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Cuzco and Urubamba Valley
Old pre -Colombian capital, where Spanish and the Inca cultures has emerged into a distinct local; embarkation point for the trek by train to Machu Picchu.
The “Home of Gods,” as the Incas referred to it, is also known as the archaeological capital of the Americas as it reflects the image of different highly developed ancient civilization. The oldest continuously inhabited city in South America has been the capital of the largest pre-Colombian empires: “Tiwantinsuyo “, of the Inca empire and later used by the Spanish as a colonial settlement. Today it is a charming city with cobblestone streets and home of the mestizo culture of today.
Cuzco is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the “new world”, and has been a center for diverse cultures and empires for over 500 years. As a result, the city is deservedly renowned as the “archeological center of the Americas”, and is the primary tourist destination in Peru, if not all of South America. However, despite the hordes that flock to Cuzco throughout the year, the city staunchly maintains its authentic traditional character, as evidenced by the colorful locals who welcome and mix freely with the cosmopolitan mix of travelers in the streets, plazas, markets, and archeological sites.
One could spend weeks or even months in Cuzco without seeing everything; therefore, careful research, planning and preparation are necessary prior to arrival. Even so, you should budget extra time to explore the many fascinating nooks and crannies that you will discover after you arrive. At the very least, plan to purchase a Cuzco “Visitor’s Ticket” (Boleto Turistico del Cusco), which allows access to many of the principal sites in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley over a ten-day period, including six museums (the Santa Catalina Monastery and Art Museum, Contemporary Art Museum, Museum of Regional History, Qoricancha, and Popular Art Museum), the Cuzco Center for Native Art and Folklore Dances, the Pachacuteq Monument, and nine separate Inca ruins (Saqsaywayman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay, Chinchero, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Tipon, and Pikillacta).
The Santa Catalina Art Museum and Monastery is a fascinating site founded in 1601 by the “Virgin of the Remedies” (who also founded St. Catalina in Arequipa). The monastery was built atop the ruins of Aclluhuasi, and Inca “house of the chosen women”, who were the “virgins of the sun”. Part of the original ruins may still be seen along Loreto Street. The monastery itself is much smaller, less ornate and less well maintained than the Santa Catalina in Arequipa, but offers the finest and most comprehensive collection of painters from the Cuzco school, whose ornate work is characterized by flowery design and details, gold leaf, and non-traditional perspective and proportions. The school flourished in 16th-18th century, and all its artists are anonymous. Also on display is the “Lagar Divino”, the divine winepress.
Three of the museums on the visitors’ ticket (Contemporary Art, Qoricancha, and Popular Art) are small and can be visited in approximately an hour each. The “Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo y Danzas Folkloricas” showcases nightly performances of traditional regional music and dance. The performances last for about two hours, and are a nice activity for the early evening. The Pachacuteq Monument is a huge hollow statue of the famous Inca ruler, with a staircase that leads to a lookout at the top of the statue.
The rest of the sites on the “Visitors’ Ticket” (Sacsaywayman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay, Chinchero, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Tipon, and Pikillacta) all lie within an hour or two of Cuzco, and are described in the “Sacred Valley ” section.
In addition to the “Visitors Ticket”, the “Churches ticket” is a worthwhile purchase that allows access to three of the most spectacular religious sites in Cuzco: the Cathedral complex (which also houses Sagrada Familia and Templo de Triunfo), the Arzobispado with its Religious Art Museum, and San Blas Church, whose pulpit showcases exquisite examples of colonial woodcarvings that rival those found in the cathedral.
While the Plaza de Armas is the natural starting point for touring the city, the Museu del Inka should be the starting point for a cultural and archeological orientation. This spacious museum on the Plaza del Tricentenario presents an excellent general overview of the many pre-Colombian indigenous cultures, the Spanish conquest, and the ensuing colonial period. Although the information in the exhibits is rather general, it provides an excellent primer for recognizing and distinguishing the different cultures, artistic styles, and periods. There are details of the Inca origin myths of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, as well as interesting exhibits on pre-Inca civilizations, Inca practices such as cranial deformation and surgery, the rise and consolidation of the Inca empire (“Tawantinsuyo”), the history of Qhapaq Rami and Inti Rami (the winter and summer solstice celebrations), and the plight of the Incas who fled to the jungles to escape the Spanish invaders.
