25 January 2011
Cuzco and the Incas
Stroll the streets of Cuzco, marvel at the stones of Sacsayhuaman and journey on to the Sacred Valley to relax beside the Urubamba River.
For all its adventurous image, Peru is a country that you can experience in comfort and style. Nowhere is this clearer than in Cuzco, a short flight from Lima up into the Andes, where the grand entrance to Hotel Monasterio opens onto a scene from the 16th century.
Legends and LoreCuzco was designed in the shape of the sacred puma. Its name reflects its importance to the Incas: it means "navel of the world".
Formerly a Catholic seminary, the building itself is little changed from its religious heyday. Long cloisters, dotted with doors that lead to high-ceilinged rooms, overlook a huge central courtyard where you can sit out in the sun under a 300-year-old tree. Pieces of religious art adorn the corridors (pictured above). There is even a consecrated chapel, tucked away behind the reception. That one side of the courtyard now hosts the main restaurant makes no difference to the other-worldly ambience.
Cuzco was (and is) the Inca capital - the heart of a mighty empire that fell to Spanish steel in 1533. Evidence of both conqueror and conquered is still all around. Cuzco Cathedral, which rose imperiously from the foundations of the Inca royal palace Kiswarkanchar, still breathes Hispanic pomp and majesty.
But the Church of Santo Domingo cannot hide its back-story as the Coriancha (Temple of the Sun). Within, earthquake-proof walls of incredible solidity, slotted together without cement or machinery - via a technique now lost - preach the skill of Inca architects
Cuzco proves endlessly fascinating, even beyond its limits. Roam the indecipherable grey stones of Sacsayhuaman (which may have been a fortress, a temple, or even a sculpture of breathtaking scale - the head of a puma, with the city itself making up the body). And continue to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, where further temples and fortresses, and steep agricultural terraces are a feast for the senses.
One can choose to linger here awhile at Hotel Rio Sagrado, just outside Ollantaytambo, beside the fast Urubamba river. With lovely gardens stretching to the water's edge, it is a peaceful retreat from which to explore Pisco's colourful market or the impressive salt mines of Maras.
By Chris Leadbeater, a UK-based travel writer for major publications
What did you discover in Cuzco and beyond?