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How a luxury makeover transformed Peru’s city of love

Hugh Thomson follows the Inca trail to the former palace in Cusco of the only conqueror known to have regretted his triumphs

A few years ago, I came to Peru to live for a while with my young family in the Sacred Valley. My father felt duty-bound to fly out and visit us — but did so reluctantly, fearing that he would have to stay at backpacker hostels and rough it.

On his first night in Lima, he was served by a sommelier at one of the Orient-Express properties who, it emerged, had  previously worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons with Raymond Blanc. I could almost see the relief on my father’s face: ‘It’s OK. I’m going to be all right after all.’

Long gone are the days when there was only one café with an espresso machine in the whole of Cusco. Visitors are surprised by the opulence available for those who want it. The increasing worldwide popularity of Peruvian food means restaurants are often first-class. And while I remember the only entertainment in the 1980s being an austere folk club off the main square, the streets at night now ring to the vibrant sound of tecnocumbia.

But it is perhaps with the hotels of Peru that one most notices the transformation. Much of this is down to Orient-Express Hotels, which since 2014 has traded as Belmond, a name yet to develop the same cachet as the original. They have not only created a beautiful, modern hotel in Lima — the one with the sommelier — overlooking the Pacific on the cliffs of Miraflores, so that you can see the surfers and the paragliders as you sip your fine wine. The company also bought the old hotel beside the ruins in Machu Picchu, transformed it into a $700-a-night exclusive boutique destination and — to complete the Monopoly set — even bought the train that runs there; a luxury service, the Hiram Bingham Express, named after the American explorer who discovered the site in 1911, serves a full meal on linen tablecloths to well-heeled travellers as they rattle down the Urubamba Valley.

In Cusco itself, Belmond owns the five-star Monasterio, its flagship hotel in Peru, with beautiful colonial architecture; as the name suggests, this was originally a sixteenth-century monastery. And now, in the same small square, Plaza de las Nazarenas, it has added another hotel, the Palacio Nazarenas, in a building which has always held a peculiar fascination for me.

For this was the palace that once belonged to Mancio Serra de Leguizamón, the last of Pizarro’s men to die after they had conquered Peru — and one of the most colourful. He married an Inca princess, gambled away the golden disc of the sun and was then made mayor of Cusco by his companions on the grounds that only responsibility would cure his addiction to games of chance.

He also displayed an unusual empathy for the Inca culture which his fellow Spaniards had so devastated. He learned Quechua and acted as a go-between with the surviving Inca nobility — his wife’s relatives — who had fled into the hills and perpetuated a rump kingdom in exile.

But most remarkable of all was his will, written when he was an old man of almost 80 and after all his fellow conquistadors who had arrived with Pizarro had died. In it, he lamented what they had done to a country which when they had arrived had been managed with superlative order and economy.  He is the only conquistador known to have shown any such regret.

‘We found these kingdoms in such good order, and the said Incas governed them in such a wise manner, that throughout them there was not a thief, nor a vicious man, nor an adulteress, nor was a bad woman admitted among them, nor were there immoral people. The men had honest and useful occupations. The lands, forests, mines, pastures, houses and all kinds of products were regulated and distributed in such sort that each one knew his property without any other person seizing it or occupying it, nor were there lawsuits respecting it. The motive which obliges me to make this statement is the discharge of my conscience, as I find myself guilty. For we have destroyed by our evil example, the people who had such a government as was enjoyed by these natives…’

Some time after Mancio’s death, the building became a closed convent and for centuries was sealed away from the sight of Cuzqueños — who speculated pruriently on its proximity to the monastery and the ‘bridge of sighs’ that spanned the alley between them. For more than 200 years, the ‘Barefoot Nazarenas’, as they were known, remained sequestered in a convent that was far from luxurious: they were underfunded, largely because they were beatas drawn from poor indigenous families, so were looked down upon by colonial society. When the order was reduced to just six nuns, it no longer became practicable, and so the building was acquired by Belmond, which has spent more than ten years transforming it into the present luxurious hotel.

When I was recently invited to stay there, the chance to stay in the same palace as Mancio was irresistible. Moreover, it is a building that even by the standards of Cusco — where every restaurant seems to have an original Inca wall — has extraordinary provenance. Before Mancio was awarded it, this was the site of a palace belonging to one of the greatest of Inca emperors, Huayna Capac, who extended their dominions far up into Ecuador and Colombia. When the hotel was restored, an Inca passageway was uncovered, with a double-jambed doorway signifying a prestigious entrance, which now links the two halves of the hotel.

