Check in: This sustainable art hotel makes the perfect Cusco base

Housed in a restored heritage building covered in flower murals hand-painted by local artists, El Retablo is one of central Cusco’s most characterful and good-value boutique hotels. Run by Mountain Lodges of Peru, one of Peru’s sustainable tourism pioneers, this cosy bed and breakfast is a great go-to if nearby sister-hotel El Mercado is full, or a little too pricey for your budget.

Rooms are furnished with luxe traditional textiles and folk art © Sarah Reid

Rooms are furnished with luxe traditional textiles and folk art © Sarah Reid

The rooms

Contemporary comfort meets traditional folk art at El Retablo, where all 17 guestrooms are furnished with beautifully embroidered bed runners and cushions, bespoke murals, and little paper mâché figurines that look like they escaped from the retablos (a sophisticated Andean artform) that adorn the lobby. Rooms wrap around a small, shaded courtyard, and superior deluxe rooms come with small balconies and city glimpses. The beds are super comfy, and the bathrooms are modern, if a little cramped. I loved the amenities, but it would be great if they were provided in reusable dispensers rather than in single-use portions.

The vibe

While anyone can book a room at El Retablo, many guests tie in a stay with an MLP journey (the company currently offers three tours – I was travelling on the Lares and Sacred Valley Adventure to Machu Picchu, which you can read more about in the March/April 2018 issue of the UK’s Adventure Travel Magazine), so if you’ve chosen the hotel for its sustainable luxury credentials, you’ll find like-minded souls here. Hang out in the courtyard if you’re keen to mingle.

El Retablo brings new meaning to the concept of an art hotel © Sarah Reid

El Retablo brings new meaning to the concept of an art hotel © Sarah Reid

The service

Like MLP’s signature lodges, El Retablo, which opened in late 2016, has a wonderfully intimate feel. The staff is kind, helpful, and there always seems to be someone around when you need something. Rooms are pristine, the lovely breakfast is served on time, and the tea station in the lobby is always well-stocked (handy if you’re feeling the altitude and need a coca tea fix). The turndown service is a nice touch, and I was especially chuffed to find a little birthday cake in my room on the evening I checked in, having celebrated 30-odd years on this planet the day prior.

The menu

There’s no formal restaurant at El Retablo, but breakfast is top-notch. The perfectly adequate continental spread (including fresh fruit and locally grown seeds like chia) is complemented by a tempting a la carte hot menu (hint: the crepes are fantastic). I enjoyed one dinner at La Bodeguita, the informal restaurant at El Mercado, but there are plenty of other great places to eat in town.

Most creative hotel lobby ever? © Sarah Reid

Most creative hotel lobby ever? © Sarah Reid

The bar

There’s no bar at El Retablo, but the hotel hosts a ‘pisco sour hour’ every evening in its central courtyard, with discount cocktails and live music. It’s perfect, really.

Sustainability kudos

Like all MLP hotels and lodges, El Retablo is plastic water bottle-free. Two complimentary glass bottles of water per person are replenished daily in guestrooms, but these small bottles weren’t enough to get me through the night. It would be great to see El Retablo introduce larger bottles to help prevent wastage (the bottles might be recyclable, but the less to recycle, the better) or make filtered water available in the traditional ceramic jugs MLP uses at its lodges. Tip: if you have your own bottle, you can refill it in the breakfast room.

MLP is also dedicated to empowering local people through its tourism projects, and you only have to poke your head into the lobby to see what a wonderful opportunity El Retablo has created for local artists to showcase their skills and culture to an international audience.

For more info on sustainable travel in the Machu Picchu region, check out this article I wrote for Lonely Planet.

Cusco is one of South America’s most beautiful cities © Sarah Reid

Cusco is one of South America’s most beautiful cities © Sarah Reid

The location

El Retablo is only three blocks from the Plaza de Armas, but due to the altitude (Cusco sits at 3400m), the uphill walk from town is likely to leave you a bit puffed. It’s about five minutes walk downhill to El Mercado, a three-minute hike up to Plaza San Cristobal for great views over the city, and the fascinating ruins of Sacsayhuaman are just 400m away.

The important stuff

Free w-ifi? Yes
Breakfast included? Yes
Room service? No
Luggage storage? Yes
Child-friendly? Yes

Thanks to Mountain Lodges of Peru and Cox & Kings for supporting my recent trip to Peru. Cox & Kings has a 10-day, eight-night private tour priced from £3,495 per person including flights, private transfers, one night in Lima, three nights in Cuzco and the five-night Lares Mountain Lodges of Peru trek.