Peru Attractions: Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu

January 4, 2024

Paul Kay


Have you taken a vacation to South America? What about Peru? Are you looking for destination vacation ideas? This post is about attractions in Peru – particularly in Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. Peru is somewhere you should explore. It has so much to offer. 

Madeline and Paul with Inca Terraces behind us at Machu Picchu

The construction of Machu Picchu is a marvel in itself. The Incas used a technique known as “ashlar,” where stones were precisely cut and fitted together without the use of mortar. This intricate stonework has allowed the site to withstand earthquakes and the test of time. The terraced fields around Machu Picchu were not only used for agriculture but also served a practical purpose in preventing soil erosion on the steep mountain slopes. They were ingeniously designed to optimize water drainage and irrigation.

Before we cover Machu Picchu in depth, we need to explore Lima and Cusco.

Lima and Cusco

We traveled to Peru to visit Machu Picchu.  We were on a Silverseas cruise to the Galapagos, and we wanted to combine it with seeing some of Peru. Our travel agent suggested that we fly to Lima, stay overnight and then fly to Cusco.  Lima is at sea level whereas Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level.  We arrived in Cusco, and we were met by our guide and driver.  We toured the city briefly and learned that it is a beautiful city, clean and historically rich.  It was the capital of the great Inca Empire. Even today, the local citizens place a great deal of importance on their Inca and Peruvian heritage.  The citizens are descendants of the great Pre-Incas and Incas, and they carry on ancient traditions set by their educated and sophisticated ancestors. We saw women dressed in the traditional Inca dresses, carrying children on their backs or strolling along in colorful long wool-skirts called llicllas.  The locals call themselves Cusqueños.  All the people we met were nice, helpful, very welcoming and warm. 

Cusco

Cusco Peru Walled City at Night

Cusco was originally a walled city during the time of the Inca Empire. The Incas built massive stone walls around the city for defensive purposes. Some of these walls still remain today and can be seen in the historic center of Cusco, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls were built using large stones cut to fit together precisely without mortar, a testament to the advanced architectural skills of the Incas.

The city of Cusco is not the capital city of Peru – that belongs to Lima.  However, it might be called the cultural capital of the country.  It is the oldest living city in the Americas since it has been inhabited continuously for over 3,000 years. It was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to 16th century until Spanish conquest.

The Incas built more than 18,600 miles of paved roads in the most rugged terrain in the world. These roads and all the Inca and pre-Inca infrastructure along them are protected by UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1994.  The Inca road network extended from north of Quito, Ecuador to south of Santiago, Chile.  From Cusco, the Inca trail will take you all the way to Machu Picchu.

The Incas were magnificent engineers, they built the most elaborate network of roads and bridges of any ancient culture.  The success of its empire was partly due to being able to reach and control each corner of their territory.   There were over 200 roads that reached Cusco during the Inca rule.  

Cusco Peru Inca Walls

Cusco was a place for nobles to live during the Inca Empire. Commoners did not live in the city. The only exceptions were the servants of the nobles as well as artisans and builders who were working on buildings or other items for the nobles. 

You can still take portions of the Inca trail today, but you should coordinate with guides who have done this regularly.  Our guide said he’s made the trip from kilometer marker 82 on the railway all the way to Machu Picchu several times.  

The official language of the great Inca Empire was Quechua, and it is still spoken regularly in Cusco.  You’ll find it spoken in Ecuador too and perhaps Chile.

The majority of Cusco citizens speak some combination of Spanish and Quechua somewhat interchangeably.  They also speak English in many places so if your Spanish or Quechua is a bit rusty, you’ll probably do just fine.

We found the city to be charming because they have preserved quite a bit of the Inca culture and many of the buildings are still standing, some repurposed and refitted with modern things like electricity, water, sewers, the Internet, etc.

Saqsaywaman

Madeline and Paul through a doorway in Saqsaywaman

After touring Cusco, we left the city to go to Saqsaywaman which is at the northern edge of Cusco.  It is a temple that is not as preserved as Machu Picchu but is spectacular in its own right.

The Sacsayhuaman fortress-temple complex lies at the northern edge of the former Inca capital Cusco. It was constructed during the reign of the Inca rule Pachacuti in the 15th century.   The massive, well-built walls remain today as a testimony not only to Inca power but also to the skills of Inca architects and their approach of blending their monumental structures harmoniously into the natural landscape. It’s hard to imagine how they were able to even move the gigantic rocks to the site, let alone carve them.  The Sacsayhuaman is still used today for reenactments of Inca-inspired ceremonies.

Madeline and Paul before massive walls in Saqsaywaman

This fortress was the largest structure built by the Incas. Pottery finds indicate that the site had previously been occupied by Inca residents. The first structures on the site were made using only mud and clay. Subsequent rulers then replaced these with gigantic stonework which employed huge finely cut polygonal blocks.  Some of the blocks are over 12 feet high and weigh more than 100 tons.

It is estimated that over 20,000 laborers were drafted from the peoples that the Incas had conquered.   Inca system of extracting both goods and labor from peoples they conquered. The laborers worked in a system of rotation with some given quarrying duties while others dug trenches and laid the foundations. 

