Pampered Peru

Editor’s Note: Last week with our story “Peru Trekking” we gave a savvy backpackers guide to hitting the trails avoiding the crowds on the paths to Machu Picchu. This week, we’re offering a decidedly more upscale take on things. Enjoy!

“Don’t go too fast because the air at this altitude is thin and polluted and you’ll be out of breath in no time” said our Cusco-based tour guide Maria Christina, a svelte, cedar-skinned Peruvian with catlike eyes and long black hair.

Maria Christina (who asked us to call her MC) spent the better part of five days plying our group with lemon verbena-scented washcloths and explaining the nuances of Andean culture while we scuttled across the dirt roads of the Sacred Valley in a Mercedes van. Dubious of MC’s altitude advice, I ambled even faster up the cobblestoned hill to the trendy San Blas café, La Musa (Tandapata 682, Plazoleta San Blas, Cusco), where I spied stylish Parisians and Porteños smoking American Spirits cigarettes, sipping organic coffee and snapping panoramic pics of Cusco below. But before 60 seconds had passed, I was fully out of breath and found myself nauseous, sweaty, and inhaling deep gasps of Cusco’s profoundly polluted air. The young and presumably acclimated café goers took one look at me and rolled their eyes from across the terrace, as if I were an uninvited guest who just crashed their secret party.

The eye-rolling hikers had probably just returned from trekking the Inca Trail, a rugged 4-day journey that’s become the de facto bragging rite for many eco-minded adventure seekers. Or perhaps they were exploring the less traversed and more remote “Lost” Inca Cities like Choquequirao, which the New York Times called “the other Machu Picchu” in a wildly popular June 2007 travel feature. I, on the other hand, had just come from a luxury hotel in the center of Cusco. After all, I was a New Yorker, and had no intention of spending four precious vacation days getting to the sites.

Wanting each day in Peru to count, I sought out to see the highlights and move on comfortably to the next site without roughing it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a UNESCO list-checker. Like all travelers, I wanted a kind of authentic experience. And I was well aware that Peru was a developing third world destination, with a volatile economy and an endangered culture, not to mention slightly unstable on the LGBT-rights front. (Incidentally, there isn’t a lot of overt “gay culture” to be found in Peru outside Lima, Arequipa, and the city of Iquitos, a small town with a surprising density of gay life.) But did that mean I had to sacrifice comfort and safety to see Peru’s colonial Inca gems firsthand?

Luxury in Peru is not the oxymoron it once was. The tourism infrastructure has developed at a rapid clip during the last decade and though the sites themselves remain pristine and rugged, the hotels and restaurants ascend to some pretty luxe highs. In the last few years, Lima’s restaurant scene has exploded, largely at the hand of celeb chef Gaston Acurio [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaston_Acurio], while Cusco’s eateries have expanded in their own right, with many menus offering organic, sustainable, and locally grown dishes, with increasing vegetarian and ethnic eateries popping up every week. Prices have recently skyrocketed on the gorgeous wood-paneled Hiram Bingham Express Train [http://www.orient-express.com/web/tper/tper_luxurytravel_introduction.jsp] to Machu Picchu, considered one of the poshest trains in the world, complete with white-glove served meals, Peruvian musicians, non-stop cocktail service, and a guided tour of the ruins upon arrival. But the biggest upgrade has unfolded right in once-neglected Cusco, where high-end hotel offerings have virtually tripled. Classics grand old hotels like the Hotel Monasterio [http://www.orient-express.com/web/ocus/ocus_a2a_home.jsp] and The Libertador [http://www.libertador.com.pe/], have new deluxe competition like the sleek new Novotel [http://www.novotel.com/novotel/fichehotel/gb/nov/3254/fiche_hotel.shtml], the boutiquey Casa Andina’s Private Collection [http://www.casa-andina.com/peru_hotels/cusco_hotel-2-3-12.phtm], the Torre Dorado [http://www.torredorada.com.pe/] and La Casona Inkaterra [http://www.inkaterra.com/en/cusco], slated to open in December 2007.

My Peruvian journey started the week before with three nights in the rain forest at Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica [http://www.inkaterra.com/] a carbon neutral eco-resort on the banks of Peru’s Madre de Dios River smack dab in the heart of a 40-square-mile private ecological reserve, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Though the Amazon sounds dreamy to many travelers, I’d recommend omitting it from a first-time visit to Peru unless you’re particularly into bird-watching, visiting indigenous communities (which the resort charges extra for), or seeing animals like black caimans, giant river otters, and red howler monkeys, none of which remotely compared to cultural experiences to come in the mountains.

