Next Stop, Peru!

Luxury on the rails leads to fully restored respite at a new Orient Express hotel.

Almost all furnishings and decorative accessories in both the rooms and public spaces were created by local artisans and craftspeople.

Steaming from Machu Picchu en route to Cusco, the train turns into one big party. Not just any train, mind you: the Hiram Bingham, a grand Orient Express locomotive (orient-express.com). Most of us on the three-hour rail journey expect what we’ve all seen in Orient Express ads —white tablecloth-clad tables; an elegant, wood-paneled dining car; natty waiters; monogrammed everything. We get all this, plus a Pisco-fueled singing and dancing fiesta in a bar car filled with Peruvians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and a handful of Americans. It’s the proverbial party train—rocking in the middle of rural Peru. Arriving in Cusco, tipsy and sated (and well before we know what’s happening), we’re spirited off to a convent. Correction: former convent.

Passing under a Spanish coat of arms through oversized glass doors, we enter Palacio Nazarenas (palacionazarenas.com), the newest boutique property in the Orient Express portfolio. The 55-room Peruvian hotel—a palace at one point, too—occupies a 16th century building in a charming square in a UNESCO World Heritage city. Once the center of the Incan empire, it’s here that Incas conquered Spaniards and Jesuit priests. It’s also the survivor of at least two massive earthquakes, which toppled much of the town, before it was eventually bestowed to the Beatas of the Order of Barefoot Nazarenes, a group of uncloistered religious women (who, though not officially nuns, lived like ones). Together they operated an orphanage and school for about 250 years.

When Orient Express officially took hold of the property—a designated national landmark—in 1999, it had been vacated for about 30 years. Admits General Manager Stephan Post, “We got it in a bad state.” It was in such poor condition, it took more than seven years to secure permits and get renovation plans approved, and another four to actually complete it. Tapped to spearhead the ambitious overhaul, Lima-based architect Enrique Palacio—boasting an involvement in the renovation of the Hotel Monasterio, another Orient Express property situated next door to Palacio Nazarenas—knew the drill. “We had to keep most of the original architecture of the building, and the architecture of the new building had to be kept within that context as well,” he explains. “Daily inspections [with] authorities from the Instituto Nacional de Cultura and the Municipality [ensured] we were complying, especially when we started to find artifacts during the excavation process.”

This collection of rarities—about 80,000 in total, unearthed and cataloged by six on-site archaeologists still being registered with authorities—range from tiny ceramic fragments and ancient water channels to colonial fountains and pre-Hispanic walls (painstakingly removed brick by brick, then numbered, cleaned and re-sited in the same place). Incan foundations made of mud, stone and eucalyptus beams were reinforced in similar fashion.

Likewise, hotel suites in four categories benefit from meticulous attention to detail but are far less complicated. One assumes that living quarters for the cloistered, like the property’s former residents, will be small. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. At Palacio Nazarenas, rooms are positioned nearly the same as they were when the property was acquired, save for interior walls built to separate spacious bathrooms from main sleeping and sitting areas. Falling under the purview of Janna Rapaport, interiors are less modern than initially envisioned. “Originally I took some traditional furniture designs and cleaned them up, got rid of a lot of the detail,” recalls the Santa Fe-based architect and interior designer, who has experience designing other Peruvian properties. “But some of [the] rooms are really big, and where we ended up was probably a better place. I brought in Oriental carpets and more carved furniture, so the rooms are more what people [expect to find in] Peru, and the furniture fills the space a little better.”

Complementing the mostly locally sourced furnishings—Oriental rugs and bedside lamps being two of the only exceptions—is Rapaport-designed embroidery on silky-smooth Pima cotton sheets (a gold-embellished religious cape at Lima’s Pedro de Osman museum inspired the motif). Add to this an elegantly contemporary take on traditional Peruvian pottery, used to contain various items in the bathrooms, by well-known Lima ceramicist Tater Vera. Praising the woodworkers at her disposal, Rapaport says, “You could wave your hands and just say, ‘Do this,’ and they would.” Vanities, closets and, in some cases, bathtub bases are evidence of their on-site artisanship. So too is ornate decorative painting in the bathrooms from Julio Ninantay (“a master,” remarks Rapaport). “I love the organic, voluptuous floral designs,” she adds. “Many churches and historic homes in the region are covered in [the] folkloric style of painting.”

Embellishments continue at Senzo, the hotel restaurant, helmed by chef Virgilio Martinez. Diners enjoy culinary indulgences served with custom-designed Christofle flatware, engraved with an all-over floral pattern. At Hypnoze spa, two of the five treatment rooms boast glass floors exposing Incanera walls beneath—the perfect porthole to the hotel’s rich past. Ultimately, these details combine to achieve Rapaport’s vision to create “an elegance of simplicity” that still feels luxurious.

Providing perhaps the best of all summations, Post says, “As a hotelier it’s important to be able to offer a living museum.” With that, Palacio Nazarenas takes its place in history.