Who doesn’t dream of visiting Machu Picchu?

I finally got my chance after hitching a ride on National Geographic’s Around-the-World-by-Private-Jet expedition last week. And while the Inca village in the clouds is exhilarating, there’s much more in the Peruvian highlands for travelers to explore while they’re in the Sacred Valley.

Many of these sites confirm what anyone who’s seen pictures of Machu Picchu may have suspected: that the Inca were among the world’s greatest architects and engineers.

Here’s my guide to making the most of your time in this fascinating region:

Cusco 

The Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Cusco. (Photograph by Jorge Láscar, Flickr)

Most visits to Machu Picchu begin here. The one-time Inca capital is teeming with hotels, restaurants, shops, and historic sites, the Coricancha among them. This “Golden Enclosure” was highly sacred to the Inca and contained the empire’s primary sun temple, along with shrines dedicated to the Moon, Venus and the Pleiades, thunder, and rainbows according to art history expert Jack Daulton, who’s along on our trip. Though the Spanish demolished much of the complex, older remnants testify to Inca ingenuity. For instance, the “course” masonry — rectangular stone blocks bolted together with molten metal and angled to withstand the region’s frequent earthquakes — seen in the ancient walls would make even the most sophisticated contemporary engineer proud.

Behind grand pink edifices, other colonial-era churches near Cusco’s central square contain spectacular gilded altars, paintings, sculptures, and woodwork. We visited the elaborate Cathedral of Santo Domingo but, alas, were banned from taking photographs. You’ll have to take my word: It’s worth a visit. 

Sacsayhuaman 

The size of the stones at Saqsaywaman dwarf visitors. (Photograph by Ford Cochran)

The 15th-century terrace walls at this hilltop site above Cusco include mammoth stone blocks (larger than any found in Egypt’s pyramids) fitted together like snug jigsaw pieces into sawtooth retaining walls. The sheer size of some of these stones made me feel like a Lilliputian in Gulliver’s Travels. The art historian’s name for this imposing style of Inca stonework (according to Jack Dalton): Cyclopean.

Ollantaytambo

This impressive site at a bend of the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley played backdrop to a critical battle between retreating Incas and Spanish invaders, says Nat Geo Explorer-in-Residence and expert Wade Davis. Had the Incas repelled the Spaniards here, it’s a fair bet that you’d need an Inca visa to visit Machu Picchu today.

Here's your llama! (Photograph by Ford Cochran)

The site rewards visitors with grand views of stair-stepped stone walls and, from high up on them, of the canyon of the Urubamba. It’s easy to hop the train to Machu Picchu from the station nearby.

Oh, And About That Llama…

Remember in an earlier post I promised a llama if you were good? Well here you are, courtesy the Andean women in traditional dress who greeted our group at the exit to Sacsayhuaman.

Enjoy!

Follow Ford and Andrew Evans as they circle the globe. Where will they exchange the baton? Your guess is as good as ours.

Related: Take a trip to see Peru: Land of Inca with National Geographic Expeditions.

 

Comments

  1. Christian Rene Friborg
    November 25, 2012, 11:39 pm

    Me and my wife’s experience at Macchu Picchu is beyond anything I have ever imagined. It was just marvelous. :)

  2. Sustainable Preservation Initiative
    November 25, 2012, 12:52 pm

    Thanks for the great blog post about sites beyond Machu Picchu! There are also some
    phenomenal sites in northern Peru such as San Jose de Moro and Pampas Gramalote where
    we do economic development work that supports the preservation of their cultural heritage.
    We support your search for authentic and sustainable cultural experiences by creating locally
    owned businesses whose success is tied to the welfare of the site. I’d recommend to anyone
    visiting the region to go take a look and support the local economies there by purchasing some
    great ware from the local artists too!

  3. Millie
    USA
    October 26, 2012, 10:59 am

    I was in Machu Picchu on March this year. I had references from friends that had gone to Peru before. Nothing compares with the experience of being there. Absolutely amazing!

    Millie
    http://www.machupicchucoupons.com

  4. Aparecido
    Brazil
    October 22, 2012, 7:28 am

    I went to Peru, The only thing I can tell about Machu Pichu is “amazing”, An ancient culture that make you feel back in time.

  5. Clive Hornby
    HILLCREST Kwa Zulu Natal
    October 21, 2012, 2:44 pm

    A visit there,is on my bucket list

    Regards clive

  6. Dia Mirza
    Bangladesh
    October 20, 2012, 2:18 am

    I always dream to visit in Machu Picchu ….
    Great place with natural scenic beauty.

  7. Marita
    Peru
    October 18, 2012, 4:20 pm

    Excelent post! Thanks for sharing your experience in Peru!

  8. Rob P
    Kenya
    October 18, 2012, 1:07 pm

    It is Time to get there fast!

  9. Lauren Schaad
    http://laurenschaad.com
    October 18, 2012, 9:47 am

    This is very timely, as I begin to plan a trip to Machu Picchu next year. It’s quite amazing what they managed to accomplish, architecture-wise, without the use of modern machinery. Thanks for the great llama photo, and keep exploring!

  10. allen @ travel insurance
    ireland
    October 17, 2012, 8:33 am

    machu picchu is a pre-Columbian 15th-century site located 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level.
    Machu Picchu is located in the Cusco Region of Peru.
    is really grea place to movein…loved it..
    best family travel insurnace

  11. Mirrin Rose
    Thailand
    October 17, 2012, 6:59 am

    Here before I don’t know such a vacation spot. Really nice Vally. i never seen such a photograph. I really like Machu Picchu.

    Thanks
    Mirrin Rose