Cuzco & the Sacred Valley
For Incas, Cuzco was the belly button of the world. A visit to this city and its nearby ruins tumbles you back into the cosmic realm of ancient Andean culture – knocked down and fused with the colonial imprint of Spanish conquest, only to be repackaged as a thriving tourist center. The capital of Cuzco is only the gateway. Beyond lies the Sacred Valley, Andean countryside dotted with villages, high-altitude hamlets and ruins linked by trail and railway tracks to the continent's biggest draw – Machu Picchu.
Old ways are not forgotten here. Colorful textiles keep the past vivid, as do the wild fiestas and carnivals where indigenous tradition meets solemn Catholic ritual. A stunning landscape careens from Andean peaks to orchid-rich cloud forests and Amazon lowlands. Explore it on foot or by fat tire, rafting wild rivers or simply braving the local buses to the remote and dust-worn corners of this far-reaching, culturally rich department.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cuzco & the Sacred Valley.
For many travelers to Peru, a visit to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu is the whole purpose of their trip. With its awe-inspiring location, it is the best-known and most spectacular archaeological site on the continent. Despite being swamped by tourists from June to September, it still retains an air of grandeur and mystery. Entrance tickets, valid for a morning or afternoon turn, often sell out: buy them in advance in Cuzco.
An exquisite little Inca site along the Inca Trail; it's name is variously translated as ‘Forever Young,’ ‘To Plant the Earth Young’ and ‘Growing Young’ (as opposed to ‘growing old’).
This immense ruin of both religious and military significance is the most impressive in the immediate area around Cuzco. The long Quechua name means ‘Satisfied Falcon,’ though tourists will inevitably remember it by the mnemonic ‘sexy woman.’ Today’s visitor sees only about 20% of the original structure. Soon after conquest, the Spaniards tore down many walls and used the blocks to build their own houses in Cuzco, leaving the largest and most impressive rocks, especially those forming the main battlements.
A truly awesome site with relatively few tourists, this hilltop Inca citadel lies high above the village on a triangular plateau with a plunging gorge on either side. Allow several hours to explore. Taking a taxi up and walking back (4km) is a good option. The most impressive feature is the agricultural terracing, which sweeps around the south and east flanks of the mountain in huge and graceful curves, almost entirely unbroken by steps.
In Inca times, the plaza, called Huacaypata or Aucaypata, was the heart of the capital. Today it’s the nerve center of the modern city. Two flags usually fly here – the red-and-white Peruvian flag and the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo. Easily mistaken for an international gay-pride banner, it represents the four quarters of the Inca empire.
Built upon the palace of Huayna Cápac, the last inca to rule an undivided, unconquered empire, the church was built by the Jesuits in 1571 and reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. Two large canvases near the main door show early marriages in Cuzco in wonderful period detail. Local student guides are available to show you around the church, as well as the grand view from the choir on the 2nd floor, reached via rickety steps. Tips are gratefully accepted.
The Inca Trail ends after its final descent from the notch in the horizon called Intipunku (Sun Gate). Looking at the hill behind you as you enter the ruins, you can see both the trail and Intipunku. This hill, called Machu Picchu (Old Peak), gives the site its name.
Inside a Spanish colonial mansion with an Inca ceremonial courtyard, this dramatically curated pre-Columbian art museum showcases a stunningly varied, if selectively small, collection of archaeological artifacts previously buried in the vast storerooms of Lima’s Museo Larco. Dating from between 1250 BC and AD 1532, the artifacts show off the artistic and cultural achievements of many of Peru’s ancient cultures, with exhibits labeled in Spanish, English and French.
This wonderful new museum takes visitors into the world of the fascinating pre-Colombian civilizations that came before the Inca. It acknowledges the reality that the Incans built on knowledge developed over millennia of habitation in Peru. Each culture, including the Inca, has its own building with two rooms. One is dedicated to history, with key artifacts and succinct overviews in Spanish and English. The other features a compelling scenario of life-sized figures rendered expertly in action, á la National Geographic.