The Peruvian city of Cusco, some 11,000 feet (3,360 m) above sea level, was at one time the capital of the ancient Incas. Having lost its noble title with the end of the Incan civilization, the city now suffers the indignity of being called the “Gringo Capital of Latin America.”
Throughout the year, but especially during the tourist high season, from April through November, visitors fill the streets, almost all enroute to see the towering majesty of Machu Picchu.
For many, Cusco, a beautiful and interesting city in its own right, is the place for purchasing Pablo Neruda poetry, developing photos, and for a privileged few, eating at the only Michelin-starred restaurant in South America.
But if you ever find yourself delayed enroute or just lingering, one hotel in Cusco stands above all others. Not by the luxuries, but because all profits go toward raising and feeding underprivileged Peruvian children.
Niños Hotel has been operating since 1998. At the helm is Titus Bovenberg and Jolanda van den Berg, with their large family. The hotel is a simple affair, tucked away a few blocks from the city center (Plaza de Armas) in the suburb of Calle Meloc.
The hotel’s main entrance opens onto a gracious courtyard where travelers often curl up in a chair with a good book and a cup of coffee. The hotel rooms, which surround the courtyard, are not identified by numbers; rather, each room is named for one of the street children supported by the project. Artworks by the children adorn the walls.
The hotel offers comfortable accommodations with private (US$ 34 per night) or shared bathrooms (US$ 28 per night). The private bathrooms have showers only, but travelers should note that water in the dry Andes is a scarce commodity, and conservation is much appreciated by the locals. While the hotel has no central heating, all the rooms have portable heaters and plenty of warm Peruvian blankets.
The beds are comfortable and the décor is clean-lined, with Swedish leanings. While there are no phones in the room, the front-desk staff tries very hard to make sure messages are kept and sent. And if you get bored sitting in your room, bare of televisions or radios, the welcoming café on the first floor has a warm fire going in the winter months, plenty of books to share and occasional fellow travelers with whom to exchange tales.
The story of Niños Hotel is a moving one. In December 1995, Dutch travelers Titus and Jolanda vacationed in Peru, mainly to see the Amazon jungle. Traveling through Cusco, the couple saw children — not in schools, but on the streets, selling fruit or postcards, shining shoes or begging for money. Moved by the state of the children, many of them living on the streets, Jolanda gave up her comfortable life in the Netherlands and returned to Cusco.
From her savings and donations from home, Jolanda was able to rent a house and shelter five street children. It wasn’t long before Titus joined her and the growing family.
Not wanting to rely solely on donations from the Netherlands to support them and their children, numbering 12 by now, the couple sought alternative means.
The idea of a hotel appealed to both of them, especially since the children, all boys at the time, could learn a trade in the hotel, and the guests could act as natural advertisers for their cause and the children’s plight. The problem was finding the start-up investment.
When Jolanda visited friends and family in Holland, she spoke with the proprietor of a cheese shop where the couple had lived. It was said that no customer could leave the shop that day without first listening to the story of the Peruvian children. One of those customers wanted to meet with Jolanda on her short visit home.
Over coffee, Jolanda explained the project and what they hoped to accomplish, and to her great astonishment, her plans of starting a hotel came to miraculous fruition. Just like that, she was provided with the funds to purchase a home suitable for a hotel in Cusco. The donor simply said, “I will give you that money … I believe your hotel will be a success.”
The family chose a 17th century colonial house, which they remodeled. And in June 1998, the Niños Hotel in Calle Meloc opened. The couple lived, and still live, in the back with their ever-growing family. Although neither Jolanda nor Titus had any experience in the hospitality industry, the hotel became a success.
The couple has since started other ventures, including another Niños Hotel in Cusco and four free restaurants exclusively for underprivileged children — the Niños Children’s Restaurants.
All profits from the hotels help to feed more than 500 children a day at the children’s restaurants, as well as provide them with warm showers, medical and dental care, homework help and sports lessons. The profits also support foster families that adopt street children.
If You Go
The Niños Hotels are very popular, so book well in advance. They accept only cash, so remember to have sufficient U.S. or Peruvian funds to pay your bill.