Huayna Capac’s death circa 1525 precipitated a disastrous civil war between his sons, which allowed Pizarro and his men to take over the country when they arrived; and for Mancio to marry one of Huayna Capac’s youngest daughters, a princess who took the Spanish name of Beatriz, and take up residence in the palace.

Mancio Serra de Leguizamón arrived in Cusco with plenty of attitude. Like many of the conquistadors and adventurers who had left Spain for the Indies and the tales of fabulous wealth they had heard, he found himself living the dream; as a young man, he would have been carried on a litter through Cusco, with Princess Beatriz at his side, her attendants waving fans of jungle-bird feathers; he must have felt like one of the Inca emperors, worshipped as a god.

Not that he and Beatriz did not endure various vicissitudes. Some years after the conquest, a civil war flared up between the Spanish themselves. Mancio had to flee Cusco and Beatriz was captured by the insurgents and violated. Their relationship never recovered from the trauma. Mancio remarried — to the young, rich daughter of a fellow conquistador, who helped to pay off his gambling debts — but continued to live in the palace on the small square.

While staying at the hotel, I visited what once would have been his bedroom — and was later, improbably, the chambers of the Mother Superior of the convent. It is now the principal suite. A fine wooden colonial ceiling is studded with gold rosettes. From the corner balcony there is a magnificent view of the red rooftops of Cusco and its churches, many built over Inca temples.

Looking out across the city, I couldn’t help thinking that if Machu Picchu didn’t exist, Cusco would be far more of a destination in its own right; despite the growth in tourism, the old Inca capital is well preserved and has a sense of history that, like the stonework, has resisted both Spanish invasion and earthquakes.

Guamán Poma, the eccentric seventeenth-century chronicler of Inca life, described Cusco as ‘un espacio mágico’, a magic space, and for me it has always had a peculiar and romantic charm. Whenever I visit, I like to walk down from the hills just above the Belmond hotels, starting at Qenko, the sacred carved rock, and descend through the artisan quarter of San Blas. There is an intense blue colour, a cobalt shade, that the citizens of Cusco seem particularly attached to and which shines out in glimpsed patios and the shutterings of whitewashed houses with intense relief.

Cusco is a lovers’ city, like Florence or Venice, and like both those cities it is at its best in winter, during the dry season from May to October. A cold light throws the red rooftops into sharp outline against the mountains behind. I like to take the walk towards sunset, when the light is low enough to darken the sky but still strong enough to make out detail in the city shadows.

In the narrow alleys wheeling down the hill, you always see shapes pressed into the wall, trysts and assignations between the students of the many colleges around the historical centre of the old city. These are the boys with their novias, that Spanish word that hovers with useful indecision between meaning girlfriend or fiancée, and in the backstreets the long courtships and secret meetings can be conducted out of the prying sight of families.

The walk is just long enough to justify a pisco sour in the hotel’s luxuriously appointed bar; or the hotel’s speciality, a chilcano, the longer pisco drink mixed with ginger ale and Andean flavourings such as aguaymanto.

Guests can enjoy one of the very few heated swimming pools in Cusco, where, as they are after all more than 11,000 feet up in the mountains, it can be cold. When I swam before breakfast, steam was gently rising from the pool in the early morning light as a harpist played. Belmond has designated the Palacio Nazarenas as a spa, partly to differentiate it from the neighbouring Monasterio, and there is an appealing atmosphere of calm relaxation. Every room even has piped oxygen for those who suffer from the altitude.

Mancio was a man who lived and gambled his life to the full. I suspect he would have enjoyed the transformation his own house has now undergone, after a strange roll of the dice. The hotel even has a full-size snooker table, one of Mancio’s favourite games of chance — though in his day, the game was known as ‘bolillos’ or ‘trucks’, and they would have played using gold-tipped sandalwood cues and ivory balls brought down from Mexico, which would have rolled into the pockets with a satisfying weight.

I like to think of his ghost now patrolling the corridors of the luxury hotel, approving the choice of the diners as they survey the wine list or enjoy the heaped banquet of the breakfast buffet — and urging them to put all their money on the table when they play billiards against each other.

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