The ancient empire of the Inca, with its unique culture, historical monuments and sacred traditions, has long been a source of interest and fascination for people all around the world, who travel to Peru to follow with their own two feet the footsteps of the lost civilization.
From Lima to Cusco, through the fertile heartland of the Sacred Valley, and the ultimate adventure - trekking to Machu Picchu – an action-packed trip to Peru can bring you a step closer to the secrets of the elusive Inca, and widen your cultural and historical horizons.
Here are some suggestions regarding a trip to Peru, for those of you who, like us, are enchanted by the mystical and mysterious civilization of the Inca.
The Incas built an elaborate network of paved roads and bridges, that stretched for a length of 22,530 Km (14,000 miles). The roads allowed them to reach and control each corner of their Empire. The Inca engineers used and improved roads left by earlier cultures, such as the Chimu, Wari and Tiwanaku among others tribes.
The Inca road system includes two main roads, both connecting the north to the south – one along the coast and another along the Andes. The two main roads were connected by a shorter network of roads. Along the coast the road connecting the Gulf of Guayaquil in Ecuador to the Maule River in Chile. The Andean royal road extended along the Andes Mountains, from Quito in Ecuador, through Cajamarca and Cusco, ending near Tucuman, Argentina.
Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport is Peru's main international and domestic airport. Located in Callao, 11 km from the Historic Centre of Lima, the airport is considered one of the best airports in South America, handling more than 13 million travelers in the past year.
You can get from to and from the airport and city by taxis, tour buses, or vans. For security reasons, tourists are recommended to use only those taxis offered by registered companies at the airport arrivals area.
Another option is to rent a car from one of the four agencies operating in the airport - Avis, Hertz, Budget and Dollar.
The official currency of Peru is the Peruivian Nuevo Sol (PEN), which has been traded at 2.5 to 2.8 per US dollar (US$) for the past two years. Naturally, these rates might change.
Of course, you can also cash traveler’s checks or use an international credit card in the local ATM's. It's recommended to ask for small bills (billetes pequeñas) when exchanging money - a 100 Sol bill is hard to change in some places.
You will usually get the best rates in casas de cambio (foreign-exchange bureaus), which are fast and have longer hours. It's best not to exchange money on the street - counterfeits tend to be somewhat of a problem in Peru. A lot of places also accept US dollars.
In the pre-Columbian era, the area where Lima is today was part of the Inca Empire. The city was founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, after defeating the Inca ruler Atahualpa and taking over the Empire. Originally named "Ciudad de los Reyes", the city was besieged in 1536 by rebel Inca troops led by Manco Inca, who were defeated by the Spaniards and their native allies. Lima became the capital of the Republic of Peru after the Peruvian War of Independence.
Magdalena district, Lima. Photo by Miguel Vera León
The National Museum is the largest Peruvian History museum in Lima. It features numerous exhibits from the Pre-Conquest cultures, spreading over 3 floors and organized chronologically. The exhibitions include scale models of many of the Inca sights around Cusco as well as items from north of Peru. The museum is lacking in English explanation (or at least it was in 2012).
Opening hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:00-18:00; Saturday-Sunday 10:00-18:00. Entry is 9 Soles.
The Incas were the last highly advanced culture in a series of ancient Peruvian civilizations. They arose in the 13th century in the Cusco region, and for the following 200 years their expansion was limited and slow.
The central coast of Peru and the area of Lima was incorporated into the Empire between 1460 and 1470. While the Incas usually repressed conquered tribes erasing their culture and tradition, in the Lima region it seems they partly diverged from their norm. They imposed a political and administrative reorganization, but allowed most "old" rulers to retain their political and administrative powers.
The temple of Pachacamac, some 40 km southeast of Lima, wasn't built by the Inca, but they maintained it as a religious shrine and allowed the Pachacamac priests to use it after the Inca Empire conquered the area in the middle of the 15th century. Presumably, the Inca priesthood consulted the oracle of the temple.
Most of the sight was built between 800-1450 CE, but the Incas modified the already existing structures and temples to suit their needs. They built new pyramids and temples, like the Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) next to a temple dedicated to his "brother" Pachacamac, the Acllahuasi, also known as "Mamacona".
Opening hours: Monday-Sunday 9.00-17:00. You should confirm opening hours on public holidays.
Pachacamac Templo del Sol. Photo by Charles Gadbois
The city of Jauja, known in Pre-Colombian times as Xauxa, was a settlement before the Inca arrived. The Xauxa people had to endure the Incan penetration after Pachacutec demarcated the borders of the empire and Jauja was included in the Inca territories. The Xauxes eventually accepted Inca domination, became confederates and contributed warriors to the campaign of political expansion toward Quito.
