Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, is located in the valley of the Huataney River in the southeast of the Andes at 3400 meters above sea level, Cusco its 1153 Kms. southwest from Lima.
Cusco is the former capital of Tahuantinsuyo, the center of the Empire of the Four Regions and the "Navel of the world". From this city unfurled one of the most remarkable empires in the history of mankind. The Incas expanded in less than one hundred years their frontiers from the North of Quito in Ecuador to Santiago de Chile far South. In eastern direction they reached Argentina. Although the Incas are not well known in the western world, they were bigger than many ancient cultures intensively studied.
Cusco or Qosqo was built at 3400 above sea level in the shape of an enormous puma. The body of the puma contained the most important palaces, temples and governmental buildings while the fortress just outside the city, known as Sacsayhuamán, formed the head of this sacred animal. The square between the legs of the puma is the Plaza de Armas.
The city today is a strange mixture of Inca architecture and the Spanish-Moorish colonial style. The Spanish destroyed unfortunately most of the temples in Cusco for building catholic churches. Inside the Santa Domingo you can still visit the temples built in name of the natural elements as lightning, rain, Moon (Quilla), Sun (Inti), wind, etc. Most of the enormous palaces every new Sapa Inca (the emperor) built to performance his duty do still exist and some of them are turned into museums.
The legend tells us that the first Sapa Inca Manco Capac and his royal wife Mama Occllo received the assignment of the God of the Sun the Inti itself. They established the capital city of a new empire where the golden staff sunk in the ground and improved life of the people living in this part of the world. The Spanish arrived in Cusco late 1533 and were astonished by the beauty of the capital city. Eyewitnesses described the place as a city of gold and light. Streets were quiet, the Incas had no horses and the biggest domestic animal was the llama which can't be used to pull any kind of cart. Street life was quiet because only the inhabitants on sandals walked there. Every street was clean and had two canals: one as sewerage and on the other side of the street a canal with fresh and clean river water.
After the conquistadors took all the gold and other valuables, they burned Cusco totally. Only the foundations, made by the Incas to overcome earthquakes and time, survived the disaster. Cusco is today most probably the most beautiful city in Latin America. Be careful on your first day in Cusco, you will be at 3.400 meters above sea level and breathing may be difficult if you come from the lowlands, walk slowly.
Visiting Cusco is the highlight of traveling in Peru. Make sure to allow enough days to see the city and its surroundings. In and around the city there is so much to see that one needs at least 4-5 days to see the minimum. A city trip includes generally some of the majestic churches and cathedrals (mostly La Catedrál and La Compañía at the Plaza the Armas) and the palace of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega converted to the museum of history of Cusco and some other places in Peru. These buildings can be visited with or without a guide but everybody needs to get a BTI (a tourist ticket that gives access to the most important tourist building in Cusco and 8 ruins outside of the city, included the Sacred Valley).
Cusco has excellent nightlife and many pubs and discos offer free tickets on the Plaza the Armas, generally from 8pm until 11pm. At night, the Plaza changes into a market where typical clothes, souvenirs and articrafts are sold. Everybody should make a walk by sunset in and around the center of Cusco. The Avenida El Sol is one of the main boulevards. The most important banks, the impressive palace of justice and one block further the Santa Domingo are found in this avenue. This church is also known as the Q'oricancha ("The Gold Walls"). It is where the Inti Raymi festival starts every year the 24th of June. This was the beginning of a new solar year according to the calendar of the Incas.
Some buildings and cities were never found by the conquistadors or just left alone because of their uninteresting position. Machu Picchu is the most important place that the Spanish never discovered. Officially the American professor Hiram Bingham found this magical place in 1911. The sacred city and the Incas became very famous since then, the Taj Majal of Latin America and probably one of the most impressive places in the world. Very little information stood the test of time about Machu Picchu. Archeologists found out that the city was a religious place of pilgrimage, constructed in the 15th and the first half of the 16th century and probably never finished. It could be that their work was interrupted by the Spanish invasion or the civil war just before the conquest between Atahualpa and Huascar.
