lt’s a ‘cash only’ world in Peru which can take so me getting used to if you’re coming from the UK where people use plastic to pay for absolutely everything from tube fares to food shopping.
Conversely in Peru, it’s almost impossible to use credit cards in small towns and villages while, even in big citieslike Lima and Cuzco, a staggering amount of restaurants sport signs in their window saying ‘cash only’.
Don’t be snap happy
Always ask permission before taking a picture of a Peruvian – this is especíally important lf children are involved. We have no right to take photos of people without first asking their consent.
Coca leaves can help cure altitude sickness Head spínníng? Having trouble sleepíng? Or perhaps the hotel stairs are making you breathless? If you answered yes to any of the aforementioned questions, chances are you’re suffering from altitude sickness which isn’t surprisinggiven that most visitors spend a substantial amount of time in Cusco, the cosmopolitan Inca capital that has an elevation of about 11,152 feet (Altitude sickness generally starts affecting people at 8,000 feet).
Symptoms typically dissipate within a day or two but you can help minimise them by avoiding alcohol and caffeine and drinking plenty of water and tea de coca (coca leaf tea). After a couple of sips of the latter, you’ll notice that the throbbing in your head has begun to subside and you can breathe again.
Just don’t even think about bringing a stash of coc a-the plant that is used in the manufacture of cocaine- leaves back to the UK, where they are banned.
Lima is more than a layover
Most travellers tend to check out Cuzco and Arequipa and, if not overlook Lima, then at least minimise the time spent in this bustling metropolis. Big mistake.
Peru’s capital is the second driest in the world, rising aboye a long coastline of crumbling cliffs. Lima also boasts one of the mast fabulous sunsets in the world (the city faces due west across the Pacific, so the setting sun can flood into the beaches), world-class cuisine and museums that are the envy of Latin America (here’s looking at the spectacular Museo Larco, with its galleries 01 gold and silver Chimú jewellery lighting up as the visitor approaches).
Factor in buzzing barrios like Barranco, a charming area of artists and restaurants leading down to the sea, and hip hotels – take a bow Belmond Miraflores Park – and you have a city worth stopping in rather than just using as a transit hub.
There are many ways to visit Machu Picchu
You don’t have to hike the Inca Traíl, a genuinely challenging physical experience, in arder to visit Machu Picchu for there are other ways to see the famous ruins.
If you have an aversion to strenuous exercise or are tight on time, take train up to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), and visit for the day from there.
However íf you are intent on hiking to Machu Picchu via the scenic Inca Trail, as its ancient ancestors once did, forget about it in February (when the traíl is closed) and think carefully about it between June and August (the busiest months).
Journey Through Peru’s Incredible Sights in 6 Minutes
Travel to the heart of Lima, the top of Machu Picchu, and deep into the Sacred Valley. Rhythms of Peru takes you to some of Peru’s most iconic places, but also far off the tourist path. Experience a more intimate view of this beautiful country in this film from Golden Llama Productions.
Directed by Nathaniel Connella and co-produced by The Tipsy Gypsies. Tour provided by Kuoda Travel.
The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the world and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. To submit a film for consideration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.
Source: National Geographic
Rainbow Mountain may become Cusco’s second-most important tourist destination
Peru’s wonderful Winikunka (Quechua word for Seven-color Mountain) could become Cusco region’s second-most important tourist destination.
This colorful mountain rises at over 5,000 m.a.s.l. and is accessible from a hiking trail that passes through breathtaking landscapes.
“Machu Picchu is still the most important (attraction). Over 90% of tourists (between 4,000-5,000) go there (…),” Cusco Regional Directorate of Foreign Trade and Tourism (Dircetur) Head Rosendo Baca told Andina news agency.
Regarding the Rainbow Mountain, Baca affirmed there is a sustained increase in tourists who visit this destination.
The Foreign Trade and Tourism Ministry (Mincetur), as well as Pitumarca and Cusipata Municipalities, College of Professionals in Tourism (Colitur), among other institutions, currently support sightseeing in the area.
Pitumarca Mayor Teodosio Cruz Huancachoque indicated between 500 and 2,500 visitors pass through his district while heading to Winikunka.