That being said, the remote luxury eco-camp—accessible from Lima via a 2-hour LAN Airlines hop and 1-hour river boat excursion—is the quintessential getaway, replete with strictly limited electricity, seven amazing canopy walks, one computer (with possibly the slowest internet access in the world), and some seriously slender eco-amenities. However, all 34 of the jungle camp’s romantic thatched cabañas are illuminated by lantern light, with comfy beds dressed in linen sheets and draped in muslin nets. If that weren’t enough, coarse handmade hammocks swing on the moonlit screened-in porches, with nothing but the jungle chorus as a backdrop. Though the property’s new ENA Spa [http://www.inkaterra.com/en/reserva-amazonica/ena-spa] just opened adding more amenities to the “rainforest experience,” visitors expecting iPod docks, minibars, or room service (or telephones for that matter) should be forewarned that the jungle is highly undeveloped and even the moderate adventurer will find herself making sacrifices.

The next stop on our journey landed us in the Urubamba Valley, part of “the Sacred Valley”, and widely considered the perfect place to acclimate to the altitude, not to mention an ideal launch pad for exploring Incan villages—the kinds of secular picturesque places that continue to make Peru the stuff of National Geographic material.

Also considered the bread-basket of the region, with an uncanny resemblance to Tuscany, Urubamba is of particular interest to foodies as it produces some of the best-quality corn to be found in the world, not to mention a couple thousand varieties of potatoes and a plethora of street markets in which to sample the indigenous foods. Pisac’s Sunday Market [http://www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/destinations/cusco/pisac.html], also known for its crafts, is considered one of the world’s best. Vendors sell chichi morada (blue corn beer), choclo (large kernel corn), rocoto rellono (stuffed chiles), and fragrant banana-leaf stuffed tamals. Nearby, Chinchero’s Tuesday and Thursday Handicrafts Market is better known for its crafts and an ideal place to barter for baby alpaca blankets, ponchos, hats, gloves, and rugs.

Nestled pleasantly in the valley hamlet of Higuspucro, and offering outstanding views of the surrounding mountains, the spacious Andean-style Inkaterra Urubamba Villas [http://www.inkaterra.com/en/urubamba-villas] are named after their respective female caretakers (e.g. Villa Sonia or Villa Berta) and have much more soul than your everyday luxury lodgings. The property is the kind of place you could wind down at with friends, and consists of five deluxe casitas, each with its own wood-stocked fireplace and exclusive maid service, which includes home-cooked meals, and tea and laundry service.

I stayed at Villa Marleni, just a quick walk across a small footbridge from the other villas. The authentic houses themselves are constructed of adobe, tastefully decorated with local crafts and antiques, and are so cozy and spacious you’ll almost want to skip the excursions and stay home in front of the crackling fire with a bottle of Tacama Brut, (an excellent Peruvian sparkling wine). At the very least, the villas make an excellent HQ to gaze at Urabumba’s unparalleled nighttime stars after a long day’s hike, which is how evenings should be spent in Urabumba.

But most guests here plan extensive activities and excursions to the surrounding valley, which remains home to some of the finest Inca ruins and villages, still inhabited by Quechua-speaking people. A few days poking around these parts offers travelers the perfect opportunity to slow down and mix with the living Inca culture, and the chance to encounter the true spirit of the region. Ollantaytambo [http://wikitravel.org/en/Ollantaytambo], a charming and walled colonial town lorded over by Inca ruins, the white-hot Salt Mines of Maras [http://www.cuscoonline.com/english/sacredvalley/valle060.shtml], the agricultural ring terraces of Moray are must-see sites that serve as excellent intros to Andean culture. Maria Christina dealt our group its first bitter batch of coco leaves (to chew) while we crawled out of Moray’s deep trenches. Chewing the leaves is said to ease altitude sickness and is a rite of passage that every visitor is offered. Back in the Benz van en route to an alpaca farm, she made us fresh coca leaf mate with sugar cubes, which she doled out with bottles of spring water and more cool damp washcloths, a nice refreshing perk that most visitors don’t get.

Though the valley is awash in outdoor opportunities like horseback riding, river rafting, and biking, it is also rich with ancient towns, ruins and sites, making it a great place to pause before the busyness of Machu Picchu and Aquas Callientes take over.

The undisputed highlight of any trip to the region is bound to involve Machu Picchu in some capacity. Many don’t realize that it’s actually at a lower elevation than Cusco and the Sacred Valley, so when you take the train to it you’re actually descending into the cloud forests. There are three classes of trains and we took the middle one (Vistadome) from the station at Ollantaytambo. As we descended, the air became noticeably fragrant and dense with oxygen, and the earthy and dusty tans of the high planes faded to lush emerald greens, velvety browns and cerulean blues. The train tracks hugged the edge of the Inca Hiking Trail, where you could witness scruffy hikers and trekking through the crowded trails. Still, the ride is a sublime and engrossing voyage, particularly if you have seats in the front left side of the car where a glass windshield maximizes your view of free-falling waterfalls, ancient mist-cloaked ruins, and shadow-casting jagged peaks poking through various halos of fog.

