7 Inca Places to Know
The Inca civilization arose in the mountainous regions of Peru in the early 13th century and was eventually based in its capital city of Cuzco. From 1438 to 1533, the Inca assimilated a large part of western South America into a state comparable to the historic empires of Eurasia.
The Inca Empire was impressive not only for its size but for its stunning architectural structures built across steep peaks and overlooking verdant river valleys throughout the Andes. Visitors marvel at the historical significance of the sites as well as the engineering prowess of the Incas on the vertical landscapes.
Machu PicchuMachu Picchu is probably one of the top international bucket list destinations. Unknown to the outside world until 1911, its mystique and stunning location on a mountain ridge have been drawing adventurous visitors ever since. In 2007, this stone citadel in the sky was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in an internet poll in which more than 100 million votes were cast.
Twelve acres of terraces, gardens, staircases, temples and aqueducts sprawl along a jungle ridge above the Urubamba River at 7,970 feet above sea level. Most archaeologists believe the 15th-century site was built as an estate for the emperor Pachacuti, then abandoned and “lost” after the Spanish conquest.
In 2011, the Peruvian government began limiting visitors to 2,500 per day, so it is vital to get tickets well in advance of your visit through an online ticketing site. An English site explains the process.
Wayna PicchuTowering above the north end of Machu Picchu is a steep mountain. A temple is heart-stoppingly perched on the edge of the peak at 9,000 feet. Some say priests climbed up the mountain each day to welcome the morning sun.
The climb is narrow, steep and treacherous, taking anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes one way. The stone stair path built by the Incas is less than a foot wide in spots and only occasionally includes hand rails. Off to either side, the mountain falls nearly straight down a deadly quarter-mile or more. So why make the trek? The view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding jungle-covered peaks and valleys is probably one of the most spectacular scenes on Earth.
Only 400 people per day are allowed up the mountain in 2 shifts. Buy tickets in advance at the government site.
MorayAt Moray in the Sacred Valley, the Incas built a series of concentric circular terraces, speculated to have been an agricultural laboratory. Each terrace is a little hotter and less windy, allowing for the simulation of micro-climates. Presumably the Incas could learn by experimentation and duplicate the results elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, increasing agricultural yield. The site, at 11,500 feet above sea level, has a mystical vibe to it, possibly due to the breathless, dizzying feeling of being at high altitude.
PisacThe Peruvian village of Pisac, overlooking the Urubamba River less than an hour northeast of Cuzco, is notable for its Inca waterworks and curving agricultural terraces. The site features one of Peru’s only remaining intihuatanas, carved rocks that were used for astronomical observation. As was an Inca specialty, it is brilliantly situated amid sweeping views of the Sacred Valley. Since the site sits at about 11,000 feet above sea level, visitors need to take it slow and stay hydrated to keep altitude sickness at bay.
OllantaytamboToday, the Inca archaeological site of Ollantaytambo in southern Peru is best known for its train station, which is the closest by bus to Cuzco and by train to Machu Picchu. But visitors who take the time to stop here will be rewarded with one of the only towns in Peru that retains its original Inca walls and street grid.
In 1536, Ollantaytambo was the site of the Inca's greatest military victory over the invading Spanish, and the ruins above town are still considered some of the most impressive. An imposing set of stone terraces (from which the Inca assaulted their Spanish invaders with slingshots and arrows) capped by 6 slabs of pink granite loom above the town.
KuelapThe monumental fortress at Kuelap, near the city of Chachapoyas, consists of massive exterior stone walls and contains more than 400 buildings. The structure, built on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is almost 7 football fields long with walls that rise to more than 60 feet.
Kuelap was ignored by the outside world until 1843, when a Chachapoyas judge made a survey of the area and, guided by villagers who had known of the site for generations, brought the site to the attention of explorers, historians and archaeologists. Visitors can access the ruin through the town of El Tingo near the banks of the Utcubamba River.
SacsayhuamanSacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy human” by children under 12) is an Incan-walled complex overlooking Cuzco. It is believed to have been a royal retreat or a fortress. Most experts say the walls were built for fortification, though some believe they form the head of the Puma, a sacred Incan animal whose shape can be seen from the air.
The site is known for its chincanas, underground passages that connect the complex with the city of Cuzco. Just as impressive are the site’s zigzag walls built with enormous stones weighing up to 300 pounds that fit together as tightly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The precision is such that the thin blade of a knife cannot slip between the stones. Visitors from Cuzco can take a taxi or hike to the site in less than an hour.
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