In Peru, the famed Machu Picchu isn't the only treasure.
By Kat Jahnigen
It’s high on the bucket lists of countless people the world over – and justifiably so. But, because of the renown of this UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of the Seven Wonders of the World), many lesser known, but equally fascinating archeological treasures are often overlooked, and the country has more to offer the adventurous than 5,000-year-old ruins. Things like incredible cuisine, fantastic shopping for handmade crafts and a glimpse into an ancient – but still vibrant – culture offer rewarding experiences every step of the journey.
Surfacing in the highlands of Peru sometime during the 13th Century, the Incan Empire had become the largest in the Americas by the time Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 1500s. Nevertheless, it took only about 25 years for the invaders to overwhelm indigenous resistance and dominate the people. While conquerors systematically destroyed many elements of native culture, including their sophisticated farming system, some aspects were simply incorporated into the dominant society. Peru today is a place where European colonial Christian churches stand on top of ancient Inca stonework and religious and societal traditions display elements of both Christian/European and Incan influences.
Regardless of your itinerary, you will probably find yourself in Lima – Peru’s largest city and capitol – at some point. Often regarded as a necessary (you’ll probably have to travel to Lima for transportation to Peru’s more alluring sites), the city is actually a worthwhile destination in its own right, offering an intriguing juxtaposition of modern urban culture and a rich heritage dating back thousands of years. The Historic Center of Lima is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site with impressive architectural structures – like the Monastery of San Francisco, the Plaza Mayor, the Covenant of Santo Domingo and the Cathedral – memorializing the Spanish colonial era. The city houses a treasure trove of museums dedicated to preserving the unique art, archeology and history of this unique place.
In addition to grandiose buildings and incredible cultural offerings, Lima offers plenty in the way of small, everyday pleasures. Wandering along the high bluff where the city abruptly ends in a 50-foot drop to the shore of the Pacific, an unsuspecting traveler can discover a delightfully incongruous tribute to John Lennon (with a 10-foot statue of the singer standing above a tile mosaic proclaiming, “Imagine”) or find incredible dining opportunities in the city known as the “gastronomical capital of the Americas.”
Nestled high in the Andes at about 10,800 feet above sea level, Cuzco was once the capitol of the Inca Empire. According to legend, the city’s footprint was made to resemble the shape of a puma (an animal sacred to the Incas) and – with its stone streets, abundance of beautiful plazas, colonial architecture and surrounding mountains – it’s almost unbearably picturesque. While Spanish invaders sacked most of the Incan city, remains of the Palace of the Incas, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Virgins of the Sun still stand and are popular tourist attractions.
The shopping is plentiful in Cuzco, as are colorful community events such as civic parades and religious processions. Opportunities for good eating and intimate music abound. But, for the eager traveler, Cuzco serves more as an ambiance-rich base camp for day trips, such as to the walled complex of Sacsayhuamán (nicknamed “Sexy Woman” by semi-serious tour guides to help visitors pronounce this tongue twister), which stands on a hillside overlooking the valley and offers incredible views of the city.
The Sacred Valley
If your passions include archeology, spirituality or big, glorious mountains, you’ll be in heaven in Peru’s Sacred Valley. About 15 kilometers north of Cuzco, the Urubamba River Valley – known popularly as the Sacred Valley – is home to some gorgeous archeological sites such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Moray, most of which also have a bustling commercial counterpart in nearby markets full of traditional, handmade crafts. Meanwhile, everywhere you turn, you’ll see pastoral green hillsides covered in iconic terracing giving way to dramatic, cloud-draped Andean peaks.
Lest you subscribe to the philosophy of “seen one Incan ruin, seen them all,” each of these sites is incredibly unique, displaying different elements of an abundant and diverse culture – and each is absolutely, without-a-doubt worth visiting. For example, the steep, cliff-side Ollantaytambo (incidentally the starting point to hike the famed Inca Trail), was built as royal estate and ceremonial center of Emperor Pachacuti and houses incredible structures like the Sun Gate and numerous, celebrated fountains built for religious activities. Alternately, the concentric stone circles of Moray actually served as a type of Inca nursery where different strains of corn could be cultivated at various elevations in order to improve agriculture throughout the empire. While you can pay an entrance fee at each historical park individually, the most economical option is to purchase a park pass that offers access to all the notable ruins in the region.
With its thousands-year-old reputation as a sacred place, there is much here to appeal to the modern spiritual journeyer. There are spiritual retreats, offering everything from massage to “energetic healing,” opportunities to observe or participate in Shamanic rites, and even places that offer Ayahuasca (the hallucinogenic drug of Inca Shamans) ceremonies – though the authenticity – not to mention the prudence – of that might be questionable.
Peru’s national treasure, one of the most famous tourist and academic destinations in the world, is even more awe-inspiring in person than photos and writings would have you believe. The vast and unfathomably skillful stone construction, which seems to virtually hang among the clouds and strikingly steep peaks, was abandoned by its inhabitants a mere 100 years after its completion.
Fortunately, the abandonment took place at roughly the same time as the Spanish Conquest, and the “estate” for Inca rulers remained unknown to everyone except local inhabitants, protecting it from the irreparable destruction and pilfering that other archeological sites suffered. By the time it was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911 by a Yale professor, the world was ready to appreciate and protect this incredible legacy.
What can be said about Machu Picchu that hasn’t already been said? Honestly, nothing. You simply must see it for yourself because words and photos don’t do justice. When you go, get up early and grab the first bus from the closest town, Aguas Calientes, at 5:30 a.m. By 11 a.m. the ruins will be swarming with tourists who not only flaw otherwise perfect photo opportunities but might impale you with a stiletto heal on crowded pathways. If you don’t have time or inclination to hike the entire Inca Trail, at least follow it from Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate, a 30-minute hike that offers stunning views of the ruins unfolding beneath you.
If you’re able, climb the distinctive Wayna Picchu (you’ll need to make a reservation), which looms over Machu Picchu. It’s a relatively short but grueling climb. The summit consists of slanting slabs of overlapping rock and can be precarious, especially when crowded with other climbers jockeying for a secure spot, but it’s worth suffering for. Seeing Machu Picchu from 1,200 feet above is an incredible experience.