An enchanting combination of culture and adventure fills the days in a special portion of the Peruvian mountains. The starting point to explore the region of the Sacred Valley – as the area that reveals the grandiosity of the Inca civilization is known – is Cusco, which is definitely the archaeological capital of the Americas.
Considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent, Cusco, located at an altitude of 11,000 feet [3,360 m], attracts visitors from around the world, and you can hear different languages on its streets. A tour of the historic center leads to the lovely and colonial Plaza de Armas and, inevitably, to Qorikancha, which used to be the most important Inca temple. The only thing that’s left from this ancient structure is the base, where the Church of Santo Domingo was built. Another attraction is the San Pedro Market, where you can see and try some of the 3,000 types of potato grown in the region.
Trains to Aguas Calientes, the port of entry to the ruins of Machu Picchu, also leave from Cusco. In the city, you need to catch a bus to one of the most famous archaeological sites on the continent (more energetic travelers get there by hiking the famous Inca or Salkantay trails, which take four and six days, respectively).
Those who spend the night in Aguas Calientes have the privilege of arriving in Machu Picchu in the wee morning hours. The weather in the region is quite erratic, adding a touch of mystery: a constant fog between the mountains reveals, little by little, the magnitude of the locale. The first stage of the visit includes the agricultural zone, where the terraced fields used for farming are located. Further up, a nobler area, with an enigmatic architecture – the structures are made of stones that perfectly fit together.
The purpose of Machu Picchu – and how it was built – remains unknown to this day. Some theories affirm that the city was sacred, as its location between the mountains brought people closer to nature. In addition, its real dimensions haven’t been ascertained yet – ongoing excavations are still discovering new areas. One of the few established facts is that the locale was abandoned after the Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru in the 16th century, and the Europeans never got there. The complex was only revealed to the world in 1922, after American explorer Hiram Bingham published his “discovery” – he had gone there 11 years earlier with help from locals.
Among the other possible stops are the Intihuatana, a stone sculpture that is believed to have been used to determine the seasons of the year, and Puerta del Sol. Located around an hour on foot from the center of Machu Picchu, you can take the classic photo of the locale from there.
You can also go up the Wayna Picchu, a mountain that is easily climbed and appears in almost all the images of the city. A popular option among tourists, it’s home to the Temple of the Moon and a big cave, old sites that were sacred to the Incas. The residence of old priests, it’s one of the highlights of the visit – the roots of spirituality in Latin America at an altitude of 8,925 feet [2,720 m].