The first 150km of the road (and rail) south from Cusco towards Lake Titicaca passes through the beautiful valleys of Huatanay and Vilcanota, from where the legendary founders of the Inca Empire are said to have emerged. A region outstanding for its natural beauty and rich in magnificent archeological sites, it’s easily accessible from Cusco and offers endless possibilities for exploration or random wandering. The whole area is ideal for camping and trekking, and in any case, only the rustic towns of Urcos and Sicuani are large enough to provide reasonable accommodation.
A few kilometres further up the valley, the superb Inca remains of Tipón lie high above the road, little visited but extensive and evocative. Closer to the road, the Huari city of Pikillacta is easier to find and worthy of an hour or two. Beyond Urcos but before Sicuani, a rather dull transport hub of a town, the great Temple of Raqchi still stands unusually high as a monument to Inca architectural abilities.Read More
The Tipón temples and aqueducts
The Tipón temples and aqueductsBoth in setting and architectural design, the TIPÓN RUINS are one of the most impressive Inca sites. With no village or habitation in sight, and fresh running water, it’s also a breathtaking place to camp.
The lower ruins
Well hidden in a natural shelf high above the Huatanay Valley, the lower sector of the ruins is a stunning sight: a series of neat agricultural terraces, watered by stone-lined channels, all astonishingly preserved and many still in use. The impressive stone terracing reeks of the Incas’ domination over an obviously massive and subservient labour pool; yet at the same time it’s clearly little more than an elaborate attempt to increase crop yield. At the back of the lower ruins, water flows from a stone-faced “mouth” around a spring – probably an aqueduct subterraneously diverted from above. The entire complex is designed around this spring, reached by a path from the last terrace.
The reservoir and temple block
Another sector of the ruins contains a reservoir and temple block centred on a large, exploded volcanic rock – presumably some kind of huaca. Although the stonework in the temple seems cruder than that of the agricultural terracing, its location is still beneficial. By contrast, the construction of the reservoir is sophisticated, as it was originally built to hold nine hundred cubic metres of water which gradually dispersed along stone channels to the Inca “farm” directly below.
The upper ruins
Coming off the back of the reservoir, a large, tapering stone aqueduct crosses a small gully before continuing uphill – about thirty minutes’ walk – to a vast zone of unexcavated terraces and dwellings. Beyond these, over the lip of the hill, you come to another level of the upper valley literally covered in Inca terracing, dwellings and large stone storehouses. Equivalent in size to the lower ruins, these are still used by locals who have built their own houses among the ruins. So impressive is the terracing at Tipón that some archeologists believe it was an Inca experimental agricultural centre, much like Moray, as well as a citadel.
Pikillacta and Rumicolca
Pikillacta and RumicolcaAbout 7km south of Oropesa, the neighbouring pre-Inca ruins of Pikillacta and Rumicolca can be seen alongside the road. After passing the Paucartambo turn-off, near the ruins of an ancient storehouse and the small red-roofed pueblo of Huacarpay, the road climbs to a ledge overlooking a wide alluvial plain and Lucre Lake (now a weekend resort for Cusco’s workers). At this point the road traces the margin of a stone wall defending the pre-Inca settlement of Pikillacta.
Spread over an area of at least fifty hectares, PIKILLACTA, or “The Place of the Flea”, was built by the Huari culture around 800 AD, before the rise of the Incas. Its unique, geometrically designed terraces surround a group of bulky two-storey constructions: apparently these were entered by ladders reaching up to doorways set well off the ground in the first storey – very unusual in ancient Peru. Many of the walls are built of small cut stones joined with mud mortar, and among the most interesting finds here were several round turquoise statuettes. These days the city is in ruins but it seems evident still that much of the site was taken up by barrack-like quarters. When the Incas arrived early in the fifteenth century they modified the site to suit their own purposes, possibly even building the aqueduct that once connected Pikillacta with the ruined gateway of Rumicolca, which straddles a narrow pass by the road, fifteen minutes’ walk further south.
This massive defensive passage, RUMICOLCA, was also initially constructed by the Huari people and served as a southern entrance to – and frontier of – their empire. Later it became an Inca checkpoint, regulating the flow of people and goods into the Cusco Valley: no one was permitted to enter or leave the valley via Rumicolca between sunset and sunrise. The Incas improved on the rather crude Huari stonework of the original gateway, using regular blocks of polished andesite from a local quarry. The gateway still stands, rearing up to twelve solid metres above the ground, and is one of the most impressive of all Inca constructions.
Scenic routes to Puno and Lima
Scenic routes to Puno and Lima
Even if you aren’t planning to spend time around Lake Titicaca, the rail journey south to Puno is worth taking. The journey starts in the Cusco region and takes around twelve hours, covering a soul-stirring route that climbs slowly through stunning green river valleys to a desolate landscape to the pass, beyond the town of Sicuani. From here it rolls down onto the altiplano, a flat high plain studded wih adobe houses and large herds of llama and alpaca, before reaching Lake Titicaca and the port city of Puno.
If Lima is your destination, consider the 20-hour direct highland route northwest from Cusco through Abancay and then down to the coast at Nasca. Known as the Nasca-Cusco Corridor, it offers access to a range of potential stop-overs on the way: the archeological sites of Choquequirao and Sahuite; the city of Abancay and protected mountain forest area of Ampay; the thermal baths at Chaullanca and the alpaca and vicuña centre at Puquio; and, of course, the mysterious archeological sites around Nasca itself.