The highest numbers are registered on the weekends. Said figures might have been increasing for the past two years. In this sense, the boost may have started in November 2015.
Even though the figures are yet to be confirmed, it may be possible the Rainbow Mountain is one of the most important natural tourist destinations, right after Humantay Lake and Salkantay Trek, located in Anta and La Convencion provinces, respectively.
Lastly, Baca indicated Winikunka keeps capturing the globe’s attention, as this natural destination was advertised at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia with the purpose of drawing potential visitors.
South America’s Inca civilization was better at skull surgery than Civil War doctors
Cranial surgery without modern anesthesia and antibiotics may sound like a death sentence. But trepanation—the act of drilling, cutting, or scraping a hole in the skull for medical reasons—was practiced for thousands of years from ancient Greece to pre-Columbian Peru. Not every patient survived. But many did, including more than 100 subjects of the Inca Empire. A new study of their skulls and hundreds of others from pre-Columbian Peru suggests the success rates of premodern surgeons there was shockingly high: up to 80% during the Inca era, compared with just 50% during the American Civil War some 400 years later.
Trepanation likely started as a treatment for head wounds, says David Kushner, a neurologist at the University of Miami in Florida. After a traumatic injury, such surgery would have cleaned up skull fractures and relieved pressure on the brain, which commonly swells and accumulates fluid after a blow to the head. But not all trepanned skulls show signs of head injuries, so it’s possible the surgery was also used to treat conditions that left no skeletal trace, such as chronic headaches or mental illnesses. Trepanned skulls have been found all over the world, but Peru, with its dry climate and excellent preservation conditions, boasts hundreds of them.
For the new study, Kushner teamed up with John Verano, a bioarchaeologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Anne Titelbaum, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, to systematically study trepanation’s success rate across different cultures and time periods. The team examined 59 skulls from Peru’s southern coast dated to between 400 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E, 421 from Peru’s central highlands dated from 1000 C.E. to 1400 C.E., and 160 from the highlands around Cusco, capital of the Inca Empire, from the early 1400s C.E. to the mid-1500s C.E. If the bone around the surgical hole showed no signs of healing, the researchers knew the patient died either during or very shortly after the surgery. Smooth bone around the opening showed that the patient had survived for months or years after the procedure.
The outcomes were amazing,” Kushner says. Just 40% of the earliest group survived the operations. But 53% of the next group survived, followed by 75% to 83% during the Inca period, the researchers report this month in World Neurosurgery. (A shocking 91% of patients survived in an additional sample of just nine skulls from the northern highlands between 1000 C.E. and 1300 C.E.)
Techniques also seemed to improve over time, resulting in smaller holes and less cutting or drilling and more careful “grooving,” which would have reduced the risk of puncturing the brain’s protective membrane called the dura mater and causing an infection. “What we’re looking at is over 1000 years of refining their methods,” says Corey Ragsdale, a bioarchaeologist at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville who wasn’t involved in the study. “They’re not just getting lucky. … The surgeons performing this are so skilled.” Several patients appear to have survived multiple trepanations; one Inca-era skull showed five healed surgeries.
Kushner and Verano then compared those success rates with cranial surgeries on soldiers in the American Civil War, which used similar methods. Battlefield surgeons also treated head wounds by cutting away bone while trying not to puncture the brain’s delicate dura mater membrane. According to Civil War medical records, some 46% to 56% of cranial surgery patients died, compared with just 17% to 25% of Inca-era patients.
Some of the differences in survival rates may be due to the nature of the patients’ injuries before the surgery, says Emanuela Binello, a neurosurgeon at Boston University who has studied trepanation in ancient China. “The trauma that occurs during a modern civil war is very different from the kind of trauma that would have been happening at the time of the Incas,” she says. Many Civil War soldiers suffered from gunshot and cannonball wounds that were quickly treated in crowded and unsanitary battlefield hospitals, which promoted infections. Still, Binello calls the survival rate of trepanations in Peru “astonishing.” “It’s a credit to what these ancient cultures were doing,” she says.
Gold and silver jewels of Lord of Sipan, Old Lord of Sipan, and Chornancap priestess —belonging to Moche and Lambayeque cultures— are exhibited at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Big Apple.
Such display is part of an impressive international exhibition titled Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.