Madeline and Paul before the curving walls of Saqsaywaman

The Incas were master stonemasons. Huge blocks were quarried and shaped using nothing more than harder stones and bronze tools. Marks on the stone blocks indicate that they were mostly pounded into shape rather than cut. Blocks were moved using ropes, logs, poles, levers, and earthen ramps.  You can still see some of the marks on the stones.  Other rocks have nodes protruding from them or indentations which were used to help workers grip the stone. 

Our guide said that rocks were carved in the quarries and then finalized once moved to the site.  They know this by the unfinished examples left at quarries and on various routes to building sites. The fine cutting and setting of the blocks on site were so precise that mortar was not necessary.  I’m not a stonemason but the ability of the Incas to do all of this is amazing.

There are terrific photo opportunities when you reach the summit here but be sure to take some pictures beside some of the colossal rocks.  Nobody would probably believe you when you say how big they were, but a picture does a lot of explaining!

Skylodge Adventure Suites

Skylodge Hotel Ollantaytambo Peru

Our guide knew all about this hotel, but we still couldn’t quite believe it when we saw it. Skylodge Adventure Suites is a unique hotel located in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, Peru. It is known for its innovative and adventurous lodgings that consist of transparent capsule suites suspended from the cliffs. The capsules offer panoramic views of the surrounding valley and the Andes mountains. Guests must hike a challenging trail to reach the hotel or take an alternative zipline option. The hotel prides itself on providing a unique, eco-friendly experience that combines luxury with outdoor adventure. The Skylodge Adventure Suites has become a popular destination for adventure-seekers and tourists looking for an unusual and memorable experience in Peru.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Madeline and Paul before the Sacred Valley of the Incas

The Sacred Valley was an extremely important area for the Incas and the civilizations that came before them. It has been inhabited by people beginning with the stone age.  It’s a beautiful valley and it was used by the Andean people to produce the food they needed to flourish and grow. Today, the Sacred Valley is an important agricultural zone.

The Sacred Valley is home to many Inca sites with the most well-known being Pisac, Ollantaytambo and obviously Machu Picchu at the end of the valley.  Most people come to the valley to get acclimatized to the altitude.  When you arrive in Cusco, you’re at over 11,000 feet above sea level.  You’ll need some time to get used to the altitude before you visit Machu Picchu, even though it is at a lower elevation.  

Pisac is located just a 30-minute drive from Cusco and has one of the best markets in the region. They have a wide variety of locally produced handicrafts, and it is a great place to do your souvenir shopping and pick up a little something for yourself too.

Ollantaytambo indigenous people

Our guide took us to a very small village of indigenous people. We learned how they created their clothes from hair from alpacas and dyed the hair with vegetable or fruit products to get the color they wanted. They did not speak much of any English, but our guide could communicate with them, so we learned quite a lot about their daily lives. As you can see from the picture, they are used to tourists. Part of our tour included lunch prepared by them and the photo opportunity was taken after lunch.

Ollantaytambo with Madeline and Paul clothed in local garb

Ollantaytambo is a small town at the other end of the Sacred Valley to Pisac. It has a variety of cobbled streets, a perfect climate and a variety of cafes and restaurants.  Ollantaytambo was a nice surprise for us because there was more infrastructure than we expected.  Close to the town was Urubamba where our hotel for the night was located.

The Inca site in Ollantaytambo has some of the finest stonework that you might see in Peru.  The site received its name from the general who first occupied the area, Ollanta. 

Ollantaytamobo and a beautiful rainbow

Madeline took a picture of a beautiful rainbow which we took as a sign of good luck before we got back into the car.

Sol Y Luna Restaurant

We had a ½ day tour of the valley and then stayed at Sol Y Luna in Urubamba.  It is a beautiful 5-star resort, and we were sad that we only experienced it for 12 hours or so.  

Our room was huge, and we wish we had more time to enjoy it. We want to come back now. However, we had to get up, have breakfast and head over to our train to take us to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham Monument Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham III came to Machu Picchu in 1911 while he was looking for another city called Vilcabamba.  Mr. Bingham was perhaps one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones.  He was born in Hawaii in 1875.  He was a multi-faced American academic, explorer and politician. His trip to Machu Picchu was partially funded by the National Geographic Society and his pictures and story were circulated around the world.  He may not have been the first person to find Machu Picchu, but he was the most famous, particularly because of the publication by National Geographic Magazine.  At that time, he was a professor at Yale University.  After his celebrity was established, Bingham served as a member of the United States Senate for the state of Connecticut.

There was a longstanding debate between Peru and Yale University over numerous artefacts taken by Hiram Bingham who took them back to Yale. Peru argued that the objects were only a loan and, after Peru took legal action, all of the pieces (including jewelry, ceramics, silver statues and human bones) were returned by 2012.  That’s a long time between “discovery” and return.

Even though Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu and definitely made it famous, the “locals” definitely knew about Machu Picchu before he came.  Also, before he came, its location was mapped by several explorers.  Bingham essentially put Machu Picchu on world news but more importantly he coordinated with universities and government agencies to perform archeological excavation and restoration.

