By Marc Kristal
If you visit Peru, your guide will undoubtedly tell you certain things, many of them food-related. You’ll discover that there are, thanks to the 28 microclimates, some 3,000 varieties of potato grown in the nation. That the distinctive Peruvian gourmet corn, with kernels nearly the size of incisors, is raised in a specially demarcated region similar to the ones set aside for growing top-grade Cuban tobacco and grapes for champagne. That Puno’s rain forests produce the best organic coffee in the world, and pisco, the incomparable national beverage, was developed by Italian immigrants who were trying to distill a Peruvian variant of grappa. And that there are roughly 5,000 Chinese restaurants in the country, and chifa, as the cuisine is called, is Peru’s most popular food.
What can’t be conveyed in language, however, is the incomparable majesty of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, nestled high in the Peruvian Andes, and the urbane elegance and surprising variety of the nation’s capital, Lima. These must be experienced, and one could do far worse than to do so from two of the most recent luxury properties opened by Libertador, Peru’s leading hotel group: Tambo del Inka, in the Sacred Valley, and the Westin Lima, both designed, with signature suavity, by the Miami-based firm Arquitectonica.
At some 9,000 feet above sea level, and with an average year-round temperature of 55 degrees, the Urubamba Valley (as the Sacred Valley is properly called), sited between two Andean sub-ranges in the Cusco region, remains the preferred place for summer houses among the nation’s elite. And no surprise – apart from the temperate climate, the landscape is uncanny: the mountains rise straight up for thousands of feet from the flat land of the valley; on the higher surrounding plains, acres of rolling farmland combine with the proximity of the high peaks, Wagnerian cloud formations, and eye-searing crystalline light to create vistas of heartbreaking magnificence. The area was deemed sacred by the Incans, not for its beauty, but because the Urubamba River, which crosses the valley on a north/south axis, mirrors the route of the Milky Way: the ancients believed that the two “rivers,” earth-bound and celestial, would meet at the end of the world.
Its geographic pleasures notwithstanding, the area is best known for its standout attraction, the 15th-century Incan “lost city,” Machu Picchu. Set on a vertigo-inducing mountain ridge, the UNESCO World Heritage monument, now widely believed to have been the summer palace of the Inca’s king of kings, Pachacuti, is one of the most popular destinations on the planet. Last year – the one-hundredth anniversary of its discovery by the American explorer Hiram Bingham – demand for access was so great that there was a so-called “tourist strike” in Aguas Calientes, the town from which buses to the monument depart, with visitors blocking bus routes until the government loosened restrictions on how many people could tour the site daily (the proper figure is 2500). In fact, Machu Picchu is easy to visit, thanks to the surprisingly comfortable, highly picturesque, and extremely well-organized ten daily train trips (ranging from no-frills to ultra-luxurious) to Aguas Calientes from points around the valley.
Tambo del Inka is the only hotel with its own Machu Picchu train stop (the trip takes two-and-a-half hours), and that is only one of its charms. The 128-room resort, which opened last year, is the first of its kind in the region, and abstracts the Andean vernacular building traditions into a quietly posh, contemporary retreat that, hard by the Urubamba River, retains strong visual and actual connections to the natural surroundings. Arquitectonica’s linked structures recall shed and lean-to construction on a palatial scale; with their balance of local chihuahuaco wood, stone, regional textiles, and woven rattan (the interiors were executed by Roberto Caparra), the guest rooms, suites and multi-story public spaces combine luxury with an overlay of craft-based simplicity.
From the “man does not live by Machu Picchu alone” department: Tambo del Inka has a large, fully-equipped spa and the usual fitness amenities, as well as a delightful indoor/outdoor lap pool (all of which, regrettably, can only be accessed by walking through the main lobby in your sweaty gym clothes or bathrobe, the hotel’s one major design flaw). And there is a superlative restaurant, called Hawa (“heaven”), which draws on the abundant local ingredients and specializes in “Novo Andina” cuisine. (Two words to the wise: Skip lunch – Hawa is one gourmet restaurant that does not subscribe to a philosophy of small portions – and try the guinea pig: once you get over the thought that you’re eating a house pet, you’ll find chef Rafael Cassin’s tender, flavorful treatment to be irresistible.)
