I sat cross-legged on the floor, the white-clad shaman Daniel seated just a few feet away. A small colorful cloth was on the floor between us and a translator perched on a stool just to Daniel’s right. It was a first for me – I was having my coca leaves read at Sumaq Machu Picchu where we were staying for our visit to Machu Picchu.
I was one of the last of my group to go to have the reading. The others had left the dinner table one by one, each one returning with an incredulous look of excitement on their faces. They revealed a few details of what they learned, about the direction they now knew to take in their personal lives, stunned by how much the shaman had revealed about their lives.
While I didn’t have any burning questions about the direction of my life, or any big dilemmas to solve, I was excited to hear what shaman Daniel had to say. It had been a day full of magical mystical experiences, and I was ready for this last one.
Take a Magical Mystical Tour of Machu Picchu Led by a Shaman
We had spent most of the day with Daniel, rising early to meet him and his translator in our hotel lobby at 7:00 a.m. to beat the crowds to the top of the mountain, always a consideration when you are going to one of the most visited sites in the world.
Daniel’s full name is Daniel Gutierrez Vargas, and with his long dark hair and all-white outfit, he fit how I imagined a shaman would look and his smile conveyed warmth and friendliness.
Once we gathered, our group took a short walk up the street to board the busses that take people to the top, where the entrance to Machu Picchu is. While walking up is an option, there’s a lot of walking once you reach Machu Picchu so I advise you to save your energy and take the bus.
After a short wait, I boarded the bus and pondered whether it was good or bad to be seated in the very last row of the bus.
While I’ve logged thousands of miles on all types of buses all over the world, that ride was the most harrowing. Our bus driver was skilled as he navigated the narrow roads, sometimes backing up to let another bus pass, but there are no rails and sometimes nothing but a few feet of brush stood between us and the drop-off from the cliffs.
I practiced my deep breathing techniques and reminded myself that thousands of people do this every day. If you can calm yourself enough to look out the window, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the mountains and the valley below as the bus climbs to almost 8,000 feet.
The ride lasts right around 25 minutes – yes, I was looking at my watch so I could prepare myself for the ride down. Despite the early hour, crowds were already forming at the top and we had a short wait at the entrance.
While you used to be able to enter Machu Picchu and tour on your own, the rules changed in 2017 to prevent over tourism and all guests have to enter the site with a guide.
After entering through the gates, we followed Daniel and our guide up the uneven crumbling steps to a large grassy area called La Roca Sagrada (The Sacred Rock) where our ceremony would take place.
During the next 1.5 hours or so Daniel performed the “Hayway” ceremony in the language of the Incans, followed by an individual cleansing session for every member of the group, translated from the ancient language to English by our guide. My notebook and pen, my constant companions during my travels, stayed inside my backpack. While my fingers itched to take notes to remember it all, being in the moment had never seemed more important. I took off my shoes and made myself comfortable in the grass.
Daniel started the ceremony by holding up three coca leaves in two hands in the direction of Machu Picchu and asking for permission from the Pachamama to start the tour.
After he led us through a group exercise, he asked, “What did you see while you had your eyes closed?”
One person reported seeing bright colors, while others reported seeing shadowy images. I saw, well, nothing. He performed another ceremony and asked the same question. And again, I saw nothing. I felt like the girl in “A Chorus Line” in acting class who dug right down to the bottom of her soul and feels nothing.
My lack of vision wasn’t enough to ruin the spiritual, magical, mystical feelings of being in that sacred place and listening to Daniel’s soothing voice as he chanted ancient words.
Occasionally our ceremony was interrupted by hikers commenting as they passed by on the trail below, questioning what this group was doing lying in the grass.
As Daniel prepared his tools for the individual cleansing ceremonies, a llama came wandering up – perhaps to give us his blessing as well. Then one by one, we stood up and Daniel waved his wand over us, chanting the words of the ceremony.
While the specific details of the ceremony as lost to my memory – no notebook, remember? – I do recall the feeling of peace and tranquility I had from the ceremony, standing with my bare feet on the grass, feeling the warmth of the sun as it rose over the peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.
The English-speaking guide then took over for a comprehensive tour and history of the maze-like site and its sacred temples. He stopped several times along the way for explanations while I took the chance to snap more photos to add to my ever-growing collection. We were blessed with a sunny day, and every turn offered a new perspective and photo opp.
We hit all the highlights of the tour, which include the Sacred Rock, the Sun Gate, the Sacred Plaza and Temple of the Sun. Touring around Machu Picchu does require concentration as the steps are uneven and not always stable. As the door wore on, the crowds grew and I was glad for our early start.
