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