The Inca established a town called "Hatun Xauxa” in that area, which was one of the most important cities of the empire. It was thought of as the strategic center for all demographic, military, and economic movement in the region. Today the ruins of this settlement can be seen on a hill 3 Km southeast of the town.
Laguna de Paca, near the city of Jauja. Photo by Martintoy
Huancayo is the capital of the Junín Region, in the central highlands of Peru. The original inhabitants of the area were the Huancas. In 1460 they were conquered by the Inca leader Pachacutec, and incorporated into the Inca empire. The town was a notable stopping point along the Inca royal road.
Huancayo's Plaza de Armas. Photo by Jorge Gobbi
If you wish to try some Inca cuisine, look for a place that serves "pachamanca".The name of the dish is made from 2 Quechua roots: "pacha", meaning earth, and "manca", meaning "pot", and refers to an "earthen pot" - the cooking vessel of the dish.
Pachamanca is a meat-based dish - usually lamb, but mutton, pork, chicken or guinea pig are used as well - wrapped in banana leaves, and baked in an earthen oven, using only hot stones. The dish is marinated in spices, and may include other Andean produce, such as potatoes, green lima beans, sweet potatoes, ears of corn, tamales and chilis.
Pachamanca dates back to Inca times, but the Dish evolved greatly over the centuries. It is consumed throughout Peru, with regional variations in the technical process of production, but not in the ingredients or their baking.
Pachamanca baked with hot stones. Photo by Javi270270
The Incas established Vilcashuamán as an administrative center after they conquered the Chancas and the Pocras. Vilcashuamán was home to 40,000 people, and city was located around a large plaza where ceremonies involving sacrifices were performed. Around the plaza were the city's two most important buildings - the Sun Temple (Templo del Sol) and the Ushnu, which remain to this day.
It is believed that the city had the shape of a falcon, the Ushnu was located in the head. "Vilcashuamán" in Quechua is "Sacred Hawk".
An ushnu is a pyramid-shaped, terraced structure that the Incas used for important ceremonies. The Ushnu in Vilcashuamán is accessed through a double door jamb, characteristic of the most important compounds. In the upper platform you'll find a large stone with unique carvings that is known as the Seat of the Inca; it is believed to have been covered by a golden leaf.
The Ushno in Vilcashuamán. Photo by Fer121
Cusco, the famous capital of the Inca Empire, is believed to have been founded by Manco Capac, the legendary first Sapa Inca of the Kingdom of Cusco and a figure of Incan mythology. The inner city of Cusco was shaped like a puma, whose head was the fortress of Sacsahuaman. His body was shaped by the rivers Tulumayo and Huatanay and his tail was where both rivers meet in a place known as Pumaq Chupan. His heart was the Huacapata - the holy square.
Panoramic view of Cusco. photo by Martin St-Amant
Cusco was the most important city in the Empire, and the place of residence of the elite. The city was organized around a central plaza where the roads lead to the four provincial governments.
Important architecture in Cusco includes palaces and schools that were built for the elite, temples such as Coricancha, or temple of the Sun, and a very important network of roads.
The plaza de Armas ("Square of the warrior"), called Huacaypata or Aucaypata, was the heart of the capital. Besides the red-and-white Peruvian flag you'll notice here the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo (lots of times mistaken for a gay-pride banner).
This plaza has been the scene of important events in the history of Cusco, such as the proclamation by Francisco Pizarro after conquering the city, and of Túpac Amaru the second, the indigenous leader of the resistance.
The Spanish built stone arcades around the plaza which endure to this day. The main cathedral and the Church of La Compañía both open directly into the plaza.
The Plaza de Armas. Photo by karlnorling
Monumento Pachacuteq is a 22 meter high statue (including the base) of Pachacuteq, the Inca warrior King . Pachacuteq was the ninth Sapa Inca (1438–1472) of the Kingdom. Most archaeologists believe that the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu was built as an estate for him.
You can go inside the monument (after purchasing a ticket) and climb up the 9 levels of the base. From the top, there is a great view of Cusco including the mountains surrounding it.
The statue of Pachacuteq. Photo by Gordon E. Robertson
The Fortress of Sacsahuaman formed the Puma’s head that made up the inner city of Cusco. The impressive construction stands on the highest point of a steep-sided hill overlooking the city. Like many Inca constructions, the complex is built of large polished dry stone walls, with boulders carefully cut to fit together without mortar.
The walls of Sacsayhuamán. Photo by Esoltas
The Museo Inka (Incan Museum), also known as the Archaeological Museum of Cusco, features artifacts from Peruvian history - from Pre-Inca civilizations and Inca culture, and the impact of the Spanish on these native cultures.