We stopped to gaze in amazement at the adjacent mountain, Huayna Picchu, which is open to a limited number of hikers every day. The views are reported to be spectacular after you reach the top, a treacherous and strenuous 40-minute climb up ancient Incan steps. But when a site has something called “Stairs of Death” I tend to leave it off my bucket list.
Our guide had told us to bring our passports to get them stamped on the way out. As we stood in line for the one person stamping, he stepped behind the counter and began stamping passports as well. Don’t you love a tour guide who takes charge? My passport now proudly bears a stamp with a blue outline of Machu Picchu.
After a slightly less harrowing trip down the mountain, where I defied the odds by once again getting a seat on the very back of the bus, we walked down the street, back to Sumaq Machu Picchu.
Attend Peruvian Cooking Classes and Rituals
We were in for another treat for lunch as we attended an ancient ritual for preparing a Pachamanca dish, which translates to earth pot and a technique that dates back hundreds of years. This dish is prepared employing the ancient technique of digging a hole in the ground, placing firewood and rocks in the hole and heating up the rocks. When the rocks are hot enough, food is layered in a stone oven on top of them, then covered with banana leaves and cooked for 60-90 minutes.
My mouth started watering as we watched the traditionally clad workers begin to uncover the food, layer by layer. We then enjoyed a traditional Peruvian feast with slightly smoky flavors from the cooking method.
Next up on this magical, mystical day was a spa treatment at the Aqlla Spa, which offers massage, sauna and hydrotherapy treatments. The name means chosen one – appropriate as I was feeling all kinds of lucky to be experiencing this magical day.
After a relaxing massage and a quick shower, it was time for our next ritual where Daniel rejoined us to perform the “Payment to the Earth” ceremony. He was seated cross-legged on the floor on a colorful handwoven blanket with a large array of offerings to the gods meticulously laid out in a semi-circle in front of him. During the ceremony, he offers them up one by one. I found the ceremony particularly moving as we learned it is performed to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, to give thanks and to bless new beginnings.
The same ceremony was performed on the site of Sumaq Machu Picchu prior to its construction.
After the ceremony, we headed to the dining room for dinner and for each of us to join Daniel one by one upstairs for our private reading of our coca leaves.
When it was finally my turn, I entered the room and quietly took my seat on the floor. The blanket for this ceremony was much smaller, just a few square feet. The interpreter explained that Daniel would read the coca leaves three times.
These were the same leaves, so important to Peruvians and banned in the United States, that I had chewed after a bout of altitude sickness on our way to Aguas Calientes, where Machu Picchu is located. We had stopped at a scenic overlook during the bus ride to the train station. After admiring the view, I went to pose with some cute traditionally dressed ladies holding llamas.
Then it hit me. I felt lightheaded, as if my head was in a tilt-a-whirl and I was about to fly off. I was escorted back to the van where I was given oxygen to breathe for about five minutes until my equilibrium returned.
In addition to relieving the effects of high altitude, coca leaves are used in tea and in religious ceremonies.
I was asked if I had any specific questions or just wanted a general reading. Maybe it was my aura of peace after our day, but I really couldn’t think of a question, so opted for a general reading.
Daniel laid down the leaves three times, then in that beautiful rich voice, looked at me and interpreted his reading, which was translated by the interpreter. “All your happiness is already inside of you,” he said. “When something good happens to you, you look at the negative. Take the energy home from Machu Picchu and you’ll be happier.”
I admit to initially being a bit disappointed with my reading, which seemed to amount to the Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
The truth is there is a lot of wisdom in that. I could stand to chill out a bit. And I hadn’t asked for any specific answers, like the other people in the group had – about careers or their love lives.
But that night I had one of the most vivid dreams of my life. My little finger on my right hand was vibrating for what seemed like hours, in one of those dreams where you will swear you are awake.
I woke with an odd sensation of it having been real. I generally find dream analysis pretty boring, and after efforts to Google it were a failure, turning up results like, “Why It’s Perfectly Normal to Dream About Sex With a Celeb,” (what!?) I realized what it was.
It was the energy of Machu Picchu Daniel wanted me to take home with me.
It’s been several months since my trip and I’ve tried to remember the words of the shaman when I feel troubled, and recall the energy of Machu Picchu.
It had been a lifelong goal to visit Machu Picchu, and having a full day with Peruvian ceremonies led by Daniel added to my experience exponentially, and those were only available to me as a guest of Sumaq Machu Picchu.
