If the miraculous universe of Amazonian Peru can be credited largely to the absence of human incursion, the thrilling destinations along the western slopes of the Andes owe as much to civilization as to nature. Monumental stone terraces climb like sinuous staircases toward the hilltops, giving testimony to the Inca genius for maximizing agricultural yield despite heavy runoff and poor soil. The colonial Spaniards who decimated the Inca empire robbed the natives’ precision-hewn stones for their own churches, whose hopeful spires punctuate the skyline in towns great and small. To enter this other world, you need guidance, not because it is dangerous, but because the muchness of it requires canny sorting. We ventured out under the aegis of Marisol Mosquera and Aracari Travel Consulting, which employs a network of extremely knowledgeable local guides. Mosquera brings not only elegance and panache to her work but also wisdom and a sense of history; she keeps you comfortable but helps you penetrate to the truest Peru, to experiences you might not otherwise have accrued until you’d visited the country 40 times. Her company restricts its purview to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, including the Galápagos, and you are not put at a hotel or recommended a restaurant that she has not personally checked out. In 20 years of writing about travel, I have never enjoyed such impeccable personal attention.
Fresh from the Amazon and a night in Lima, we headed off to the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, where Inca ruins and terraces are scattered as densely as Starbucks in Manhattan. We started at Pisac, whose serpentine terraces echo the undulating slopes. The nearby town’s Sunday market is given over half to the touristic takeaways that hardly vary from place to place—the Indigenous Mall—and half to a bustling food emporium where sturdy women in serapes and bowler hats hawk every color and size of potato and corn kernels as big as the Hope Diamond. We lunched there, then headed for our siesta, and Susy Dyson. Dyson, a Peruvian of English descent, became Peru’s first supermodel 30 years ago in Paris, had a career as an actress and singer, and then quit the jet set to move home to Lima and have a family. Two years ago she bought a tract of land on an Inca terrace near Urubamba and transformed it into an inn, Ticllabamba. It has just three suites, set amid lush orchards and countless vistas; completely designed by Dyson, the place is simple and understated. Altitude is exhausting and we were tired, so Dyson arranged for the chef-owner of one of Peru’s top restaurants, Pio Vásquez de Velasco of nearby Restaurante El Huacatay, to come over and give us a cooking lesson, then make an indescribably delicious dinner that included a carpaccio of alpaca marinated with thyme and served with dried tomatoes and pecans. The feeling is more like visiting a marvelous friend in her charming compound than staying in a hotel.
One of the things there is more of in Peru is ruins, some of them hardly ruined. We had seen dozens of sites by the time we made our way to Machu Picchu with jaded eyes, taking the opulent Hiram Bingham train to arrive at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. Then we walked to the site, and looked at the face of its splendid mystery. While not as extensive as Angkor Wat or as refined as the Taj Mahal, it has in common with those world monuments the quality of being utterly surprising, no matter how many images of it you have seen. It is partly that it is so ambitious and partly that it is so exquisitely situated, spilling along ridges and across hillocks and down vertiginous drops, taking in the surrounding peaks hundreds of feet above and the rushing river hundreds of feet below. Walking these streets, you feel that there was tremendous intention in this construction, though it is impossible to know just what was intended.
Cuzco is one of those cities, like Venice or Bruges or Suzhou, that is so exquisite that everything else about it seems irrelevant, and no glut of tourism can quite cancel its charm. The Plaza de Armas is one of the world’s great squares, with its two splendid colonial churches, including the cathedral, known for a painting of the Last Supper that shows Christ and the apostles dining on guinea pig. The Inca sites around the edges of town are spectacular, especially the intimidating stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman. In mixing native and Spanish culture, Peru arrived at a style that seems like Europe viewed through a bright kaleidoscope. Cuzco has fine hotels, and we stayed at La Casona. Our room had carved doors, framed Incan textiles on the walls, antique furniture, dark-wood shutters that opened to a beautiful view of the square, and a colossal bathroom of striated marble. The 16th-century building consists of just 11 rooms around a cloister court. Down the road is the superhip, Italian-designed Casa Cartagena, also installed in a great historic house.