Machu Picchu

The Inca’s most famous archaeological site needs no introduction. Built during the reign of emperor Pachacutec (1438-71), the Alexander the Great of South America, this mountaintop citadel has mesmerised travellers the world over ever since Hiram Bingham stumbled across it back in 1911. Scholars are still debating exactly what it is: Summer retreat for the Sapa Inca? Andean administrative centre? Refuge for a culture in decline? No matter what they conclude, for countless visitors the site will forever be the high point of their South American sojourn.

Machu Picchu’s ruins comprise a huge variety of structures. The Torreón, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Sun, royal chambers, prison cells, the famous intihuatana or ‘hitching post of the sun’: nearly every part glows with gorgeous stonework and astronomical significance. Here is a place where sun, stone, and heaven come together, a work of art on a truly geolithic scale.

Visiting Machu Picchu

Most visitors arrive at Machu Picchu in one of two ways. The more intrepid hike the four-day Inca Trail, starting near Ollantaytambo, while the less venturesome arrive via one of the many daily trains. Either way, it’s highly recommended to spend the night at Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of the ruins: Machu Picchu encompasses too much to see in just one day.

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Cusco/Qorikancha

The Qorikancha is to the Inca what the Kaaba is to Islam or the Temple Mount to Judaism: the Holiest of Holies. Built, like Machu Picchu, during the 15th century reign of Pachacutec, it’s far and away the most important edifice in Cusco — and, defacements aside, one of the most sublime.

The temple covers three city blocks just south of Cusco’s main square. Constructed from the same hard andesite as other Inca monuments, it features tapered-stone walls and a maze of inner shrines to the sun, moon, stars, thunder and rainbows.

Visiting can be a mixed experience: the stonework is genuinely stunning — witness the gently curving wall that graces the structure’s northwest corner. On the other hand, the sanctuary was heavily vandalised in the 1530s by the Spanish, who stripped away its gold plating and erected the average Church of Santo Domingo on top. For some, the structure comes off as a jarring hybrid of Incan and Spanish Colonial styles. If you’re among them, focus on its many glories: trapezoidal doorframes, anti-seismic architecture, sacred fonts and a lovely outside garden that once gleamed with gold statues of llamas and corn stalks.

Visiting Qorikancha

The Qorikancha requires several hours to appreciate fully. Look for an expert guide in Cusco’s main square, one who can explain the site’s full history, and be sure to ask about the tunnels underneath.

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Sacsayhuamán

Stones weighing over 300 tonnes; stacked tiers of zig-zagging ramparts; high towers overlooking the Inca capital from a soaring hilltop: everything about Sacsayhuamán is truly gargantuan — and this despite the fact that only 20% of this stunning fortress citadel still remains.

Sacsayhuamán was built in the 15th century on a high hill overlooking Cusco from the west. It served as a religious and military complex until 1536, when it became the site of a desperate pitched battle between the Spaniards and the Incas that was one of the turning points of the Conquest.

After the Spanish pulled out a last-minute victory, they were able to consolidate control of Cusco and drive the Inca into the jungle. Today, the staggering masonry is a potent reminder of what the Inca achieved. An added attraction: Sacsayhuamán is also the setting for the Festival of Inti Raymi, a traditional Incan sun festival held every June 24th.

Visiting Sacsayhuamán

The fortress is one of the attractions included on Peru’s Boleto Turístico. A ten-day pass costing approximately $45, this ticket allows entrance to key sites in the Sacred Valley. It’s sold at several points around Cusco.

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Pisac

Architecturally speaking, Pisac is a huge question mark. For decades, scholars have beaten their heads — figuratively — against its fine stone walls, seeking to understand exactly what it is. Yet another estate for the Inca Pachacutec? A ceremonial site? A self-sustaining defensive complex? Debates continue to rage, but no definitive answer has appeared.

Pisac is perched high above the town of the same name, on a rockface overlooking a valley of soft green terraces. Built most likely in the late 15th century, it consists of four neighbourhoods, each with a broad array of constructions: barracks, fortifications, civilian residences, aqueducts, agricultural precincts.

Of special note is a sun temple carved from pink granite, graced with an intihuatana (sundial) used to chart the movements of the heavens. Highlights apart, however, what captivates in Pisac is its sheer variety. Not even Machu Picchu sports such a vast abundance of marvels.

Visiting Pisac

Pisac is a good candidate for a day trip from Cusco. Go early enough, and you’ll be able to visit the colourful indigenous market in the town below. It’s also included on the Boleto Turístico.

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Ollantaytambo

Fear and panic: that was the Spaniards’ reaction when they first saw Ollantaytambo back in 1536. That’s because this 200-foot fortress, composed of 17 massive terraces and wrought into a steep Andean mountainside, was the perfect redoubt for a fierce Incan army bent on revenge. Spanish qualms proved well-founded: Ollantaytambo was the site of the bloodiest European defeat during the wars of the Conquest, in which the Inca diverted the nearby Patacancha River and washed their enemies right out of the valley.

Today, Ollantaytambo is considerably more peaceful, if no less august. Built during Pachacutec’s great public-works campaign of the 1400s, it comprises a number of ceremonial structures as well as fortifications. After climbing the 200-plus stairs to the ramparts, visitors will find a sun temple, an enclosure of ten niches, and a lovely ceremonial bath carved from a single block of stone. Best of all, the fortress is set within the cobbled streets of the eponymously named pueblo — the only surviving Inca town in the Andes.

Visiting Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is located two hours from Cusco and is the chief point of departure for trains going to Machu Picchu. The fortress ruins are included in the Boleto Turístico.