It must be noted organizers took four years to gather some 300 pieces of art, which —rarely or never— could have been exhibited in the United States.
Thus, U.S. citizens and tourists from all over the world can now be amazed by the extraordinary pieces from diverse cultures of Ecuador, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.
The exhibition comprises more than 20 power objects discovered inside the Tombs of Lord of Sipan, Old Lord of Sipan, and Chornancap priestess, as part of funerary offerings.
Some of them include ear spools, pectorals, coxal protectors, necklaces, gold and silver cups, among other ornaments.
Other Peruvian jewels exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are Chavin Culture’s crowns, funerary masks, and Sican ceremonial vessels.
The Lord of Sipan —dubbed King Tutankhamun of the Americas— is compared to the Egyptian mummies by prominent Egyptologists.
The discovery marked archaeology’s history in the Americas.
His tomb was uncovered in 1987 and has been exhibited at Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Peru’s northern Lambayeque region.
Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas will trace the development of gold-working and other luxury arts from Peru —in the south— to Mexico —in the north— from around 1000 B.C. to the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century.
This exhibition opened to the public on February 26 and will run thru May 28.
“Don’t expect to see a more beautiful show than [this] anytime soon. . . . a fresh, transformative take on pre-Columbian art.” —Washington Post
Third stairway found at Chan Chan’s Huaca Toledo
A team of archaeologists unearthed a third stairway system in the upper southwest part of Huaca Toledo, located in the intangible area of Chan Chan archaeological site in Peru’s northern La Libertad region.
As is known, the other two stairways were found in the northern area.
The announcement was made by Maria Elena Cordova, head of Chan Chan Archaeological Complex Special Project, who said the new discovery forces researchers to redefine concepts in Chimu people’s construction processes.
“Excavations at Huaca Toledo reveal the construction system changed by the year 1400 AD, at the end of the Chimu period […] the place is believed to have been used for social ceremonies rather than religious rituals,” Cordova stated
Having made this discovery, the project’s chief archaeologist Jorge Meneses came to the conclusion that stairways are placed at the four corners of the site, making them unique because of their length, steepness, and construction form if compared to other huacas.
“We had found two stairways on the north facade, which we thought was the main facade, but now we know that’s not true, and that makes the huacamore interesting and special. They constitute atypical ascent systems over humps of architecture on the northern coast,” he stated.
According to Meneses, the next step is to define the area —which is 50% complete now— as well as enhance it with conservation works, so that once completed, the place can join Chan Chan tourist circuit.
On the other hand, Project Curator Julio Reyes reported this stairway is in a regular state of conservation, due to climatic changes that caused the detachment of some of its elements.
Welcome to the Red Valley, Cusco’s new natural tourist sensation
While best known for its rainbow mountain Winikunka, Cusco’s Pitumarca district is becoming increasingly popular among tourists for another natural treasure: its majestic Red Valley. Pitumarca Mayor Teodocio Cruz Huancachoque Nieto shared with Andina news agency some of the most appealing features of this natural gem, named after its scarlet mountain range.
ike anything worth having, the Red Valley experience is worth fighting —or in this case trekking— for. However, the breathtaking views make the two-hour trek more than worthwhile. There is also a highway leading to the area known as Lambramani, from where one can also reach the stunning reddish heights. At 5,200 m.a.s.l., it can get rather cold. Yet when temperatures drop, the Red Valley offers a different kind of feast for the eyes: Snow-capped mahogany peaks, much like a larger-than-life red velvet cake iced with white cream frosting.
Although the Red Valley only welcomes 500 visitors a day (compared with Winikunka’s 1,000- 1,500), this number is on the rise, as many tourists now see it as the next stop after touring the seven-color mountain. “It is a new tourist attraction that is competing against Winikunka,” the Mayor affirmed. To meet such increasing demand, tour operators already offer trips to the valley. So, what are you waiting for?
Pre-Inka elites and the social life of fragments
Objects unearthed in the Andes tell new stories of societies lacking hierarchical leadership in the time before the Inka Empire.
Distinctive clay urns with painted motifs showing serpents, frogs and birds, as well as human facial features, were found to contain the skeletal remains of young infants.
