Hitting the Andes on the road to South America's stunning Machu Picchu will absolutely take your breath away!
Machu Picchu, popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas, is South America's best known and most spectacular archaeological site … no mean feat in a continent full of beauty and splendour. In the dry season between June and September it attracts thousands of visitors, but somehow it maintains an air of grandeur and mystery.
Cuzco is one of South America's oldest cities, originating in the 12th century. To the Incas the greatest empire to rule the vast South American continent it was the centre of the universe. Every Inca had to make a pilgrimage to the city once in their life. Today it is still a Mecca of sorts as tourists make it their starting and finishing point for a visit to the famous nearby ruins.
Cuzco's central streets are lined with stone walls which form the foundations of colonial and modern buildings. Streets are often stepped, narrow and busy with descendants of the Incas. It is a place steeped in the history, tradition and legend of a people with no written language. Everything was passed by word of mouth.
High in the Andes and 69km north-west of Cuzco at the top of a ridge, Machu Picchu is both the best and least known of the Incan ruins it received no mention in the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors, and today's archaeologists can only speculate on its function. Its existence was known only to a handful of Quechua peasant farmers and was a secret kept from the outside world until Hiram Bingham, the American historian, almost accidentally stumbled upon it in 1911.
Bingham was actually searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas, but that turned out to be Espiritu Pampa, much deeper into the jungle.
In 1911 Machu Picchu was covered with thick vegetation and the party had to be content with roughly mapping the site. Return visits in 1912 and 1915 saw the difficult task of clearing the growth. More ruins were discovered but despite Peruvian studies in the 1940s and more recent studies, knowledge about Machu Picchu remains enigmatic. There were no horses and carts and no iron used in its construction just manpower to lift, shape and place boulders weighing hundreds of tonnes apiece.
Its name means "ancient peak" and was probably a royal estate and religious retreat built between 1460 and 1470 AD by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, an Incan ruler. At 2438m it is high above the Urubamba River canyon "cloud forest" so would have had no administrative, military or commercial function.
After Pachacuti's death, the property passed to his kinship group which was responsible for maintenance, administration and construction. It has 200 buildings, mostly residences, but there are temples, storage structures and other public buildings, all with polygonal masonry characteristic of the late Inca period.
As many as 1200 people lived in and around Machu Picchu mostly women, children and priests and the buildings are thought to have been planned and built under professional Inca architects' supervision. Most structures are granite blocks which have been cut with bronze or stone tools and smoothed with sand. Though none are the same size and some have as many as 30 corners, they fit together perfectly without the benefit of mortar. You will see finely cut and fitted stone which once were the bases of Incan temples and palaces built upon by the Spanish.
The enormous fortress of Sacsayhuaman above Cuzco took 25 years to build. The mnemonic "sexy woman" actually means satisfied falcon, but whatever, it is a most impressive ruin even though what you see is around 20 percent of the original construction.
The climb to the fortress is short but steep and takes around an hour from Cuzco for the non-acclimatised walker, past the Church of San Cristóbal to a hairpin bend of the old Inca road between Cuzco and Sacsayhuaman.
The Incas envisioned Cuzco in the shape of a puma with Sacsayhuaman as the head. It is in three areas with three-tiered zigzag walls forming the main fortifications. The 22 zigzags form the puma's teeth but were also most effective for defence. It remains the major attraction even though much has been destroyed. Only the foundations of the three towers remain with the 22m diameter of Muyuc Marca giving an indication of just how large they must have been.
Opposite is the hill of Rodadero. It has retaining walls, polished rocks and finely carved stone benches known as the throne of the Inca.
Between the zigzag ramparts and the hill lies a large, flat parade ground which is being excavated after the discovery of seven mummies behind the hill. The area is used for the colourful spectacle of Inti Raymi every June 24.
There are two ways to see this wonderful old capital. Even though it is just a 33km hike, you are in the Andes with its peaks and troughs and it is pretty hard-going four days. The other option is train or helicopter to Aguas Calientes, a village which grew around the railway line and is just eight kilometres from Machu Picchu. Just 800m east of the town are the hot thermal springs which gave the village its name (literally: "hot water"). If you don't mind the smell of sulphur, the springs are very relaxing after a day's walking.
