The Republic of Peru and has a population of around 31 million people, with close to 9 million of this population living in and around Lima, the Capital of Peru on the Pacific Ocean coastline.
Peru is a great country to visit with its great beaches, resorts, deserts, the Andes Mountains, jungles to its west, walking trails, ancient relics, llamas and alpacas, steep terraced garden hillsides, museums, pottery, textiles, gourds, crafts and markets where you will see women carrying their babies on their back and wearing their traditional brightly coloured clothing and bowler hats. While Spanish is the main language, many people also speak Quechua – the language of the Incas.
The history of Peru dates back over 20,000 years and to the time of the Chimu, Sicán, Mochica and other early civilisations around 200-1200AD and today you can still see remnants of these civilisations, including pyramids. The pyramids, tombs, temples and many of the ancient ruins can be seen in the northern deserts of Peru on the Pacific Ocean coastline and near the cities of Chiclayo, Tumbes, Pacasmayo and particularly Tύcume where the Valley of the Pyramids is located. There are also villages outside these towns too, and it is best to take a tour from one of the main towns above where you might stay over.
The other big city here on the northern coast of Peru is Trujillo and just outside the city are the ancient city ruins of Chan Chan and the pyramids of Huaca del Sol and Huaca del Luna. There are a number of surfing beaches and resorts close by Trujillo too, so it is a good city to combine visits to museums, see ruins, eat in some of the good restaurants as well as go for a surf.
Here is the dry desert climate the ruins of these civilisations survive and you will most likely see small boys and people sifting through desert sands in search of relics that they might uncover. In the museums too, you will see some of the ceramics, weavings, jewellery, artefacts and even skulls of some of these people too. If you look at some of the skulls, you will see that they have incredibly high foreheads – the result of having their head bound. Apparently a high forehead was the sign of nobility and intelligence, hence the reason for binding the heads.
One of the other interesting sights to see here too are the reed boats used by fishermen along the coastline, usually standing upright in the sands of the beaches. You will also see these reed boats on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca too.
Also you may, depending on the time of year experience the fogs rolling in from the ocean over the coastline, much as they do in San Francisco.
You might recall also Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) and his Kon-Tiki raft voyage in 1947, that was made into a movie. He tried to prove a connection between the people in Polynesia and Peru by sailing on a raft boat made from Balsa tree logs from Peru to Polynesia.
Certainly seeing the reed boats, the pyramids and desert itself is interesting and this part of the coast is also a good place to find ‘ceviche’ – the national dish of Peru, a great fish lunch made using fish cured in lime juice with a hint of chili. It is a fantastic lunch to enjoy with a Cerveza (beer).
Having seen some of the ruins of these ancient civilisations, it puts into context the evolution of one of the greatest Empires to develop in the world – the Incan Empire that lasted from 1200AD to 1532, when it was conquered or overthrown by the Spanish conquistadors.
In 1513 the Spanish Conquistadors, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Francisco Pizarro
(.c 1475 - 1541) managed to cross over the land and marshes of the isthmus in Panama to find the Pacific Ocean. Then in 1532 Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and their conquistadors set sail down the Pacific Ocean coastline from Panama, in search of a fabled Empire that they were told was rich in gold and other treasures. They found that Empire and those riches in Peru.
At the time the Incan Empire stretched over thousands of kilometres from their capital Cusco, controlling vast lands and around 30 million people. Within 30 years, this population was decimated, with only around 5 million Incans surviving the onslaught of diseases brought by the Spanish like smallpox to which the Incas had immunity.
Pizarro and his men brought their guns, cannons, horses and the Roman Catholic Religion that they believed gave them all rights over all people who they deemed to be ‘Pagans’ ‘Heathens’ or ‘non-believers’.
Within a year of their arrival in Peru Pizarro managed to capture the “Sun God”, Arahualpa – the Emperor of the Incan Empire, demanding a massive ransom in gold for his release. Once they had received this ransom, they then reneged on their pledge, and in July 1533 they placed Arahualpa on trial, sentencing him to either be burned alive as a pagan, or baptised as a Christian and then strangled. His death singled the end of the Incan Empire, and the arrival of the Spanish conquest that saw galleons filled with gold, silver and other treasures taken from Peru to Panama and on to Spain, much of the gold artisan craftwork melted down.
The Incan Royal Road (the Great Inka Road) that the Incas had used for connecting and administrating their vast territory – some 39,000 kilometres long and called the Qhapaq Nan Road in Northern Peru, also became the road for the Spanish to conquer the Incas, using their horses to cover greater distances and their firepower to overcome any resistance that they encountered.
