Cuzco, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the continent, is normally considered the archaeological capital of the Americas. The city, which was originally designed in the shape of a puma with a falcon’s head, had been settled centuries before the arrival of the Incas but it was only during the period of Inca control (1438-1532 AD) that the city reached its peak as an administrative, religious, and military center. When the Spaniards arrived in 1533, many pre-Hispanic structures were destroyed or used as foundations for new structures, which included churches, convents, and mansions built in Baroque or Renaissance style.
Once a thriving rubber town, Iquitos still retains many of the original manor houses and colonial architecture from its heyday. Located on the banks of the Amazon River, the city is now the starting point for cruises down river and trips to the numerous lodges that dot the banks of the Amazon. There are few roads here and the Amazon and its tributaries are the region’s lifeline. As it happens in other jungle areas, tourist packages normally include stays in jungle lodges offering a range of activities such as hikes in the rain forest, fishing for piranha, bird watching, visits to native farmers and Indian communities, and night canoe trips in search of alligators.
Tucked into remote southeastern Peru, Madre de Dios borders the department of Cuzco to the west, and Bolivia and Brazil to the east. The Puerto Maldonado surroundings offer some of the best wildlife viewing in the Amazon basin including the Manu National Park, a protected area half the size of Switzerland, and the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve, sheltering dozens of endangered species. From the town of Puerto Maldonado (with daily flights to Cuzco and Lima), passengers are whisked upriver to the different lodges. The river trip can take from 30 minutes to 10 hours depending on the location of the lodge.
Puno and the surrounding countryside are the cradle of the Aymara civilization and the legendary birthplace of the founders of the Inca Empire. Puno serves as the perfect stopover for passengers heading to La Paz since it is located on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the natural border with Bolivia. The most important archaeological site in the area is the burial grounds of Sillustani (17 miles from Puno), once the tombs of high-ranking Aymara Lords. Other attractions include the Uros Islands, built by the natives with the lake’s reed vegetation, Taquile Island (three and a half hours by boat from Puno) famous for its textiles, and Amantani Island (north of Taquile), home to impressive archaeological sites and the Yatiri Indians, the Shamans of Lake Titicaca, who read the future in coca leaves.
Chan Chan (Sun Sun)
Located outside the colonial city of Trujillo, between the Andes and the Pacific, the capital of the Chimu kingdom reached its heyday around 1,200AD when it probably housed 100,000 inhabitants. Today Chan Chan stays as the largest mud-brick city in the world, covering 12 square miles, and is also the finest example of pre-Inca architecture.
Chavin de Huantar
Chavin de Huantar is located in the north-central sierra of Peru. It can be reached from Huaraz after a four-hour drive over spectacular mountain roads or through a hiking expedition. Magical-religious center of the most advanced civilization of the pre-Incan era, the stone temple of Chavin de Huantar was constructed in 327 B.C. Inside its millenary walls, this stone structure brought together men and women who possessed advanced knowledge of architecture, ceramics, sculpture, textiles, hydraulics and acoustics. Its mysterious pyramidal structures have forced archaeologists and other academics to come up with a range of the most diverse theories in an attempt to explain the true nature of the temple, which is known to people in the area as "The Castle." The structure looks like an extensive network of passageways and interior rooms, which make up a fascinating complex constructed entirely of stone.
Located at an altitude of 9,000 feet, in the cloud forest of the department of Amazonas, Kuelap is proof of the engineering skills of the Chachapoya, a tribe who inhabited the area from 1,000-1,400 AD. The complex must have been impregnable to invading warriors from neighboring kingdoms, although finally the Inca soldiers managed to conquer the Chachapoya. The citadel is made of stone, but unlike Inca architecture, featured fantastic and animal figures, and changed the traditional pattern of geometric designs.