The town of Borgatta was built in the Argentinean Andes sometime in the tenth century. It grew to a community of several hundred residential compounds before being abandoned around 1450 when the Inka Empire claimed the region. In the ruins, archaeologist Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais has been hunting for signs of pre-Inka elites.
Her interests lie in the dynamics of social groups in the past – how did society work? Were there ‘pecking orders’ or hierarchies? When did the ‘politics’ of daily existence begin to characterise human societies, from the ancient to our own? The excavation of Borgatta, which she led, was to yield some surprising results.
“It’s a big site, with a population that would have numbered in the low thousands,” she explains. “We therefore expected to find evidence of leaders, of rich and poor – as in our own society. But we were surprised to see only limited social differentiation in the materials we uncovered.”
She studies the fragments – the archaeology of daily life – that societies left behind. “We thought we’d see socio-economic differences reflected in diet through remains of animal bones, or in dwelling locations, or in material accumulation,” she explains.
The team found evidence of craft production occurring across the entire settlement. But no specialists could be identified: no equivalent of a blacksmith’s workshop, or a dedicated weaver or a kiln technician. And no wealthy elites with stockpiles of luxury goods. Yet things were being made in most houses in town – things that defied easy classification.
“Think of the feather cloaks of Hawaiian chiefs, or the swords of Bronze Age warriors,” adds DeMarrais. “These were objects of wealth and power, commissioned from specialist technicians for elites who controlled production and often also trade. This commodification is typical in hierarchical societies.
“In Borgatta, however, we found evidence of nonspecialist ‘multicrafting’ right across the community: with each household using expedient bone and stone toolkits to create a range of objects – from baskets to cooking pots, spindle whorls to wooden bowls – in their own idiosyncratic styles.”
Each residence produced its own items. Household members shared skills and mixed media – creating distinctive artistry in the process.
“Archaeologists like to classify, and the diversity of the Borgatta materials was initially frustrating. However, ideas from social theory helped us think about the significance of this variation, including contexts of production and social roles,” says DeMarrais.
The approach to making things in Borgatta has led her to believe that its people depended upon “a different kind of social glue” – one based on individual relationships, rather than ordered by social rank.
“Objects were gifted on a personal basis to build connections, rather than being funnelled up to a leader who represented the group.” She describes this as a ‘heterarchy’: a society ordered along the lines of decentralised networks and shared power.
“Heterarchy was described in the 1940s as a means of understanding the structure of the human brain: ordered but not hierarchically organised. In a human society, it highlights a structure where different individuals may take precedence in key activities – religion, trade, politics – but there is a fluidity to power relations that resists top-down rule.
“One can think of it as a form of confederacy – similar in some respects to the governance of Cambridge colleges, for example,” says DeMarrais.
Artefacts tell the story of this laterally ordered society. Distinctive clay urns with painted motifs showing serpents, frogs and birds, as well as human facial features, were found to contain the skeletal remains of young infants.
The urns were buried under the floors of houses. DeMarrais suggests that the funeral rites of babies involved displaying urns in the community as part of an extended process of mourning, before they were returned to the residences.
Some urns had the rim extending above the floor, to allow ongoing access to the contents. “In the Andes, mortuary practices involved extended interaction with remains that sustained a sense of connection between the living and the dead.”
The decorated urns were the most striking pieces of material culture excavated at Borgatta. Adults were simply buried in groups of three or four outside the home, while other children were interred in old cooking pots called ‘ollas’.
Why were the burial vessels of certain infants so distinctive? “The emotions around such premature loss may have been intense. But emotion is also culturally constructed. Would our grief be the same as their grief?” asks DeMarrais.
“These urns may have been intended to evoke emotions. In the absence of centralised authority, we would expect that rituals involving display of objects and the inculcation of shared emotions were an important means of social cohesion.”
There is little standardisation of the urns. Borgatta artisans exercised considerable freedom, says DeMarrais, combining design elements in novel ways. “Each urn, with its individual qualities, may have referenced the unique infant interred inside. But the diversity of motifs also reflects the localised character of social ties within a heterarchical society.”
The shape of some painted urn motifs hinted at design constraints faced by weavers, supporting the ‘multi-crafters’ idea. “We think this similarity suggests that patterns first appeared on textile, and were then transferred to the urns by individuals with experience in both crafts.”