The Incas had built their roads all by hand with Alpacas and Llamas being used as their livestock to carry goods as well as for their wool and meat. The Incas had no horses or cattle before the Spanish arrived, but they did grow potatoes, maize and other crops in their terraced gardens, where intricate systems of irrigation and drainage were set up.
Today, the Incan Empire is no longer, but their roads, stonework, terraced hillsides and places like Machu Picchu and Cusco are still standing, a testament to their skills in construction.
The City of Cusco was the Incan Empire’s Capital City and here you will see some amazing stonework and marvel at the skills of those who built the walls and other structures that you see here and Machu Picchu is close by too.
Most Tourists coming to see Cusco and Machu Picchu will fly in from Lima – an hour and a half flight across the Andes, with great viewing of you get a window seat, depending on how much cloud cover is happening.
You can also get to Cusco from Lima by bus or a combination of Bus and train. Roads over the Andes vary in both the safety and standard of the road and the number of road bends – but it is roughly a 20 plus hour travel time to complete the 1100 kilometre journey. The shorter bus journey will have more bends in the road and sheer drops as well as possible landslides, but takes usually less time if you take this journey. It is best to check with the Bus operator or fellow travellers to determine the best choice for the days you plan to travel.
Deciding on the best travel option really depends on how much time you have and where you are heading to next, but one option would be to see the Nasca Lines, south of Lima, and then head to Arequipa and then Puno on Lake Titicaca (see separate pages on this website) and from there catch a train from Puno to Cusco.
Cusco is 3400 metres above sea level and many people will experience Altitude sickness, which is not fun as it comes with headaches and possible nausea and an overall incredible lack of strength and tiredness. Just taking a few steps can be exhausting. The body does however adjust to the lack of oxygen – up to 50% less oxygen than you would experience at sea level, with the body producing more red blood cells to cope with the lack of oxygen.
Trains and quality buses crossing over the Andes to the Altiplano (high Plateau) will in most cases have oxygen available to passengers who are experiencing Altitude sickness and in most cases the altitude sickness will pass after a day or so. When you fly into Cusco, you are most at risk of Altitude sickness as you are moving from sea level to 3400 metres in less than 2 hours. It is best to have your accommodation pre-booked, so at least you can go immediately to your lodgings to rest and recover.
Like most Peruvian towns and cities, the centre of Cusco has its Plaza de Armas where much of the city’s activities take place. Here you will see gardens, pathways and a fountain in the centre of the square with the towering Cathedral, built in 1860 on one side and a number of museums, shops, churches and restaurants all close by within walking distance.
Cusco definitely lives up to its reputation as a great place to see and there are many walking tours with a commentary to gain more understanding of its cultural history. You don’t have to take a tour but it does help to understand more about what you are seeing – this whole mix of both Incan and Spanish architecture and development.
Close to the San Pedro Railway station there is a large craft market and food market and also markets near the Huanchac Station.
PeruRail trains to Machu Picchu leave from Poroy Station on the north-west side of the city. As you would expect there are a lot of tourists who come to Cusco, and so there are many souvenirs that will see and could bargain for.
If you head to the Inka Museum (Museo Inka) in the El Palacio del Almirante mansion you will see some of the best museum pieces in Peru, but there are a number of other museums and churches that are equally interesting, depending on how much time and interest you have. All are relatively close by to each other in the centre of Cusco. Certainly you could easily spend a couple of days here in Cusco to see more and get a real feel for the city’s history, culture and people. During the year there are many fiestas and festivals that happen here in Cusco, so it is good to visit the local tourist office close to the Plaza de Armas in Portal de Mantas to find out if there are any fiestas happening and then plan your day trips or visit to Machu Picchu if this is where you are heading. There are many tour companies and also street ‘promoters’ seeking your business, and no shortage of things to do from whitewater rafting to hot-air ballooning. Maybe here in Cusco you might like to try ‘cuy’ – roast guinea-pig in one of the many restaurants.
There are many places to stay, eat, drink and listen to music and with lots of tourists travelling here to Cusco, it is worth booking your accommodation early and also if planning to head to Machu Picchu also book your trip there early too.
Machu Picchu is not the only Incan sight to see outside Cusco, so you might also plan to see some of these too, taking a day tour from Cusco.