Located in a lush private mountainside resort just steps from the train station is the Inkaterra flagship property [http://www.inkaterra.com/en/machu-picchu] complete with celeb guests (Cameron Diaz stayed here weeks before us), three restaurants, a spa and pool, with amenities like on-property musicians, vow renewal programs, high-speed internet, nightly nature slide shows and yoga classes. After checking in, I took a quick tour of the town of Aqua Calientas and exploited my low altitude status by slinging back three or four Pisco Sours (the resort’s Mandarin Sours were even better) at a private outdoor pond reception. Dinner followed at the famed Café Inkaterra and after stuffing my face with quinoa and parmesan cheese risotto and medallions of alpaca, I headed back to my suite for some fireplace-inducing R&R, so that I’d be fresh for tomorrow’s pre-dawn hike to Machu Picchu.

Travelers feeling guilty about succumbing to luxury in Machu Picchu should not forget that the lost city was the retreat of Incan royalty, and essentially the premiere resort of its day. Taking a coach bus to it in pitch blackness and passing hikers the whole way up may not sound glamorous, but it’s strangely exciting to line up at 5am to board one of a seemingly endless convoy of rickety tour buses that chug up the switch-back dirt roads leading to the entrance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site [http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/274].

Arriving at Machu Picchu pre-dawn is magical and definitely worth the extra effort. The charged atmosphere builds as an international cadre of young backpackers, altitude-defiant seniors, and experience junkies like myself, quietly wait together for one of earth’s most predictable rituals with all the anticipation of a prom night. The clouds and fog play tricks on the eyes and the sun seems to take forever to peek over the edge of the mountain, but when it finally does, Machu Picchu becomes illuminated in Technicolor. And for one brief moment when the sun finally spilled over the ridge, cameras stopped beeping, people stopped posing, guidebooks were closed, and a quiet lull spread across the valley.

After ambling around the sun-dappled ruins for an hour or two, we decided to trek up to Waynupicchu, the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu and offers an amazing aerial view of the entire Machu Picchu grounds. It’s a relatively strenuous hike, the path is narrow, and the air thins dramatically as you ascend, making it crucial to stop for deep breaths along the way. But the trail is limited to the first 400 visitors, so it never gets too crowded. On the trip back down, I ran into the young British woman I sat next to on my JFK to Lima flight and after a moment of recognition, we hugged enthusiastically as if we were long lost friends. She was obviously on the “roughing it” tour and was a sweaty, sunburnt, shell of the proper Brit who sat next to me in coach the week before. After the warm hello, she went her way and I mine. Had we met in San Blas or Lima, there might have been some awkwardness, but there was something about the atmosphere of Machu Picchu that allowed us to drop our guards.

After another night at the lodge, including a detox treatment and massage at the property’s makeshift Unu Spa [http://www.inkaterra.com/en/machu-picchu/unu-spa], we boarded the train back to Cusco, where we were privy to an honest-to-god Inca fashion show including the latest line of modern Alpaca sweaters and a tasteful performance of a Quechea Indian in full garb.

The first thing many GLBT visitors might notice when arriving in Cusco is the presence of Cusco flags everywhere, which are remarkably similar to the gay rainbow flag. Though the city is not without a gay-ish bar/restaurant, Fallen Angel (Plazoleta Nazarenas 320, Cusco; tel. 51-8-425-8184; http://fallenangelincusco.com/), Cusco in general is not recommended for its “gay scene.” But contrary to popular belief, Cusco is definitely a destination in and of itself. Nothing compares to its overwhelming contrasts, where fully costumed Quechean peoples mingled with Catholic mestizos (mixed Indian and Spanish) and barefoot children who run circles around Soliel-clutching tour-bus couples. This of course, mixed with Peru’s incredibly youthful and attractive tourists and Cusco’s rapidly emerging hip urbanites, pushes the country over the edge of traditional tourist destinations.

After checking into the rambling and centrally located Hoteles Libertador Hotel [http://www.libertador.com.pe/] we headed down the street to check out the city’s famed artesian market, the Centro Artesanal Cusco [http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/travel/5095532.html]. After learning about the three grades of Alpaca (regular alpaca, baby alpaca, and vicuña, which is the finest of the three and only sold in specialty shops) we found ourselves haggling with a woman for a beautiful baby alpaca blanket when suddenly the vendors erupted in cheers while watching a few static-filled portable televisions. The women were crying and the men were beaming with pride that Machu Picchu had just been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of The World [http://www.new7wonders.com/]. Back outside the market, the city took on a celebratory tone and the city’s squares were the sites of impromptu festivals.

Back at the La Musa Café in Cusco, attempting to catch my breath, I huffed and puffed my way to a table next to the cute, international coffee klatch and ordered a coco leaf mate. At this point in the trip, I had already sampled the country’s diverse offerings, including a vertigo-curing walk through the thick Amazon canopy, a two-mile-high market in Pisac, and an intense morning hike to Waynupichu. Sitting there above Cusco, I pondered for a moment why Peru leaves so many tourists breathless—literally and figuratively. I glanced back at hikers and looked a little closer: Bugbite-covered legs, dust-filled Columbia fleeces, mud-splattered hiking shoes, and dry sunburned skin were the obvious price these hikers had paid. Not sure if it was the coco leaf tea working or pure schadenfreude, but suddenly I felt better.