As an archaeologist you have to accept you will never have the definitive answers. We work with fragments.
The things observed in Borgatta suggest the lives of artisans in this heterarchy were more varied and creative, given the diversity of social roles objects had to play. The things of the Inka Empire, however, were made by specialist artisans whose skill level was high, but who were tightly constrained by the state in their artistic expression.
Neither society had a writing system, so material culture was vital for communication. And for the Inkas, a central aim was expressing power through an identifiable ‘brand’.
“The Inkas had rules about who could wear and own what, according to status. Inka objects and architecture were immediately recognisable – like a Coca-Cola bottle in our world. This is, in part, how the Inkas managed to integrate roughly 12 million people across 80 ethnic groups without a writing system.”
Whereas Inkans had specialists who worked to formulae, each object made in Borgatta may well have had numerous ‘authors’ through multicrafting in household workshops. DeMarrais envisions a workshop environment similar to a tech start-up’s open-plan office: “people with different skill-sets pitch ideas and collaborate to create new products to adapt to a changing world”.
The Department of Archaeology’s Material Culture Laboratory, which DeMarrais runs with her colleague Professor John Robb, takes a ‘Borgattan approach’. Researchers working on artefacts from Ancient Egypt to Anglo-Saxon England come together to conduct comparative analyses, and debate how ‘things’ mediated social relations in the past.
“We ask why humans put their energy into particular objects,” explains DeMarrais. “We look for commonalities – from religion to bureaucracies – as well as differences. We ask what happens when you look at an object through a different theoretical lens, whether economic, political, ideological or ontological.”
“What you find – as Elizabeth’s work shows beautifully – is that social life works materially,” says Robb. “Whether it is a government trying to exert its authority, villagers organising their lives to meet their own needs, or individuals remembering and feeling emotions about their own history, things are the medium of the whole process.”
“In the end,” adds DeMarrais, “it’s about squeezing as much information as we can from things people have left behind to build a picture of human lives across time. As an archaeologist you have to accept you will never have the definitive answers. We work with fragments.”
Señora de Cao, Face to Life
In 2005 archaeologists working at the site of El Brujo on the north coast of Peru uncovered an intriguing bundle of cloth. It had been buried in an ornately painted funerary complex of adobe in about A.D. 400. Inside lay the naturally mummified body of a young female aristocrat from the Moche culture, which flourished in that region a thousand years before the Inca. Experts have now recreated the woman’s features using techniques normally employed to solve crimes.
The mummy is known locally as the Señora of Cao, named after a nearby town, Magdalena de Cao. She’s currently on display in a museum at El Brujo, but she’s hard to see. To help preserve her, she’s kept in a climate-controlled chamber. Visitors can look in through a window, but they don’t view the mummy directly—they only get a glimpse in a deftly angled mirror.
The museum’s curators wanted to give visitors a better look at this remarkable woman. They also needed to make a permanent record of her remains, which will inevitably break down with the passage of time. The solution was to create as faithful a reproduction of her face as technology would allow, as well as an exact replica of the body in its current state. “That kind of record could keep this extraordinary discovery alive for many generations to come,” says archaeologist Arabel Fernández López, who oversaw these efforts.
Assembling an international team of archaeologists, physical anthropologists, forensic scientists and artists, and engineers specializing in 3D technology, the Augusto N. Wiese Foundation launched the project last November. The foundation has supported research at El Brujo since excavations began there in 1990 under the direction of Régulo Franco Jordán.
The Moche flourished for more than seven centuries in Andean river valleys in present-day northern Peru. Almost a thousand years before the Inca, El Brujo was one of many seats of power in the region.
Research has included unwrapping the 20 layers of fabric that wound around the Señora’s body and enveloped a wealth of artifacts, many of gold, silver, and gilded copper. (Read “Mystery of the Tattooed Mummy.”)
The Señora was only in her mid to late 20s when she died. Why she was buried with all the finery, and precisely what role she played in her community are still mysteries. “Without written records, we don’t know who she was,” says John Verano, an anthropologist from Tulane University who assisted in both her unwrapping and her facial reconstruction.
