Known to the Incas as the “navel of the world”, colourful Cusco was built by the Spanish on the remains of Inca temples and palaces, and is as rich in human activity today as it must have been at the height of the empire. One of South America’s biggest tourist destinations, the city boasts a thriving Andean culture, and Inca architecture and colonial treasures galore, not to mention exclusive access to the mighty Machu Picchu, an unmissable highlight to any trip to Peru. In high season – June to September – the entire Sacred Valley swarms with visitors. It may be difficult to avoid the crowds, but Cusco’s magnificent history and ancient feel may well tempt you to consider extending your stay.
Nestling majestically in the belly of a highland valley and fed by two rivers, CUSCO’s unique layout was designed by the Incas in the form of a puma. Many of the city’s finest Inca architectural treasures were so masterfully constructed out of local stone that they are still in great shape today, and the city is ripe for exploring: one minute you’re walking down a shadowy, stone-walled alley, the next you burst onto a plaza full of brightly dressed dancers from the countryside, joining in what, at times, seems like the endless carnival and religious festival celebrations for which Cusco is famous.
Nearly every site you’ll want to visit is within walking distance of the main Plaza de Armas, and you can easily cover the main features of each quarter of the city in half a day. You should be able to cover most of Cusco Town in two or three active days, perhaps allowing a little extra time for hanging out in the bars and shops en route.
Enclosed between high hills, Cusco’s heart is the Plaza de Armas. Directly above it, the imposing ceremonial centre and fortress of Sacsayhuaman dominates the hillscape. Once the Incas’ capital, it is now home to a rich mix of traditional culture, lively nightlife and an endless variety of museums, walks and tours.
The wider region of Cusco is mainly mountainous, with several peaks over 6000m, all of them considered sacred. The entire region is high altitude and even the city of Cusco sits at 3399m, an altitude which needs to be treated with respect, particularly if arriving by air from sea level (see Mountain sickness). Within easy access of the city, there are dozens of enticing destinations. The Sacred Valley of the Río Urubamba is the obvious first choice, with the citadel of Machu Picchu as the ultimate goal, but there are hundreds of other magnificent Inca ruins – Pisac and Ollantaytambo in particular – set against glorious Andean panoramas.
The Cusco mountain region boasts some of the country’s finest trekking. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is by far the best known and most popular, but there are excellent alternative trails all starting less than a day’s overland travel from Cusco. The stunning Inca remains of Choquequirao, in the Río Apurímac area, arguably provides the best alternative archeological destination, with tours leaving from Cusco more or less daily. Salcantay to the north, and Ausangate, visible on the city’s southern horizon, are also appealing options.
East of Cusco, the Andean mountains slope steeply down into the lowland Amazon rainforest, where protected areas are helping to maintain some of the world’s most biodiverse wilderness areas. In particular, the Tambopata–Candamo Reserved Zone, or the slightly nearer Manu Reserved Zone, are among the best and most accessible ecotourism destinations. South of Cusco are the pre-Inca sites at Tipón and Pikillacta, nearly as spectacular as those in the Sacred Valley but far less visited. The luxurious train journey to Puno and Lake Titicaca passes through scenery as dramatic as any in the country.
The best time to visit Cusco and the surrounding area is during the dry season (May–Sept), when it’s warm with clear skies during the day but relatively cold at night. During the wet season (Oct–April) it doesn’t rain every day, but when it does, downpours are heavy.
The Cusco Valley and the Incas are synonymous in many people’s minds, but the area was populated well before the Incas arrived on the scene and built their empire on the toil and ingenuity of previous peoples.
The Killki, who dominated the region from around 700–800 AD, while primarily agrarian, also built temple structures from the hard local diorite and andesite stones. Some of these structures still survive, while others were incorporated into later Inca constructions – the sun temple of Q’orikancha, for example, was built on the foundations of a Killki sun temple.
According to Inca legend, Cusco was founded by Manco Capac and his sister Mama Occlo around 1200 AD. Over the next two hundred years the valley was home to the Inca tribe, one of many localized groups then dominating the Peruvian sierra.
It wasn’t until Pachacuti assumed leadership of the Incas in 1438 that Cusco became the centre of an expanding empire and, with the Inca army, took religious and political control of the surrounding valleys and regions. As Pachacuti pushed the frontier of Inca territory outwards, he also masterminded the design of imperial Cusco, canalizing the Saphi and the Tullumayo, two rivers that ran down the valley, and built the centre of the city between them. Cusco’s city plan was conceived in the form of a puma, a sacred animal: Sacsayhuaman, an important ritual centre and citadel, is the jagged, tooth-packed head; Pumachupan, the sacred cat’s tail, lies at the junction of the city’s two rivers; between these two sites lies Q’orikancha, the Temple of the Sun, reproductive centre of the Inca universe, the loins of this sacred beast; the heart of the puma was Huacapata, a ceremonial square approximate in both size and position to the present-day Plaza de Armas. Four main roads radiated from the square, one to each corner of the empire.
