There's a lot more to Cusco than being the nearest air-linked city to Machu Picchu. This city is the ancient capital of the Incas, and you don't have to stray far from your accommodation to appreciate the impressive ruins of their civilisation. The Sacred Valley and surrounds have more ancient archaeological treasures to explore. That's on top of the wonders of Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.
Machu Picchu tops the list of reasons many people visit Peru. You can get to it via train, taking only a couple of days out of any South American adventure, trek in to it over the Andes on the Inca Trail, or even arrive by helicopter.
People visit Machu Picchu to be awed by the history and achievements of the great Inca civilisation, but rushing through Cusco and the rest of the Sacred Valley is like seeing only the golden façade of Incan wealth. Taking ten days and exploring the ancient city and some of the valley's other archaeological treasures, then finishing off by seeing the remains of some of the old ways of life on Lake Titicaca, will give you a far better understanding of what you see at Machu Picchu.
Visitors come for the Incan ruins more than the Spanish colonial remains, so it's lucky for the city's tourist board that these archaeological treasures were so well designed. And visitors do come in their thousands: tourism is one of the city's main incomes, and each historic building lining the Plaza de Armas, built on top of Incan foundations, is surrounded by its own hostels, bars and internet cafes.
Cusco is an almost essential stop on route to Machu Picchu. It's the starting point for the Hiram Bingham train to Augas Calientes, the closest settlement to the site, and where most people spend a couple of days acclimatising to the altitude. But it should be thought of as far more than a waiting area.
On your first day in town it's a good idea to take it easy, doing some light wandering around town to help you acclimatise. Chewing coco leaves is supposed to help.
The Plaza de Armas is the centre of town, was the exact centre of the Inca Empire and is the central point for a few important sites. The Church of Santo Domingo was built on the site of the Incan Coricancha, which was the main Inca temple and observatory. There's a museum telling the story of the Coricancha in underground galleries under the church.
The first Spanish to enter the city told stories of the temple being covered in huge sheets of gold and ceremonies taking place here round the clock – they raided the gold quickly and re-clad the temple in their own style so it's an interesting visual meeting of cultures.
For proof of Incan architectural prowess visitors need go no further than Hatunrumiyoc Street, lined by an Incan wall with the famous '12-angled-stone' in it: a fantastic example of the Incan building method of using stone of all shapes and sizes designed to slot perfectly together. This street also has an art museum and the Archbishop's palace on it.
Sacsayhuamán's most striking features are its walls – some of them up to 400m long and six metres tall - which some archaeologists think were used as fortification and some think are supposed to be looked at from above, where they trace the outline of a puma's head, the body of which extends around the whole city. Whatever the reason for their placement, their very construction is impressive - some of the largest blocks probably weigh more than 100 tonnes each and you can't even fit a piece of paper between the stone blocks they're so perfectly fitted together.
Within the Sacsayhuamán Archaeological Park are two more Inca sites: Puca Pucara, a fairly basic looking fort or storage facility sitting on top of a hill and offering spectacular views of the Sacred Valley, and Q'enko, just north of Cusco on the top of Socorro Hill. Much of interest at Q'enko is on and around the 'Great Rock' at the centre of the site, which has carvings all over it, and stairs hewn into it, going up to the top of the rock and down into caverns and galleries underneath.
Water and washing were important facets of Incan life and many of the archaeological sites in Peru's Sacred Valley have baths and aqueducts as prominent features.
Here waterfalls and thermal springs have been redirected to run between the terraces into two aqueducts carved into the rocks, then along canals and into decoratively carved baths - the really impressive thing is that Tambomachay's baths are still full of clean water all year round – and no one is quite sure where the water is coming from. This question definitely deserves half a days consideration.
As well as the larger Incan treasures littered around Cusco, especially around the old town, visitors may want to admire some smaller, more glittery Incan treasures in the Museo Inka, also known as the Archaeological Museum of Cusco, and the Pre-Columbian Art Museum. The Incas were supposed to love the bling, and there's some silver and gold pieces in these collections to shame the most dazzling of rappers.
Your four day minimum stay in Cusco has to include a Tuesday, Thursday or a Sunday - those are the days to take the bus out to Pisac. Buses leave about every 15mins and take an hour to deliver you to the pretty main square lined with shops selling local handicrafts.
As well as shopping, Pisac also has its own ruin: a citadel with a great defensive view over the Inca Trail snaking along the valley floor below it. The citadel's terraces and aqueducts have survived - cut out of solid rock - and though the temple hasn't fared so well, there are burial chambers in the caves above it that weren't discovered and plundered by the Spanish; if the non-shoppers in your party need something to keep them occupied.
Ollantaytambo is built on a New York style grid system, on top of a system of aqueducts and irrigated terraces built in the 15th Century. The main plaza, originally laid using that impressive Incan multi-sized stone tiling process, was built over in colonial times, but the living town has taken over both Spanish and Incan ruins so there are buildings from both periods still in use today.
The main religious centre, and the Sun Temple, presides over all at the settlement's highest point and most of the interesting sites are nearby. The aqueducts you can see in the valley floor and heading upwards were used to flood the valley and protect Ollantaytambo from the Spanish and there are walking tracks along them to get a closer look.
To get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco visitors have to travel though the Sacred Valley, which is supposed to be a very nice drive passing a few of the valley's other main points of interest. The thousands of ancient salt pit terraces of the Salinas de Maras come first on the road, followed by the Moray Ruins which was the grand experimental farm of the Incas: agricultural terraces cut into the earth in rings, where the best conditions to grow various crops in was tested.
From Ollantaytambo catch the train to Aguas Calientes so that you can be up the hill in Machu Picchu first thing in the morning.
In the main complex the first building visitors note is usually the Temple of the Sun near the city's highest point. The other temples lining the Sacred Plaza are the Temple of the Three Windows, the design of which includes several pieces of stone weighing around three tons and was thought to be the royal quarters, and the Temple of the Condor, which has a sanitised version of its story suitable for the tour groups, but was probably where some nasty sacrificing took place. The huge stone mass in the centre of the Sacred Plaza is called the Intihuatana: 'The hitching post of the sun', and is perfectly positioned to show the dates of the two equinoxes.
If you have time after examining the main temples, the walk up Waynpicchu, the second mountain peak in the background of many photos, is short, steep and supposedly worth the effort. You have to be on this little track by 1pm otherwise you're not allowed to walk it.
Guides are available if you want to pay for a deeper insight into this ancient city and its workings. As of March 2009 the entrance fee to visit Machu Picchu is 124.00 soles. You're not allowed to bring large backpacks into the site, but day-packs are allowed and there's luggage storage available. Tickets say you're not supposed to bring food or water with you but if you're going to be there all day it's worth attempting to break the rules, the tourist concession stands are expensive and not very good– just don't litter.
If you want more time alone with Machu Picchu stay after the last Hiram Bingham to Cusco leaves and stay another night in Augas Calientes, otherwise the train is a classic experience in itself.
The reed islands were originally built this way for defensive purposes - they’re portable to a certain extent. ‘Proper’ land islands are used for farming and rearing animals. These are the islands on which visitors can stay; there aren’t any hotels, but some local families have a room which the rent out to guests through tour operators. Evening performance of traditional dance and music are held each evening for the benefit of visitors.
The lake is very significant in Incan mythology, and some of the oldest Incan remains have have been found along the shore, so as well as time on the islands visitors should walk as much of the shoreline as they can manage.
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