Nearly 600 years ago, the Inca nation appeared in southern Peru, and in a relatively short time, consolidated its power in Cusco, before expanding north to what are now Ecuador and Colombia and south to present-day Chile. However, it is particularly in this scenic and fascinating region of Peru that visitors will find the legacy of the Inca Empire everywhere: in mountain villages, magnificent stone monuments, colorful markets and annual fiestas.
The archaeological capital of South America, Cusco is rich in pre-Columbian remains such as the Koricancha Temple, the Inca Baths with their sophisticated canal system and the vast Sacsayhuaman Fortress site of ancient religious celebrations. Colonial treasures include mansions and churches (the Cathedral, La Merced Convent, La Compania), built on Inca foundations. Churches are full of marvelous works from the Cusco School of painting, distinguished by its mix of Catholic and pagan imagery.
Outside Cusco and in the Urubamba River Valley or "Sacred Valley of the Incas" is a favorite for outdoors activities: river rafting, hiking, horse-back riding, biking, ballooning; and take-off point for Inca Trail trekkers. Ollantaytambo fortress should not be missed. Pisac is a recommended visit for its Inca ruins above the town and the Indian market in the village square (Tue, Thu, Sun).
The Lost City of the Incas was a remote fortress/sanctuary abandoned by the Inca, reclaimed by the jungle and hidden from view until Hiram Bingham of Yale University rediscovered it in 1911. With altars, temples, staircases and terraces, this is one of the world's most extraordinary sites, one that can be visited (by train or helicopter) on a day trip from Cusco, but better yet with an overnight stay.
PUNO & LAKE TITICACA
By plane from Lima and Arequipa, or by train across the altiplano from Cusco, is Puno, Peru's folkloric center, with a rich array of handicrafts, costumes, traditional dances, fiestas and markets. The mysterious, circular chulpas of Sillustani, burial chambers of the Aymara Indians, lie 20 miles outside the town.
Puno is the stepping-off point for exploring the region's amazing array of islands, Indian inhabitants and colorful traditions. The best-known are the Uros people who live just offshore on floating islands made of totora reed. From Puno, visitors can cruise across lake Titicaca to Bolivia.
By air, this lovely city is 75 minutes south from Lima. Dominated by the snow-capped El Misti volcano, it is built of white stone called sillar. The pretty Plaza de Armas forms the city core, bordered on one side by a Jesuit church founded in 1689. There are many fine restored mansions and churches such as San Agustin with its churrigueresque facade, but the primary religious monument is the Santa Catalina Monastery, a flowering complex of buildings that once sheltered a community of 400 nuns.
A half-day drive from Arequipa, via the Aguada Blanca National Reserve which protects vicunas (natural relatives of the llama), Colca is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and cuts through a region occupied by people whose lives have changed little since Inca times. They live in tiny villages with exquisitely decorated, although decrepit, old churches. Condors circle above ribbons of green terraces, built by the Incas in layers up canyon walls. These terraces are still farmed today.
Taquile men take visitors from Puno over Lake Titicaca waters to their isolated island. The local society, dedicated to agriculture, has developed an original form of "communal tourism" in which visitors share their food, homes, customs and traditions. Taquile is famous for its skilled weavers, whose crafts and folklore are exhibited in a local museum.