By Nila Do Simon
Right now, Peru is having a moment. It’s experiencing a golden age of tourism that coincides perfectly with its rising economy and unofficial recognition as Latin America’s culinary capital. This coastal country once solely known for its cultural treasures has now become a must-see destination for jet-setters.
“Peru is a privileged tourist destination worldwide, ranking within the top 10 world places for [its] authenticity, art and culture, history and natural beauty,” says Ricardo Romero, the director of the Trade Commission of Peru. According to the Trade Commission, Peru is considered one of the world’s leading emerging markets, with economic stability based on an uninterrupted average annual growth over the past 14 years.
To truly appreciate Peru, one has to understand its people and their rich history. Much of today’s residents are living embodiments of their Andean ancestors: proud, hard-working and indigenous people who revere everything brought up from the earth. They believe all living things—be it trees, animals, rivers, rocks and everything in between—together create a holy balance to life.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Peru without beginning with what is commonly referred to as the city in the sky, Machu Picchu. Resting at 8,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains, Machu Picchu is set in a backdrop that is almost too beautiful to capture.
Thought to be a royal retreat for Incan nobility, the now-abandoned Machu Picchu encapsulates all the reasons why archeologists and tourists have admired Incan civilization. With no written language, virtually all of our knowledge of the Incans and their artifacts are mere guesses, but the theory of Machu Picchu as a retreat seems to prevail. Meaning “old peak” in the ancient Quechua language of the Incas, Machu Picchu’s carefully crafted stone structures and advanced agricultural terraces have impressed modern-day archeologists, leaving the world with more questions than answers.
For those who have summited Machu Picchu, it’s standard fare to take a moment and breathe in the natural beauty that surrounds you. Standing here among the ruins, at the highest peak of Machu Picchu, I can understand why. There is nothing like this in the world, nothing that can replicate the beauty of this abandoned city in the sky within the Andes mountains.
The travel to Machu Picchu can be arduous. Multiday hiking treks are available, though the more popular option is a picturesque 2.5-hour train ride along the winding Urubamba River. And at the beginning of the tracks is Tambo del Inka Resort &?Spa, a luxury resort with its own private train station to Machu Picchu. Opened in 2010, the resort offers a quiet, luxurious retreat and an array of modern amenities. Designed by the Miami-based company Arquitectonica, the resort pulls the untouched surrounding nature into the resort with its floor-to-ceiling windows, welcoming the murmur of the adjacent Urubamba River and the stillness of the mountains in the Sacred Valley.
Tambo del Inka’s main restaurant, Hawa (meaning “heaven” in Quechua) serves the ultimate example of Novoandina (New Andean) cuisine. Using organically grown ingredients from neighboring farmers, Hawa serves traditional Andean cuisine, like cuy and alpaca, with a refined twist.
Not surprisingly, there are more Incan sites to visit other than Machu Picchu. Bespoke travel company Blue Parallel gives travelers in-depth, private tours of the most sacred areas of the Andean culture in the Cusco region, such as the Moray ruins and the salt flats in Maras. Blue Parallel also can arrange a private meditation ceremony with an Andean shaman that allows visitors to personally experience the region’s native spiritual practices.
Travelers who visit Machu Picchu are encouraged to stay at least one night in the nearby city of Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude. Once the center of the Incan empire, Cusco today is a city where two worlds have collided. The rich Incan culture lies at the underbelly of the city while the Spanish one thrives on the surface. Here, the modern world mingles with the old, indigenous one.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they sought to destroy anything they considered heathen, which included all of the Incan temples and structures, and forced the inhabitants to adopt Catholicism. However, Incan history still breathes life today, perhaps nowhere more so than in the buildings of Cusco. The Spaniards were forced to build on top of old Incan structures, which proved stronger than anything they could construct.
Even the Cusco Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, is built on the foundation of an Incan temple. That symbolism cannot be lost on travelers entering Cusco: Spanish culture literally lies on top of Old World beliefs, a veneer over what is inherent to this land.
Adobe homes are still built using the hands of family members and neighbors, and ladies with long, dark braids and cloth hats still walk the dirt streets. In so many ways, the people today still encapsulate the features of their pre-Columbian ancestors, from physical characteristics, such as their almond-shaped eyes, to intangible ones, such as their hard-working natures.
The distinguished resort of Palacio del Inka is also built atop Incan walls. Located in the center of Cusco, Palacio del Inka was once the stone home of a Spanish conquistador. After a $15 million renovation, the resort showcases a blend of pre-Columbian, Incan, Spanish and modern cultures, from its rich colors and textures to the display of its local artwork. Its restaurant, Inti Raymi, features the craftsmanship of local artisans who were commissioned to rework doorways that connect the patios with the restaurant and other rooms with typical colonial coffering.
Because there is not yet an international airport in Cusco, to reach that region and Machu Picchu, international travelers generally first enter through Lima, the country’s capital. Founded by Europeans, modern-day Lima is a robust Latin American metropolis that has unofficially been anointed the continent’s gastronomic center due to the talents of its chefs and the diverse foods offered in the region.
To understand Peruvian cuisine, one needs to realize history. Peruvian food can be summed up as a harmonious fusion of the foods brought from the various people who have inhabit the country. Indigenous Andean people have been brought up cultivating and harvesting their own ingredients, bringing an earthiness to today’s dishes. Add in all the cultures that have come to Peru, from the Chinese who came as indentured servants in the 1600s and then contracted laborers in the 1900s to the Japanese who were welcomed by the Peruvian government in the late 1800s, and what you’ll find is an amalgamation of some of the best foods in the world.
Much of modern-day Peruvian cuisine is driven by Chef Rafael Piqueras. With his famed Maras restaurant, located in the The Westin Lima Hotel &?Convention Center, Piqueras stays true to his roots, even naming the restaurant after the Maras salt found in the Cusco region. If his dishes are anything, they’re artfully subtle, highlighting the purity and simplicity of the native ingredients.
The Westin Lima is the perfect backdrop to support Piqueras’ work. Also designed by Arquitectonica, the hotel’s modern and sleek look is a progressive as the restaurant’s menu. The Westin also boasts South America’s largest spa, the Heavenly Spa, which fills the nearly 20,000 square feet of space with pure bliss.
“Because of its amazing cuisine, Peru has become one of the best places in the world for food lovers,” Romero says. “It is estimated that in 2014, Peru will generate $1 billion in culinary tourism.”
And so for good reason Peru is having its moment in the sun. If it were up to me, the moment will last for an indefinite amount of time.
Originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.