The Incas believed Cusco's breathless beauty made it the centre of the universe. Lance Richardson is inclined to agree.
Cusco is the sort of place that leaves you breathless, and not just from the altitude. The centre is cobblestoned, bathed in a permanent sepia glow; the occasional trapezoidal doorway hints at a pre-Columbian past. Fireworks echo over rooftops, celebrating the days of different saints; a marching brass band seems to snake through the streets in an eternal, clamorous parade. From the Plaza de Armas, the city climbs hills in every direction.
Its sprawl resembles the arms of a star, though it was laid out in the shape of a puma. The Incas believed that Cusco's surrounds - the Sacred Valley and Urubamba River - were mirrored in the Milky Way. Cusco was the centre of the universe.
After Francisco Pizarro and his brothers began their conquest here in 1526, the Incan palaces and temples were cannibalised to build grand Catholic churches; Quechua-speaking Cusco assumed a Spanish mien. It also developed a split identity. This was compounded in 1950, when a massive earthquake shook down many colonial walls, exposing the Incan masonry behind. In the case of Coricancha, the Church of Santo Domingo was built over and around the granite sun temple. Their opposing styles, exposed during the earthquake, coexist today as a symbol of schizophrenic cultural imperialism. Writer and explorer Hugh Thomson compares it to a turducken, that unusual dish in which a chicken is stuffed into a duck, which is stuffed into a turkey. The same crude analogy could be made for much of Cusco.
Setting aside the kitsch souvenir stores and travel agencies hawking ruins, Cusco has taken a stylish turn. Potatoes and quinoa abound, but they're joined by tapas and martinis, yoga and Israeli narguile pipes. Spend time sipping coca tea around the many squares and what you'll see are the first traces of a new cosmopolis in the Andes, 3360 metres above sea level.
This is on keenest display in the restaurants. First, of course, there is the local fare; travellers seeking an authentic Peruvian experience should visit Quinta Eulalia, a popular haunt on Sundays with families feasting on chicharron (deep-fried pork), or cuy (guinea pig). These calorific dishes are best taken at lunch, giving the body plenty of time to adjust to the shock.
At Bodega 138, superb Italian food co-opts Andean cheese, aguaymanto and sauco berries from the region. Cicciolina turns attention to tapas, with the second floor of an old colonial house filled to capacity with diners ordering trout ceviche and beetroot ravioli. Cusco even has its own exquisite French establishment, with Le Soleil serving more French wines than any other restaurant in the country. Seated beside a floor-to-ceiling photograph of the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, I try cannoli of lamb and beef tenderloin demi glace. There's neck of duck confit, stuffed with foie gras and flambeed with Armagnac imported from Gascony and selling for a steal.
Such a line-up hints at the cosmopolitan zeal of Cusco, but a new restaurant called Senzo confirms it. Its award-winning chef, Virgilio Martinez, runs Central in Lima, often cited as one of the most exciting restaurants in Peru. He has just planted an offshoot in London - and a second one here, in the Palacio Nazarenas in Cusco. Senzo is a knockout: my alpaca comes laid on flowers and charred pieces of palo santo wood, smelling like a religious ceremony. Restricting himself to a limited Andean geography, Martinez sources local produce - moray potatoes, cusqueno cacao, black quinoa - and creates something universally appealing.
The Palacio Nazarenas opened in June over the top of what might have been a college for Incan nobility, a military academy - or parts of both. The site's subsequent history is fascinating and strange, involving (among others) a conquistador named Francisco de Carvajal, who hanged his godmother from a window after having her drowned by African slaves.
Built on Incan ruins, the colonial building has had many incarnations, from private mansion to Jesuit school to convent for the Order of Barefoot Nazarenes. Its recent transformation into a 55-suite hotel required painstaking restoration.
Now, stepping through six spacious courtyards - the largest of which features an original washing fountain - visitors find native trees and white roses, blue painted balustrades and terracotta tiles. The suites are oxygenated (to help with altitude) and have cocktail-making facilities, four-poster beds and artworks ranging from religious icons to portraits of Indios Quechua. These are sourced in collaboration with the Museo de Arte in Lima.
