Peruvian tourism is moving from trekking to luxury experiences

Legend has it that the Inca Empire was born here. The Sun and Moon Gods sent their children, Manko Kapak and Mama Oklo, also husband and wife, from the cold waters of Lake Titicaca to bring order to mankind. From here they marched north to found the kingdom’s capital, Cuzco.

Today, travelers with deep pockets can also enjoy increasingly regal travel as Peru captures its tourism market. One such visit begins with a pisco sour sunset, wrapped in a poncho by the fire and staring into the sapphire blue stretching to the horizon. The tranquility is interrupted only by the savvy staff of the Titilaka Lodge, who bring trout ceviche from the lake.

Titilaka is one of several stylish residences owned by Ignacio Masías and partly managed by his son Lorenzo that are among those raising the bar. It is part of an association of luxury hotels under the Relais & Châteaux brand. “I bring the world’s most discerning clients and take them to remote locations to show them the deepest Peru,” says Macias.

For years, the Inca Trail leading to the ruins of Machu Picchu was a byword for mainstream backpacking. But now Peru is chasing luxury tourists who cause less environmental and archaeological damage while spending more. For them, the offer is cuisine in Lima, perhaps the best gastronomic capital in the world; charming hotels in the “Sacred Valley” connecting Cusco to Machu Picchu; and Amazon cruises. And the south offers options, including Colca Canyon – one of the few places where visitors are almost guaranteed to see condors – and the cradle of the Inca Empire on the coast of Titicaca.

According to data from PromPeru, the state promotion agency, only 50,000 of the 4.1 million tourists in 2019, before the pandemic, were high-end visitors – those who spend an average of $5,500 in two weeks. “We are targeting higher segments, moving from backpacking to luxury travel,” says Angelica Matsuda, executive president of PromPeru.

However, tourism as a whole is still reeling from the Covid pandemic and the deadly protests against President Dina Bolwarte. Some airports and roads in the south were closed for months amid the outage, leaving Machu Picchu tourists stranded and others canceling their trips. “Tourism has collapsed,” says Trade and Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Mathews. Visitor numbers are still only about half their pre-Covid level and tourism’s contribution to Peru’s GDP has fallen to 2.2 percent this year.

In Titilaka, near the hot spot of the Juliaka protest, there is tension between the community and the hotel. Still, in a protected reserve on the lake where the Uro people live on the Totora Reed Islands, Samuel Pakompia, head of the small community that lives mainly on visitors, is happy that tourism is returning. “Things are now recovering and we hope to finally welcome more tourists,” he says from his thatched gondola.

“Peru has everything to start over, and we’re pushing it,” agrees Virginia Mamani, property manager at Andean, Macias’ company, which next month opens Puqio, a luxury tented camp in Colca Canyon.

Matthews believes that “if we don’t make any mistakes, if there are no insecurity issues,” Peru could welcome 3.1 million travelers next year as Cusco hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.

As he says, “There are attempts to raise the level of tourism to luxury tourism, people spending between $1,500 and $2,000 a day, something that will kind of ‘de-Machu-Picchu-exist’ a little bit as people go Arequipa, for example. Peru is becoming increasingly attractive in this sector – even in Cusco there are now more luxury tourists.

Chilean luxury desert operator Explora and Peru’s eco-travel pioneer Inkaterra are well established around Cusco. And since 2017, Belmond, the London-based owner of the only hotel next to Machu Picchu, has operated the Andean Explorer: the region’s first luxury sleeper train, connecting Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Peru’s second city, Arequipa.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site, backed by snow-capped volcanoes, hosts Hay Arequipa, an offshoot of the British Literature Festival, and is home to the 16th-century Convent of Santa Catalina, one of the most spectacular Catholic citadels in the Americas. The city also hosts the Chicha restaurant, run by Peru’s superstar chef Gastón Acurio. Across a cobblestone courtyard, vicuña wool jackets fetch $7,800.

Arequipa is where, in 2019, Macias opened Cirqa, a Relais & Châteaux hotel in the restored back rooms of a 1575 church. He also owns Atemporal, a Tudor-style Peruvian guesthouse next to the Huaca Pucllana, the base of a centuries-old pyramid in Lima.

Despite the recent troubles, Jose Koechlin von Stein, the hotelier and conservationist who is the founder and president of Inkaterra, which has seven luxury properties in Peru, is adamant. “Why would I invest anywhere else? Peru has it all. And worldly travelers know it.

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