The city is divided in two halves, a religious and a residential area with a relative big square in the middle. Approximately 1200 men could live in Machu Picchu and six men were enough to guard the city. Built on a steep mountain and surrounded by sub-tropical rainforest gives every visitor the feeling of being safe and untouchable.
Next to the Machu Picchu (old mountain) is the Huayna Picchu (young mountain) and it can be visited. A climb of at least 30 minutes brings you on top of this very steep mountain. You need good physical condition and watch your steps. From this place Machu Picchu can be seen in the shape of a huge condor flying to the West. On top of the Huayna Picchu, temples and terraces were constructed and halfway on the other side of the mountain you can visit the Temple of the Moon, known as the only Inca Temple still intact. Earthquakes did unfortunately destroy most of the other temples on Huayna Picchu.
This magical place can still be visited through the legendary Inca Trail. There are one and two day hikes, and the most popular is the 4-day hike from the Sacred Valley. Make sure you are in fair physical condition. The second day is the hardest with a 1000 meters climb to a pass of 4.300m. It is tricky to do the 4-day hike without a guide, but the 2 day-hike can be done alone. In dry season, when the sun is burning hot, you have to make sure to have enough water with you! Organized Inca Trail hikes are highly recommended. You will have magnificent views of white mountains, glaciers, sub-tropical rainforest and Inca ruins.
The Inca Trail crossed the whole empire and was described by the writers as the best roads they had ever seen. Although the Incas didn't know how to build stone bridges, their trails constituted one of the best communication systems of their time. Fish from the ocean arrived two hours later in Cusco. Messages and quipus from all over the empire got quick and safe in Cusco. The quipus are a mathematical account system used to administer the empire. A quipu was composed of colored strings and knots. The runners or chasquis ran distances from 200m to 5km, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Another chasqui took over the message and the goods, similar to the relay race.
The American professor Hiram Bingham searched some time ago for the lost city of Vilcabamba. This was the last hiding place of the Incas. On July the 23rd of 1911 he and his team were again deep in the Andes looking for Vilcabamba. He relied on cryptic indications in an old document about the last free Inca Manco Capac II who escaped from the Spanish after the defeated revolt in Cusco.
The weather was very bad, but an innkeeper fanned the interest of the professor telling a story about a lost city in the neighborhood. He and his team stayed in the humble hotel of the innkeeper who was promised a silver dollar if he could bring the team on location.
On the 24th of July Bingham went together with the innkeeper and a representative from the Peruvian government facing the bad weather, gray clouds and tropical rains. The other members of the team chose to stay in the hotel and wash their clothes. The professor and the two fellow passengers had to cross the wild Vilcanota River by a wooden bridge and climbed 600m on a very steep mountain. Halfway the mountain the guide talked with the owner of a simple hut with a thatched roof.
Bingham wanted to continue and a 10-year-old boy guided him. They had to climb over Inca terraces and a little later his encouragement was finally rewarded. He stood before the walls of Machu Picchu. The tropical vegetation was covering the ruins, but the remains were pretty well preserved. In the next years of investigation Bingham took about 11.000 pictures from the complex.
In his book "The discovery of Machu Picchu" he later wrote: "Suddenly I was standing in front of the walls of a ruin and houses from the best quality of Inca building art. The walls were difficult to see because the trees and moss ranked partly the stones during centuries. But in the shade of bamboo bushes and climbing plants were the walls visible of white granite blocks chopped in the highest precision. I found brilliant temples, royal houses, a big square and tens of houses. It looked like a dream."
