The southern Pacific coast and the Paracas Nature Reserve boast incredible treasures hidden amidst rocks, sand, and waves, for something new and out of the ordinary. This is where the 120-room Hotel Paracas (www.starwoodhotels.com) opened in January 2010 as a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. A scenic three-hour drive south of Lima, Hotel Paracas offers limitless opportunities to experience Peru’s rich history and natural wonders. A popular vacation destination for Peruvians, visitors here have front row seats to an incredible array of natural splendor. Just off the coast lie the Ballestas Islands, an ecological sanctuary for sea lions and penguins, and guests are just a short private boat ride away from an up-close-and-personal experience with amazing marine wildlife, while in the opposite direction, miles and miles of picture-perfect sand dunes are just waiting to be explored. Other nearby attractions include the Nazca Lines and ancient desert petroglyphs that are arguably one of Peru’s most impressive sites.
The city of Cusco, once the capital of the Incan Empire, is beautiful and historic and easily reached via a one-hour flight from Lima. Sitting at an altitude of 11,300 feet, Cusco, with its cobblestone streets, offers an appealing combination of old-world and new-world charm. At its center is the Plaza de Armas, considered the heart and soul of the city with cathedrals, restaurants and shops galore where globetrotting tourists and local artisans mix together to create some of the best people-watching places in the world. Dining options are as wonderfully varied; local Peruvian dishes are served at El Emperador, international fare is offered at the high-end Incanto and vegetarian choices abound at Green’s Organic.
While the altitude can be a bit of a factor in Cusco, it shouldn’t be a deterrent - a local antidote is cocoa tea - but the more refined traveler needs only to book a room at the iconic five-star Hotel Monasterio (www.monasteriohotel.com), a renovated 300-year old monastery where “oxygen enriched” accommodations help sea-level visitors acclimate to the change in altitude. In other Cusco hotel news and following a USD $15 million renovation, Peru’s most distinguished hotel group, Libertador Hotels, Resorts & Spas, just announced the August 1, 2013 re-opening of Palacio del Inka (www.libertador.com.pe). This 203-room hotel first opened more than 35 years ago and has prime positioning in the center of Cusco directly across from the Temple of the Sun.
Just north of Cusco are the ruins of Saqsaywaman (sounds like “sexy woman”), a zigzagged stone wall complex considered to have been a fortress for the Incas. The name roughly translates to “decorated head,” referring to a puma head that the city of Cusco is said to resemble. This colossal archaeological site is comprised of stones weighing almost 50 tons, leaving visitors to wonder just how the massive rocks were originally moved from their quarry two miles away. Nearby, the picturesque Andean village of Pisac is filled with open-air markets that sell a variety of souvenirs, including all things made from Alpaca. Just above Pisac in the area known as the Sacred Valley are Inca ruins, hiking trails and the not-to-be-missed town of Maras, home to thousands of salt pools. Within the Sacred Valley, hotel Tambo del Inka (www.libertador.com.pe) opened April 2010 as the second Peruvian member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. The resort is the first of its kind in the Sacred Valley with an array of modern amenities while still embracing the surrounding nature. In addition to its 128 elegant rooms and suites with views of the Andes and the Vilcanota River, Tambo del Inka also features a full- service spa, two heated swimming pools and its very own train station to facilitate trips to Machu Picchu.
When it’s finally time to head to Machu Picchu, travelers can choose from several transportation options. The Hiram Bingham train offers first-class service and views of snow-capped glaciers during the three-hour ride from Cusco. For the more adventurous, a local train drops travelers within a six-hour trek up to Machu Picchu, giving them a taste of the Inca trail without having to embark on what would otherwise be a four-day journey from beginning to end. Everyone should plan to spend at least an overnight up at Machu Picchu. The only high-end hotel located directly at the site is the Sanctuary Lodge. So be sure to reserve rooms in advance.
When fully acclimated to the change in altitude, send them up to Lake Titicaca, a 25-minute flight from Cusco that will land them in the town of Puno, nearby to the lake that sits at 12,500 feet. The hotel Libertador Puno/Lake Titicaca (www.libertador.com.pe) offers 360-degree views of the lake and is perfectly situated to access a trip to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. Its inhabitants, pre-Incan people known as Uros, live on these floating, manmade islands constructed from lake reeds and are said to possibly be the original inhabitants of South America. A trip to these islands provides a fascinating look at an ancient civilization still in existence today.
The best time to visit Peru is June through September, during the country’s winter; the weather is sunny and dry, daytime temperatures are in the 70s and evening temperatures in the 50s. LAN Airlines offers the most flight choices within Peru and tour guides should be arranged in advance; Blue Parallel (www.blueparallel.com), a high-end, customized tour company, specializes in private tours and will plan an itinerary designed to keep travelers away from crowds. For more information visit www.visitperu.com