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In historic cities such as Cusco, Peru, ancient ruins and centuries-old cathedrals offer endless attractions for a wide range of visitors, from tourists and history buffs to spiritual seekers and archaeologists. Spend a day observing the nearby world-famous 15th-century Inca site Machu Picchu, and you can watch streams of tourists arrive, walk around, photograph and leave the past behind — making way for the next group of curious travelers to repeat the process.
Now, imagine not merely visiting an ancient site, but also making it your home for the duration of your stay. That’s exactly what I did at JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, formerly the 16th century St. Augustine Convent.
The convent was nothing more than a derelict ruin when the six-year construction of the hotel began in 2006. Today, the El Convento Cusco hotel is built around the original courtyard, yet manages to feel contemporary and of-the-moment.
During check-in, I immediately noticed the original Augustinian coat of arms above the archway in the main lobby. Sections of the old chapel can also be found in the common areas throughout El Convento. The entire back wall of Pirqa, the hotel’s restaurant, is the sidewall of the old convent, for example. Peering more closely at the wall, one can see a square carving — as though someone had etched in a game of tic-tac-toe. Even better, it was actually a carving of the Peruvian version of the Alquerque strategy board game. Now we know what the nuns did for fun!
All of this was charming, but it was just the beginning of my exploration. I soon learned that during the building and restoration of the property, plans for 200 rooms had to be changed when Inca ruins were uncovered beneath the convent.
Huge sculptured boulders, as well as pre-Incan pots, jars and other tools were unearthed. After this unexpected discovery, the hotel decided to protect and preserve the archaeological treasures. They built only 153 rooms and transformed the main dig into a tunneled exhibition, which currently offers complimentary daily tours not just to hotel guests, but also to the public.
Formerly the 16th century St. Augustine Convent, the renovated JW Marriott El Convento Cusco in Peru retains its ancient charm while still feeling up-to-date and modern. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
The back wall of Pirqa, the hotel’s onsite restaurant, is the authentic sidewall of the original convent. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
Displayed in a public exhibition area, these ancient Inca ruins were discovered during the hotel’s building and restoration process. // © 2014 Eduardo “Gato” Gonzalez
The Imperial Suite’s bedroom wall is from the original colonial structure that was the main entrance to the convent. // © 2014 Eduardo “Gato” Gonzalez
El Convento Cusco’s entrance features an original Augustinian coat of arms above the archway. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
Some of the El Convento Cusco guestrooms also have ancient walls as part of their layout. Room 200 — an Imperial Suite — made me stop in my tracks. An entire wall in the bedroom is the original colonial structure that was once the main entrance to the convent. I could just picture all the nuns that must have walked past it, wearing their habits and holding their rosaries. (And then later sneaking off to play Alquerque!)
Next, I visited a suite with a common area that featured an Incan wall. It was incredible because I am used to seeing Inca ruins that are roped off and untouchable. In my room (number 82), I could watch television while sitting on a couch that butts up against a ruin, or catch up on emails at the desk, which faces these gigantic rocks.
I could not resist running my hands over the stonework to admire the masonry and absorb its texture. What makes these Inca walls extraordinary is that the stones were fairly large and fitted together without mortar, which is unheard of today. Furthermore, every huge stone had to be laid by hand: There were no bulldozers, excavators and front loaders back then.
Now — hundreds of years later — I could stand before a wall that spanned the centuries and withstood wars, earthquakes and political and religious turmoil. One can only imagine what stories they could tell.
The hotel’s amenities are, however, totally modern. Because Cusco is located at an altitude of 11,154 feet above sea level, all of the rooms are equipped with built-in oxygen systems to help guests get acclimated. And with the hotel’s location right in the heart of the city’s historical district, where a festival or parade can often be found, soundproof windows ensure that nothing disturbs a guest’s tranquility when he or she is ready to call it a night.
Both access to the spa and a morning buffet breakfast are included in the price of the room, which I appreciated. With so many things to do in Cusco, I did not always want to sit down for a formal breakfast. Most days, I was eager to start my adventures so I’d get a brown paper bag from the staff and fill it with a few pastries and fruit, before taking off to go explore.
Because of all the walking I did, it was so wonderful to come back to the hotel, visit the spa and decompress in the hot tub and saunas without having to think about extra charges. But on some mornings, I enjoyed a more leisurely pace, sipping Peruvian coffee in the courtyard and watching local textile weavers demonstrate their techniques and sell their wares. El Convento Cusco works with 16 nearby communities, hosting artisans in a joint effort to help shine a light on their unique talents and products.
The hotel also offers a private cooking class at a cost of $50 per adult, which I took in the El Convento Cusco kitchen with Rely Alencastre, the executive sous chef. Along with some friends, I learned how to make classic Peruvian food including trout and sea bass ceviche, causa de pollo (chicken causa) and lomo saltado (sauteed sirloin).
Everyone there made me feel welcome, as if I’d always been a part of their group. As I garnished my meal using edible flowers from the nearby Sacred Valley, I thought of all I’d seen and done and realized that a hotel experience does not get any more insider than this.