Clearly she was an important person. At just under five feet tall and slightly built, she was no battle-ready warrior. But perhaps she was the wife of a ruler—or even a ruler in her own right.
To solve the mystery of what she looked like, investigators first had to produce digital images of her mummy. In similar cases, such as King Tut and Ötzi the Iceman, bodies have been scanned with a stationary medical CT machine. But the Señora had her pictures taken with state-of-the-art, hand-held laser scanners designed by FARO, a 3D technology company. The devices were originally created for industrial applications, but they’re now proving useful in forensic investigations and in cultural heritage projects like this one.
After the scanned data were entered into a computer, forensic experts began to rebuild the Señora’s face. Using specialized software, they first stripped off the facial skin to expose the bones of the skull.
The mummy’s skull displays the high cheekbones and facial proportions that are typical of the Moche. But a living person also has soft features that usually don’t survive after death, so the rest of the reconstruction work involved interpretations based on educated guesses.
The Señora, in fact, is not in the best of shape. Her lips have retracted, her nose is gone, and her eyes and eyelids are dry and sunken. That meant the experts had to rely on other sources for clues about what she may have looked like: the people portrayed on Moche pottery, studies of excavated Moche skeletons, photographs of northern Peruvians taken a century ago, and the faces of Moche descendants who live in the area around El Brujo today.
Once the face had been fleshed out on the computer, the entire head was printed in 3D. A model for a museum display was then created in fiberglass. But that model was as blank as a mannequin, bringing up another set of questions. What color were the Señora’s eyes? What did her eyebrows and eyelashes look like? What was the shade of her skin? And to make her come to life fully, she also needed clothing and jewelry that were appropriate to her elevated status.
Fernández López worked out those details with a sculptor who specializes in recreating historical figures for museums. “It was very emotional to see that final stage of the reconstruction,” she says. “It’s as if this woman had been resurrected. I said to myself, ‘OK, Señora, you’re with us once again.’”
The museum at El Brujo is now creating a special gallery to showcase the reconstructed face. Set to open at the end of August, it will also include displays on the technology that the project used, the visual resources that were consulted, and various interactive presentations. “We want people of all ages to have a unique, memorable experience that connects them with the Señora of Cao,” says Fernández López.
The locals have already embraced the Señora as one of their own, often representing her in civic events and school activities. “People are very proud of her,” says Fernández López. “She turns up in discussions about the indigenous community’s cultural identity and has become an icon of Peruvian womanhood.”
Now the people of northern Peru have undeniable proof that this distinguished, powerful woman from long ago looked just like them. “I think it’s going to be particularly important for children,” says Verano. “Looking into her eyes, they’ll be able to see their own relatives from town, and their own ancestry. It’s something that a mummified face just can’t give you.”
By A. R. Williams
Original Title: CSI Tools Bring a Mummy’s Face to Life
PUBLISHED JULY 4, 2017
Source: National Geographic
Sacred Valley of the Incas — see Machu Picchu and so much more in Peru
It’s not hard to see why the Incas called it the Sacred Valley.
The 70-mile narrow strip of land, in the Peruvian Andes, that runs roughly from the old imperial capital of Cusco to the enigmatic citadel of Machu Picchu remains a place of eerie natural beauty.
Against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, the fertile river valley winds below steep forests and ancient agricultural terraces while the mountain light at dusk gives the landscape an otherworldly glow.
Many locals still speak Quechua — the language of the Incas. They also grow corn, raise alpacas and weave brightly colored textiles much as their ancestors did before the violent arrival of the Spaniards five centuries ago.
Take a well earned mini break to the ancient wonder of Machu Picchu. Filmed by Alex Rosen.
Then there are the area’s various other breathtaking Inca ruins that might be internationally renowned in their own right were they not overshadowed by the tourism juggernaut of Machu Picchu.
For those making the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the citadel, the Sacred Valley makes a perfect base.
Although the Sacred Valley has a well-developed tourism industry, with lodging and activities for every budget under the sun, it receives far less traffic than the destinations that top and tail it, Cusco and Machu Picchu.
There are endless opportunities to explore its natural landscapes as well as the living and ancient cultures. You can do so by road or, preferably, on foot, mountain bike or horseback.
