By J.P. Hoornstra Originally posted on NYDailyNews.com
More than 400 years after the Spanish conquistadors executed the last of the Incan rulers, another mission has taken hold in Cusco, Peru: To preserve what’s left of the past while beautifying the present.
Take one step inside the 17th-century cathedral in historic downtown and glance at the gleaming gold displays of religious artwork. Climb the stone steps of Machu Picchu or Saksaywaman. It only takes a moment to realize the term “ruins” only loosely applies. The missing pieces can’t detract from the majesty of what’s left.
It’s what makes Cusco and its surrounding treasures an ideal getaway from the New York minute. Keeping this bucket-list destination both beautiful and authentic takes time, and so should every visit to Cusco.
My stay started with an overnight in Peru’s capital city of Lima. Since the Cusco airport services only domestic flights, that’s the best way to avoid a long day of travel. Flights from Lima to Cusco are 80 minutes.
Once in Cusco, don’t underestimate the challenge of adjusting to being 11,200 feet above sea level. Every glass of beer and wine in Cusco hits harder than a Manhattan in Manhattan, and every meal takes longer to digest. Inoculation comes in the form of eight glasses of water a day, starting a few days prior to your visit. Be sure to leave time for naps, grab a pack of altitude sickness Sorojchi pills at the airport, and sip coca tea to calm your insides.
At the spacious JW Marriott Cusco, a tea dispenser sits inside the massive wooden doors. Downstairs, a machine pumps oxygen into any room upon request. These will serve as creature comforts to some and necessities to others, depending on your age, health and experience with elevation.
A decade ago, what’s now the JW Marriott Cusco was a decrepit convent with rotting wood, crumbling stones, and dirt expanses interrupted by green weeds peeking through the earth. Marriott then bought the property and restored it. The transformation into a hotel could have resulted in bright spaces, loud colors, secular art and references to the future. That hotel exists, even in the Marriott chain, but it would defy the Cusceño way. There’s no starting from scratch here. In some cases it’s illegal.
Peruvian law held that the mummy discovered on the site had to be left in place. And each pre-Incan stone on the property had to be numbered and recorded for government records. The ambitious project was met with some resistance from locals, and turned the hotel into a six-year undertaking from start to finish.
Once finished, the 153-room hotel retained a solemn aura. Its stone floors seem darker under the dim lighting. Some of the wooden furniture pieces near the bar were imported from a church, and religious-themed paintings channel the feel of a restored convent.
There were no children present during my stay at the JW Marriott Cusco, which added to the quiet but wouldn’t be the case during the American summer months. Younger kids might not appreciate a 30-minute tour of the property (offered at 6 p.m. daily), but it’s a nice way to sample the local art and architecture without leaving the building.
When venturing into a thousand-year-old city, always bring a well-trained guide. Begin by visiting the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, or as the locals call it, la Catedral. Rising above the Plaza de Armas a few blocks from the JW Marriott, the cathedral has been downtown Cusco’s defining structure since the 17th century.
Since photography isn’t allowed inside, set aside a few hours to soak it all in. The interior is a stunning tribute to Cusco Baroque art, steeped in works of gold and silver from ceiling to floor. It is also an active house of worship containing 11 chapels. Don’t miss Peruvian painter Marco Zapata’s interpretation of the Last Supper, in which Jesus and his disciples prepare to eat a local delicacy: guinea pig.
If the Cathedral is a gateway drug to historical treasure, the hard stuff is hidden in the local museums. Plan ahead: The Incan Museum closes at 6 p.m. on weekdays (4 p.m. on weekends), while the Pre-Columbian Art Museum stays open until 10 p.m. If time permits, take a headphone-guided tour of the Museum of Religious Art.
Generally speaking, Incan architecture is everywhere in Cusco, and isn’t hard to spot as you walk the cobblestone streets here. Look for the large, smoothly carved stones that comprise the base of the JW Marriott, and Museo del Pisco, the hip pisco bar across the street. For a more intimate look, visit the Santo Domingo convent, the ruins of Saksaywaman overlooking the valley, or make a day trip to the tiered gardens of Ollantaytambo. A good guide can explain what made Incan architecture ahead of its time — beyond its ability to withstand rolling earthquakes and plundering conquistadors.
Cusco’s top selling point is its proximity to Machu Picchu, the Incan Empire’s surviving masterpiece. The ruins of the “lost city” are open 365 days a year and have become the most visited attraction in South America. It’s well worth the hassle of waking up at 5 a.m. to catch a nearly four-hour train ride out of Cusco. Our guide said he conducts three tours a week on average and still sees something new every time.
Your digital camera can’t do justice to one of the world’s most majestic destinations. For the athletically inclined, channel your inner Indiana Jones by taking a four-day hike along the Inca Trail, or pick up the trail at the halfway mark for a two-day hike. The more popular route to Machu Picchu is by train. Perurail operates three trains daily from the village of Poroy, a short bus or cab ride from Cusco. The Hiram Bingham Orient Express departs once a day and offers a more luxurious journey.
When one day at Machu Picchu isn’t enough, stay in the closest village, Agua Caliente. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and the Sumaq Hotel ($430 and up) lead the way in terms of luxury. The Belmond Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge by Orient-Express Hotels charges mightily for its location (almost $1,000/night), but lies practically underneath the lost city. These leave little time for the treasures of Cusco, however, and staying so close to the mountain eliminates only some of the physical toll of a guided tour around the ruins.
The rainy season begins in December and lasts until roughly February. During this time, Machu Picchu is generally less crowded but still stunningly photogenic. If you go then, just be sure to wear boots or shoes that won’t slip on a wet rock.
Until the next lost city is discovered, Machu Picchu is the reason to visit Peru. A close second is the food, and Cusco never lacks for dining options.
Located on the Plaza de Armas, Limo offers an upscale atmosphere, and serves a moderately priced blend of the foreign and familiar. Both gringos and locals come for such cross-cultural favorites as alpaca skewers, garlic sushi and creole ceviche, washed down with the native spirits — pisco or chilcanos (cocktails made with pisco).
Arguably the best pisco in town is served at Map Cafe, a restaurant in a glass box inside the Pre-Columbian Art Museum. The menu is fun and eclectic. Start with a farm-fresh salad served with homemade cornflakes, and move on to the mushroom potpie.
HEINZ PLENGE PARDO
Pirqa, located inside the JW Marriott, offers some of the most savory entrees you’ll find on any continent. Try the short rib beef with corn cake (caradito), or the onion trout from Lake Titicaca in a delicious yucca sauce.
As more tourism money flows into the city, the temptation to build on top of Cusco’s existing infrastructure will increase.
But Peru was wise to take its time monitoring the Marriott project, and should be wary of any future projects that threaten the primary reason for visiting Cusco: an untarnished glimpse into the past, built brick by brick and surrounded by natural green luxury.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: LAN Airlines offers daily nonstop flights from JFK to Lima; lan.com or (866) 435-9526.
Stay: The JW Marriott Lima (from $208 per night) sits across the street from the Larcomar outdoor shopping mall overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Monitors in the lobby display updated flight information.
The JW Marriott Cusco (from $245 per night) offers an oxygen-enriched room package and a Discover Cusco package that includes a half-day tour of the city. Other tours — including Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo — can be booked through the front desk. marriott.com for both hotels.
Getting to Macchu Picchu: Perurail operates four trains from Poroy (a district in the province of Cusco) to Macchu Picchu daily, starting at $65.