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So here’s a conundrum for the well-travelled: how to turn a glorious slice of 16th-century Spanish colonial architecture into a full-service hotel—but without disturbing any of the characteristics that made the original property so appealing? The answer, it can be revealed, lies high up in the Peruvian Andes, in the vibrant UNESCO-registered city of Cusco, once the capital of the Inca empire.
Cusco itself, the hub of most of Peru’s tourism, is an exuberant place. A cascade of rouged roof tiles surrounded by mountains, its ochre walls intricately woven with paved lanes, it has one foot in the present and the other still deeply immersed in the traditions of the mountain empire which ruled from here in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In Plaza de Armas, the city’s front room, Quechua mountain people, Inca-descended and extremely colourfully dressed in woollen chalecos, stand with their lamas, ready to be photographed. And up in the cafes of the picturesque San Blas district, behind the hotel, young travellers eat cake and update their Facebook pages, waiting for their bodies to adjust to the altitude in advance of hitting the Inca Trail. It is a place of excitement and anticipation.
Like the city, Belmond Palacio Nazarenas straddles all these worlds, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. First impressions are of its colonial history, dating back to when it was a conquistador’s mansion called the House of the Serpents, a name derived from the slender snakes carved into some of its Inca stonework and the intricate, Romanesque-style sculpture above its main entrance. This main belfry-topped entrance still has the huge old hinged doors of the mansion, whilst the foyer inside retains the turntable hatch installed by the nuns who set up a convent and orphanage here from the second half of the 18th century. They used to help support themselves by selling marzipan delicacies, and the hatch enabled them to do so without coming into contact with the outside world.
Penetrating through into the first courtyard is to enter the nuns’ domain: the colonnaded, galleried square, with its simple whitewashed adobe walls and its central octagonal fountain with Inca-style running water channels. To the left of the entrance is the mostly 19th-century chapel, with a neo-classical main altarpiece and its walls covered with some 21 gold-framed paintings, part of a huge collection of art accumulated by the nuns. The chapel is under the protection of the Señor de la Exaltación. His statue, on the main altar, used to lead a procession through the Plazoleta de Las Nazarenas every 14th September.
It all looks very traditional, and very authentic, and perhaps austere, but don’t be deceived. For in most of the rest of the property the art, for example, is cutting-edge contemporary, from the Art Lima collection. Moreover this is the hotel that has the world's first soap butler, the first outdoor heated pool in Cusco, and suites with the complete kit for making your very own pisco sour, the Peruvian cocktail par excellence. No austerity here.
Much of the more contemporary side of the Nazarenas is sequestered around the second, smaller, courtyard, hidden away down flagstoned walkways, with the musical sound of water from those Inca channels tinkling beneath. Much of this part of the hotel is newly built, but its colonnaded and arched galleries blend in seamlessly with the rest.
The centrepiece of the second courtyard is the heated pool itself, surrounded by sun loungers. To one side is the hotel’s Senzo restaurant, a destination bistro where innovative Peruvian fusion cuisine is served, with a strict food-miles policy. This is the place to try a creamy corn soup, duck confit with avocado, and maybe even guinea pig. Breakfast is served here, too.
Diagonally across from the restaurant is the lounge and bar, where guests settle into sofas for cocktails and to discuss the day’s adventures. They can also choose to eat here, if the less formal setting feels more relaxing. Salsa lessons take place in the lounge on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there’s surprisingly-compelling live electronic Andean music here on Friday evenings.
Off the courtyard is the Hypnôze Spa, inspired by Inca and Andean culture, with its own brand of organic products using indigenous Peruvian ingredients, such as herbs, Andean salts and coca leaves. The Spa – the only fully oxygenated spa in the world - has five single treatment rooms and one double room with a private hot tub. Some rooms feature glass floors, exposing the original Inca walls underneath. Outside, by the pool, there are free yoga sessions three times a week.
There are further, yet smaller, patios (there are seven courtyards in total) embedded deeper into the property - one has the herb garden, for example - and each has its own distinctive flavour, with flowers, birds and a deep sense of peace.
The 55 spacious suites, which come in eight different categories, are a study in artistry. Four-poster beds are sheathed in hand-embroidered silk coverlets, and hand-painted frescos hover above the bathtubs. Wooden floors are adorned with thick Persian carpets. Some suites have Inca stonework, and some have balconies with a magnificent view down over Cusco’s tumbling rooftops to distant mist-wrapped mountains.
All suites have the services of a soap butler, who offers two locally-produced soap options to guests on check-in; one fragranced with rosemary and the other perfumed with the Palacio’s own flowers. And there are other choices to make, too, with the option of a special herbal pillow and special herbal bath, both of which are designed to help guests acclimatise to the altitude.
All suites are equipped with a bar with coffee and tea making facilities, snacks, and a pisco sour making station. There’s WiFi, satellite TV and sound system, and air-conditioning that can be enriched with oxygen on request. The bathrooms all have underfloor heating, bathtubs and separate showers
Set in a tranquil plaza behind Cusco’s main square, this restored 17th-century palace and convent is now one of the city’s most exclusive hotels. An irresistible mix of ancient and modern, it blends Inca walls, a cloistered courtyard and ancient fountain with a fabulous spa, the city’s first outdoor pool and a cutting-edge restaurant.
TripAdvisor rated Belmond Palacio Nazarenas best luxury hotel in South America in its Travellers’ Choice Awards 2014.Download Factsheet