The Australian - Wish Magazine - - HOTELS -

Is it the al­ti­tude mak­ing me feel light-headed, the frothy pisco sours on sil­ver trays that ar­rive as read­ily as glasses of wa­ter, or the sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence of drift­ing along old stone ar­cades to the eerie sound­track of Gre­go­rian chants?

Cusco sits in the em­bra­sure of the ma­jes­tic An­des in south­east Peru and is the na­tion’s des­ig­nated his­toric cap­i­tal. It has been a UNESCO World Her­itage Site since 1983 and, quite lit­er­ally, makes vis­i­tors feel oddly buoy­ant and giddy at its lofty el­e­va­tion of 3400m. My tem­ples throb, my legs feel heavy, my chest heaves. In my shoul­der bag is a copy of Mario Var­gas Llosa’s novel Death in the An­des, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The word soroche, I soon learn, means al­ti­tude sick­ness.

This is the ninth-high­est city on Earth and the most pop­u­lar stag­ing-post for vis­i­tors headed to the 15th-cen­tury Inca ci­tadel of Machu Pic­chu. Cusco is a city of so many no­table sites, from pre-Columbian churches to baroque clois­ters, that it’s es­sen­tial to stay some­where with her­itage cre­den­tials.

Belmond Ho­tel Monasterio is the ac­knowl­edged leader, set in a late 16th-cen­tury con­verted Bene­dic­tine sem­i­nary built on the site of an Inca palace. Its cen­tral court­yard, with a splash­ing foun­tain, feels like a small park, all ra­di­at­ing paths and beds of blowsy roses, sur­rounded by two-storey colon­nades and shaded by a stately An­dean cedar planted about 330 years ago. Fac­ing an el­e­gant plaza, this is a quiet oa­sis se­questered from the thrum of the city and as much a mu­seum as a re­treat. The flat façade gives lit­tle hint of what lies within, and there’s an un­fold­ing rev­e­la­tion of pas­sages, squares and gar­dens.

Art­works from a sig­nif­i­cant 18th-cen­tury colo­nial col­lec­tion are hung in the hun­dreds, dom­i­nat­ing pub­lic ar­eas and loom­ing over the club-style Lobby Bar with its chapel-like con­tours, big arm­chairs and white-jack­eted wait­ers. But amid the vo­lu­mi­nous grandeur there’s old-world glam­our at play here, the set­ting for a shad­owy film, per­haps, or a magic re­al­ism novel. I imag­ine robed monks rustling along stone-floored cor­ri­dors and can­dles gut­ter­ing as the ghosts of Inca war­riors draw their weapons against the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors. There is even a gilded baroque chapel tucked be­yond the re­cep­tion area and thrice-weekly per­for­mances by lo­cal opera singers to ac­com­pany din­ner by can­dle­light in the shad­owy El Tu­pay restau­rant.

Ju­nior suites are the pick among 122 far-from­monk­ish gue­strooms, each in a dif­fer­ent lay­out, some with a mez­za­nine and sev­eral with ter­races. Ex­pect beamed ceil­ings, stud­ded and hefty wooden fur­ni­ture, twin-poster beds dressed in snowy linens, tiled floors scat­tered with bright rugs, latched shut­ters and deep-silled win­dows. There is a small spa where foot mas­sages and herbal soaks are the most pop­u­lar ther­a­pies, given the ex­er­tion re­quired to tackle the steep streets and squares of Cusco. For an ex­tra fee, gue­strooms can be oxy­genated via the air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem to en­sure sound slum­ber. Su­san Kuro­sawa is The Aus­tralian’s travel ed­i­tor.

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