After you have explored the museum, spend the rest of the afternoon in and around the Plaza de Armas, taking time to visit the vast cathedral complex. The Cathedral is open for services as well as for general viewing. Entry is free during mass, but access to the area behind the altar at the rear of the church is restricted. Since this area contains some of the most spectacular carvings, it is worth visiting the Cathedral twice: once during mass to see and experience the warm and colorful residents of Cuzco during the beautiful service, and once during the daytime for a more careful inspection of the altar and ornate carvings in the rear of the church. Photographs are prohibited, so be sure to allot plenty of time to fully appreciate the woodcarvings and altars in the Cathedral, which are as fine as any in Europe. Of particular interest are the carved centerpiece of the Cathedral, and the hauntingly beautiful Christ figure, the “Señor de Los Temblores”. Daytime visitors will enter the complex through the Church to the immediate left of the Cathedral, then proceed through the Cathedral and finally to an annex that also contains the tomb of early Peruvian historian and national hero Garcilaso de La Vega, whose mother was Inca and father was Spanish. His most famous work, “Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas” (published in 1609) is a brave first-hand account of the Spanish conquest and early colonial period in Peru.
After visiting the sites on the Plaza de Armas, continue along Calle Tucuman past the Inca Museum up to Plaza Nazarena, where you will find the magnificent five-star Hotel Monasterio, the Pre-Colombian Art Museum and San Antonio Abad chapel. The Precolombian Art Museum is one of the most interesting and least-know sites in Cuzco, and is a perfect end-of-day option before or after dinner (the museum is open each night until nine). The commentary on the magnificent pottery, jewelry, armor and weapons is more stylistic than historical, but the works on display are the finest and most perfectly preserved examples of the various forms of craftsmanship that characterized the many pre-Colombian cultures. After visiting Plaza Nazarena, proceed down Calle Palácio to Plazoleta Jesus Lambari, with its lovely fountain and galleries. There are also numerous shops along Calle Triunfo as it descends towards the Plaza de Armas.
Follow Calle Hathanrumiyoq past the Museum of Religious Art, and take time to appreciate the famous Inca wall and 12-sided stone that line the narrow passageway leading up to Plaza San Blas, with its lovely church and beautiful modern fountain. San Blas is the cultural, historical and artistic heart of Cuzco, and unquestionably the city’s most charming neighborhood. There are literally hundreds of excellent restaurants, stores, galleries, cafes, shops and ateliers located along the thin, cobblestone streets and passages that fill this steep hillside district. If at all possible, you should try to find a hotel in San Blas, which is also the most peaceful and comfortable neighborhood in Cuzco, and within walking distance of all the most interesting sites in Cuzco.
Besides the many great dining options in and around San Blas, there are others on Calle Maruri (near Qoricancha), and also on the Plaza de Armas, where you will also find scores of tour companies. Be forewarned that there are many street children in Cuzco, principally around the Plaza de Armas, who will accost you to ask for money. Although some are petty thieves, most are simply lonely, hungry, and looking for company, so its best to be patient, polite, and maintain a sense of humor whenever possible. Refrain from leading them on, since any “promises” to provide food or money “next time” are taken quite seriously, and you will certainly encounter the same children again and again during your stay in Cuzco.