Machu Picchu is situated between steep mountains with summits above 5.500m and the always-wild Vilcanota River. The only way to get there was over a narrow footpath constructed by the Incas, the Inca Trail or the Camino del Inca. Today thousands of tourists come by train to visit the Sacred City. The visitors get of the train in Aguas Calientes and take a bus to the ruins. The city of Machu Picchu is located at 2.400m above sea level and a 100 km from Cusco.
Lots of visitors still arrive in the sacred city by the Inca Trail. There are hikes that take from 1 to 9 days; the most common is the 4-day hike. On the second day of the hike there is a pass of 4.300m with views on glaciers, white summits and the mystical subtropical forest. On the fourth-day trail various ruins can be seen and the guide will explain with a charming pride what these places represented the empire of the Incas, Tahuantinsuyo. On the left is the ruin of Wiñawaña where the Inca Trail passes the day before arriving to Machu Picchu. The Sacred City is situated on the other side of the mountain.
The Sacred City is built between two sharp peaks, on the south the Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) and on the north the lower Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain). 800m below going round the Urubamba (or the Vilcanota River) through the 90° steep rock walls. The vegetation is the beautiful subtropical rainforest. All of this combined with the surrealistic beauty of the city of Machu Picchu makes this place one of the most beautiful on earth
A wonderful whole
An estimate 1.200 people could live in Machu Picchu. In fact it is difficult to speak about it as a city because there are not even 200 buildings. There is a religious, a military and a residential areas divided by a majestic square. Nevertheless it takes some time to visit all buildings separately. In the religious area there are the temples, the royal sarcophagi, the Intihuatana and the residential buildings of the priests situated. A fair part of the religious area is reserved for the Inca, his consort the Mama Occllo and the royal household. A temple-like building with three big windows made of life-sized granite blocks perfectly fitting together, did Bingham suspect he found Tamo-toco. The description of the (never found?) legendary temple with the three windows were the symbol of the caves where the divine Father of the first Inca (Manco Capac) lived, looks alike the odd building in Machu Picchu. But this is uncertain because the style of the Sacred City is late-Inca.
The highest part of the religious area is the Intihuatana. Next to this most sacred place is a flat little square from where a high priest or the Inca could talk to his people. The acoustic is perfect on the big square below, similar to the modern auditoriums. On the right hand side of the main square is the residential area and on top, on a rocky hill, the military zone.
The Intihuatana itself is a kind of sundial perfectly shaped out of the highest peak of a natural rock, "Inti" means "Sun" and "Huatana" "catch", a rock that holds to Sun so to speak. It was an altar to worship their highest visible god, the Inti. The people in the Peruvian highlands still come together on solstice to offer prayers and flowers on the Intihuatana in and around Cusco.
Rock and Sun united
In fact Machu Picchu was never desolated. Is it the city where the Spanish were looking for during ages, El Dorado? When the professor Hiram Bingham arrived he encountered some farmer families living there. They told him this was the perfect place for not paying any taxes or doing military service. Bingham also found some graffiti on some rocks scratched by former visitors who left their names. One of them was Antonio Raimondi, the Count of Sartiges and Charles Wiener. The names of the Santander brothers can still be seen at the lower parts of the Temple of the Sun (1909).
The great Inca Pachacutec probably ordered the building of the city as a religious retreat place because the style of the houses and temples are from his government. Lots of buildings can be named remarkable. The Torreón for example, also known as the temple of the Sun is constructed above a cave, a cavern that served as storeroom for the mummified Incas and other dignitaries and as a ritual offer altar. The Torreón itself is built with firm granite, perfectly smoothed and fitting into each other. In the temple is a little Intihuatana chopped and served as a solar observation place, this is also visible on the picture on the right hand side. Most probably there was no roof to protect the temple against rain and wind. The windows point to the places where the Sun rises on respectively the summer- and the winter solstice. These days (the 21st of December and the 24th of June) stream the first sun rays into one of these windows through the Inti Punctu (the Gate of the Sun) or the valley on the other side of the Vilcanota. More remarkable things are discovered in Machu Picchu.