Conquering Machu Picchu in Style
Mysterious Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is also a top bucket list destination. Photo by David Dickstein
The wooly Alpaca, South America’s version of the camel, is vital to the Peruvian economy and quite tasty. Photo by David Dickstein
There’s something both sacrilegious and sacrosanct doing yoga at your hotel in the very spot where an ancient civilization once lived. Coming out of a sleeping swan and downward dog inches away from 15th century ruins isn’t exactly what you had in mind by wanting to be one with the Incas when in Peru, after all. Halfway through your workout, however, any uneasiness evolves into reverence for the sun-worshipping, pre-Columbian people responsible for the real reason you traveled to Cusco, gateway to mysterious and magical Machu Picchu.
That’s one of the weird and wonderful beauties about making the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco home base for your trans-continental journey to the Peruvian Andes. Besides staying in the heart of the former capital of the Inca Empire, your deep dive into ancient history begins not with a visit to bucket list favorite Machu Picchu or the fertile Sacred Valley, but at check-in.
The hotel’s Inca ruins are below street level – there’s actually a second Inca excavation site on the 153-room property – but where the reception area sits was once the main chapel of a 16th century Augustin convent. Between the monks checking out for good in 1836 and Marriott buying and restoring the property in 2006, the building was used as an arcade of shops, a drinking hall, a bakery and a chocolate factory before earthquake damage and marring political coups made an eyesore of this otherwise fine and resilient example of colonial architecture.
Soaking up history in proximity of your Cusco hotel is how both educators and doctors recommend you begin a trip to inner Peru. Cusco, one of the ten highest cities in the world with over 100,000 in population, has an elevation of 11,152 feet above sea level, significantly higher than the point at which acute mountain altitude sickness can occur due to less oxygen being available. Allowing the body to acclimate to the drop in air pressure before engaging in serious sightseeing is highly suggested for at least the first 24 hours; your layover in Lima doesn’t count because Peru’s capital, like most of Southern California, is near sea level.
Some of Cusco’s finer hotels proactively come to your two-mile-high rescue with a jar of dried coca leaves in the lobby to chew or, more likely, make tea. Although illegal to bring home to the States, coca is a mild stimulant that contains only a miniscule amount of cocaine, just enough to clear a throbbing head and help with breathing without the euphoria and psychoactive effects associated with the near-universally taboo alkaloid. Whereas coca has cured altitude sickness for 4,500 years, a much more recent remedy for which the Incas can’t take credit is oxygen-enriched hotels. Every room at the JW Marriott has this system flowing through built-in vents, while the nearby Belmond Hotel Monasterio, despite being about twice the price, only has this amenity in units of certain categories. My setting was at full blast all four nights. Whether it was that, a complimentary bowl of chicken soup and pot of coca tea that room service brought within a minute of settling in, a prescription of Diamox (generically acetazolamide) started two days prior to the trip, not drinking alcohol the first day as recommended, or the combination, this resilient guy would have made the Incas proud the entire trip.
Safe, Swanky Sightseeing
Travel funds notwithstanding, going five-star in countries where the Centers for Disease Control has advisories for such basic things as tap water isn’t a bad idea. Either is booking with major chains, and for this hygiene-wary globetrotter, my rule of well-traveled thumb is to stay, eat and ride on the highest-rated product budgetarily possible.
As for getting to Machu Picchu, nothing touches the Belmond Hiram Bingham train for luxury, safety and ease. Five-star, Orient Express-type treatment for the approximate 3-hour ride costs about a grand per person, more than double that of other packages with similar inclusions: rail service between the Cusco area and Aguas Calientes, a bus that makes 20-minute runs to and from there and the Machu Picchu entrance, a ticket into the sprawling iconic sanctuary and an English-speaking tour guide.
On the outside, the shiny, blue Hiram Bingham train looks comparable to the more economical PeruRail and its on-par competitor, the lighter-hued Inca Rail. Inside the 1920s-style Pullman carriage, and accounting for the tangibles and intangibles of going first-class, the differences are vast – Ritz-Carlton versus Ramada Inn vast. No company is flawless, but I doubt the horror stories overheard on the nine-hour flight from Lima to L.A. – from going to the wrong station and missing the train to being refused entrance due to a ticket screw-up – would have happened had they not been centimo-wise and sol-foolish.
