Cusco. As a Belmond property, you know to expert a level of elevated elegance and flair. The difference here is that the buildings are a restored 17th-century palace and convent, set around a series of lovely, cloistered courtyards. A heated swimming pool, spa, and 24-hour butler service made it the perfect place to soothe our bodies after miles of trail, river and ravine. A barnstormer of a hotel – and a welcome sight indeed.

Peru travel
Peru travel

The path toward Machu Picchu

The way to Machu Picchu is the stuff of legend: a winding, ancient trail that rises from the salt pools and Inca mines of Maras through to the great, green terraces of Moray, each with its own micro-climate. There are places like the village of Chinchero, the centre of Peru’s historic weaving industry. They also say this is the birthplace of the rainbow. It checks out.

It’s not a journey that you want to speed or rush – a tick-box ascent to Machu Picchu itself. The whole journey through the Sacred Valley is part and parcel of this ‘castle in the sky’. You must embrace it as a whole; almost as if the valley and the peaks above are part of the same story. This isn’t like other Machu Picchu tours. The emphasis is on the whole; on the ecosystems and histories that drew the Inca to this place, and to make it a central part of their empire. It still knocks your socks off, every time.

Peru travel
Peru travel

Final thoughts

Admittedly, our journey to Peru was quite adventurous; but this only captures a slice of what the country has to offer. There are gentler ways to travel here, and there are – always – ways to dial up the dynamism even further. It’s why we see all kinds of travellers asking about it – from honeymooning to Peru to gastronomic tours and cultural extravaganzas. Some seek the strange, ethereal forms of the Nazca lines. Others want to keep their eye on the Sacred Valley. And you can do it all.

Our time with Serio and Patty – and their extraordinary local contacts – gives the fullest impression of what a Black Tomato trip really involves. Deep cultural insight and second-to-none experiences – all of it planned by us and led, on the ground, by a team of truly inspiring guides. As Sergio himself put it, “words always fall short”. That’s true. But until you go there for yourself, these words – and these images – will have to do.

Peru – a world away

From the ancient routes of the Sacred Valley to the cutting-edge eateries of Lima. Discover more ways to experience the empire of the Inca.

Let’s begin