Get High on the Romance of Machu Picchu

machu picchu
Edward Placidi.

Climbing Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas high in the Andes mountains of Peru, is on many couples' bucket list and a destination to experience together.

Where to Stay

According to Peruvian Tourism, the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel is the only 5-star hotel near the base of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to its advantageous location, the property streamlines the complicated Machu Picchu visiting process.

And the hotel's special programs and amenities provide a window on the country’s mystical and vibrant culture to further enrich a trip.  

The Sumaq — the word means beautiful in Quechua, the native tongue — is located in the Peruvian village of Aguas Calientes, which is where the buses to Machu Picchu leave. The Vilcanota River streams past the hotel, splashing over granite boulders and lulling guests to sleep at night.

The Look of the Sumaq

Although the design of the guest rooms and suites is sleek and contemporary, there’s a rustic artisanal vibe. The owners employed Peruvian and Italian designers, and use many native materials. Stone and wood floors and walls are locally sourced, and the walls are hung with vegetable-dyed textiles woven by local women. The look is warm and handsome and cozily romantic. Beds are all white, piled with hypoallergenic pillows, fluffy goose down comforters, and the pure cotton sheets so silky they feel like satin.

Today’s necessities, from flat screen TVs to free WiFi, are provided. Bathrooms are sparkling white and feature luscious amenities made in Peru from local herbs and flowers.  Guest rooms feature a wall of windows that open wide to balconies and the outdoors. Request a room that faces the front for a view of the river and mountainside.

Mmm Machu Picchu

If you like a good Pisco Sour and ceviche, you know they are synonymous with Peruvian food and drink. But do you know how to make them? Guests can learn how during a fun and informative demonstration that ends with a tasting, of course, and take-home recipes so you can recreate the flavors and memories together back home. 

Peruvian cuisine is based on a fusion of flavors from countries that have played a part in Peru’s history: Spain, China, Italy, Africa and Japan. At the Sumaq, the chef applies his haute cuisine techniques to Peru’s bountiful produce to create contemporary dishes, beautifully presented. Ingredients are as locally sourced as possible: ceviche is made from trout caught in the river, potatoes are grown in the countryside. Breakfast consists of individually prepared offerings as well as a buffet. Not to be missed: bananas rolled in quinoa, and Andean French toast stuffed with fresh cheese. Worth getting out of bed for, even for honeymooners….

The House Shaman

For a look into the mystical side of Peruvian culture, the hotel relies on the services of Willko, an authentic shaman from the Sacred Valley of the Incas from a long line of shamans. Willko has a gentle smile, long ponytail, and ever-present pouch of condor skin he inherited from his grandfather to hold coca leaves.

For the hotel he conducts ancient Incan ceremonies filled with symbolism and spirituality.

One popular program is the Pachamama, or Mother Earth ceremony. Mother Earth is thanked for the food she gives. The ceremony takes place in a private room with walls of stone and all-glass, offering views of the river and surrounding land. The room is opened to pits that have been dug into the earth and lined with rocks for cooking. The hotel’s kitchen staff does their job while Willko chants and thanks Pachamama for her bounty. In less than an hour, the ceremony is over, the food is finished cooking, and the feast begins.  

Another of Willko’s skills is the reading of coca leaves—an Andean take on tea leaf readings. Each participant selects three coca leaves, representing heaven, earth, and the underworld, and breathes on them before handing them to Willko.

After much chanting and deliberation, the shaman delivers his analysis.  

A Word About Coca Leaves

Willko chews coca leaves continuously. You might want to try it, too. They allegedly help alleviate altitude sickness, which at this height — over 8,000 feet — may affect some visitors. The hotel also offers coca tea, another good remedy, as well as oxygen tanks they will bring to your room if one of you is feeling woozy. Many people have no reaction to the high altitude; others come armed with medication from their doctor at home. Consult yours for advice. 

The Arac Masin: An Ancient Andean Wedding Ceremony 

A couple can enhance their wedding celebration or renew vows at the hotel. For the Arac Masin, they'll be outfitted in traditional Incan costumes of brightly colored woven robes and elaborate headdresses. The 30-minute ceremony, presided over by Willko, involves lots of chanting in Quechua. And  Willko arrays items to symbolize life with seashells to represent the sea, cotton for clouds, yellow flowers to represent the west and red, the south. The ceremony concludes with the Munayqui wedding feast of seven dishes. 