The Valley’s smaller towns and villages also have a laid-back pace that make them ideal for decompressing, whether it is getting massages, doing yoga or simply chilling in a hammock.
Throw in Peru’s acclaimed cuisine, and it’s hard to go wrong. The area is already home to restaurants overseen by some of the country’s top chefs and will soon be the site of a new project from Virgilio Martínez, whose Lima eatery Central, consistently ranks as Latin America’s best.
There’s one other key benefit of basing yourself in the Valley: altitude. Cusco is, on average, around 11,000 feet above sea level. The Valley mainly varies between 7,000 feet and 9,000 feet.
That might not sound like a huge difference but it comes right in the altitude sickness “sweet spot,” with symptoms such as nausea, fatigue and headaches usually hitting you in Cusco but not the Sacred Valley.
Famous for its pre-Colombian agricultural terracing, this colonial village is a great overnight stop to escape the crowds in the city of Cusco, just a 40-minute drive away, with a small but enticing selection of hip restaurants and hotels.
Most come here for the famous Sunday market in the town plaza, a great place to buy knitted alpaca wool clothing, ceramics and finely wrought silver. The village almost bursts at the seams as foreigners and local street vendors crowd the narrow cobbled streets.
Yet just a fraction of visitors ever make to Pisac’s greatest claim to fame: the hilltop Inca fortress towering over the village.
The fortress includes stone water channels and what archeologists believe was an Inca bathhouse. The summit is a small triangular plateau featuring dazzling views and a kind of Inca altar made from solid granite called an intihuatana or “hitching post of the sun.”
A road actually leads up the rear side of the fortress, allowing visitors to arrive by car, taxi or bus and then explore the site.
However, as with most things Inca, the best way to appreciate Pisac, at least for those feeling energetic and unafraid of heights, is by donning walking shoes and ascending by foot from the village square below.
The walk up the original narrow stone staircases is steep and typically takes a couple of hours. The mountain sun can also beat down. But the views of the village below, the terracing and the valley beyond make it thoroughly worthwhile.
Known locally as the “birthplace of the rainbow,” Chinchero is another picturesque colonial village renowned above all for its intricate traditional textiles.
Unusually, the village center is private and requires visitors to pay. It’s money well spent to go shopping in the various women’s weaving collectives, where locals, in traditional Andean dress, using natural dyes to create stunning alpaca wool creations including shawls, blankets and tablecloths.
The colors can be as subtle or vivid as the women choose and cover the entire rainbow, with at least five types of green, depending on the leaves used, or bright crimson created by crushing dried cochineal bugs with a pestle and mortar.
Moray and the Inca Salt Mines
A pre-Colombian agricultural laboratory, Moray is one of the least visited but most fascinating Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.
This amphitheater penetrating deep into a hilltop is made of a series of descending concentric rings. Each level, experts believe, simulated a different altitude, allowing the Incas to experiment with different crops for their vast empire.
That tradition of trialing natural ingredients is also what has inspired Martínez, the chef. It’s here, in the tiny village of Moray, that he plans to open a new culinary complex, covering all aspects of the gastronomic experience from field to plate, with his team testing new crops on the center’s own land, perhaps in 2017.
The backstory to Moray is that the Incas possessed a highly tuned ecological sensibility. The Pachamama is arguably the most revered deity in the Andean cosmos and can be translated to English equally as Mother Earth or Mother Nature.
Moray remains the greatest embodiment of that understanding of the Pachamama’s delicate equilibrium, and how it provides for humans.
Near Moray, you can also visit the original Inca salt “mines” still in use today.
These are in fact a series of cascading, shallow pools built to trap water from a briny hot spring and then evaporate it. The walk down past the salt mines, back to the valley floor, is highly scenic and takes about an hour. Pink Andean gourmet table salt also makes an unusual souvenir to take home.
This village is where most travelers from Cusco to Machu Picchu jump off the bus and on to the train. Its grid of cobbled streets is also the finest surviving example of Inca urban planning while the village was the scene of a rare and short-lived Inca victory over the Spaniards.
It was here, in 1536, that a force of Conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro’s rebellious younger brother was showered with arrows and eventually routed after the Incas used their irrigation system to flood the valley floor, bogging down the horse-riding Spaniards.
