Over 100 years since American explorer Hiram Bingham unearthed the lost city of Machu Picchu in 1911, the mysteries of the Inca Empire continue to capture the imaginations of intrepid travellers. Peru travel offers visitors a chance to explore the land of the Incas. Shrouded in mystery and mysticism, from 13th-century roots in Peru’s Cusco Valley, the Inca civilisation grew into the largest pre-Columbian empire in the New World. Even today, their legacy has a mesmerising effect on anyone who comes into contact with the remnants of this long lost civilisation.
Land of the Incas
The pull of the Incas is so strong that visiting the heart of the once-mighty Inca Empire is high on the wish-lists for people from around the globe. At the height of power, the Incas ruled a realm extending beyond present-day Peru to parts of Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
They were the conquerors of a mountain kingdom with a capital in the clouds, Cuzco, which is 3400m above sea level. Cuzco is higher than Machu Picchu (2430m) while another well-known attraction, Lake Titicaca (3811m), is the world’s highest navigable lake famous for its floating islands crafted from woven totara reeds by the Uros Indians.
These days, Cuzco is where travellers can board the train that travels through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. The ancient Inca capital is overshadowed by the enigmatic Machu Picchu but Cuzco is much more than a gateway to the country’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cuzco is the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city and its narrow cobblestone streets are a trove of colonial mansions and churches packed with Spanish and Inca treasures.
Look beneath the soaring Spanish cathedrals and grand mansions for Inca ruins, which the Spanish built over the top of. The old town – with its Inca stonework and Quechua-speaking descendants – survived the 16th-century Spanish invasion and pulses with a strong Inca heartbeat.
The local religion is a mixture of Catholicism and Incan beliefs. Peruvians love a celebration and in Cuzco, there’s a local festival almost every month. Many of the festivals are based on concepts tied to the Roman Catholic religion tempered with a good dose of Incan mysticism.
At night, the buildings around Plaza de Armas, the city square, twinkles like a fairyland. And if you visit during a local festival, such as the Fiesta of the Virgin of the Door, the mood is an ethereal melding of music, prayers and swirling dancers in front of the Cuzco Cathedral.
Fiesta of the Virgin of the Door is celebrated in November and is centred on a 16th-century tale of burglars whose attempts to enter the city were thwarted by an image of the Virgin Mary placed at the city’s entrance by the people.
Local markets in the valley are a focal point of Peruvian culture and it’s worth making an effort to visit at least one, such as the Pisac market or the Chinchero Market, 30km from Cuzco.
The sights are an eye-popping slideshow of culture and colour. At Chinchero Market, men in sombrero hats sit crossed-legged with fruit, vegetables, clothes and crafts spread out on blankets on the ground. Wrinkly faced women smile shyly beneath wide-brimmed hats. They carry rosy-cheeked infants slung in gaily coloured pouches around their backs.
The gentle strain of pan pipe music seeps through the din of voices, as locals haggle over the price of bananas, oranges, garlic, lime, apples and freshly baked bread.
Tourism has also been a boon to the communities and market sellers do a roaring trade in multi-coloured shawls, beanies and socks. In the town of Chinchero, a demonstration of traditional weaving and dyeing techniques never fails to gather a crowd. The Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, in the main street, is worth visiting for a display of traditional weaving techniques, styles and designs. Nine communities in the region produce quality wall hangings, ponchos, carpets and other beautifully woven textiles here.
Casa Orihuela, near Pisac, is a lovely place to stop for lunch but you need to book in advance. The hacienda is a private home of a local family and is chock-a-block with figurines, paintings, pottery and other antiques. The family has owned vast holdings of land in the area for 400 years.
The lush green Urubamba Valley is popularly known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Within the valley, the town of Ollantaytambo, 65km northwest of Cuzco, is a former Inca military post surrounded by mountains.
These days, Ollantaytambo is a gathering point for hikers on the four-night Inca Trail walk. The Ollantaytambo fortress is a terraced stone structure that rises to a lofty peak and is a sight to behold. The size of the rocks used to build the Wall of the Six Monoliths is a testimony to the advanced engineering capabilities of the Incas.
In town, the women parade around in a colourful blend of Spanish colonial and Incan clothing: layered skirts of hand-woven wool and small rectangular hand-woven shoulder clothes fastened at the front with a decorated pin.
If you’re not keen on hiking, the good news is the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu passes through Ollantaytambo. The bad news is the two-hour train ride is followed by a nerve-racking road trip around narrow roads with hairpin bends and steep mountain drops to a spot below Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu’s highest peak.
A pre-dawn trek at Machu Picchu is a highlight that offers breathtaking views of the great Incan city in the Andes and the company of a few brazen llamas to share the moment of serenity.
Unravelling the mysteries of the Incas is most definitely an attraction and Machu Picchu is a spectacle but history and archaeology fans should take note that the Incas are a relatively new Peruvian civilisation.
Peru has many other archaeological attractions from different eras, such as the Chimu kingdom’s Chan Chan, Chavin de Huantar, the city of Caral and the Nazca Lines, which are impressively etched into the desert floor.
The Nazca lines are a series of geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches more than 80km between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana.
Hundreds of geoglyphs ranging from simple lines to complex etchings of hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, llamas and lizards are believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 200 BC and AD 700.
Peru travel guide – Lima and beyond
Lima, the country’s capital, is packed with museums and archaeological sites that offer glimpses of Peru’s ancient civilisations.
The Larco Herrera Museum houses 5,000 years of archaeological wonders in a private mansion built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple. On display are ceramics, textiles, precious metal artefacts and mummies. The basement has exhibits of unique erotic archaeological treasures such as a collection of ceramic pots portraying a Karma Sutra in clay.
Even older than Peru’s pantheon of archaeological wonders are its natural attractions.
The Amazon River and rainforest, which is accessible by boat from Iquitos, is a dream destination for nature lovers.
Less well known is Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands, the Ballestas Islands in the Paracas National Reserve. Located near the town of Paracas, the 340,000-hectare wildlife reserve established in 1975 is a haven for bird and marine life. A cruise to the islands is an opportunity to get close to sea lions, Humboldt penguins and Peruvian boobies.