Saqsaywayman is a spellbinding site atop the hill at the far North end of Cuzco, and is accessible by foot via a steep path at the top end of Calle Palácio in San Blas. It is probably the most interesting Inca site after Machu Picchu and Pisac, and requires several hours to adequately explore, since there is both a main site and a nearby complex of mysterious canals, amphitheaters, and reservoirs. Known to the Incas as the “house of the sun”, this enormous site forms the head of the puma-shaped layout of Cuzco. The central zig-zag structure has 3 levels, thought to represent the three levels of existence: the underworld (ruled by the serpent), the terrestrial world (ruled by the puma), and the heavens (ruled by the condor). At the top of the third level, there is a huge circular structure thought to be an observatory and storage facility. Evidence has been found for the existence of three towers – a rectangular tower with two pillars to support a lunar observatory, another tower next to a large pool used for stellar observation, and a third as-yet undiscovered tower for which exploratory excavations are currently underway. The temples of the Sun and Moon are nearby, and it appears that only the highest-ranking sacerdotes had access to this level. Some of the irregularly shaped polygonal rocks that comprise the central structure weigh close to 120 tons, and were said to require 3000 men to move into position. These rocks originally formed when Cuzco was under water nearly 40000 years ago (you can still see shells in many boulders), and were supposedly taken from an adjacent quarry above the site. Guides will call your attention to formations in the walls that resemble llamas, serpents, condors, and pumas. The site’s second largest boulder (approx. 88 tons) is the “energy stone”, and is famous for its eleven angles.
About Urubamba Valley (“Sacred Valley”)
While Cuzco may be the heart of the Inca Empire, the Sacred Valley represents the most complete and expressive manifestation of the formidable Inca culture and lifestyle. Each of the sites has its own unique splendor, yet all display the central theme of Inca architecture – the sublime structural imitation of natural landscape features, and the deft incorporation of existing geologic formations into the these structures.
The Incas subjugated vast populations by conquering and fortifying the hills high above the valleys below. As a result, the ruins of most Inca sites can be difficult to reach, so take a sturdy pair of hiking boots and prepare for all weather conditions – rain and snow, hot, direct sun and cold, strong winds (carry a windbreaker and sweatshirt for cold evenings). To fully appreciate the brilliance of Inca construction, it also helps to have a compass, since most central architectural features are aligned with the solar and lunar cycles, and were used to denote important points in these cycles.
There are far more sites in the Sacred Valley than anyone could reasonably hope to see, but many are easily visited by taking day trips from Cuzco. Four sites on the “visitors’ ticket” (Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Qenko and Sacsayhuaman) are only a short ride from Cuzco. The first two are minor sites of uncertain origin and use – Tambomachay is thought to have been a water temple or royal resort, while Puka Pukara was probably a garrison and/or storage facility. Qenko (Quechua for “zigzag”) is larger and even more cryptic: the site was built in concentric rings that seem to emanate from an exotic natural volcanic rock formation, and there are small stone blocks arranged in a semicircle directly in front of this formation. There is also what appears to be a throne hewn out of stone, and a tunnel carved into the central formation that leads to an alter inside a small chamber with a sacrificial stone flanked by a few small channels. Several sets of steps were carved into the central formation, and at the top there are two small circular pools that were possibly used for star watching. However, the two pools cast a shadow resembling a puma’s face when the sun rises due east on the summer solstice.
The other Sacred Valley sites on the visitors’ ticket are within an hour or two of Cuzco. Life continues in the rural valley much as it has for the past 1000 years, and subsistence farming is still the way of life throughout most of the picturesque villages and countryside. Living standards are still quite low in many of these villages, so those seeking luxury should not expect to find it outside of Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
The Tipon water temple is a less-visited site about an hour from central Cuzco. The temple lies about 5 km from the highway atop a steep hill, and is a wonderful example of symmetric Inca construction. The site itself is rather simple, but the rustic rural setting is perfect for relaxation and introspection, and the gorgeous walk from the site back down through the village to the highway is a veritable journey through history, where you will see farmers irrigating their small terraced plots with acequias, young boys herding livestock, and other examples of the pastoral rural Peruvian lifestyle that has survived for centuries.