The narrow streets can jam up with buses during the morning and afternoon rush hours to and from Machu Picchu but the village is pretty quiet for the rest of the time. It’s also home to two stunning Inca ruins, including another terraced fort.
The huge walls are impressive but so too, albeit in a more subtle way, is the large Inca “shrine” carved into the rock on the lower far right of the site as it blends ethereally with the stone’s natural features.
Ollaytaytambo is also the setting for some great walks and bike-rides, including the four-mile hike to the Inca quarries, as well as El Albergue (Estación de Tren, Av Ferrocarril 1, Ollantaytambo; +51 84 204014), thought to be the Valley’s oldest functioning hotel.
Opened in 1925 and abutting the train station, El Albergue remains an atmospheric place to stay, with its simple, traditional rooms and leafy grounds. It also has a restaurant for non-guests and runs a high-end distillery for cañazo, a kind of Andean rum that has been produced continuously in the Valley since the 16th century.
The hotel’s organic farm, with a view of the fort, also serves pachamanca, a pre-Colombian classic of Andean gastronomy, involving slow-cooking various types of meat with potatoes, yams, broad beans and local herbs by burying them with stones heated in a fire.
El Albergue’s version has lamb, chicken and alpaca, and, like most pachamanca, must be ordered the day before.
Revered as one of the world’s great archeological sites, this hauntingly beautiful Inca citadel fully lives up to the hype.
Perched vertiginously on a spur between two sugarloaf mountains draped in emerald cloud forest, Machu Picchu’s splendor is roote
d in the harmony with its jaw-dropping natural setting.
The quality of the stonework also has to be seen up close to be believed. Huge granite rocks with irregular natural edges and multiple corners lock together so snugly — without mortar — that not so much as a cigarette paper will fit between them.
Many, including Hiram Bingham, the American adventurer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, once believed it was a fortress. Today, the expert consensus is that it was a seasonal residence for the Inca rulers. But no one really knows.
Some 12 acres with two separate walks up the peaks at each end, the site is large enough to merit a full day. If you choose to overnight in the small town below, you can also line up to get in when the gates open at 5 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the citadel.
Machu Picchu is made up of roughly 200 stone structures, whose granite walls remain in good shape although the thatched roofs are long gone.
These include a ceremonial bathhouse, temples, granaries and aqueducts. One, known as the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, is thought to have been used for embalming dead aristocrats.
Many visitors hire a guide, but simply getting lost amid the buildings is also a great option, and an pressure-free way to visit the main sights.
These include a sun temple, the intihuatana, the sacred plaza and the “prison group,” a labyrinth of narrow corridors and cells whose highlight is the temple of the condor, where a carved head of the avian scavenger is set against natural features in the rock that resemble its enormous wings.
Once you are done exploring these, you can — if you’ve bought the appropriate ticket ahead of time — take a vigorous hike up either of the two peaks, Huayna Picchu and Mount Machu Picchu. It takes around two hours to do
Huayna Picchu while Mount Machu Picchu typically takes twice as long.
The former in particular requires a head for height and shoes with a good grip.
A glimpse at German film director Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” will give you an idea of why. This tale of Spanish conquistadors descending into the Amazon in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, opens with an unforgettable scene of the expedition, decked out in heavy armor, on the steep stone steps of Huayna Picchu.
It’s from these two peaks that the two classic shots of Machu Picchu are typically taken. Regardless of whether you’re out to get that once-in-a-lifetime selfie, they’re the only places you can get a full panorama of the citadel and thus an integral part of the experience.
There’s no getting around the fact that the citadel is a tourist magnet. There are now daily limits on visitors to the site, as well as some of the associated walks, including the Inca Trail, Huayna Picchu and Mount Machu Picchu.
Reserving before travel is therefore crucial, including for the Inca Trail and one of the various Machu Picchu entrance options, depending on the walk you want to take, to prevent you schlepping all the way to the Inca heartland only to discover that daily quotas have already been filled.
Also, Machu Picchu is, of course, most crowded around June and August, so you might consider visiting during the low season.
It can get rainy then, particularly from January through March. But, if you don’t mind a spot of mud, Machu Picchu and the other Inca sites can be even more hauntingly beautiful in the wet, shrouded in mist.