Machu Picchu (Old Mountain)
Machu Picchu, located at 7,500 ft of altitude, is the most spectacular and best-known archaeological site in the continent. Discovered in 1911, the citadel nestles on top of a mountain saddle high above the Urubamba River in the middle of the cloud forest. It was both a center of worship and astronomic observatory as well as the private retreat of the family of Inca ruler Pachacutec. It is split into two major areas: the agricultural zone, made up of terracing and food storehouses, and the urban zone, featuring the sacred sector, with temples, squares and royal tombs which have been carved to an extraordinary degree of perfection. Stone staircases and canals are found throughout this unique archaeological site. Over the citadel looms Huayna Picchu (young mountain), which can be climbed up using a steep stone-paved trail.
Nazca, located about 280 miles south of Lima and 100 miles from Ica, was the site of a highly advanced pre-Inca civilization. Testimony of this ancient people is the archaeological puzzle of the Nazca lines: A series of giant geoglyph figures etched on the desert soil and covering a surface of more than 300 square miles. There are about 30 giant animal and geometric figures, which are best seen from the air aboard small aircrafts. The most prominent are the man, the monkey, the spider, the hummingbird, the dog, the fish, and the condor. Overflights of the drawings are offered daily from Ica, Nazca, and Lima.
Ollantaytambo is an attractive little town located at the western end of the Sacred Valley (about two hours by bus from Cusco). The town has been built on top of original Inca foundations and is the best surviving example of Inca town planning. The town is divided in canchas (blocks), which are almost entirely intact. Each cancha has only one entrance (usually a huge stone doorway), which leads into a central courtyard. The houses surround the courtyard. The town is located at the foot of a massive citadel, which served both as a temple and a fortress, and which protected the strategic entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley. This was one of the last fortresses built by the Inca and also one of the last ones to fall in the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
The ruins of Pachacamac lie 20 miles south of Lima, in the fertile valley of Lurin. Once the largest pre-Columbian settlement on the Peruvian coast, it served as a ceremonial center for both Inca and pre- Inca cultures. The temple, built largely from adobe mud bricks, housed an oracle that was considered, along with Cuzco, to be the main ceremonial center in pre-Hispanic Peru. Pilgrims flocked here from far away to render homage to the god Pachacamac, believed to be the creator of the world and its creatures.
The Inca village of Pisac and the nearby ruins are located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, 20 miles northeast of Cuzco. A vital Inca road once snaked its way up the canyon that enters the Urubamba Valley at Pisac. The citadel, at the entrance to this gorge, now in ruins, controlled a route, which connected the Inca Empire to Paucartambo, on the border of the eastern jungles.
Sillustani is located in the southeastern region of the country on the edge of Lake Titicaca, 20 miles from Puno. This plateau was inhabited by Collas, Zapanas, Kallahuayos, Lupacas, and Quechuas before the arrival of the Incas. Sillustani, built in an esplanade on the edge of Lake Umayo, is one of the most important necropolises in the world. The cylindrical mortuary towers that dot the site, known as chullpas, were used as burial places for important families and high-ranked priests of the pre-Inca and Inca periods.
The richest burial chambers ever found in the Americas were discovered in the last decade and continue to be excavated in this site located 18 miles from the city of Chiclayo in northern Peru. Undisturbed for 17 centuries, these intact tombs are yielding astounding quantities of exquisitely crafted jewelry and ornaments, as well as valuable insights into the Moche culture. The treasures of the Lord of Sipan are now on display at the Bruning Museum in the nearby town of Lambayeque.
Located 29 miles north of Chiclayo, Tucume was built by the Lamabayeque Culture more than 1,000 years ago. This imposing site, which served as a political and religious center, features 26 major mud-brick pyramids, platform mounds, walled citadels and residential compounds flanking a ceremonial center and ancient cemeteries.
Wari, located in the outskirts of the Andean city of Ayacucho, is a classic example of pre-Hispanic urban planning and engineering techniques. The urban nucleus sprawls across some 400 ha and is thought to have housed 40,000 inhabitants at its peak. It is located in a strategic position due to its rapid access to the central coast and jungle, and the fact it lies halfway between the northern and southern highlands, where the Wari people built administrative centers and colonies.
