Home to the great Inca empire, Peru has a wealth of historic sites, the most famous being the “Lost City” of Machu Picchu. But there are also compelling monuments in the beautiful city of Cusco, the Inca capital sacked by the conquistadores, who built their own churches and homes on the secure stone foundations of the previous civilization. The Sacred Valley, through which flows the Urubamba River — regarded by the Inca as an earthly equivalent of the Milky Way — is filled with charming towns, markets and impressive ruins such as the fortress at Ollantaytambo and the fascinating Inca agricultural experimentation station at Moray. Farther south, the Lake Titicaca region offers a rare glimpse of a centuries-old society little influenced by the modern world.
Peru consists of three main climatic areas: the dry and foggy coastal area (Lima); the Andes Mountains, with their distinct rainy season (Cusco); and the humid, rainy Amazon Basin. The dry months of June and August are the best time for a visit. From November to March, heavy rains occur in the mountains.
Founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, Lima is today a sprawling place ringed by shantytowns. From May to September, sea fog blankets the city. Nonetheless, Lima is the inevitable arrival point for foreign visitors and does possess some impressive Spanish Colonial buildings in its historic center. Several museums will also appeal to the inquisitive traveler, especially the Museo Larco, which displays one of the world’s largest collections of pre-Columbian art in an 18th-century colonial mansion constructed atop the remains of a seventh-century pyramid.
Once the imperial capital of the Incas, Cusco is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere and possesses a charming combination of Inca and Spanish colonial cultures. The surrounding hills look down on a harmonious array of sienna-colored buildings grouped around a series of plazas, including the Plaza de Armas (or Huacaypata), which was once the ceremonial center of the Inca empire. Cusco’s historic district also remains a popular place for processions, especially during Easter Week and Corpus Christi.
Many people will urge you to head straight to Machu Picchu (altitude 7,970 feet) from Lima, the primary reason being the former’s altitude, which makes the subsequent transition to Cusco (11,200 feet) somewhat easier. I’m not so sure. Providing that you take the first day or so in Cusco at an easy pace, the Inca sites in and around the city promote a much deeper understanding of the riches that await at Machu Picchu.
In Cusco, the Coricancha, or “Golden Temple,” is contained within the massive baroque Convento Santo Domingo. Before the Spanish conquest, it was the Temple of the Sun, the epicenter of the Inca empire, served by about 4,000 priests. At the summer solstice, a solid gold sun disc reflected light onto a throne where only the Inca emperor was entitled to sit.
We had a delightful meal at star chef Gastón Acurio’s stylish Chicha (Plaza Regocijo 261), set in a charming old colonial house. The menu is a blend of the contemporary and the classic, and we began with a trio of empanadas stuffed with beef and potatoes, spicy olluco (a local potato-like tuber) and stuffed rocoto pepper. We followed with pork adobo, thick slices of boneless pork in a delicious broth seasoned with chiles and peppers.
Carved by the rapids of the Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley is dotted with ingeniously engineered temples and citadels, especially in the villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. The latter preserves its original Inca layout, and strolling around the dramatic ruins of the fortress built into the walls of a steep gorge, it is easy to understand why this was the site of one of the rare Inca military victories over the Spanish. The Incas also constructed a complex system of agricultural terraces on the steep hillsides, which is still in use today.
One of the most intriguing sites we visited on our journey through the Sacred Valley was one that is not included on most tourist agendas, Moray, located almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor near the town of Maras. A striking construction, it consists of several concentric terraces set at different descending levels and is believed to have been an experimental agricultural station. Here it is thought the Incas tested the viability of different plants to develop those that would yield the best results.
Also near Maras you will find a fascinating field of salt mines with 3,000 small wells. Still an active working site, it has been used for salt since the Incas first began production here.
The Sacred Valley is the route from the Andean highlands to the jungle and therefore has access to the fruits and plants of the tropical lowlands. It also served the Incas as a buffer zone, shielding Cusco from raids by fierce jungle tribes like the Antis.
Cradled by jungle-covered mountains at an altitude of 7,970 feet, Machu Picchu is a labyrinth of mysterious gray stones; the surrounding rock spires seem to form a kind of gigantic natural cathedral. The fabled “Lost City of the Incas” was unknown to the outside world until Yale professor Hiram Bingham brought it to global attention in 1911. The Incas built this extraordinary sanctuary in the mid-1400s — its precise function is still in dispute — but abandoned it almost a century later. Untouched by the Spanish conquistadores, Machu Picchu survived intact for centuries, hidden by dense vegetation. (Starting July 1, visitors will only be allowed to enter the site with a tour guide, and timed entry will be limited to either morning or afternoon.)
Machu Picchu can be reached in a civilized manner via the Hiram Bingham train owned by Belmond and operated by PeruRail. The evocative train consists of two dining cars, a bar car and a sumptuously appointed blue-and-gold observation carriage seating up to 84 passengers. The 100-minute ride ends at Aguas Calientes, where passengers board a waiting bus for the final 30-minute leg up a switchback to Machu Picchu.
The soaring outcrop of rock that provides the dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu is called Huayna Picchu. Four hundred daily permits are issued for the one-hour climb to the summit. The views are stupendous, but be warned: The path is exposed and at times slippery. (It is often closed during the rainy season.)