At its core, the Peruvian city of Cusco retains the feeling of a rural, ancient village, with its mixed architectural heritage of Incan and Spanish colonial—the conquered and, at least for a while, the conqueror—even though a third of a million people live here. Cusco is the regional capital, located in a high, wide valley in the eastern part of the country. It is also the jumping off point for anyone who wants to visit Machu Picchu, the legendary Incan mountain fortress that the Spanish never found.
To coin a phrase, you can’t easily get there without first coming here.
As a first-time tourist to both places, I found the experience full of surprises.
First, while both locales hover at nose-bleed altitudes (ask the fellow being administered to in our hotel lobby), flatter Cusco is much higher (over 11,300 feet) than the rugged, precipitous Machu Picchu—around 8,000 feet in altitude. In fact, to get to Machu Picchu, you need to travel by train across farmland from Cusco, then descend into a jungle’s-edge canyon before re-ascending to the reconstructed ruins.
Second, the experience can be both rigorous and luxuriant. For the first day or so, even walking along the somewhat hilly streets of Cusco can leave one gasping for air, and navigating the steep trails within the walls of Machu Picchu and on the Incan Trail above it are not for those with marshmallow buns. Yet the hotels of Cusco are quite lavish, the restaurant menus are a delightful mix of ancestral cooking and international daring, and the train ride to Machu Picchu is worthy of Orient Express because, well, it is Orient Express. It and the small hotel and restaurant discreetly located on the edge of the pristine mountain refuge, the only one allowed at the site, are owned and operated by OE, which has heavily invested in the country’s tourist industry.
My wife Ella and I flew into Cusco from coastal Lima with a companion couple, Michael and Jennifer Stillabower, and one of the first things we encountered after getting off the plane was a small bowl of waxy, dark green leaves—coca—casually placed on a window ledge near the exit. Although processed coca is the basis for the highly addictive cocaine, coca leaves have been brewed into a tea or chewed by the locals for centuries for its caffeine-like energy boost. In fact, while we checked into our hotel, the Monasterio, we were served coca tea to help us acclimate to the altitude.
The Monasterio and the Libertador are the two major hotels in Cusco, and we stayed at both, taking the journey to Machu Picchu in between. The Monasterio is, as the name suggests, a large old stone monastery with an interior courtyard, large suites, and a gracious, unhurried ambience. Some of the rooms have piped-in oxygen at an added fee. It also has a first-class restaurant, Illiary, with a full complement of European-style dishes with Peruvian touches.
The Libertador is larger but equally elegant. You can sit in the bar with your Pisco sour—the national drink for tourists—and marvel at the foundation of an Incan palace, which forms the hotel’s base, with its huge stones and razor’s-edge joints.
While we came to Peru for the scenery and the Incan and Spanish culture and architecture, we were taken by the quality of the cuisine. The Inka Grill on the Plaza de Armas, the main square, was one of our favorites, serving an upscale Euro-Peruvian fusion in a bright atmosphere. We were also impressed with the MAP Café located inside the Museum for Pre-Columbian Art.
The city has many museums, churches, excavations, and other edifices, but we spent much of our time in the shops along the narrow streets, especially in the San Blas market area near the hotels. There are loads of art galleries, shops with real and ersatz folk art, and even fine jewelry and clothing stores specializing in silver and woven goods.
There are, of course, the ubiquitous street vendors selling shawls, finger puppets, and the like—pesky, but not threatening. Women in native dress are willing to have you take their photos for a few coins, perhaps even using a baby lamb as a prop.
But after two days in Cusco, we were anxious to leave for Machu Picchu. There are two trains making the 43-mile trip to Aquas Caliente, the town in the river gorge beneath the mountain city, but the best one is the first-class Hiram Bingham. Although it jostles along at a slow pace past farms and through villages, the cars are traditional European coaches, and a cooked-on-the-train, first-class meal with wines and cocktails is served both out (lunch) and back (dinner). Our lunch consisted of an olive and corn tamale with asparagus pudding, alpaca loin with elderberry compote, artichokes, and Andean cheese cannelloni with a smooth velout&ecute;, and a cocoa and chocolate tartlet with a white chocolate-ginger compote.
Once at Aquas Caliente, we transferred to a modern bus that drove up the nearly sheer mountainside via a couple dozen switchbacks along a two-lane dirt road with no guard rails. Once there, we stopped outside the small hotel—the Sanctuary Lodge—near the site’s entrance. There were also a few small shops—but nothing else nearby.
Inside Machu Picchu’s walls—even with perhaps a hundred people walking about—the site is amazingly quiet, pristine, and immaculate. There are no guidebooks, no taped lectures, almost no signs, no restrooms or other facilities, no trash or trash cans, and just a few guard rails. It is almost the way it was when Hiram Bingham “discovered” it (some Incans were farming there) in 1911, except that it is now perhaps three-quarters restored. If you want a guide, you can hire one in advance.
Located on two levels, Machu Picchu is draped across a ridge line like a saddle across the back of a horse. It was built between 1460 and 1470, was home to an estimated 1,200 people, had approximately 200 buildings—most were residences—and lots of terraces for farming. The stonework is amazing—huge carved boulders with tight joints, cut at the site. Rich soil for the terraces was carried up from the river banks.
With or without a guide, it’s an amazing place to wander, both for the close-up examination of buildings and for the scenic views of the river below and of the needle-like Huayna Picchu pinnacle that you must sign up to climb. Otherwise, Machu Picchu is just for you and the grazing llamas to explore at your own speed with no interference.
That evening we stayed at the Lodge—small, but very comfortable, with excellent food, complete quiet, and, from the bar, pisco sours made with macerated coca leaves!
The next morning we took a second go at exploration, climbing up the Inca Trail toward the Gate of the Sun. But as the trail narrowed and the drop-offs became scarier, I camped along trailside while Ella, Michael and Jennifer, and our guide pressed on. When they returned 90 minutes later, I had served as a guide for other hikers and answered all my e-mails via Blackberry. (Of course, there are phone towers—this is coca country!)
After lunch at the Lodge (a tree tomato growing outside the dining room window that Jennifer plucked became a part of the meal), we took one last walk around Machu Picchu, enjoying a late-afternoon drizzle, complete with rainbow, before boarding the bus.
Back in Cusco, we took a day trip the next day with a local guide in a minivan to the Sacred Valley. Highlights were the ruins, old restored church, and marketplace at Chinchero (although some of the market goods are commercially made), sights of Andean glaciers through the clouds, and the ruins of Ollantaytambo in the river valley.
Although not as large as Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo is a gorgeous fortress that was not completed before the Spanish over-ran it. The stonework, with its intricate mortises, is perhaps even more fascinating than that of Machu Picchu.
There is also a village here of Incan descendants, and some guides will take you on a tour of a traditional one-room house—the family gets a fee, of course—with its open fireplace, dried vegetables and meats hanging from the wall, and a herd of hamsters, long a traditional Peruvian delicacy, scurrying about the packed-earth floor.
Before leaving for a brief stay in Lima and then back to the U.S., we carefully threw away the coca tea bags we were hoarding and aired out before encountering the drug-sniffing dogs at Miami International. And, after all, by now we were well-acclimated to the altitude and the charm of the Andes.