Pisac is undoubtedly the most spectacular Inca site apart from Machu Picchu, and the charming village, located in the heart of the Sacred Valley, hosts one of the busiest and most famous markets in all of Peru. Although there is market activity every day of the week, the greatest concentration of vendors and tourists occurs on Thursday and Sunday. You can find leather, woven goods, jewelry, clothing, rugs, and a host of other goods and souvenirs. Bargaining is expected. The ruins are perched high atop a mountain directly above the city, and are accessible via a steep, strenuous trail that winds up through ancient terracing to an entrance through a stone wall at the ruins’ lowest point. However, most visitors prefer to arrive at the ruins by taxi and make their way back to the village on foot, taking in the spectacular vistas of the Urubamba Valley on the way. The ruins are the most extensive of any in the Sacred Valley, so plan on spending an entire morning and/or afternoon.
The ancient village of Ollantaytambo lies at the “end of the road”, about an hour from Pisac. From here, visitors wishing to range further up the Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, and into the jungle beyond must do so by train or via the famous “Inca trail”. Train tickets must be purchased in Cuzco at the station at the corner of Avenidas Sol and Pachacutec. Prices vary by access point, destination, and class of service, and sell out frequently, so be sure to buy in advance. From Ollantaytambo, the tracks continue northward up the valley along the rushing whitewater Urubamba River towards Aguas Calientes. The “Inca trail” also begins nearby, although many other fine examples of “Inca trails” may be seen across the valley from the ruins at Ollantaytambo, as well as some of the original stone quarries from which the site’s stones were mined. There are many well-preserved examples of the different types of Inca construction at this site: temples (which were constructed with the finest quality stones and finest stoneworking), homes (built of medium quality bricks, with steeply arched roofs), and soldiers’ barracks (built with ordinary mud and stone bricks and covered with stucco). There are also several unexcavated sites across from the main temple that are accessible to adventurous visitors along a very steep and unmaintained path. The village itself is perhaps the finest remaining example of Inca town planning – the original layout has been preserved, and the buildings, aqueducts, bridges, and terracing are fine examples of Inca construction and hydraulic engineering. Life also continues at much the same pace, with weekend and daily markets, farming and animal husbandry.
Chinchero is a charming village about an hour from Cuzco. Its boasts one of the most beautiful churches in all of Peru, along with a thriving market. The church was built (as were many Spanish colonial structures) upon the enormous temple foundation stones originally set by the Incas. There are many lovely woodcarvings and paintings, and the church entrance is especially beautiful. The views from the courtyard of the Sacred Valley and the white-capped peaks beyond are phenomenal.
The ruins at Piquillacta are one of the few surviving examples from the Wari people, who ruled the region from about 600 to 1000 AD.
- The Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor: This central place, known in Inca times as “Huacaypata” or Warriors Square, was the scenery of many key events in the history of Cuzco.
- Koricancha: This Temple of Inti (the supreme god – the sun), the main Inca temple, is a masterpiece of the Inca architecture. The temple is built in blocks of carved granite and smelted gold in the junctures of the blocks. Originally, the whole walls of the temple were covered with gold plates and it was surrounded by a gold cornice. Inside the temple was an artificial garden construction with different sculptures, e.g. trees, birds, animals, etc. which were also represented in gold.
Sacsayhuamanu: This ruin is an imposing example of Incan military architecture. The fortress was built by using large slabs of granite to safeguard the city from possible attacks by the Antis, an invading force from the East.
- Sacred Valley of the Incas: In the Sacred Valley (one hour drive out of Cuzco) you will find picturesque communities, impressive terraces and many important archaeological sites. Dominated by the imposing peaks of the Vilcanota mountain range, the Sacred Valley has been the source of agricultural products for the city of Cuzco since Inca times. Its geography and mild climate make it ideal for outdoor sports enthusiasts to practice rafting, mountain biking and trekking, amongst others.
- Access Routes – Cuzco is accessible by plane (from Lima, Arequipa and Puerto Maldonado) and by bus from Puno
- Accommodations – All types of Accommodation are available.
- When to go – The best time to visit Cuzco is during the dry season, from April to November. The main traditional festival of the ancient Inca culture (Festival of the Sun = Inti Raymi) still takes place in June and attracts every year thousands of visitors.
