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Cusco/Machu Picchu/Urubamba Valley, Peru

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Did You Know … ?

  • Sacsayhuaman, with stones weighing more than 100 tons, was built without the wheel.
  • Machu Picchu provides a secure habitat for endangered species, including the ocelot.
  • Vilcabamba was the real “lost city of the Incas,” not Machu Picchu.
  • By design, some of Cusco’s streets align with the stars at certain times of year.
  • The Incas moved their huge construction blocks across the Urubamba River by diverting the river.

Remembering the Incas

Cusco, the former Inca capital; Machu Picchu, and the Urubamba River valley together comprise the most popular touring area in Peru. The reasons are twofold: the rich beauty of the terrain combined with the impressive physical and cultural heritage left by the Incas.

It should also be noted that, although people may worry about “too much tourism” in the Cusco area, only travelers with venturesome personalities make this journey.

In addition, indigenous Peruvians maintain traditional ways of life alongside Cusco’s modern hotels, the tour businesses, sightseeing vehicles, backpackers and camera-toting sightseers.

Cusco, the typical starting point for area touring, is an Inca city and a Spanish colonial city. The Incas built their capital according to precise plans. The Spanish retained the grid but destroyed many buildings and constructed their palaces and churches on Inca foundations. Nevertheless, there are still Inca structures in town, as well as the Sacsayhuaman fortress on the outskirts.

Machu Picchu was another Inca city, abandoned and forgotten until its rediscovery in 1911. Tourists make the trek — sometimes it’s a literal trek, sometimes rail and bus travel — in order to be awed by the setting and by the well-planned and solidly constructed city the Incas built on the side of a mountain.

As elsewhere, the Incas shaped huge stones to fit together but didn’t use mortar to hold them in place or the wheel to move them.

The Urubamba River valley, below Machu Picchu, is on the tourist circuit because its towns provide another window onto the past, plus current Indian culture. Pisac is known for its Sunday market.

Some visitors come to the area for the sightseeing and cultural experiences, but many are active travelers. Hiking is the most common of the activities (best from June to August) and the Inca Trail the top choice. However, that trail is one of dozens of Inca paths leading to Machu Picchu.

Cusco is about 11,000 feet above sea level, which is hazardous for some travelers. There also is some risk from thieves in the city. Machu Picchu is in the Andes, too, but easier to tolerate at 8,000 feet. Its climate is semitropical.

Things to do for Venturers

  • At Machu Picchu, climb a mountain-sized outcrop called Huayna Picchu, which provides a grand overall view of Machu Picchu. It is an arduous two- to three-hour climb.
  • Hike the Inca Trail, a two- to four-day trek that takes you through the great Urubamba gorge and ends with a dramatic descent into Machu Picchu. Only 500 people can be on the trail per day, and hikers must be accompanied by a certified guide. Book several months in advance.
  • Or, take on the challenging four-day hike to and from little-known Inca ruins at Choquequirao. The ruins, not yet completely excavated, are called spectacular and often dubbed mini-Machu Picchu. You might be able to walk to the site on your own.
  • See some of the area around Cusco on a mountain bike.
  • Participate in a whitewater rafting trip down the Urubamba River, another way to see Peru’s terrace-lined hillsides and Inca ruins. Several sections, with widely varied degrees of difficulty, are available, but the water is cleaner in the upper Urubamba south of Cusco.
  • Carry your best camera and photograph an amazing scene — salt pans located on an Urubamba tributary. Arrange for a car and driver to take you to a point above the Salinas salt pans for the best views, or hike to the lower entry point from Maras.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Participate in a pottery and textile workshop in villages around Cusco, in order to learn more about how the Incas made goods for which they are famous. Shop for pottery and textiles in the places where they are made.
  • Come to town on June 24 in order to witness the sun-worshipping ceremony, Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun. This festival includes parades, street dances and the reenactment of the Indian winter solstice festival at Sacsayhuaman.
  • Get yourself to Pisac for the famous Sunday market — and for its Inca temple complex set high on a mountain ridge. Also near the Urubamba River valley, Chinchero has a Sunday market, along with colonial sites of interest.
  • For the best idea of what an Inca town looked like, get off your Machu Picchu-bound train for awhile to visit Ollantaytambo. It still has its Inca-built stone walls, narrow streets and the Inca water system which involves a channel cut down the center in every street to accommodate the water.
  • Trek the shorter, two-day version of the Inca Trail. It ends at Machu Picchu and passes through another set of ruins called Winay Wayna.
  • If a birder, figure out your own itinerary — and carry a copy of “The Birds of Machu Picchu” by Barry Walker for some guidance.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Stay at Cusco’s upscale Hotel Monasterio, a converted monastery. It pipes oxygen into most rooms because of the city’s altitude.
  • Take a guided tour of Cusco, and get a close look at how Inca construction was incorporated into the Spanish colonial city.
  • Arrange your Machu Picchu tour to include an overnight at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, or at a less-costly accommodation in Aguas Calientes, in order to see the Inca ruins in late-day and early-morning light.
  • Visit Cusco’s archaeological museum for its excellent display of Inca artifacts. Then, shop for Peruvian textiles as gifts and for you home.
  • If Corpus Christi coincides with your travel plans, watch the city’s outsized processions and the celebrations in the cathedral. The event usually occurs in early June.
  • Take a (very) short course on the Southern Hemisphere’s skies at the Cusco Planetarium. Also, learn something of the surprising amount of astronomical knowledge that the Incas had accumulated and how it influenced them.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Peru Export and Tourism Promotion Board (PromPeru) at and choose your country and language if necessary.