Cuzco, Peru

The Honeymooners
Photo: Frank Schwere for New York Magazine

Cindy Weaver, president of the fashion label Abaeté, and Andrew McLaughlin, chief policy counsel at Google, had their first date in Ghana, where they ate at a restaurant propped on stilts over a marsh crawling with alligators. They’ve traveled to Cyprus, Turkey, and Uruguay, and last January Andrew proposed in the Spanish Pyrenees. It’s no surprise, then, that they’re seeking an exotic destination for their honeymoon. But not too exotic. “Andrew wants to do a motorcycle trip in Mongolia,” says Cindy, “but that probably isn’t going to happen.”

Try Cuzco

The slopes of the Andes. Photo Credit: Lonely Planet

It began with retching. My wife and I had been married for barely a month and were still unschooled in the full range of intimacies of domestic bliss when we landed in Cuzco, Peru—a city of 300,000 whose Inca name means “navel of the Earth”—after a long, dehydrating day and night of travel. We settled into our guesthouse, the Orquidea Real Hostel, whose considerable charms, including pastel tile floors and exposed and weathered wood beams, tallied less than the cost of a single at Motel 6. We were greeted with a soothing confection called maté de coca, steeped from leaves that would, in the U.S., attract the attention of John Ashcroft, and were urged to rest before venturing out into what was ominously referred to as altura, Cuzco’s oxygen-thin air, 11,000 feet above sea level. I dismissed the advice. I had spent plenty of time in high-altitude towns—I was thinking of Aspen and Santa Fe—and was eager to start wandering Cuzco’s narrow Colonial-era byways, hemmed in the bottom of a broad valley by the sheer green slopes of the Andes. From the window of our room, the morning light played across a vista of uneven terra-cotta rooftops and medieval-style church spires. I saw a barefoot woman in elaborately pleated skirts and a flat-topped hat leading a llama down a steep passageway of stone steps not far away. I called my wife over for a look.

She was curled on the bed with a throbbing headache. I thought she was being sensitive. When her body aches began, though, I felt the first stirrings of my own headache. And as her condition progressed—chills, nausea, fatigue—mine caught up. We pulled the shades. We moaned—and not in the manner newlyweds prefer. Every so often, we opened our eyes long enough to curse the distant, seemingly continuous strains of “El Condor Pasa”—known to those who have suffered the Simon and Garfunkel version as “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” Yes, I would, I thought. If I only could.

For us, the romance with Cuzco began the moment our dreary honeymoon with altitude sickness ended. When we emerged from our throes, the town turned out not to have been a fever dream. As the onetime capital of the Inca empire, whose brief but amazingly prolific rule extended from Colombia to Chile, Cuzco occupies a position in Inca lore akin to that of Rome in Catholicism or Constantinople in Byzantine culture. For many travelers, Cuzco is the base from which to set out for the royal ruins of Machu Picchu, 70 miles away. (For active types, the area also offers river rafting, trail riding, mountain biking, and some of the best trekking this side of the Himalayas.) But the town has its own magical attractions, and a vibrant, funky spirit that is equal parts Andean mysticism and East Village hipness.

The center of town is the Plaza de Armas, lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels catering to tourists, and anchored by a seventeenth-century Spanish cathedral built on the remnants of an Inca fortress. The interior of the cathedral is a glorious clutter of influences that gives renewed meaning to the term Baroque: a blinding centerpiece of hammered silver, mirrored altars that evoke outsize disco balls, choir stalls carved in fantastic detail. A painting of the Last Supper shows Jesus sitting in front of a platter of the local specialty, cuy—better known to pet-shop aficionados as guinea pig. Not far away is Cuzco’s best museum, the Museo de Arte Precolombino, whose exhibits of pottery and ceremonial objects are a revelation of the genius of Peru’s craft traditions. My favorite area of central Cuzco hovers a few hundred vertical feet above the Plaza, in the San Blas neighborhood, with a jewel box of a cathedral sitting in a serene little square surrounded by artisans’ shops and cafés—a tranquil spot for watching night fall, and seeing the silhouette of the mountains in moonlight.

As my wife and I gained confidence in our respiratory capacity (and the resiliency of our vows), we took a stiff half-hour walk up a ridge that affords a stunning view of the valley. The plateau across from the ridge is occupied by enigmatic and awe-inspiring Inca ruins, the most notable of which, Sacsayhuamán (pronounce it “sexy woman” if you want to give the locals a good laugh), makes Stonehenge look like casual labor. The ruins—a succession of jagged walls, assembled from massive granite boulders carved and fitted together in intricate patterns—may have functioned as a fortress, or a temple, or both. Cattle now roam on the grass, and Cuzco families picnic there.

Andean villagers descend on Cuzco to peddle their wares, and though we are reluctant shoppers, my wife and I left town with a bag filled with wedding gifts for ourselves: alpaca sweaters, delicate pottery, sublime handmade weavings colored with dyes from local plants. Cuzco’s central market is a sprawling bazaar where all manner of spices and vegetables and a dizzying array of animal parts are displayed alongside piles of old hardware, and where rows of tables are crammed with diners eating heaping doses of seviche for under a buck.

Cuzco doesn’t have to be cheap: For those in pursuit of typical honeymoon-style indulgences, there are four-star hotels in converted colonial mansions, and plenty of high-end restaurants. And if you want to hang out at a dance club that is more meatpacking district than Andean vision quest, no problem. But you wouldn’t be in Cuzco if you didn’t try an alpaca steak for dinner, or indulge yourself, as I did one night, in a celebratory feast of guinea pig. I like to think of it as the culmination of my wedding banquet: a rodent, indeed, and bony and lean, but a genuine delicacy—a vivid taste of a millennium-old culture. Try it yourself, but don’t be tricked by your waiter’s soft-sell. It doesn’t taste like chicken.

The El Monasterio hotel (51-84-24-1777;; from $303), a restored seventeenth-century seminary, is luxurious and romantic. The Orquidea Real Hostel (51-84-22-1662; from $44) is simple and charming. Try Inka Grill (51-84-26-2992) for “novo Andean” cuisine—alpaca and guinea pig prepared with Continental fussiness.

Cuzco, Peru