Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Sacred Valley Where We Never Left Our Hotel

(Russell writing)
To be honest, the main reason we decided to go to the Sacred Valley was because we bought a discounted package deal for both Cusco and the Sacred Valley on Groupon.  (As a matter of fact, our entire trip was strung together using discount travel sites like Groupon, Jetsetter, and Luxury Link...otherwise we never would have been able to afford it!)  In any case, our stay in the Sacred Valley was a unique one if nothing else.

Our travel Groupon included 2 nights in the Aranwa Cusco Boutique and 3 nights in the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel and Spa.  We absolutely loved the Aranwa in Cusco, so we had high hopes for our next stop.

Well, first things first.  After we pulled into the train station at Ollantaytambo we had to get a taxi to the hotel, which is located just outside of Urubamba.  However, we had no clue how far away it was!  After 45 min in the van with a driver who spoke no English (and we only little Spanish), we started to get a bit paranoid as we drove deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere.  Once the driver finally turned of the road into some dirt side street, we were convinced we were goners for sure!

Fortunately, the taxi did indeed know where he was going, and we arrived at the hotel, which is guarded by an enormous, Jurassic Park-esque gate.

Our first impressions were marked mostly by pure astonishment.  The lobby was filled with fine art, high ceilings, a gorgeous stain glass window, among other expensive flourishes.  The rest of the grounds were no different.  I have never seen a more luxuriously appointed hotel of this kind, and in some sense it felt like it should be a part of some high-end Disney World resort.

Peacocks, macaws, and alpacas roamed the property.  The facilities included the biggest spa in South America, a cinema, a museum, an historic refurbished hacienda, a library, 3 restaurants, a sushi bar, an orchid garden, an orchard, a beautiful chapel--the list goes on and on--, all surrounded by the beautiful Andes Mountains!

front lobby

Stained glass in the front lobby

fireplace and more art in the front lobby

breakfast and snack cafeteria (we never went "for snack" since there was so much food at meals)

pet macaw

 This is a little tour of the main buildings of the property...a little shaky but gives you a feel for the place. 

The chapel- part of the original property

orchid garden (there were only 2 orchids blooming)

Russell's favorite: lomo saltado

one of the only things I could eat: pasta with sauce.

However, we quickly discovered that all was not well in paradise.  Aranwa Sacred Valley does many, many things right: their facilities--as mentioned--are world class; their staff are extremely friendly; and the setting is gorgeous. But our general takeaway was that Aranwa's upper management has clearly missed the mark on two critical points: their operational expertise and their general vision/model for what Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel and Spa should be.

On our last evening we learned that there were only 19 guests staying at the resort which could have contributed to our feeling that they need some operations coaching.  If we understood correctly, there are usually about 100 guests at any given time during high season and we were just there on an off week.  Not sure if that's true or not...from what we've read from other people's reviews on Trip Advisor, many guests feel like they're staying in a ghost town!

Part of this ghost-town vibe is the result of the grounds being so enormous.  But some clear operational issues affected this as well.  As a quick example, the hotel has huge time windows for when guests can eat meals.  Dinner runs from somewhere from 5pm-11pm.  At most places we stayed, dinner was between 7pm-9pm, which allows the kitchen to be much more efficient in meal prep and helps to create a more bustling atmosphere for guests since everyone has to go eat dinner around the same time.   At Aranwa, however, you are almost certain to be the only couple dining in the hotel's gargantuan dinner restaurant since the large time window allows for guests to spread themselves out in terms of when they eat...it's a little unsettling!

Plus, the many stores at the hotel (Kuna, etc.) never seemed to be open during their stated hours of operation.  They'd instead be open randomly when you least expected it.   We think that some of the hotel's amenities, features, etc., are provided only when the occupancy rate is high enough.