The crew of the Hiram Bingham, named for the American explorer who rediscovered the Inca citadel in 1911, appreciates that this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the guests. Gourmet lunch and dinner are served at your private, white-clothed-covered table. Live music adds to the ambiance of a bar car and connected observatory car gleaming with polished wood and brass. Afternoon high tea at the stately Belmond Sanctuary Lodge Hotel at the entrance of Machu Picchu is an exquisite time to recharge and reflect. Lovely as that all is, each element justifying the high cost, priceless are the process and personal attention that ensure a memorable experience where the only surprise is how even more taken aback you are upon that first view, which until now had only had seen in books and the Travel Channel.
Whether you go by rail, bus or foot, by way of the now-highly regulated Inca Trail, Machu Picchu is a sight to behold for the maximum 2,500 visitors allowed in per day. The site remains shrouded in mystery as the true purpose of Machu Picchu has never been fully established. Most agree that the “Lost City of the Incas” was built as an estate for Emperor Pachacuti, who ruled from 1438 to 1471, but little else is known mainly because the Incas didn’t have a written language that would have left clues on their disappearance, let alone details of their beliefs and culture. This enigma has added to its attraction.
Side Trips and Side Dishes
Cusco is much more than the gateway to Machu Picchu. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and part of the reason is just a short walk from the JW Marriott and other quality lodging in the central part of town. Cusco’s main square, the bustling Plaza de Armas, is home to the emblematic Cusco Cathedral in addition to the ornate Church La Compania de Jesus, countless roaming vendors, a KFC for homesick Americans, and some stellar people watching.
An hour’s drive away is the Sacred Valley, which makes for a strong No. 2 attraction from Cusco, much like the role Agra Fort plays to must-see Taj Mahal for New Delhi area tourism. Devoting a day or two to the fertile Sacred Valley can reward visitors with an even greater appreciation of Incan innovation than Machu Picchu. Mesmerizing are the well-preserved large stone terraces that form Ollantaytambo, once a stronghold of Inca resistance to Spanish colonization. Pisac is a colonial town that becomes slightly less charming on Sunday mornings when hordes of tourists join hundreds of decked-out locals to create one of the liveliest markets in Peru. Showcases of early civil, hydro and agricultural engineering are found at the salt mines of Maras, still producing under strict local ownership. Notice the homes with long sticks with balled-up red plastic jutting out from the front. Those are chicherias, and the wooden rods indicate that the owner hasn’t run out of the region’s popular homemade fermented corn brew. Requiring an acquired taste, one sip of chicha should do ya. Fields of waving quinoa, barley and corn line the road on the way to a remarkable archeological site in Moray. Whether you gaze from above or get a closer look on a moderately strenuous hike, stunning are the circular terraced depressions of this Incan agricultural lab. Each level has its own microclimate where different crops were grown at varying conditions. Pure genius.
Thanks to the Incas and the Chanapata, Qotacalla, Killke and Wari civilizations before them, the richly soiled Sacred Valley remains a major hub for produce and fish farming to the benefit of Cusco’s vibrant culinary scene. Its influence is felt – and tasted -- from the cultivated trout, onion, peppers, corn and sweet potato used for the classic namesake dish at Ceviche Seafood Kitchen to the vegetables personally selected at the San Pedro public market by the JW Marriott’s newly promoted executive chef. Jonathan Campos’ finds are destined for his thrice-weekly cooking class, free to guests, and the hotel’s signature restaurant, Qespi, home of the smoked chocolate old fashioned. Don’t be shocked if roasted guinea pig is on his revamped menu; cuy is a traditional entree in South American Andean culture. Tastes like rabbit.
Speaking of adorable and appetizing animals, alpaca, the fluffy South American relative to the camel, is as famous for the soft wool produced from its fur as it is a favorite source of protein in their native lands of the high Andes. It becomes clear why after polishing off a plate of lip-smacking chorizo de alpaca in Urubamba. Probably best to talk just about the wool around the festively adorned alpaca that welcomes guests to the JW. Panchita has red meat lower in cholesterol than chicken, and is higher in iron than beef, but she also has feelings.
If You Go ….
- Peru Tourism Bureau – visitperu.com
- JW Marriott El Convento Cusco Hotel – marriott.com/hotels/travel/cuzmc-jw-marriott-el-convento-cusco
- Hiram Bingham Train – belmondhirambingham.com
- PeruRail – perurail.com