As the heart of the once mighty Inca empire, the ancient city of Cusco heads the list of many a traveller’s itinerary. Each year it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to its cobbled streets, lured by the city’s unique combination of colonial and religious splendors built on the hefty stone foundations of the Incas. Lying within easy reach of the city is the country’s biggest drawcard of all, the ‘lost’ city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel perched high on an isolated mountaintop.
From Lake Titicaca a railway and paved road run 300 kilometres at an average altitude of 3,500m to Cusco. Here, according to legend, Manco Capac plunged his golden staff into fertile ground, finding the ‘navel of the earth’, and founded the capital of the Inca Empire. Today Cusco (3,400m) is one of Peru’s most attractive cities, a fascinating fusion of the past and present that visitors find very hard to leave.
North-west of Cusco the fertile Sacred Valley winds westwards with picturesque villages, local markets and ruins framed by towering peaks. The town of Ollantaytambo is famous for its fortress; Pisac and Chinchero have lively markets; while the salt pans of Maras and the Inca terraces of Moray are definitely worth a detour.
Hidden from the world until 1911, the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is for most travellers the climax of their visit and an awe-inspiring sight: superb Inca craftsmanship perched high above the winding Urubamba river.
The Inca Trails
Peru is criss-crossed with Inca trails. Best-known is the classic Inca Trail from kilometre 88 to Machu Picchu - a magnet for hikers worldwide. However, the overwhelming popularity of this route, particularly in July and August, led to severe overcrowding, as a result of which numbers are now restricted.