(Katie writing)
One thing we didn't realize, as stated before, was that Arwanwa Sacred Valley was somewhat in the middle of nowhere.  We envisioned our hotel being in or very nearby a town so that we could come and go as we pleased but this  was not the case (note to self, do a little more research).  Because of this, if one were to leave the grounds, a hired driver was required and the only way to get one is through the hotel concierge.  Annoyingly, you need to plan much in advance for this AND the price is well over average market price.  The only way to hire reasonable transportation is to get the card from your taxi driver from the train station and if you forget to do that, you're just out of luck.

While in Cusco, we had read about great rafting in the Sacred Valley and began making plans with a small rafting company to meet up with them and go on a little river run.  When explaining this to our hotel concierge, he immediately tried to reroute us to one of the hotel's planned rafting trips that was not double, but triple the price of the rafting we had already scheduled.  When asked about hiring transportation, he gave us a bit of a run around, quoted us a decent price and then came back with a final price that was over double his original offer.  The more we negotiated, the more difficult the transportation became logistically so sadly we ended up canceling rafting altogether.  (Side note: the transportation negotiations lasted for much of our first full day at the resort.  At one point, when trying to contact the concierge, we learned that he could not be reached because he was receiving spa services!  Many other times we called his desk extension to receive no answer or answering service.  Very frustrating.)

Since our rafting trip was cancelled, we ended up with much more time on the hotel grounds than we originally planned.  Not only that, but we decided not to go on any excursions because we viewed them as overpriced and/or things we could do in Arkansas (such as ride 4 wheelers for $300 pp- seriously?!).  Because of this, we got a little bored and a little homesick, although we had plenty of time to roam and explore...

one of the peacocks

beautiful landscaping around the property

one of the many fountained courtyards in the original hacienda

the orchard 

the orchard entrance

our alpaca friends!!

don't you want to just cuddle them up? 
having a little chat

garden maze

pretty little alleyway

another courtyard with a beautiful fountain

The last day we were there, we decided to try out their "world class" spa (largest in South America).  Again, the facilities were beautiful and the staff very friendly, but we found that our spa experience was our least favorite (and most expensive) of all the places we had stayed. Our package included time in a dry sauna, wet sauna and jacuzzi tub but the temperatures weren't quite right- saunas were too cool and jacuzzi was scalding hot.  The massages were ok but there were often moments when Russell and I both thought, "does she know what she's doing or is she making this up as she goes?"  We think this was the result of having an overly exhaustive spa menu (3 pages of services, including 30 minutes of walking while escorted by a "personal trainer")) with only a few masseuses on staff.  There's just no way they can be great at everything.  All that said, we can't complain too much about spending time in the spa, but we feel Aranwa might want to rethink the spa's operational model!

For dinner on our last evening we were ready for a change of scenery so we opted for a private dinner in the colonial kitchen.  This is the original kitchen of the original hacienda from the 1800s.  We got to chat with the chef and assist in making clay oven pizzas.  This was by far our favorite activity of our stay!  The chef was friendly, the atmosphere cozy, and the pizza was a welcomed change from the delicious, yet heavy, Peruvian cuisine.   And Russell even set up the iPad for a little jazzy dinner music :)

A quick pic with Bruno, the chef!

mmmm, I never would've thought I would think of pizza as "lighter" fare.  After all the food we'd eaten, this actually seemed like a less heavy option!

This big oven is from the 1800s!

Waiting and chatting

C'mon pizza!  The oven was having trouble heating up because it was a particularly chilly and windy evening

The finished product!

Overall, we recommend Arwanwa Sacred Valley Hotel and Spa (beautiful setting, some solid cuisine, and friendly staff), but we can't help but feel that the resort's operational model makes it fall short of what it should be.  Also, you should keep the following in mind: get in touch with an outside, reputable excursion company in advance  (check Lonely Planet for advice); travel with a group or be prepared for some down time (if you're there on an "off" week, the ghost town effect will be in full swing); and get contact information from your train station transport driver.

No comments:

Post a Comment