The Cusco, Peru of today is more than worthy of its great Incan heritage. It’s a South American Florence with its cobbled stone streets and red tiled roofs. As the jumping off point for any trip to Machu Picchu, most every visitor will spend some time in Cusco.
We arrived at night, coming in by train from Puno. We had been skiing in Portillo and Valle Nevado, Chile and decided to extend our trip and see more of South America. The journey across the altiplano from Lake Titicaca was spectacular, wide open landscapes with mare’s tail clouds filling the sky. The train experience on the Andean Explorer evoked the glory days of rail travel. Rich wood paneling, huge picture windows, plush chairs, an end carriage with overhead windows for 180 degree views and crisply uniformed staff that saw to our every need. We were treated to Peruvian regional music and dancing, and were wined and dined as we made our way to Cusco. Arriving at night seems to sharpen the senses and taking in the Plaza de Armas all lit up was a treat to behold. We checked into El Mercado Tunqui, just a few blocks from the main square. Immediately we had a sense we were somewhere special. The entry had an art deco boutique vibe; we were welcomed in and shown to our spacious room. The hotel is built around a beautiful courtyard, tonight the fire pit was blazing and just outside, the lights of Cusco encircled us.
Mercado is the Spanish word for market and the hotel, El Mercado Tunqui occupies the premises of a former market area. I spoke with Alex Custer the hotel manager and he explained that “visiting a market is a great way to get a sense of a place and that at El Mercado Tunqui, the goal is to continue to experience Cusco within its walls”. Their goal was not to build an enclave or bunker that would isolate you from Cusco, but to keep you fully immersed in the experience of the land. I inquired about the word “Tunqui” and was told that it is a bird native to Manu, not far outside Cusco.
“El Mercado Tunqui brings the magic of the Apus—the spirits of the mountains—to the city,” Custer said. The dining area and bar has hats encased in glass which represent the social, marital, and economic status of traditional people in Peru. Custer also explained that the hotel is a part of the Mountain Lodges of Peru; from here you can set out on treks or horseback ride along the famed Salkantay trail that takes travelers into the high Andes to the edge of the cloud forest. There are four luxury mountain lodges in all and the journey finishes with a visit to the magical, mystical Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and gone are the days of jumping on the Inca Trail at a moment’s notice. The Inca Trail itself gets booked out at least nine months in advance to hike the trail and tent camp at night. It is also necessary to book to enter Machu Picchu in advance. The Mountain Lodge of Peru trek from lodge to lodge offers entree to a road less traveled that ends each day in 5 star luxury.
Tired from our train ride, we said goodnight to Custer and slid into the large comfortable bed. We awoke early so we could head up to Sacsayhuaman before the tour buses would arrive. Breakfast was another experience of the Mercado. The breakfast room was open and airy, there was a cart with fresh fruit where two woman were busy making fresh juices to order. We selected our favorites and smoothies were delivered to the table. There was a fabulous buffet to select from as well as an enticing menu that was cooked to order. Must have been the high altitude, but we ate like their was no tomorrow ; it was probably one of my best breakfasts ever.
Sacsayhuaman was deserted and we got to experience the ruins on our own. It was built by the Incas in around 1431; the huge stones are fit so tightly together that to this day, the construction is a mystery. We found a pack of Alpacas overlooking a vista of the city where there was a huge festival going on in town for the “Dia de la Policia”, a celebration of the armed forces of Peru. We walked back into town down narrow winding cobblestone streets stopping in and out of shops with local products. We scouted the neighborhood of San Blas looking for Andean Flutes and a trendy new boutique called Hilo. We finished the day with a Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru, at the hotel bar. Pisco is a Grappa like alcohol that is mixed with lemon, sugar, and a little egg white. A Pisco Sour paired with fresh Peruvian Ceviche was the perfect end to our day.
Our train to Machu Picchu left early the next morning, so after sitting out by the fire pit looking at the lights of Cusco, we headed off to bed. More to come!
Photos Courtesy of El Mercado Tunqui and the author