What makes the Palacio Nazarenas so remarkable is that it embraces all elements of its past with equal enthusiasm: a pre-Inca wall is near the apricot garden; Incan niches in several of the rooms; a coffered ceiling, painted with pink roses in a room once occupied by the mother superior; a turntable used by nuns to sell marzipan treats to the outside world. During a massage you'll look down at a piece of glass in the spa floor with an authentic Incan water channel running beneath; speakers in the headrest relay the subterranean gurgle for added tranquillo. The hotel has even preserved a tempura mural of El Senor de Huanca, a vision of Christ painted by a nun and accessible to worshippers via a door to the street.
Despite this mix of elements and eras, the result is a cohesive, confident whole. Indeed, the hotel is even playful with the past: marzipan appears on my pillow at night.
The Palacio is the most distinguished sign of Cusco's evolving sensibility. But travellers don't need to spend a small fortune to feel the confidence sweeping the city; Cusquenos (as the locals are called) are beginning to throw open their doors as well. I pass an idyllic week in an apartment with a private garden, tucked away in the picturesque backstreets of San Blas. This is an adjunct to the family home of Illa Liendo, a journalist who introduces me to the newly opened Museo del Pisco, where we sip sours and discuss her efforts to encourage cultural pride in Quechua youths through radio work.
Outside Cusco, most travellers will want to visit Machu Picchu. But the rush to do it all in a day means missing out on many sights. In Urubamba, a small town in the Sacred Valley, there are women selling turkeys at the market and children dancing around "moto taxis" in a plaza where the fountain features an ornate cob of corn. Young people corral each Sunday night in a discotheque named Manhattan.
Similar to the Palacio in Cusco, Urubamba has a sophisticated retreat, Tambo del Inka, built on the edge of the town and decorated with white lilies, bullfrogs (representing prosperity) and Quechua alpaca weavings in purple, orange and pink. The internal columns are shaped like trees; massive windows and a fragrance of eucalyptus pull the Andes inside. The hotel even has its own railway station: all trains express to Machu Picchu.
A tambo was once a resting house for Inca messengers running on the legendary trails that criss-crossed their empire, Tahuantinsuyo. The Tambo del Inka could be said to be part of a new Inca trail - one beginning in Cusco and bringing a mix of cultures and high style towards Peru's most famous landmark. And if modern archaeologists are right - if Machu Picchu was, in fact, a noble's winter estate, once filled with exotic goods from the full breadth of the known world - then perhaps this trail is not so much a change of direction as homage to an older order of things.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of PromPeru, Orient-Express, Libertador and LAN Airlines.
LAN Airlines has a fare to Cusco from Sydney for about $2810 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Santiago (about 16hr, including transit time in Auckland), then to Lima (3hr 45min) and then to Cusco (1hr 20min); see lan.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to and from Auckland to connect. A overnight stay in Lima on the way to Cusco is required at your own expense.
Every element of the exceptional 55-suite Palacio Nazarenas, part of the Orient-Express group, is executed with style and originality, making it one of the best hotels in the country. Rooms cost from $US885 ($838) a night; see palacionazarenas.com.
For a glimpse of residential life in the neighbourhood of San Blas, the affordable Nawin Apartmentos is a terrific base for longer stays. Apartments cost from $US55 a night; see nawincusco.com.
French restaurant Le Soleil is also Cusco's only "one-suite hotel", the exclusive La Lune; see onesuitehotelcusco.com.
On the road to Machu Picchu, Tambo del Inka in Urubamba has a spa that stretches across 1800 square metres. Rooms cost from $US643 a night; see libertador.com.pe.
A comfortable option in Aguas Calientes, the final stop for Machu Picchu, is Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, with rooms from $US435 a night; see machupicchuhotels-sumaq.com.
More information See peru.travel.