MACHU PICCHU (daily 6.30am–5pm; standard entry fee is $44; or $22 for students with ID card) is one of the greatest of all South American tourist attractions: beautiful stone architecture enhanced by the Incas' exploitation of local 250-million-year-old rocks of grey-white granite with a high content of quartz, silica and feldspar, set against a vast, scenic backdrop of dark-green forested mountains that spike up from the deep valleys of the Urubamba and its tributaries. The distant glacial summits are dwarfed only by the huge sky.
Never discovered by the Spanish conquerors, for many centuries the site lay forgotten, except by local Indians and settlers, until it was found on July 24, 1911 by the US explorer Hiram Bingham. It was a fantastic find, not least because it was still relatively intact, without the usual ravages of either Spanish conquistadors or tomb robbers.
More than a hundred flights of steep stone steps interconnect its palaces, temples, storehouses and terraces, and the outstanding views command not only the valley below in both directions but also extend to the snowy peaks around Salcantay. Wherever you stand in the ruins, spectacular terraces (some of which are once again being cultivated) can be seen slicing across ridiculously steep cliffs, transforming mountains into suspended gardens.
Many people base themselves at the settlement of MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO (previously known as Aguas Calientes) in order to visit Machu Picchu ruins at a more leisurely pace or in more depth. The lively settlement, connected to the ruins by bus, has decent acccomodation, restaurants and shops.
Without a doubt, the beauty and majesty of Cusco are unique. You only have to walk through its streets, to observe the lavish colonial-era houses and exquisite monuments, and you are transported back into the past. Cusco possesses a magic which charms even the most experienced traveler.
The best way to make the most of all the attractions in Cusco is to purchase the boleto turistico or "tourist ticket" with which you can access all the important cultural and historical museums and churches. In the center of the city is the Plaza de Armas , which was reputedly designed by the Inca Manco Capac. It is also called Aucaypata, which in Quechua means "warrior square." In the square stands the splendid La Catedral , which took 94 years to build. Next to this are the chapels Capilla de la Sagrada Familia, recently restored, and the Capilla del Triunfo whose walls are adorned with masterpieces from the Cusco School, including works by Diego Quispe Tito.
Ten minutes from the Plaza de Armas is Santo Domingo , and the stunning, extravagant Korikancha , or Templo del Sol ("Temple of the Sun"), believed to have once been covered with gold. In front of the temple is the "Casa de los Cuatro Bustos" now occupied by a hotel. Descending toward Avenida El Sol, you can get another view of the Korikancha and visit the museum.
The Compañía de Jesús , pride of the Jesuit order, is also located in the Plaza de Armas, a block away in Calle Hatun Rumiyoq. This houses the Palacio del Arzobispado , which has some valuable works of art. On this same street, you can observe the famous rock with 12 angles, which was a part of the Inca Roca's palace. From here, it is recommended to go towards the San Blas neighborhood, one of Cusco's most picturesque areas.
Towards the center again, on Calle Mantas, stands La Merced , which houses La Custodia, a grandiose colonial-era sculpture in solid gold one meter high. The Casa Garcilaso has a large collection of Pre-Hispanic and colonial art, and in San Francisco , there is the temple of the same name, with one of the largest paintings in Latin America.
Formerly known as Toqocachi (Salt Cave), it was due to the works of artists Mendivil, Olave and Merida that this neighborhood came to be known as the artisans district. Barrio de San Blas is a unique, picturesque area that has recently been restored. When walking through the quaint streets of this magical neighborhood, you can easily imagine yourself in the 19th Century. The church of San Blas has an enormous wooden pulpit carved from a single piece of wood by the Inca artist and architect Tomas Tuyro Tupac.
Along the Urubamba river, which means "flat land of spiders", you will find the Sacred Valley of the Incas , once the domain where the Inca flourished. The valley is 26 miles long and is a way station for visitors on their trek to Machu Picchu.
Outside of Cusco
On the outskirts of Cusco, many archaelogical sites can be found, such as Sacsayhuaman . This imposing edifice is a wonderful example of late Incan architecture but was left unfinished after the arrival of the Conquistadors. In June, the festival of Inti Raymi , pays homage to the sun and attracts large crowds. Another important site in Incan culture is Quenko , this complex was primarily used for funerary rituals and is another one of the 300 different sites connected to the Temple of the Sun. The temple of Tambomachay is about 35 minutes by car outside of Cusco and is a site which the Incas used as a dedication to the life giving properties of water. The visitor can experience the tranquility of the water falling over the rocks and the quiet trickle of the nearby river. Another interesting archaelogical town that is next to these baths is Ollantaytambo where ancient traditions are still practiced by its inhabitants. For an abundance of flora and fauna in the middle of the Eastern Andean mountains, you will find the Lower Huatanay Valley , this seemingly untouched paradise is also surrounded by lakes. To see these valleys from above, travel to the hills of Tipon and Pucará Pucutupampa , the ruins upon these hills provide excellent views of Cusco and its environs. Finally, a visit to the Cusco area is incomplete without seeing Phuyupatamarca . This archaelogical complex is a stunning outcropping on the side of a cliff which houses a labrythine set of buildings, channels, bridges and walkways. A definite stop on any visitors itinerary.
