Cusco is a catch-your-breath destination, in every sense. Perched at an elevation of 11,200 feet above sea level, like many travellers, I had long assumed Cusco was merely a staging post to reach the magnetic draw of Macchu Pichu. How wrong I was. Cusco means “navel of the world.” On my recent World Journeys through Peru, I was star-struck at the spoil of mind-blowing ancient sites not just in Cusco but surrounding it. But given you’re 3400 metres above sea level, (just slightly lower than Aoraki/Mt. Cook) this is not a place to rush about, without playing roulette with altitude sickness. Suitably forewarned about this insidious condition, I purchased a bag of cocoa leaf candy at Lima Airport, drunk water regularly and sucked deep breaths of oxygen from the thin air. Thankfully, it worked a trick.
Set aside a good two days to discover Cusco’s joys, the historical capital of the Inca Empire, and to appreciate her manifold layers of history. Much more than just a walk-through history lesson, this stately city of narrow cobblestone streets and arcades, terracotta roofs and carved wooden balconies, radiates a unique, infectious and dynamic character. Walking out of my hotel, with local guide Jhanet, two traditionally dressed women, attired in multi-coloured alpaca attire, were carrying a baby lamb down the main street, while talking on smartphones. They happily obliged me for a photo. Only in Cusco. The heady mix of centuries-old customs and easy embrace of cutting-edge technology adds to Cusco’s instant seduction.
To help me get my city bearings, Jhanet pulled out a map of Cusco, clearly illustrating how the Inca’s envisioned their imperial city in the shape of a puma. By the time Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532, the Inca World spanned Ecuador, Peru Bolivia and Chile. Sadly, Cusco’s power and grandeur could do little to save an empire destabilised by civil strife and their own version of Game of Thrones. Armed with guns and horses, which the Inca had never seen, and carrying diseases that Incans had no immunity to, the Spanish held the upper hand, despite being outnumbered.
After decimating the Inca Empire, the conquistadors swiftly superimposed their beliefs onto the old society. Passing under the porticoes that line the main square, I noticed the remains of original Inca walls, on the northwest side. Shamelessly looting Inca gold, silver, and stone, the Spanish constructed their own churches and monasteries and palaces directly on top of sacred Inca sites, marvelling at the engineering brilliance of their foundations.
This brutally striking legacy greeted me graphically at Santo Domingo church, which imperiously sits on top of the Inca’s pre-eminent site, the Temple of the Sun. Incans were slavish sticklers of the solstice, positioning their temples to illumination perfection. The darker stone is all that’s left of the once-revered temple, although Andean priests still preside over Incan festivities on-site, to herald the change of seasons. Completed in 1669, Cusco Cathedral is a trove of hidden surprises.
I gazed at El Negrito, a dark-skinned figure of Christ, who was paraded around Cusco by terrified residents during the 1650 earthquake. Miracle or not, the earth stopped violently rupturing. To this day, fresh flowers are laid by locals beneath the sculpture, on a daily basis, in gratitude. I also admired how new-world artists blended Andean motifs into European-style religious paintings. I chuckled at seeing a guinea pig, not bread, awaiting consumption in the cathedral’s Last Supper painting, washed down with chicha (fermented maize beer.) Speaking of cuisine, Cusco proudly struts its Andean stripes.
Through gritted teeth, I sampled guinea pig, but I didn’t have the heart to devour an alpaca steak. I felt far more virtuous buying an alpaca scarf. Nothing quite says Cusco like their fabulous attire. Haggle yourself hoarse for a bargain alpaca wool garment, including jerseys, ponchos, socks and shawls. It’s all far cheaper here, than in Macchu Pichu.
I sharpened up my haggling prowess at the sensory-loaded, time-honoured trading spectacle of San Pedro Market. Lamentably skipped by most visitors, this 19th century-founded indoor marketplace spans three blocks of central Cusco, exploding with colour, theatre and traditional rituals. Noble old ladies in noble white hats are the mercantile queens at the heart of this bustling emporium. The aroma of chicken soup, the all-day breakfast favourite, suffuses the entire space, with the stock simmering for hours. There are tables stacked to the heavens with warm breads and biscuits, a rainbow of fruits, nuts and herbs, dozens upon dozens of corn and potato varieties, and ladies playfully beckoning you to their juice stands, for health-conscious, anti-oxidant creations like chichablanca, which is a type of quinoa juice.
Jhanet also introduced me to gelatine de vaia, a brown jelly from the cow which acts as a natural collagen. I was fascinated to get a flavour for the centuries-old practises, still alive and well, whereby the locals make regular offerings to Mother Earth, Andean-style. You can stock up on all the pre-packaged potions of herbs, cocoa leaves and incense. But if you want to check out the butchery – brace yourself, it’s a blood and gore block-buster, featuring every anatomical body part, from cow mouths and stomachs to pig heads.
Beyond Cusco, take time to explore the remarkable ruins and excavated Incan sites surrounding the city, like Sacsayhuamán, a seemingly impregnable hill-top fortress, with ravishing city panoramas. Andean lore says that the nearby town of Chinchero, was the birthplace of the rainbow. Regular sightings during the rainy season may well convince you of the legend's legitimacy. Chinchero is actually 400 metres than Cusco, do don’t bust your boiler, as you soak up the scenes of deeply traditional locals going about their daily business.
I loved wandering around its winding streets, passing by adobe houses, before heading to a weaving cooperative, where a clutch of resplendently attired women gave me a crash course in the art of crafting alpaca garments. Biggest takeaway? The red base colour is created by killing a bug that feasts on a cactus plant, from which they create a wide palette base.
Belmond Hotel Monasterio is not just a cherished Cusco landmark, but a resplendently restored monastery, built in 1592, on the foundations of an Inca palace. As a national historic monument, when the Catholic Church agreed to its repurposing as a hotel in 1965, the strikingly austere beauty of the property was lovingly safeguarded. A star feature is the original Baroque-style gilded chapel with its elaborate gold altar and evocative collection of Cusqueño art. I adored the property’s public spaces such as the swish lobby bar and timeless cloisters, little changed in four centuries. The cloistered courtyard, with its gracious arches, is framed by historic religious art and crowned with a fountain and 300-year-old cedar tree.
Whether you’re staying in-house or not, Belmond Monasterio remains one of the most magical places to savour in Cusco – a bit like frequenting a museum with all the frills and unfaltering service. For a signature dinner, El Tupay serves classic international cuisine, with a passionate focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. Most nights, the romantic ambience of El Tupay is heightened by the operatic sounds of Cusco’s leading tenor and soprano.
However you choose to experience the property, Belmond Hotel Monasterio is one of a kind. Scratch beneath the surface and let World Journeys bring Cusco alive, in all its sensory delight. www.worldjourneys.co.nz
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am.