Cusco has undergone an invasion of tourists in recent years. Minty Clinch mingles with the new conquistadors.
My head reeled as I stepped out on to the streets of Cusco after nearly 40 years, and not only because of the altitude. To my surprise, the Plaza de Armas, formerly closed and glum, was vibrant with life. The trees in the middle have gone, cut down illegally on a Sunday by a mayor accustomed to getting his own way. The locals miss the familiarity and the shade, but the open perspective dominated by the great 16th-century cathedral is undeniably impressive.
In the Seventies, Andean Indians set out their wares under the arcades that surround the square. Whenever a stranger passed, Quechua chatter gave way to begging. Before the sponsored gap year, foreigners were rare and on low budgets, unable to help much with the struggle to survive in a very cold climate.
In the 21st century, Cusco is witnessing an explosion of posh lodgings, gastro restaurants, well-designed museums and boutiques that will charge a couple of hundred dollars for an alpaca hat. For this it can thank Hiram Bingham, the enterprising Yale academic who "rediscovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. In Cusco, 70 miles away, the ripple effect signalled the end of four centuries of inertia: over the next century, the former Inca capital emerged as the hub for the greatest tourist honeypot in South America.
In August 2012, President Ollanta Humala announced plans for a £280 million airport to replace the current dismal gateway, earmarking land in Chinchero, 20 miles out of town, for the project. The location, above the Sacred Valley of the Incas, would allow visitors to access trains to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo rather than Cusco. The town has its own spectacular Inca ruins and, at 2,972m to Cusco's 3,400m, makes for an easier adjustment to high altitude.
Contemporary Peru, which these days is ever more prominent on world foodie maps, is a tale of three chefs, two of them well established in Cusco. Thirty-five-year-old Virgilio Martínez, the man who opened Lima in London in 2012, rules at Senzo in Palacio Nazarenas. Born in Lima, he trawled the altiplano (high plains) over three years to source such ingredients as purple maize, the acclaimed super food quinoa and a high-altitude selection of Peru's 300 varieties of potato.
In terms of age and world domination, his former mentor, Gastón Acurio, is 10 years ahead, with restaurants in New York, Madrid, San Francisco and major cities throughout Latin America. Some are temples of gastronomy like Senzo, but Chicha, his Cusco enterprise, is cheerfully informal. Named after the local maize beer – until recently spitting was the accepted aid to fermentation – it serves large groups and loners eating at the bar with equal aplomb. It also makes magic out of cuy, the humble guinea pig now upgraded from poor man's street snack to Andean delicacy.
Karl-Heinz and Gudrun Horner strike a more personal note at Granja Heidi, cosy and organic as befits a location in the San Blas artistic quarter. They offer menus featuring products from their dairy farm outside town and San Pedro market, a must for all foodie visitors.
After dinner, it's pub time. Norton Rats is an American night out, with pool tables and pisco sours. Paddy's is the self-styled highest Irish pub in the world, with the added value of shepherd's pie, Guinness and the Premier League on plasma. Best of all is the Cross Keys, time-warped in the Seventies when the English owner, Barry Walker, left his homeland. Anyone for a game of darts?