TREKKING IN PERU
Located about 32 miles south of the Cordillera Blanca, and 155 miles northeast of Lima, Huayhuash is one of the least known mountain ranges in the world and at the same time one of the most beautiful. It stretches along 19 miles from north to south and includes a string of gorgeous snow-capped mountains, most notably the Yerupaja, and dozens of glaciered lakes of unparalleled beauty like Carhuacocha, Jahuacocha, Mitucocha, among others. The full trekking circuit that, according to experts is one of the world's most spectacular routes, stretches along some 100 miles and can be walked in about 12 days. Only one route goes full circle around the range. The route climbs over five mountain passes and crosses charming peasant farming and herder's communities like Llamac, Pocpa, Huayllapa and Pacllon, to complete the northern section of the loop. The route then continues along the eastern side and finishes on the western face of the mountains.
A shorter circuit (28 miles) links Chiquian to Jahuacocha Lake. Extraordinary glaciers, crystal-clear lakes, herds of llama and alpaca, hospitable residents and, most of all, pristine landscapes are the reward awaiting those willing to venture in the discovery of this unique trekking circuit.
Huascaran National Park
The park was established in 1975 and encompasses almost the entire range of the Cordillera Blanca. There are few mountain ranges in the world that rival the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. This mountain range boosts 50 peaks that reach over 18,500 ft. in an area just 13 miles wide and 112 miles long, including the highest mountain in Peru, Huascaran (22,199 ft.). There are dozens of trekking possibilities, to cater for all tastes, whether you are a complete beginner looking for an introduction to trekking or a trekker in search of more remote, longer routes. Treks include dramatic landscapes, spectacular peaks and valleys, turquoise lakes, five passes, glaciers, archaeological sites, many small villages and traditional communities as well as an ecologically diverse flora and fauna.
Llama trekking to Chavin de Huantar
This picturesque route starts in the charming town of Olleros (19 miles south of Huaraz) where llamas are loaded with the necessary travel gear. During four days of walking and enjoying the scenic beauty of the area and the views of snow-capped peaks like Shaqsha, Cashan and Tuctupunta, travelers have the opportunity of sharing the customs and traditions of local peasant communities at Shongo and Nunupata. The route ends at the splendid archaeological site of Chavin de Huantar, the magical-religious center of the most advanced civilization of the pre-Incan era.
Hikers should spend a few days acclimatizing to the high altitude before starting a trip. The best time to visit Huascaran National Park is from April through October (dry season).
The Cordillera Vilcanota is an impressive range of mountains, which include the massive Nevado de Ausangate and three other peaks over 18,000ft. It is excellent trekking country offering the traveler spectacular mountain scenery, snow-capped peaks, hot springs, turquoise lakes, glaciers, herds of llamas and alpacas, picturesque villages and traditionally dressed Indians. Trekking trips into the Vilcanota start in the small Andean village of Tinqui (a seven-hour bus ride from Cuzco). It is essential to be properly acclimatized for this hike spending at least two days in Cuzco before the trip.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail between the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River and the mysterious abandoned citadel of Machu Picchu is one small portion of an incredible network of such trails crossing high stony mountain ranges, bleak deserts, and raging Andean rivers, tying the Inca Empire together. The Inca Trail is also one of the world's classic treks. Climbing out of the river valley, crossing rugged mountain passes over 13,000 ft high, the trail winds through the Andes, passing numerous significant Inca ruins en route before descending through the Sun Gate to the silent stone city of Machu Picchu. The total hiking distance on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is about 25 miles. Start of the trail is done either by leaving Cuzco by bus and arriving at Km 82, or taking a train from Cuzco arriving at Km 88. Trekkers are only expected to carry a small daypack with their camera, spare film, water bottle and rain gear. Porters carry additional clothing, personal effects and the camping equipment. All trekkers are provided with a two-men quality tent and sleeping pad. Sleeping bags are available for rent. The trek normally takes four nights to complete. A shorter version starts at Km 104 and pretty much covers the last day of the trek. The best time to do it is from March through November (dry season), since during the rainy season the trails become dangerous and sometimes unsurpassable.