The main attraction in the museum is the collection of Inca mummies. Other exhibits includes ceramics, textiles, vases, jewelry, architectural models, and a collection of Inca drinking vessels, carved out of wood.
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 8:00-18:00; Saturday 9:00-16:00
Probably the most famous Trek in South America, maybe even the world,
The Inca Trail combines the views of beautiful mountains, cloud-forests, and subtropical jungles, encounters with various ruins of the Inca Empire along the way, and the final destination - Machu Picchu, one of the most spectacular archaeological wonders of the worlds.
Crossing Rio Urubamba, the start of the trail. Photo by Phil Whitehouse
Many travel agencies in Cusco offer organized hikes along the trail, providing the equipment (such as tents) and people accompanying you to carry it. The trek can last from 2 to 7 days, depending on the route you choose, and is suitable for almost all ages – as long as you are fit enough…
In 2001 the Peruvian government instituted a quota system on how many travelers can be on the trail on any given day. You must book with a tour operator in advance when you wish to walk the trail, as it is not allowed to organize your own trip. The tour organizers must register the traveler's passport numbers with the government, and they are strictly checked at control points on the trail.
The classic Inca Trail starts about 1.5 km from Patallacte (Quechua for "settlement on a platform"). Investigators estimate that Patallacta was home to more than a thousand people during the splendor of the Incas. The distribution of the town includes an administrative space and a large area used for agriculture with huge farming terraces.
Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cusco in 1536 to discourage Spanish pursuit.
The terraces of Patallaqta. Photo by Bcasterline
Wayllabamba ("Place of Good Pasture"), a small village near the trail, is the local camping site for many of the trekkers. There are about 130 families leaving in Wayllabamba, with houses along this portion of the trail. At Wayllabamba the trail turns west and begins ascending along a stream on the river bank of Cusichaca.
A map of The Inca Trail in Wayllabamba. Photo by Steve Pastor
Warmiwañusqa ("Dead Woman's Pass") resembles a fatigued woman. Here the trail passes through a cloud forest containing Polylepis trees. After the pass the trail drops steeply to the Pacaymayu River drainage. At a distance of 2.1 km from the pass is the campground Pacaymayu.
Walking through the cloud forests on The Trail. Photo by Steve Pastor
After passing Pacaymayu the trail begins climbing steeply to the other side of the Pacaymayu valley. About halfway up is a small round roofless stone building. This Inca ruin is known as Runkuracay ("Pile of Ruins"), and it overlooks the valley. The site was heavily restored at the end of the 20th century. Researchers believe that the site was a post for couriers following the trail to Machu Picchu. It contained sleeping areas and stables.
The tambo of Runkuraqay. Photo by Steve Pastor
The climb continues towards the second pass - Abra de Runkuracay -at a height of almost 4,000 meters. From here the trail starts descending steeply. Here is the beginning of the true Inca Trail, where the trail changes from a dirt path to a narrow stone roadway, which was laid during the period of the Inca Empire.
After walking for about an hour from the Abra de Runkuracay you arrive at Sayaqmarka ("Town in steep place"). The Inca ruins here, as the name implies, are shielded from three sides by cliffs.
Sayaqmarka. Photo by Alberto
From Sayaqmarka the trail descends to the valley, passing through a magnificent cloud forest full of orchids, hanging mosses and flowers, and passing through an impressive Inca tunnel, carved into the rock on the way. On the far side, the trail begins to climb again till you reach the third pass, around 3,700 meters. A little after the pass you reach Phuyupatamarca ("Town above the Clouds"), the most impressive Inca ruin so far. The design of the site follows the natural surrounding outlines, and includes five fountains and an altar, which was probably used for llama sacrifice.
Phuyupatamarca. Photo by Gordon E. Robertson
From here the Inca Trail starts to descend spirally and steeply, passing a staircase of around 1,500 steps. The flora here is thicker, more like a jungle, and you can see lots of butterflies and birds.
It's about 5 Km from Puyupatamarca to the last camp site of the trail in Winay Wayna, passing through the second Inca tunnel in the route. After the tunnel you can see Aguas Calientes, sometimes referred to as Machupicchu Town - as It's the closest access point to the historical site.
The name Wiñay Wayna ("forever young") refers both to the hostel–restaurant–camp site and the Inca ruins in the area.
The terraces of Wiñay Wayna. Photo by Gpetrov
The last part of the trek, from Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu, is relatively easy. The trail continues on a broad level path, and after no more than 2 hours you'll come to a narrow flight of steps leading to Intipunku - the Gateway of the Sun. You'll pass through the rectangular doorway of the stone structure, and from here you'll see the ruins of Machu Picchu - The lost city of the Inca.
Machu Picchu. Photo by Allard Schmidt