- How long – You should at least spend 3 days in Cuzco and its region: 1 day for visiting the city center, 1 day for Machu Picchu, and 1 day for the Sacred Valley.
- Optimal time is about 4 or 5 days, not including the Inka Trail.
- Tips – In case you have 4 or 5 days in Cuzco, we recommend spending one night in the Sacred Valley, before continuing to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu). In case of the 2-day Inka Trail, we recommend to hike one day to Aguas Calientes and spending the night in a charming hotel in Aguas Caliente.
One of the most extraordinary examples of landscape architecture in the world
About Machu Picchu
The city of Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacular sites in South America, which as the “lost city of the Incas” still retains an air of magnificence and mystery. It was discovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham. Overlooking the deep canyon of the Urubamba River on the top of the Andes mountains, the great stone city had already been constructed more than 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Despite worldwide renown and a steady inundation of visitors, little is actually known about the origin, purpose, and function of these mystical ruins. Indeed, the overgrown site had been largely forgotten by Peruvians, and was altogether unknown to the outside world until local farmers and peasants from the nearby valley led Professor Hiram Bingham there in 1911.
The site is aligned north-to-south between two mountains: Huayna Picchu (“new mountain”) to the north and Machu Picchu (“old mountain”) just behind the park entrance at the furthest south end of the complex. A central courtyard separates the east and west sectors of the ruins. The “guard station/watchtower” is an unmistakable structure with a thatched roof that lies above the first set of terracing about 100 meters into the park. From here, visitors can enjoy the famous and familiar postcard view of the site, with Huayna Picchu looming in the background, and the central courtyard, with llamas and a lone tree, in the foreground. Below the guard station, at the top of the long staircase near the far southwest corner of the ruins, is a portal that served as the main entrance into the western sector. About twenty meters past the bottom of this staircase, just below the main path from the park entrance to the courtyard, are the “Princess’ Palace” and the Temple of the Sun, both housed within a round turret-shaped structure.
The finest stonework is found in the west sector, which suggests that this was the “noble” sector where religious figures and activities were centered. To the north of the portal, visitors will discover the site’s principal religious areas: the sacristy, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the main temple. The spacious “Temple of the Three Windows” was dedicated to the highest Inca god, the creator of the universe, and has three important features: a sacrificial stone, the main altar, and the three steps leading to the three windows. At the highest point on the West side, on top of the artificial pyramid just beyond the main temple, is the Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”), a sundial thought to have been used to track seasons (a common theme in Inca ruins). From this point, it is also likely that the high priests addressed those gathered down below in the courtyard and in the east sector.
The east sector was thought to have been reserved for secular inhabitants. Adjacent to the southeast corner of the courtyard, just east of the tree, is the fascinating and mystical “Temple of the Condor”, perhaps the best example of how the Incas incorporated natural rock formations into their structures. The Incas revered the condor as the messenger between heaven and earth, and as part of the so-called “Inca Trinity” (serpent, puma and condor, who ruled over the underworld, earth, and heaven, respectively). The wings and body of the condor are part of a natural, free-standing rock formation, and the rest of the temple was constructed to complete the image. Notice that the left wing does not touch the ground. The condor’s “body” was thought to be a sacrificial altar, and the victim’s blood would have flown along the small channel and down to “Patchamama” (Mother Earth). Near the middle of the east sector, there is a small observatory with two small circular bowl-shaped formations on the ground (similar to those at Qenko), and a window directly to east. The two “bowls” are aligned north to south, and were probably kept full of water for astrological observation. On the equinox, when the sun rises directly above the top of the peak to the east and shines through the east window, its rays will cast a shadow on these two circles to form the eyes and face of the puma. This sector also contains some refurbished dwellings that allow visitors to observe some of the site’s finer structural innovations, such as roof beams, thatching, and locking mechanisms on doors.
At the far North end of the east sector, nearest to Huayna Picchu, is the massive “energy stone”, sculpted to look like the mountain behind it, another prominent example of how natural and constructed features were linked in Inca architecture.