Madeline and Paul atop Machu Picchu Vista

Machu Picchu was designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.  It is Peru´s most visited attraction and South America’s most famous sites.  Of all of the Inca sites to visit, this one is probably the most intact.  Historians believe that it took over 90 years to complete construction.  Once you see it, you are amazed that so much could be built on a mountain.  It is estimated that more than 60 percent of the time spent was invested in the foundations and terraces.  A research excavation found that the rock and soil foundations dig nine feet below ground.

Machu Picchu is built atop two fault lines and although there were likely no geologists or volcanic experts around, the Incas were certainly aware of volcanoes and tremors.  The fact that they went to that much trouble for foundations is one of the main reasons we can all see it today – largely intact but clearly not finished.

Machu Picchu Terraces

Machu Picchu is an engineering marvel.  It is a city of stone built without the aid of wheels or iron tools.  More than 600 terraces prevent the city from sliding down the mountain. A water supply system ingeniously allowed water to be transported by channel.  Many of the stones that were used to build the city weighed more than 50 tons. How did these stones get up the mountain? Some were chiseled from the granite bedrock of the mountain ridge. Other stones were pushed or pulled up the steep mountain side and a small quarry on the site was used to refashion them into position.

Train to Machu Picchu Cusco to Machu Picchu

We stayed in Urubamba at the Sol Y Luna and went to the train station with our guide to board the Peru Rail Vista dome train at the Ollantaytambo train station.  There are several classes of train travel and for tourists, they can be expensive.  We chose the Vista dome because it had better views.

Rock Falling on tracks of train to Machu Picchu

However, what we did not plan for was a rockslide about 1 hour into the route.  A gigantic boulder decided to land on the rails from the mountain and Peru Rail had to bring in a heavy piece of equipment and plenty of laborers to clean everything up.  This resulted in a 3.5-hour delay on arrival, and we actually missed our first day at Machu Picchu.

Robert De Niro

We found out that Robert DeNiro was on one of our train cars, so he suffered just like the rest of us.  What can you do?  

Cafe Inkaterra Madeline and Paul happy to be there

We arrived in the town of Aguas Calientes and had lunch at the Cafe Inkaterra which is at the train station.  Lunch was essentially dinner since we were so late. 

Madeline and Paul with Inca Kings in Aguas Calientes

We managed to do a brief tour of Aguas Calientes on the way to our hotel. We took a photo opportunity with one of the Inca Kings to celebrate. Our guide was supposed to have given us the tour that afternoon and returned to Cusco but with this “rock intervention” he rearranged things so he could be with us the next morning. He took us to our hotel after our city tour.

El Mapi Bedroom

We stayed at El MaPi hotel overnight in Aguas Calientes and had a drink with our guide before retiring.  We knew we had an early morning bus ride scheduled so we’d be one of the first ones at the site the next day.

The next morning, we took the Machu Picchu bus up to Machu Picchu Citadel which is the entrance to the national historic monument.  The buses are quite orderly, and you wait in a line, and they count you off to enter whatever bus is next.  People can walk either up or down but it’s a very long climb and a steep vertical climb even with switchbacks.

Madeline and Paul kneeling with Machu Picchu vista behind us

To get to the top of Machu Picchu, there are about 2,000 steps and the vertical slope of the steps averages 60 degrees. To put the slope in context, the stairs in your house are probably between 30 and 45 degrees. You definitely have to lift your feet up. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. The air gets thinner and at the top you’ll be about 8,000 feet above sea level. 

Madeline and Paul Vista shot Machu Picchu

We took hundreds of photos from the top because the vistas are simply amazing. You can see why the Incas felt that this was a sacred place.

Inca dwellings Machu Picchu

The idea that the Incas created complete villages below the summit was awe inspiring. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been. We spent about 2.5 hours at the site and the guide was excellent in explaining the history of the site, the famous Sun Gate and many other interesting items.  

View of ruins and the Sun Gate from Machu Picchu

On a clear day, you can easily see a ridge southeast of Machu Picchu.  The rising sun would pass through the Sun Gate each year on the summer solstice. There is a semi cylindric building on Machu Picchu that is situated so that the sun would pass through a window and announce itself as the summer solstice.

We were glad that we spent some time in the Sacred Valley since Machu Picchu is about 3,000 feet lower than Cusco so getting acclimated to the altitude was a good idea before getting acquainted with Machu Picchu.

Indi Feliz Restaurant

When we came back to the hotel, we had lunch at the “Happy Indian” or Indi Feliz with our guide.  We then caught the train to Ollantaytambo and drove with our guide for 2 hours to return to Cusco at the El Mercado hotel.

El Mercado Hotel Bedroom

The change in elevation made me quite short of breath and Madeline had a bit of altitude sickness. 

We flew back the next day to Quito since we began our journey there in order to go on the Galapagos trip. Many people combine the two itineraries when they make the decision to come to see Machu Picchu or the Galapagos.  

We’d highly recommend that you try to visit them both. You won’t be disappointed in either journey.

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