As far as best travel experiences go, there are few that top Machu Picchu.
This spectacular ancient site draping down Andean slopes takes the breath away; not just for its sheer beauty, but also for its mystery. How exactly did the mighty Inca Empire haul these colossal stones to this saddleback ridge? And what purpose did the city serve… a royal retreat, a spiritual sanctuary?
We may never know. But one thing is certain. Travel to Peru and you’ll discover a land overflowing with mysteries and wonder far beyond the heights of Machu Picchu. And when you journey to this magnificent country with Gate 1 Travel, our local Tour Managers bring them all to life for you, from fortresses of stone and historic cities rich in culture, to a warm and welcoming people.
Cities Awash in Colonial and Incan History
If you think of Machu Picchu as the pinnacle of Peru, then consider Cuzco and Lima as the country’s historic and cultural foundations. Indeed, no visit to Peru is complete without exploring these two cities.
Cuzco may have a decidedly colonial atmosphere – with its low-slung red-roofed houses, expansive Plaza de Armas and Gothic-Renaissance cathedral – but it began as the capital of the Inca Empire. If you need proof, look no further (literally) than the ground at your feet. When Spanish conquistadors took the city, they razed its buildings and replaced them with what we see today. But the original Inca foundations remain, making for a fascinating architectural blend.
Perhaps the city’s most distinct emblem of its Incan origins can be found at Koricancha, the Temple of the Sun. In pre-colonial days, the floors and walls of this Inca place of worship were awash in gold. Unfortunately, much of it was paid to the Spanish as ransom to save the life of Inca leader Atahualpa. Gate 1 shows you these important sites during a city tour. If you find yourself with free time here, head over to the Plaza Regocijo for a sweet treat. Here, at 210 Calle Garcilaso, the ChocoMuseo offers chocolate-making workshops using native cocoa beans.
Lima, on Peru’s Pacific coast, was founded by Francisco Pizarro as the capital of the Spanish Empire. Its European ambiance makes it a delight to explore. The architectural star of the city’s main square is the Basilica Cathedral. Pizarro himself laid the first stone of this splendid neoclassical-colonial church and is buried inside. The Archbishop’s Palace is adjacent; its ornate facade features a pair of dramatic enclosed balconies.
Lima is also known for its food scene and renowned for being Latin America’s culinary capital. The city offers up a rich gastronomy simmered in the technique and spices of all who have shaped the city: indigenous foods have been infused with Spanish flair, of course. Asian flavours were brought here with a wave of immigrants, too. And Creole spices were introduced by Caribbean workers. Peruvian cuisine is so ‘hot’ that it’s gone global in themed restaurants around the world, but nothing beats trying the ‘real’ thing.
To the south, the white-stone buildings of another colonial gem shimmer in the Andean sun: Arequipa. The city, nicknamed La Ciudad Blanca, or White City, was constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar. Its bright buildings surely make for a magical visit. For a splash of colour, the Santa Catalina Monastery boasts vivid facades and the local outdoor market brims with multi-hued produce and textiles.
Mysteries of Empires
Fascinating as Peru’s colonial cities are, nothing in the western hemisphere compares to the country’s pre-colonial sites. One of its most mysterious lies in a desert, far from the high peaks of Machu Picchu. The colossal Nazca Lines, only visible in full from the air, were drawn in the sand between 400 and 600 AD. Figures of monkeys, fish, hummingbirds and lizards adorn the landscape, some of them 200 metres across.
These massive figures on the high plateau of the Nazca Desert have puzzled scholars for generations. The mystery is not so much how they were made, but why. Many suggest a religious significance. Others believe they may have been fertility symbols or served some irrigation purpose. They may have even been astronomical calendars of some sort.
Just outside Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, also known as Urubamba, holds more mystery. This fertile stretch of land, fed by the coursing waters of the Urubamba River, has hosted terraced farmland and ancient ruins for generations. Ollantaytambo is perhaps the best preserved fortress. Here, you get a truly authentic glimpse of an Inca town, thanks to its original layout, irrigation system and houses.
Nearby Chinchero holds a popular market that overflows with locals and travellers eager to find local goods and produce – such as Pima and Tanguis cotton (some of the finest in the world) or corncobs that are known to offer up the largest kernels in the world. The salt pans of Maras and the crop circles of Moray provide more insight into the agricultural tradition of this magnificent valley.
High above the valley, Machu Picchu straddles a saddleback mountain. The ancient site is accessible only by foot or by train; remarkably, the rail journey traverses as many ecological zones as you would experience on a trip from the North Pole to the equator. Upon arrival, there are 100 acres of meticulously built buildings, terraces and stairways, all gloriously preserved. Each building was constructed with an inward inclination, a design intended to help cities withstand earthquakes. You might also see some of the 425 types of orchid that grow in and around Machu Picchu; Peru as a whole is home to 1,624 species!
If your itinerary includes an overnight in Aguas Calientes (the delightful town at the base of the ancient site), you might take a morning stroll to the local Butterfly Farm on Hermanos Ayar Avenue, dedicated to preserving eight species.
Join Gate 1 Travel in Peru!
If you thought Machu Picchu was the only reason to visit Peru, think again. From rich cultural centres and remarkable Inca sites, to breathtaking natural spectacles, there are endless wonders to explore. Best of all, Gate 1 Travel introduces you to this rewarding region in the most affordable way.
Learn more about our value-packed Peru itineraries. Then call us to today to find out more!