Cuzco’s Top Luxury Hotel

March 24, 2010 at 7:53 am | Posted in history, lodging, Peru, South America, travel and health | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Peru, cuzco, monasterio hotel, luxury hotel cuzcoPicture it: the atmospheric onetime capital of the Inca Empire, high in the Andes of Peru. I’d stepped off the plane from Lima fully aware of soroche, aka altitude sickness, and its unpleasantries. After accepting the standard paper cupful of coca tea — meant to help acclimate me to suddenly transferring from sea level to 11,000 feet (3,350 m) — my friend and I spent what little was left of that afternoon strolling around Cuzco’s colonial core, admiring Baroque churches, grand gold and silver altars, and Cyclopean Incan walls. Then we went to dinner on the central square, the Plaza de Armas.

We were so tempted by the menu we proceeded to do precisely what we knew we should not do: overeat. Already feeling a mite unsteady as we paid and left, by the time we embarked upon the two-block walk uphill to our hotel, we were both gasping for breath, our heads were pounding, and believe it or not, it was a struggle to even walk upright.

cuzco, inca wallSo thank Inti, the Inca sun god, we had the best digs in town to coddle us as we lay stunned in bed that night and, as I recall, a good part of the next day. In Cuzco there’s probably no hotel quite as grandioso and histórico as the 126-room Hotel Monasterio. Built as Franciscan monastery San Antonio Abad in 1592, just 60 years after Francisco Pizarro’s marauders had barged in and sacked the Inca capital, it was converted into luxe lodgings in 1995, now owned by über-upscale Orient Express.

As you might expect, it ain’t cheap; nightly rates are mostly north of US$400.* And though for that you don’t even get the usual high-end perks like pool, spa, and workout room, there’s no question the rooms are hardly monastic anymore, and for that my friend and I were especially grateful. Fortunately we managed to get through our misery without having to resort to a snort from the oxygen tank kept on hand for guests in soroche distress.

Now, you may wonder: Is this place worth the price tag? Well, to bunk in such a palatial setting in such a special city, a splurge might well be in order, at least for one night. Just to be in one of these guest rooms, a lesson in mixing Spanish Colonial-style antiques (like our huge wooden armoire) with modern amenities is an eye-opener. But even if you don’t stay there, it’s well worth a visit to ogle the magnificent courtyard and painting-adorned Baroque chapel, or to spring for a meal, including local specialties like alpaca and cuy (a relative of the guinea pig) in the Monasterio’s fine-dining restaurant. Just be smarter than we were and do keep the stuffing of the face to a minimum on your first night — and you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

*at press time, about £267 / €296 / CA$408 / AU$437 / ZAR2,939

photos: Hotel Monasterio, iStockphoto

Bogota’s Tasty Historic Center

July 14, 2009 at 11:05 am | Posted in Colombia, history, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

For reasons that certainly don’t need repeating, until fairly recently informing your nearest and dearest you’re considering a vacation in Colombia might’ve been considered grounds for dialing the dudes in the white coats. But these days, the country’s capital is optimistic, as safe as anywhere in Latin America, and in the midst of a boom in restaurants, la rumba (nightlife), and the economy and society in general. Apart from an impressive mountain setting and comfily cool weather all year round, what makes a visit well worth the flight is the city’s intensely atmospheric colonial core, La Candelaria. Dating back to Santa Fé de Bogotá’s 1538 founding and anchored by the expansive Plaza Bolívar and the neoclassical presidential palace, Casa Nariño, the old quarter’s 2¼ square miles of sloping brick- and cobblestone-paved streets are crammed with enough sites, sights, and stuff to do for several very rewarding days, all against the dramatic, cloud-wreathed backdrop of the surrounding Andes.

Start with the digs – there’s a nice selection budget hostels and midrange small hotels; folks seem to particularly like the Platypus, and others include Hotel Internacional and El Dorado. If you can spend a bit more, check out a pair of restored buildings that combine the colonial with mod-cons: the elegant 81-room Hotel de la Ópera (check out that fancy spa and pool in the basement, ay, caramba!) and the smaller, less pricey Hotel Casa de la Botica, with a more contemporary flavor inside. Getting fed is fairly easy, too, from tasty street food to a range of cafés and restaurants.

Stops on your sightseeing itinerary should of course include several of the old churches, of which the cathedral is the largest but far from the most interesting (for truly over-the-top art and gilt, check out San Ignacio, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). Must-visit museums, meanwhile, are devoted to conquistador-era art and furnishings; the roly-poly folks painted and sculpted by the world-famous Fernando Botero; and above all pre-Columbian gold tribal artifacts that will just knock your knickers off. You can even apply for a tour of Casa Nariño.

One thing especially worth noting is that, unlike, say, Old San Juan, La Candelaria is far from just a kitschy tourist zone. A dizzying spectrum of bogotano society bustles along its streets every day, and you can easily dine with them (a variety of eateries range from humble and funky to fancy and pricey) and shop with them (there are several colorful covered markets, and green-bling fans can even browse for the local gem specialty on an “emerald alley” along Carrera 6). Some have noted a crime problem at night, once the daytime crowds are gone — but anyone used to navigating big cities with care and common sense should be able to manage just fine.

So yes, by all means take time out to hop the funicular up looming Monserrate hill with its Sugarloaf-style Virgin Mary statue and va-va-voom city views; to hit the restaurants and clubs in North Bogotá’s Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93; to browse the Sunday street market and charming old plaza in Usaquén; and to take day and even overnight jaunts to coffee country and the impressive salt-mine-turned-underground cathedral in Zipaquirá. But just make sure to give yourself the leisure to soak up the atmosphere of La Candelaria, one of the most historic and flavorful working neighborhoods in the Americas.

For more info, see go-lo’s Colombia group.

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