The hotel is owned by a Peruvian family and everything about it is a nod to its Peruvian heritage. Here are a few other activities you can do there.
Take a Cooking Class, Hike to a Waterfall and Other Activities at Sumaq Machu Picchu
Guests at Sumaq Machu Picchu can also learn to create their own Peruvian dishes and drinks, like ceviche and Pisco Sours, with Peruvian cooking and bar classes. Couples may wish to renew their vows with an Andean wedding ceremony.
The hotel is family-friendly and a good choice if you’re traveling with children. Activities for children include storytelling, who regales them with tales of the Andes, and mini chef lessons for children 7-12 to learn how to make dishes with indigenous foods. Children can also tour Machu Picchu on a family tour, which includes a box lunch, an Explorer Kit with a map, hat and Allco, a stuffed puppy.
One of my favorite activities was the Mandor Excursion which we did the first day. Although we had just arrived with a short window before dinner, I wasn’t going to turn up an opportunity to take a hike in Peru.
After checking in and dumping my stuff in the room, I put on my hiking boots and met Juan and two others in our group for a wonderful guided hike. After following along the river and some train tracks along ancient Incan trails, we went further into the jungle where after about an hour we came to a path that led up slightly uphill to magnificent waterfalls.
Juan, our super cheery guide, kept calling us “My dear girls,” as he pointed out one sight after the next.
One word of warning: the path sometimes is narrow where it borders the train tracks. And sometimes trains come. We were apparently literally on the wrong side of the tracks as a train blew its horn at the last minute and I dove into the bushes to not get sideswiped. The conductor slowed down enough to yell at us before proceeding on his way.
Stay in Luxury Accommodations and Dine on Gourmet Food
Sumaq Macchu Picchu has 62 deluxe rooms, two junior suites and one Imperial Suite. Of those, 32 of the rooms have views of the Vilcanota River and Machu Picchu.
I loved my room, with its balcony and view of the river, the town of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. It was beautifully decorated in shades of maroon and beige. The entire hotel is decorated with authentic Peruvian art and artifacts. While I really didn’t want to check in with the world back in the United States, I did and was happy to have free wifi. The rooms feature large bathrooms with marble showers.
The lobby bar, Suquy, serves native-inspired drinks and specialty cocktails. Unwind here with a Pisco Sour by the fireplace after a hike or day of exploring the markets in Aguas Calientes.
Cuisine is a focus of Sumaq Machu Picchu and its critically acclaimed restaurant, Qunuq, serves Peruvian fusion cuisine developed and made with local ingredients by Executive Chef Carlos Pardo Figueroa Thornberry and Resident Chef Ribelino Alegría.
One night we enjoyed the exquisite seven-course tasting menu, Apucc Mikhuna (food provided by the mountains), with dishes that are as beautiful as they are tasty. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life, as exquisitely presented dishes came out, one after another.
Sumaq Machu Picchu serves a buffet breakfast with a variety of hot and cold foods, which I enjoyed sitting by the window to take in those magnificent views as much as possible.
Getting to Sumaq Machu Picchu
You can only reach Machu Picchu by train to Aguas Calientes. Most travelers start with an international flight to Lima, followed by a flight to Cusco. From there you can take a two-hour bus ride to the Ollantaytambo train station, followed by a two-hour train ride.
We took a first-class train on Inca Rail, which included a welcome cocktail, delicious three-course gourmet meal with Andean ingredients paired with local wines.
The scenery is so spectacular, you’ll want to keep your camera close at hand. I enjoyed the journey so much I didn’t want to get off the train when we arrived. On the return journey, I made sure to go to the open-air car for photos unobstructed by glass or railings.
I loved just standing there watching the valleys, streams and mountains while occasionally catching glimpses of homes and people working in the fields.
Inca Rail has three other services: the 360 Machu Picchu Train with an observation deck with an outdoor viewing platform; the Voyager Machu Picchu Train with recliner seats and the Private Machu Picchu Train, a charter service for up to eight passengers that includes a tasting menu and open bar.
From the train station in Aguas Calientes, Sumaq Machu Picchu is a 10-minute walk. Porters from Sumaq Machu Picchu met us to carry our luggage.
When we arrived we strolled through several booths of vendors, but didn’t stop to shop so I made sure to take a little time one day to walk around the town. I picked up a few souvenirs that included hand-woven mittens and a sweater.
With its location at the base of Machu Picchu, emphasis on Peruvian culture, gourmet food and the unparalleled experience of touring the ancient site with a shaman, Sumaq Machu Picchu is my recommendation of how to Machu Picchu.
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