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Moray

Dried corn: such is the meaning of moray in Quechua. The name is apt, for these stunning, 500-foot-deep circular terraces were likely some of the hemisphere’s first laboratories for agricultural science. Green technology 500 years before the fact, they’d have been invaluable to the Inca in feeding an empire of 12 million.

Moray’s three terraces stand 30 miles outside Cusco, in a quiet spot in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Like many Inca monuments, they were probably built during the late 1400s, but their design strikes a new note in Andean culture. Modern investigators have observed a 30-degree differential between the top and bottom levels, which would have allowed priest-scientists to simulate different micro-climates in the Andes as they tested out new seeds and crop species.

Visiting Moray

Moray is easy to get to. Tours are available from downtown Cusco, or you can hire a taxi and have the driver wait.

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Nazca

The lines at Nazca may not have been drawn by space aliens, but they’re no less otherworldly. Etched into the ruddy sands of Peru’s coastal desert sometime between 500 BC and 500 AD, these huge geoglyphs comprise a bizarre menagerie of forms: hummingbirds, spiders, lizards, condors, monkeys, and strange, astronaut-like figures that, even today, leave archaeologists mystified.


The lines are the work of the Nazca culture, a pre-Hispanic civilisation renowned for its technicolour textiles and futuristic underground aqueducts. Located some 250 miles south of Lima and covering 200 square miles, they’re also a favourite of unsolved-mystery lovers everywhere. Were they walkways between sacred points traced in the desert? Or a vast agricultural calendar? Or monuments of a weird fertility cult, aimed at coaxing life out of the bone-dry waste around them? The lunar desert only keeps its silence.

Visiting Nazca

The lines can only really be appreciated from above, which typically means a 30 minute flight in a light aircraft. It can be turbulent, pricey, and not particularly carbon-friendly, so proceed with caution and choose your operator carefully: some of the aviators are real cowboys and the safety record isn’t great.

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Sipán

In 1987, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva had an Indiana Jones moment. Called by Peru’s police to investigate some stolen pre-Hispanic artifacts in the northern city of Chiclayo, he was rushed out to Huaca Rajada, an earth-covered pyramid outside of town, where he encountered a group of tomb raiders pillaging a Moche burial site. Alva succeeded in stopping the looters, but in the process, he stumbled on one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The find was El Señor de Sipán, a Moche lord who ruled around 200 AD and was interred in an ornate tomb with his eight-person entourage (a Moche high priest was buried nearby). That in itself would have been major news, but the hoard of gold, turquoise, and ceramic objects that came with it made it the richest burial site ever found in the Western hemisphere. Today, visitors can stand beneath Huaca Rajada and see mock-ups of the original excavations, but the real glories of Sipán are indoors, in its two fascinating museums.

Visiting Sipán

Most of the artifacts from Alva’s discovery are now in the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán in Lambayeque, a world-class showcase for the pectoral plates, earrings, nose shields and sceptres unearthed with the Moche lord. The museum is well organised, with informative displays and guides throughout. Also worth a visit is the Museo de Sitio Sipán, located right at Huaca Rajada and filled with some of the overflow from the Museo Tumbas Reales. A rare instance in Peru in which the museum exhibits are more interesting than the archaeological site itself.

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Lima — Pachacamac

Pachacamac was, for 1,500 years, the most important temple on the Pacific seaboard of South America. First inhabited by the Lima culture around 300 AD, it was later expanded by the Huari, a highland tribe who turned it into a major pilgrimage destination circa 700. Last came the Inca, who ruled it from the 1400s until the site’s dismantling by the Spanish in 1532.


What made the sanctuary such a hot property? Principally, its oracle of Pachacamac — ‘he who shakes the earth’. Feared as the creator god responsible for earthquakes, this strange, fish-faced deity was represented on an ornately carved wooden staff that local rulers would consult to divine the future.

Later, votaries would pass through the complex’s criss-crossing alleys and offer sacrifices atop its platforms, which include the red-and-yellow-frescoed Painted Temple and the Temple of the Sun. All of these crumbling ruins are still visible today, along with a reconstructed Inca sanctuary for mamaconas (holy virgins of the sun).

Visiting Pachacamac

Pachacamac is located some 25 miles from downtown Lima on the Panamericana highway. Signage is minimal, but there’s an excellent new on-site museum, and guides are available. Take plenty of water and sunscreen when you go: the track through the complex is long and dusty.

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Lima — Huaca Pucllana

For out-of-towners, it might seem bizarre to find a pre-Columbian pyramid in the heart of Miraflores, Lima’s ultra-modern tourist district. For limeños, however, sites like Huaca Pucllana are just part of the scenery — everyday fare in a capital that dates back 2,000 years.

Huaca Pucllana was built around 400 or 500 AD by the Lima, a pre-Hispanic civilisation that occupied the central Peruvian coast. Originally a ceremonial site where shark-eating and pottery-smashing were frequent rituals, it was overrun sometime around 700 by the Huari, a militant highland tribe who converted it into a huge necropolis. Today, tour guides take you up to the temple ramparts, where you’ll see the tombs of elite Huari women sacrificed to the gods, along with their children. There’s also a small zoo with llamas and alpacas, and an informative museum.

Visiting Huaca Pucllana

Huaca Pucllana is a good option for families with kids: an on-site programme allows youngsters to dig for small artifacts. Meanwhile, adults will enjoy the spectacular nighttime views of the pyramid from the terrace of the adjoining restaurant, which is one of the best in Lima.

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