Cuzco's Plaza de Armas is where you can find good shopping and eating places and for something typically Peruvian, vicuna is the world's rarest fleece, closely followed by alpaca wool. Clothing, shawls and blankets made from these fibres are rather special to have.
The Hotel Monasterio is in the San Antonio Abad seminary which was built over 300 years ago. It has all the comforts of a modern five-star hotel, but is a museum hotel where guests can experience Cuzco's Inca and Spanish traditions.
The Sacred Valley is around 15km north of Cuzco. It is 600m lower than Cuzco, making the climate more pleasant. There are ruins, markets, Andean villages and rafting down the Urubamba is available for the adventurous.
Pisac is 32km away by paved road and is the best place to begin your journey along the Sacred Valley. There are two Pisacs one is the colonial and modern village lying beside the river and the other is a fortress on a mountain spur 600m above.
For most of the week colonial Pisac is a quiet, Andean village, but on Sundays it comes to life with its weekly market. Traditionally dressed locals come to trade and barter amongst themselves as well as selling woven and hand-knitted garments to tourists. After a mass given in Quechua, the congregation leaves the church in a colourful procession led by the mayor holding his silver staff of office.
The Inca Pisac ruins are reached by a spectacular walk and are less visited than some other sites. If you are conserving energy there are a few taxis and mini-buses you can hire and workers' trucks will also give you a ride.
A distance of 18km on is Calca, the valley's most important town for locals but there isn't much for travellers there. Yucay, another 18km on, is a pretty village with good, clean hotels and a pleasant grassy plaza.
Urubamba is four kilometres further on at the junction of the valley road with the Chinchero road. It is a pleasant and convenient base from which to explore the Sacred Valley. Pablo Seminario is a local potter who does fantastic work and many visitors find space for a piece of his art.
Another six kilometres into the valley is the village of Tarabamba. You cross the Rio Urubamba by footbridge and follow the river to a three kilometre uphill hike to the salt pans of Salinas.
Hundreds of salt pans have been used for salt extraction since Inca times. A hot spring at the top of the valley discharges a stream of salt-laden water which is diverted in the pans and evaporated to produce salt for cattle licks. There are wonderful views from the dirt road.
Moray is a fascinating place with experimental agricultural terraces. Different levels are carved into a huge bowl, some naturally; some made by the Incas.
Ollantaytambo is the end of the road as far as the Sacred Valley is concerned. Its massive fortress is one of the few places where the Spanish lost a major battle during the conquest. Its village is built on traditional Inca foundations and is the best surviving example of Inca city planning. It was divided into blocks and each had just one entrance which led into a courtyard. Individual houses were entered from the courtyard, rather than the street.
The enormous steep terraces guarding the fortress are spectacular and the first view of them from the square generally overwhelms people. The steep terracing allowed Manco Inca to retreat and escape from Hernando Pizarro and his cavalrymen who were bent on capturing him.
The Spaniards were showered with arrows, spears, stones and boulders and in an extraordinarily clever move, the locals flooded the plain through previously prepared channels. This brought about a hasty Spanish retreat.
The victory was short-lived as the Spanish forces were relieved by the return of a large Chilean expedition and Ollantaytambo was again attacked and became part of the Spanish Empire.
The temple area at the top of the terracing has some extremely well-built but uncompleted walls which were under construction at the time of the conquest. The stone was quarried six kilometres away, high above the opposite bank of the Rio Urubamba. Transportation of the stone was a stupendous feat involving thousands of Indian workers. Blocks were left by the riverside and the river was then diverted around the blocks. An amazingly clever technique.
All visitors need to be aware of altitude sickness. As you fly into Cuzco you will gain great elevation and it is strongly recommended the first day be spent relaxing and taking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. An experienced company such as World Expeditions can take care of all such details, as well as providing experienced guides.