“The sky is the color of a donkey’s belly” is a saying I heard from several individuals in Lima and in fact, while it (allegedly) almost never rains, the sun seldom made a proper appearance during my stay. But do not let the weather – or the fact that the city has 225,000 taxis and none contain meters (meaning a fare negotiation for every trip) – stop you from visiting. Lima remains a cosmopolitan yet low-pressure city with, distributed among its 43 districts, handsome architecture (ranging from the expected Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival to unexpected examples of Deco, Bauhaus and Tudor); ample park space (including, in the upscale San Isidro neighborhood, olive groves); fifty-odd architectural sites; an impressively creepy catacombs (in the 18th-century San Francisco de Lima monastery); an exceptionally well curated, utterly absorbing pre-Columbian art museum, with a delightful (and, I must say, educational) erotic pottery gallery (Museo Larco, in an 18th-century mansion constructed atop a seventh-century pyramid); and – when the charms of cultural tourism pale – casino gambling and a beach popular with surfers.
San Isidro, the city’s garden district and locus of the Westin Lima, is the financial center and, despite its heavy business, tourist and shopping traffic, maintains the exclusive, old-world aristocratic quality it developed as a colonial enclave in the early 20th century. San Isidro is home to “El Olivar,” a four-century-old park and historic landmark; Huaca Huallamarca, an archaeological site dating from 100 B.C.; and the Virgen del Pilar church, San Isidro’s first parish. You’ll also find some of Lima’s best Japanese restaurants – serving Peru’s distinctive Nikkei cuisine, which mixes traditional Japanese fare with local influences (Matsuei and Osaka are standouts) – and also the well-loved seafood boites La Mar, Pescados Capitales, and La Red. As a booming shopping district, with multiple boutiques along Los Conquistadores and Los Libertadores Avenues, it has become as well a destination for design stars like Ani Alvarez Calderon and Giuliana Testino (Mario’s sister).
As for the 301-room, 31-suite Lima, which opened last July, it has the distinction of being in the tallest building in Peru. Accordingly, Arquitectonica’s sleek, undulating tower seems consciously contrived to be a contemporary icon for a booming city and, indeed, everything about it feels – indeed, is – outsized. The 20,000-square-foot spa – the largest in any South American city – has 17 treatment rooms, multiple water features (including a 25-metre pool), and a fitness center that would pass muster with the most discerning gym rat. No less monumental is the business center, with its 18,000-square-foot convention facility – the largest indoor meeting room in Peru – and numerous smaller venues.
So it’s surprising that, with its multiple “largest in” distinctions and, frankly, the cold slickness of the building envelope, the Westin Lima is actually an embracing place to stay. This owes much to the interior design work, by the Chilean Sergio Echeverria (with, in an advisory capacity, the New York-based hospitality designer Tony Chi, whose projects include the Park Hyatt in Shanghai and the Grand Moma in Beijing). Much attention has been paid to the material palette, which in the guest rooms and public spaces is almost unfailingly warm, organic and, where appropriate, luxurious; furnishings that gain notice for being more thoughtfully considered than the ones typically found in design hostelries, which too often rely on first-generation hip-hotel style clichés; and most of all the art program, which has been curated carefully enough to cause you to actually stop and consider what’s on the walls.
Best of all, among the Westin Lima’s various dining venues can be found a powerhouse: Maras (named from the gourmet salt mined above the Sacred Valley), overseen by chef Rafael Piqueras, whose resume includes Antica Osteria del Teatro in Italy and, not least, Spain’s late, great El Bulli. Piqueras is a handsome man with a quietly commanding manner leavened by an appealing, off-center sense of humor; he plays the role of star chef well, and when he began dinner with a TV-show-style demonstration of liquid-nitrogen cooking, I began to lean heavily on the wine. But he left the stage after that, and left us to his tasting menu, which more that delivered the goods. Tuna tartare with ceviche-style scallops; a corn tart filled with oxtail ragout and topped with a wild mushroom Porcon sauce; grilled deep-sea fish on “majado” de yuca puré; loche pumpkin ravioli: it all added up to one of the most thoroughly satisfying dinners I’d had in years.
And as it was the last experience I had before leaving, several hours later, for a night flight home, it served as a suitable end to a visit that was, in every sense, savory.
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.