Almost all restaurants in Cusco offer local, creole and international cuisine. During your stay, you should try a few of the typical dishes, such as alpaca meat cooked in various ways, fresh corn pie, or simply a delicious corn-on-the-cob with cheese. If you are looking for a nice warm place to have a coffee or an aperitif, there are plenty such places in Cusco.
Centro de Cusco
Many good restaurants can be found around the Plaza de Armas , such as the Inka Grill , the Tunupa or the Rapsodia, which with the recent popularity of Novo-Andean food, offer different recipes using local ingredients like alpaca meat, aguaimanto and quinoa. There are also many fine restaurants offering local and international cuisine, such as Los Portales , El Patio, El Paititi and El Arriero Churrasqueria .
To watch, from behind a good cup of coffee, the routine of a city and its inhabitants, is one of the prerogatives and pleasures of the traveler. In Cusco, there are ample places to do this: if you prefer a quiet conservative ambiance, you can sit down at the Plus Cafe , or the Varayoc , located in the Plaza de Armas. You can have a good breakfast there and then pass the time away with an aperitif. Near the square, in Calle Plateros, are Pucara and El Fogón. In Calle Procuradores, you can get Mexican food at El Cuate and East Indian food at Paloma India, which also offers a take-away service. Chezz Maggi La Antigua serves good pizzas.
If you want to be around people, there are Macondo Cafe-Restaurante, the Cross Keys and Norton Rat's Tavern bars, all of them with a very special atmosphere. Good places to meet local people are the Extra, the haunt of Cusco´s intellectuals; or the Kusikuy, in front of the Casa Garcilaso . Ukuku's Pub Cultural is a good place to surf the internet and enjoy some local Peruvian beer and Trotamundos, in which they exhibit different works from local and international artists.
Beyond the square, there are places with Asian cuisine, such as Al Grano and Green's , in the charming neighborhood of San Blas . There is Japanese and vegetarian food in Calle Heladeros, at the little restaurant Kin Taro, and also Chinese food at Chifa Tai Won, in Avenida El Sol.
Some restaurants also feature shows with typical Cuscan dance and music, as at the El Truco in the Plaza Regocijo, and the already mentioned Inka Grill and Tunupa. And despite the abundance of meats that are served in restaurants, for the vegetarian, go to Moni Cafe Restaurant , where the ingredients are fresh and are meticulously prepared.
Urubamba is the biggest town outside of Cusco and the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas . There are some pretty decent dining establishments here, in addition to the local markets that sell street food. One such place is Pachapapa , where you can taste traditional Peruvian food and wash it down with a hearty, Chilean red or if you wish, some Pisco. Another restaurant in this area is the Map Cafe , housed on the patio of the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, this cafe has an extensive wine list and also prepares rich, Andean dishes. For a meal fit for a king or queen, you must stop by Killa Wasi , which means House of the Moon in Quecha. The cuisine hear blends an amalgam of local dishes alongside ingredients with an international flair.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
In the vicinity of the city of Cusco lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas , where there are many Pre-Colonial sites and ruins that have managed to resist years of deterioration and neglect. Wakas (altars), ancient towns, temples and fortresses are the evidence of the grand legacy of the Inca in this region. A little more than a mile from the city, in the hills just overlooking it, is the imposing fortress of Sacsayhuaman . After passing the altar at Quenko , leave the city limits to visit the site of Puca Pucara and afterwards the sanctuary of Tambomachay , a route of around three and a half miles.
The most stunning sight is the valley of the Willkamayu (Sacred River), more commonly referred to as the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The valley route begins at the town of Písac , 20 miles outside of Cusco. You can visit the Sunday market and the incredible archaeological complex, constructed on the hill behind the town, with a magnificent view of the valley. You can learn many legends and stories by visiting these ancient sites.
Passing through the towns of Coya, Lamay, Calca,(30 miles and an hour outside of Cusco) Huayllabamba and Yucay, historical locations where the friendly locals will ensure that your trip is interesting and pleasant, you arrive at Urubamba, a large village 48 miles from Cusco that boasts several recreational centers and accommodation.
Traveling another 20 minutes, you will come to Ollantaytambo , a classic Inca village that remains inhabited and is the site of a number of religious and military Inca ruins. After visiting the ruins, head back to Urubamba on the way to Cusco, this time passing through the towns of Maras and Chinchero . In order to arrive at Maras, you have to take a detour after reaching the high plateau that divides the Valle Sagrado from the Valle del Huatanay, where Cusco is located. This detour takes you to the picturesque town of Maras located about 25 miles from Cusco. From here you can travel an additional 4 miles to Moray, a huge Inca laboratory for agricultural experimentation.
