CUZCO, May 22 — Mention Peru and most people will think of the world-famous Machu Picchu — the lost city of the Incas in the Andes. To get there, most travellers will fly into Cuzco, usually without giving this “transit” city further thought.
That’s a pity because Cuzco (also called “Qosqo” in the indigenous Quechua tongue) used to be a capital of the Inca Empire. Located in the scenic Southern Sierras, Cuzco is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also a great place to begin exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas, wandering from one Inca ruin to another.
You basically start by walking around the historical Plaza de Armas, the main square of Cuzco. There are churches for the devout, shops for those needing retail therapy, restaurants for the hungry and, of course, plenty of bars for those needing to wind down after a day of sightseeing.
Don’t overdo it on the drinking though as most visitors are unused to the altitude; Cuzco is located 3,400 metres above sea level. Many will experience altitude sickness or what locals call soroche. In fact, most hotels will have canisters of oxygen at the reception for those who need it. Try drinking some coca tea, found everywhere in Cuzco. (Don’t worry; while cocaine is made from the coca plant, the leaves themselves aren’t potent enough to be considered a drug.)
Be amazed at the juxtaposition of colonial architecture and Inca masonry, the former resting on the foundations of the latter. Inca brickwork is especially well preserved, surviving even earthquakes. It is said each stone is placed onto their neighbour without use of mortar yet fits so perfectly not even a slim knife can pass between them.
A mere four blocks from Plaza de Armas, on Avenida del Sol (literally the “Street of the Sun”), is Qoricancha, or the Sun Temple. Qoricancha was the heart of Inca worship and an embodiment of traditional Inca architecture. However, with the advent of the Spanish conquistadors, the temple fell into ruins and a Christian church, Santo Domingo, was built on top of it.
Look out for the statue of the great Inca emperor, Pachacuteq Yupanki, which stands on a six-storey monument at a roundabout on Avenida del Sol, overlooking the entire city. Pachacuteq was believed to have built Cusco and expanded the Inca empire in the surrounding Sacred Valley. Contrast this revered Peruvian icon with the vestiges of Spanish colonisation, and you will have an idea of the complex history of the region.
As you wander around, you will also notice the locals out and about, busy with their work or at rest or even playing music for money or for leisure. These are the remnants of the native Quechua population, easily recognised by their colourful traditional garb.
There are many day trips that you may take from Cuzco. One striking destination is Puka Pukara, which means “red fortress” in Quechua. A key military centre during the Inca times, Puka Pukara is located strategically on high ground overlooking both Cuzco and Tambo Mach’ay, another military outpost.
The hard-to-scale walls and rolling terraces are striking and form an indispensable part of the Inca Empire’s defence strategy. What’s more remarkable is the colour of the stones used in building this fortress. The stones turn a crimson hue during dusk, which is where the puka (“red” in Quechua) part of its name comes from.
Tambo Mach’ay, meanwhile, was an odd sort of military outpost. Its name offers a clue to an alternative function — tampu in Quechua means “guest house” and mach’ay is “cave” — as an olden day spa resort for the Inca upperclass.
Evidence of this lies in the series of canals and aqueducts that run through the terraced rocks here. The Spanish certainly believed in the existence of the baths and called the site El Baño del Inca, or “the baths of the Inca”.
Another can’t-miss day trip: visit Sacsayhuaman, a citadel north of Cuzco that overlooks the city at an altitude of 3,701 metres. (The Incas were obsessed with building outposts at great heights, apparently.) Even before the Inca arrived, parts of Sacsayhuaman’s foundations were laid by the Killke culture around 1100.
When the Inca Empire expanded and took over the area in the 13th century, they added walls constructed of gigantic stones that, like the ones in Cuzco, were carefully cut and fit together without mortar, albeit at a larger scale. Some of these boulders are estimated to weight almost 200 tonnes!
This UNESCO World Heritage site is an awe-inspiring reminder of the architectural capabilities of pre-Hispanic America. Before technology, before gunpowder and modern tools, the Incas managed to construct a fortified complex on top of a steep hill – with six-metre-high and 400-metre-long walls – that withstood some of the most devastating earthquakes in Peru’s history.
If you’d like a change from all these Inca military sites, how about exploring how this ancient race grew their crops? Your answer lies in Moray, known as the Agricultural Laboratory of the Incas. During the drive there, you can stop by a small town called Pisac to take a break and enjoy spectacular views of the Andes Mountains.
Pisac has a popular Sunday market but there are also bazaars along the streets of the town on most days. This is a good place to purchase local handicraft – from woven alpaca rugs to jewellery – but be prepared to bargain furiously. Watch out for children already busy at herding livestock across the plains.
When you reach Moray, you’ll discover that the Incas weren’t all about sun worship and war. Here, the Incas have built terraced co-centric circles around three large natural depressions in the ground. This was their “laboratory” where they were believed to have cultivated resistant strains of plants that could survive the challenging climate and altitude of the Andes.
In the largest of these circular basins, you can even see a collection of water channels that follow the flow of gravity to the bottom, ensuring each level of the terraces was amply watered.
As you descend, you can feel the temperature rising. The Incas planted crops that grew well at lower altitudes at the lowest terraces. The best-performing strains were then cross-bred and grown further up the terraces, level by level, until they had plants at the highest sections that produced excellent yields even at the highest altitudes.
This is a side of the Incas one would never have guessed; that besides plotting battles and praying fervently, they also planted... like scientists! Truly, there’s more to Peru than just Machu Picchu.