Tambo del Inka Luxury Resort & Spa, Urubamba, Sacred Valley, Peru
While most visitors to Peru automatically add Machu Picchu to their planner, a little more research will throw up Sacred Valley of the Incas – also known as the Urubamba Valley – as an obligatory stop along the way. Its roadside stepped Inca terraces, numerous valleys and rivers, small villages and notable Inca ruins provide the perfect lead-up to the grand finale of Machu Picchu, around three hours' train journey away via the hotel's own private railway station. This "hunting lodge"-style hotel, set in extensive grounds beside the Urubamba River, is about 10 minutes' walk from town. I had neither the time nor inclination to make the effort in my short overnight stay, secure in the knowledge Urubamba is basically a service/transport hub, while this glorious place is a destination in itself. As it's on a lower altitude to Cusco (about 2900 metres versus 3400 metres), it's also a convenient stop at which to acclimatise and ease into the gentle Andean pace of life.
"It's the Flinders Ranges meets the Andes," was the unlikely observation of one in our group as the minibus headed out of the stone driveway of Tambo del Inka in daylight, having arrived in darkness the night before from Cusco airport, about an hour's drive away. He was spot on. The Andes form the backdrop, while the hotel's carefully selected plantings of eucalypts, wattle, native grasses and other hardy species give the setting a distinctly Aussie bush feel. Testament to its much-vaunted green credentials, the resort has its own water treatment plant to filter water throughout the resort and irrigate its extensive grounds. Inside, lashings of stone and timber and soaring glass windows ensure the landscape always stays the hero. Everything is oversized, from triple-height ceilings, to the massive stone fireplaces in the central lounge/reception area and Hawa restaurant, gargantuan doorways, enormous urns and wall hangings, not to mention the towering wooden pillars that appear like tree trunks throughout the public areas. The Land of the Giants comes to mind. The hotel is the work of Peruvian-born, Miami-based architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, of Arquitectonica; the firm's website reveals a staggering portfolio of commercial projects worldwide. The interiors, by Argentine firm Caparra Entelman, feature local artworks and handicrafts, a neutral backdrop punctuated by the riotous colours and rustic textures typical of Peru. For those with leisure, there's a luxury spa and two heated pools.
The hotel has 128 rooms, all similarly large-sized, located in east and west wings off the central hub of the hotel, so it can be a decent walk reaching a room in the far end either side. I was in room 235 at ground level, a deluxe room of 41 square metres. An emerald green lawn stretched up to my patio, with the river, eucalypt forest and mountains in the background. You can stroll down and pick up the path that weaves through the grounds. Inside, it's all incredibly tasteful, from the timber floors and joinery, fabric feature walls, colourful rugs and mood lighting, to the separate luggage/dressing room, and sleek bathroom, with a bathtub right beside an enormous window with THAT view.
The hotel's Hawa restaurant gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor, with the guinea pig singled out for attention. As we arrived well after dinner, however, my food experience was limited to a room service club sandwich (at about $20, well worth the money) and a splendid buffet breakfast, with the open fire gently flickering in the background and amazing bush views through the windows.
At Urubamba, you're right in the thick of it. There's the huge, colourful markets at nearby Pisac, which are a must, especially on a Sunday. Within an easy day trip are also the Inca agricultural terraces of Moray, the Incan salt pans of Salineras de Maras, and the Inca site at Ollantaytambo, which also has a major train station for ferrying passengers to Machu Picchu.
Tambo del Inka really was a surprise. With no build-up, I was simply floored by that first gobsmacking glimpse of the interiors and then next morning, the picturesque Andean highland setting. I'd have no hesitation basing myself here and sallying forth for the full Inca experience.
Rooms from $US330 a night, including buffet breakfast.
Avenida Ferrocarril S/N, Sacred Valley, Urubamba.
HIGHLIGHT An understated luxury hotel completely in sync with its Peruvian setting, from the carefully chosen decor to views of the towering Andes in the distance.
LOWLIGHT One night just doesn't do justice to a gem like this.
Isobel King stayed courtesy of South America Tourism Office.