Returning to the main road, you travel through hills and plateaus to Chinchero, 18 miles from the city of Cusco, where you can visit the temple, typical narrow streets, the remains of Inca palaces, and a colorful crafts market. You can return to Cusco, after a full day of traveling, entering the city from the opposite side to the one you left at the start of the tour. You will have covered around 57 kilometers altogether.
Historic Route to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain" in Quechua), set into the summit of the mountain of the same name 75 miles northwest of Cusco, was discovered by Hiram Bingham at the beginning of the last century. There are many theories to explain its existence, one postulates that it was the secret residence of the acllas, or "royal virgins" during the 15th Century. The site consists of two large, beautiful areas: one is agricultural, made of terraces and storage areas, and the other urban, where the sacred temples, squares and mausoleums are located. Throughout this extraordinary complex are stairways and stonework canals.
By train, the journey takes three hours and the price ranges between USD8 and USD80 dollars return. The train departs daily from San Pedro station (situated next to the market in Cusco) and arrives at Aguas Calientes or Puente Ruinas, both of which have buses going to Machu Picchu that leave every 30 minutes and cost USD6. There is also a helicopter that leaves the local airport and arrives at Aguas Calientes in 25 minutes. The price is around USD150 dollars return. Hardier travelers, you choose to walk the Inca trail, a journey that takes four days (see description below).
The climate is subtropical, with frequent drizzle, so it is advisable to bring waterproof clothing. The best months to visit Machu Picchu are May and June. Facilities in the area consist of a restaurant, toilets and a telephone at the entrance. You are not allowed to bring food past the entrance. Admittance to Machu Picchu costs ten dollars.
Machu Picchu via the "Inca Trail"
The traditional "Camino Inca" (Inca Trail) is considered to be one of the most spectacular trekking routes in the world, not only because of the fascinating archaeological site at the end but also the spectacular natural beauty along the way. There are alternative routes that are recommended if you are not in the best physical condition, such as the Camino Real, (Royal Road) which can be done in six hours, or the Camino de Purificacion, (Road of Purification), which takes five hours. This trail has traditionally been limited to travelers willing to rough it, going without bed or bath for several nights. However, companies such as Mountain Lodges of Peru, (http://www.mountainlodgesofperu.com), now have lodges along the trail, for those who want a good night's sleep after a day of adventure.
The traditional 26 mile, four-day hike starts in Q'oriwayrachina (54 miles from Cusco), where you cross the Kusichaca suspension bridge. Then you go upward until you reach Llullucha for camping. On the second day, you reach the highest peak, Warmiwa'sqa at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, at which point you should be alert for the symptoms of altitude sickness (called "soroche" here), typically, dizziness and nausea. If you feel unwell, head for the Pacamayo River valley to rest.
On the third day, you pass the ruins of Runkuraqay, Sayaqmarka, and the mysterious cloud forest. Further along, there are more surprises among the dense vegetation, Phuyupatamarka and Wiñy Wiñy, with their very beautiful network of Inca settlements constructed in granite. On the fourth day you continue through lush undergrowth, with many species of orchids and birds. You already know the destination: the spectacular Machu Picchu , which, after about three hours hike, you enter through the Inti Punku or "Inca door." Many tour operators offer inclusive packages. It is important to know that during the trip there is no place where you can get food, so if you do not opt for an inclusive trip, you must take all that is necessary. There are sanitary facilities and a refuge in Wiñy Wayna.
Manu Biosphere Reserve
Located between the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios, this reserve is one of the largest protected natural areas in the planet. It has a huge diversity of landscapes and climates, as well as a very beautiful and diverse flora and fauna. There are more than 2,000 plant species here, and fauna which includes endangered species like the black lizard and the Andean bear. General access to the National Park is not allowed, but controlled access to the Reserved Zone and the Cultural Zone is permitted. In order to travel to the area, you need to go through one of the officially authorized tourism companies associated with the Ecotur Manu partnership. The expedition normally lasts from four to seven days and the most important routes leave from Cusco. There are two routes commonly used: the overland/river route (12 hours to Atalaya or Shintuya and 6 hours via the rivers Alto Madre de Dios and Manu) and the air/river route (30 minutes to Boca Manu and 4 hours through the river Manu). It has a tropical climate although there can be cold days between May and August. Typically, the weather is warm and wet from May to October, and rainy during the summer (from December to March). There is no infrastructure within the reserve so it is necessary to take all that is required (do not forget the insect repellent and a raincoat). Accommodation can be arranged in Cusco through authorized tour operators like Manu Lodge (Manu Nature Tours). The price for one person, per day, full board varies from USD40 to USD80; and the package for the excursion (including transportation, accommodation, food and equipment) ranges from USD700 to USD1,300.
Andean Tours Andean Tours (+1 800 683 8148 / http://www.andeantreks.com/) Inka Adventure (+51 84 233 742 / http://www.theinkaadventure.com/)
City Tours Magical Cuzco (+1 866 411 INCA / http://www.magicalcuzcotours.com/) Travel Peru (+1 888 671 2852 / http://www.travel-peru.net/) Machu Picchu Discover (+1 866 753 5668 / http://www.machupicchudiscover.com/)