Blair Underwood's Machu Picchu Travel Diary: Magic and "Mysticism"

Courtesy of Subject
Marriott's Tambo del Inka has its own train station to Machu Picchu (Inset: Underwood)

The actor, who co-stars in Ava DuVernay's Netflix series 'When They See Us,' shares highlights (historic ruins, sandboarding down dunes) and lowlights (altitude sickness) of his bucket-list destination.

Being parents of kids who've traveled all their lives, we like to go to places as exotic as possible, destinations apart from our everyday existence. When I did research before the Machu Picchu trip, the history seemed magical: It was a communal society from 500 years ago, enveloped in the trees till its ruins were rediscovered in 1911.

In Lima, where we landed, we stayed at Country Club Lima Hotel (rooms from $225 a night). Our hotel manager turned us on to a great guide who provided historical context and maximized our time in Lima, Machu Picchu and Cusco, where we stayed at Palacio Nazarenas Hotel (from $595). We took a two-hour drive to sandboard on giant dunes in Huacachina, Ica, Peru, an oasis in the desert, which ended up being my second favorite highlight after Machu Picchu. You just get on your stomach on a board and slide down that sand dune headfirst.

Then we headed to the beautiful Tambo del Inka (from $319) — the only lodgings in Urubamba, Sacred Valley, that have a private train station to Machu Picchu. On the grounds, we took strolls with llamas and the locals. Having teenagers, we did as many activities as we could without losing our breath from the altitude, so by the time we boarded Peru Rail (there's a fancy car — only we weren't on it), I just wanted to kick back. For several hours on the train, which had dining, an observatory and live music, we sat by a big window watching the landscape and beauty of Sacred Valley pass by.

After a night at the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel (from $330), we left early for the historic ruins (it's too hot to go later in the day). My youngest son asked all sorts of questions about aliens creating the buildings, kind of like Stonehenge. He was fascinated by how the rocks were so precisely carved to fit together. Some of them were placed to align with the lunar calendar and astrology. How did they cut the rocks in those shapes? With what tools? How did they get all of those rocks up to 8,000 feet above sea level? There is mysticism beyond my understanding, but you can feel it.

What I didn't expect was to be exhausted walking the many steps to get to Machu Picchu — altitude sickness is real. My wife and I drank coca leaf tea and chewed on the leaves the first three days, and we never got sick. But two of our kids had headaches, diarrhea and were throwing up. On the third day, we were advised, "Why don't you get a pill for altitude sickness at the pharmacy?" That helped. 

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.