BELMOND HOTEL MONASTERIO
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.