There are a number of Plazas in the city centre and a walking tour will take you along some of the cobbled roadways and point out some of the architectural places of interest, including the Sacsayhuaman Incan fortress with its amazing stonework. It is a steep walk uphill to see it, but absolutely worth it.
Where most stone buildings and walls that you see around the world are constructed using rectangular blocks like bricks, here you will see massive blocks of stone that are perfectly shaped to marry with those next to it with no cement used to join them. Everyone who sees this stonework marvels at the skill and ingenuity of those who built these walls centuries ago all by hand.
The story is Sacsayhuaman is also a dramatic one too, as this was the place for a final battle between the Incas and the Spanish took place in 1536.
Cusco is also a staging place for people travelling eastwards to the jungles of Peru and the Amazon – see separate pages on this website.
Day Tours from Cusco –
There are many tours that you could take out of Cusco, including smaller treks and also longer ones, as well as adventure activities too.
From a scenic view, see if you can see the Vinicunca “Rainbow Mountain (Montana de Siete Colores). It is best to do this on a long day tour leaving Cusco pre-dawn for a 3 hour journey and then a walk (or horse ride) for about 3 hours up the mountain – which is multi-coloured and amazing to see. It is then a 3 hour tour bus ride back to Cusco, and the mountain is around 5000 metres above sea level, so not to be undertaken if you have any sense of having altitude sickness.
If you have travelled in the mountains in Peru you will have seen some of their remarkable terraces and irrigation systems for growing maize, potatoes and other crops. Not far from Cusco are the Moray Terraces that form a conical circle shape like an amphitheatre in a series of terraces that descent about 150 metre downwards. The Moray Terraces are around 50 kilometres North-West from Cusco, with a series of steps leading downwards next to the stone walls on each level.
Aqueducts allow the water to drop down each level, and each level has different soils. It is believed that the Incas used the Moray Terraces as a way of testing different crops relative to the different temperatures on each level and the changes in soil. It is certainly an amazing sight to see and well worth the effort to come here.
Cusco was the centre of the Incan Empire, the city built in the shape of a Puma and it is where the Incas worshiped their Gods and paid respect to the great Sun God, Inti. It is here in Cusco where you can see the ‘Temple of the Sun’, Coricancha, an amazing stone Temple that today lies mostly under the Convent of Santa Domingo.
In almost every war over centuries there have been those who triumphed and those that were vanquished – and when the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire, they destroyed much of what they saw. Here in Cusco, they used Incan structures to build Spanish structures over the top of them. Was this simply for practical reasons using the stone buildings for foundations only, or was it to prove the superiority of their own Spanish Empire and their Christian Religion?
The Coricancha Temple is said to date back to the 12th Century, and when the Spanish found it, they found the interior and external walls of the Temple surfaced in gold, as well as many other objects and images of Incan Gods and animals, all in Gold, Silver and precious gems. One can only imagine the richness of what the Spanish found and sadly almost all of it would ultimately be melted down in ingots of gold for transport back to Spain.
There are also many other Incan ruins just outside of Cusco and again it is best to see these ruins on day tours, where you have a guide to tell you more about what you are seeing. There may be an entrance charge too at some of these.
At the Tourist Office ask about the Cusco Archaeological Circuit that will give you a guide to some of the Incan ruins that are within a few kilometres of Cusco. Just about 6km north-east from Cusco is Qenko (Q’enqo) and also Tambo Machay – the Temple of the waters with its aqueducts. Both places are worth seeing both for the ruins as well as the scenery around you.
One place that I would suggest you see too is the small town of Pisac, a town of about 10,000 people just 30 kilometres from Cusco. Along the road between Cusco and Pisac you will find the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary (22km) where you will be able to see Condors, and Pumas. A little further on there is the Living Museum of the Andes where they have some Llamas, Vicuna and Alpacas and show how all the natural dyes are made for the weavers and traditional clothing – some of the most colourful and artistic weaving work is here both on show as well as for sale. See www.awanakancha.com Pisac is known for its morning markets and craft work and above the town is an Incan Citadel and Temple complex above the town. Again it is easiest to take a tour to Pisac, but you could also stay over and trek up to the Temple too or to other villages in the area. The scenery here is memorizing.
As with everywhere here in and around the valleys and mountains, the weather can change quickly so you need to be prepared for rain, winds or even snow too as well as realizing that the higher up you are the less oxygen there is – so a long trek can also be exhausting.
Just as the Incas worshiped the sun, the moon, the earth, the sky, rainbows, air, wind and rain you too will also recognize the beauty and value of the environment and all that you see around you.