Spa Togetherness

The in-house Aqila Spa is balm for guests who've climbed to the Sacred Rock. The facials and massages use Andean essential oils made of natural herbs. The Andean Stone Massage is especially soothing: stones are heated on a bed of eucalyptus leaves, then smothered with oil made from eucalyptus, verbena, chamomile, muna (a mint) and coca leaves. The warm, oiled, scented stones are stroked along the body and kneaded into aching muscles. Bliss! The spa will set up a private room with candles so couples can experience relief, if not nirvana, together. There’s also a Jacuzzi and steam sauna that the hotel can arrange for couples to use privately, and they'll add romantic details such as scented candles and rose petals.

The Main Event: Visiting Machu Picchu

Most couples’ reason for staying at the Sumaq is no doubt to climb Machu Picchu or its neighboring peaks. It is a dazzling bucket-list experience, but complicated to arrange. The Sumaq can help you set up your visit, whether you want to enter the site independently and poke around, or sign up for a more extensive and guided tour. 

Do contact the hotel as soon as possible—months in advance if possible--to make arrangements, as entry into Machu Picchu is restricted to 3,500 visitors a day. Tickets must be purchased in advance, which can be done individually or through the hotel. The visit involves hiking up and down the mountainside on uneven rocky paths to get to the stone village, mid-mountainside, that you see in photos.

Appropriate footwear is a must. Only buses are allowed to enter into Machu Picchu’s grounds, to deposit and pick up customers. The buses depart just up the hill from the hotel, a 10-minute walk, but the wait to board can be an hour at least. Most people want to go in the mornings, and that’s when the lines are longest; leaving mid-day can avoid some of the wait. The last bus leaves for Machu Picchu, a bumpy 20-minute drive away, at 3 pm. The last bus leaves the site at 5:30 pm and guests who miss it have a very, very long hike ahead.

The Sumaq’s  Machu Picchu Experience

The hotel’s Mystical Machu Picchu 6-hour program showcases the site in all its spiritual ancient Incan glory. The Sumaq acquired permission to use a sacred site, La Roca Sagrada, to replicate a cleansing ceremony, the Haway, that had been a requirement centuries ago for those visiting the holy city.

The sacred site is a loooong climb to a location twice as high up the mountainside as the village. Willko chants, calling upon the Sun God to release his energy. He sprays fine mists of herbal and floral waters, fanning participants with condor feathers as they line up against the sacred rock and are cleansed of negative energy.  And isn’t that a good way to start married life?

Walking carefully back down the mountainside to the Sun Gate, one of the entrances to the village, Alicia, the Sumaq’s private guide, takes over. She explains the history of the village, how it began, how it might have ended, who built it, how life was lived in its stone enclosures, how the edifices constructed of massive stone blocks lie perfectly on top of each other, as they have for centuries, serving as temples to give worship to the gods. The Temple of the Condor, Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Puma and Temple of Pachamama are visited.

When to Go

May to September is high season, when the weather is dry. It’s also the most crowded time to visit. October or November to March or April is low season, when visitors can expect rain and also some cold temperatures, but not crowds.

Getting Here

It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. LATAM, the new merger of the airlines LAN and TAM, can take you to Peru. Because you are flying south, the time zone changes by an hour or so at most, so there’s no jet lag. When your flight arrives in Lima you might spend a day exploring this intriguing city, or stay at the airport and connect to a flight to Cusco

Pros and Cons of Visiting Machu Picchu

A trip to Machu Picchu is not for anyone who feels physically challenged. The travel can be exhausting, the high altitude depleting. There’s really no easy way to get there. It’s a long schlep requiring plane, van, train and feet. And the altitude might not sit well with some.

Those visiting the site must be careful. Many of the pathways have no handrails, no fences, and sheer drops off their sides. The paths themselves, of ancient stone, are uneven, and steps are of varying heights. And there are lots of them. We counted 10,000 (9,999 of which were vertical) steps to get from the bus to Willko’s mystical ceremony at the sacred rock, then down to the village and back to the bus.

It may be an arduous trip, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Like getting married. And staying at the Sumaq makes it as stress-free and sumptuous as possible.