Huayna Picchu, the massive monolith that rises precipitously at the North end of the site, has what was thought to be a priest’s enclave perched at its summit. This isolated point is nearly 500 feet above the main site, and is unquestionably the most spectacular area of the park. It is also extremely difficult to access. The strenuous trail to the top is quite literally straight up the side of the sheer rock face, and in a few places the staircase is so steep and narrow that climbers are obliged to hold onto rope banisters. However, the top has a view that is absolutely spectacular, and is also one of the few places at the entire site that are not crowded, although those with a fear of heights will have a difficult time. There are two trails down, one directly back to base of Huayna Picchu, and another that follows a tortuous route along the back side of Huayna Picchu all the way down to the Temple of the Moon, a seldom visited temple inside a cave. However, the hike back up to the main site is long, steep, and sticky. Be advised that only a limited number of visitors are allowed to visit Huayna Picchu each day, so be sure to go early.
Visitors may also hike to the Inca bridge and the Sun gate (Intipunku), where the Inca trail crosses between two small stone pillars at top the ridge above the ruins to the Southeast, and winds down to the park entrance. On the winter solstice (December 21), the sun rises directly between the two stones on top the ridge.
The famous Inca Trail is a 50 km (31 miles) long historical trekking route which lasts four days. It begins at kilometer 88 on the Cuzco-Quillabamba train line and connects the Sacred Valley with the ruin of Machu Picchu. Starting in the highlands of Sacred Valley, you will walk on the largely paved stone way, through a region of beautiful ruins and impressive sceneries and ending in the cloud forests of Machu Picchu.
- Access Routes – Take the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the ruins and get off at “Machu Picchu pueblo station”. From there you can take a bus to the ruins o walk up the mountain to the entry of the ruins.
- Accommodations – In Aguas Calientes you can find all types of Accommodation are available.
- When to go – The best time to visit Machu Picchu is during the dry season, from April to November.
- How long – We suggest spending 1 day in Machu Picchu. If you prefer to stay longer than stay over night in Aguas Calientes, which offers comfortable accommodations.
Manu National Park and Puerto Maldonado
Included in UNESCO´s list of Mankind’s Natural Heritages in 1987, Manu National Park is Peru’s greatest natural hotspot where you will experience the amazing Amazon River and Amazon Rainforest.
About Manu National Park close to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado
Located in the rainforest of the Cuzco and “Madre de Dios” departments, Manu National Park is Peru’s greatest natural treasure. It is a trove for the number of species it shelters and the diversity of ecosystems it features. Established in 1973 over a land surface of 1,532,806 hectares, it was included in UNESCO´s list of Mankind’s Natural Heritages in 1987. It compromises the whole of the Manu River Basin as well as an extraordinary cross-section of altitudes ranging from 4,300 m (14,110 ft.) in the Andean High Plateau to 200m (656 ft.) in the Amazon Floodplain. Puerto Maldonado is the capital of “Madre de Dios” and gateway to the green mystery of the National Park.
Wildlife-watching and ecological tours invite visitors to discover the beautiful are of the “Manu National Park”. Because of Manu’s very low population, who still employ traditional hunting techniques, animals have little fear of man. It is only in Manu that large populations of jaguars, tapirs, anteaters, giant otters and the endangered black caiman can still be found in undisturbed surroundings.
- Access Routes – The most convenient way to arrive to Puerto Maldonado and Manu National park is by daily flights depart from Lima to Puerto Maldonado’s Padre Aldamiz International Airport.
- Accommodations – There are only a few lodges in this protected area (like the Manu Wildlife Center). In general the tours include camping along the river. In the park you can find the premium 3-star hotel “Casa Andina”. Tourist Class hotels are abundant.
- When to go – Manu can only be visited in the dry season: From May to November.
- How long – Minimum stay is 5 days – maximum 9.
- Tips – Manu can only be reached from Cuzco. We recommend you program the jungle tour at the end of the journey.
A large portion of this text was written by Traveler – Writer Craig Milroy.