The overall achievement was remarkable, a planned city without rival, at the centre of a huge empire; and in building their capital the Incas endowed Cusco with some of its finest structures. Stone palaces and houses lined streets which ran straight and narrow, with water channels to drain off the heavy rains. It was so solidly built that much of ancient Cusco is still visible today, particularly in the stone walls of what were once palaces and temples.
In 1532, when the Spanish arrived in Peru, Cusco was a thriving city, and capital of one of the world’s biggest empires. The Spaniards were astonished: the city’s beauty surpassed anything they had seen before in the New World; the stonework was better than any in Spain; and precious metals, used in a sacred context across the city, were in abundance throughout Q’orikancha. They lost no time in plundering its fantastic wealth. Atahualpa, the emperor at the time, was captured by Spanish conquistadors in Cajamarca while en route to Cusco, returning from bloody battles in the northern extremity of the empire. Hearing from the Emperor Atahualpa himself of Cusco’s great wealth as the centre of Inca religious and political power, Francisco Pizarro reached the native capital on November 15, 1533.
The Spanish city was officially founded on March 23, 1534. Cusco was divided up among 88 of Pizarro’s men who chose to remain there as settlers. Manco Inca, a blood relative of Atahualpa – who was murdered by Pizarro – was set up as a puppet ruler, governing from a new palace on the hill just below Sacsayhuaman. After Pizarro’s departure, and following twelve months of power struggles, his sons Juan and Gonzalo came out on top and were then free to abuse Manco and his subjects, which eventually provoked the Incas to open resistance. In April 1536 Manco fled to Yucay, in the Sacred Valley, to gather forces for the Great Rebellion.
Within days, the two hundred Spanish defenders, with only eighty horses, were surrounded in Cusco by over 100,000 rebel Inca warriors. On May 6, Manco’s men laid siege to the city. After a week, a few hundred mounted Spanish soldiers launched a desperate counterattack on the Inca base in Sacsayhuaman and, incredibly, defeated the native stronghold, putting some 1500 warriors to the sword as they took it.
Spanish-controlled Cusco never again came under such serious threat from its indigenous population, but its battles were far from over. By the end of the rains the following year, a rival conquistador, Almagro, had seized Cusco for himself until Francisco Pizarro defeated the rebel Spanish troops a few months later, and had Almagro garrotted in the main plaza. Around the same time, a diehard group of rebel Incas held out in Vilcabamba until 1572, when the Spanish colonial viceroy, Toledo, captured the leader Tupac Amaru and had him beheaded in the Plaza de Armas.
From then on the city was left in relative peace, ravaged only by the great earthquake of 1650. After this dramatic tremor, remarkably illustrated on a huge canvas in La Catedral de Cusco, Bishop Mollinedo was largely responsible for the reconstruction of the city, and his influence is also closely associated with Cusco’s most creative years of art. The Cusqueña school, which emerged from his patronage, flourished for the next two hundred years, and much of its finer work, produced by native Quechua and mestizo artists such as Diego Quispe Tito Inca, Juan Espinosa de los Monteros, Fabian Ruiz and Antonio Sinchi Roca, is exhibited in museums and churches around the city.
In spite of this cultural heritage, Cusco only received international attention after the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham’s archeological expedition in 1911. With the advent of air travel and global tourism, Cusco was slowly transformed from a quiet colonial city in the remote Andes into a major tourist centre.
While there are relatively inexpensive and reasonable mid-range hostels and hotels in most corners of the city, Cusco’s accommodation is centred in three main zones: east, west and south of the Plaza de Armas. To the west of the Plaza along calles Plateros, Procuradores and Saphi (Procuradores and Plateros are particularly noisy at night) there are plenty of busy budget hostels. You can find slightly pricier and more luxurious places in the area east of the Plaza around San Blas and Choquechaca in the artists’ quarter. To the south of the Plaza, the San Pedro region around the central market and near to the train station for Machu Picchu has improved its facilities in recent years, now offering comfortable and safe accommodation. Closer to the Plaza, along Calle Quera and around Avenida Sol, more varied accommodation can be found.
The Cusco region and nearby cloudforest and lowland Amazon provide a fantastic range of activities, from river-based ecotourism and whitewater kayaking to mountain biking, hiking and horseriding, not to mention white-knuckle experiences of the spiritual variety.
The mountains to the south and the north of Cusco are full of amazing trekking trails, some of them little touched, most of them still rarely walked (see Alternative treks to the Inca Trail). Less adventurous walks or horse rides are possible to Qenko, Tambo Machay, Puca Pucara and Chacan, in the hills above Cusco and in the nearby Sacred Valley. Many jungle trip operators are based in Cusco.
Cusco is also a great whitewater rafting centre, with easy access to classes 2 to 5 (rivers are generally rated from class 1 – very easy – to class 5 – very difficult/borderline dangerous) around Ollantaytambo on the Río Urubamba and classes 1 to 3 between Huambutio and Pisac, on the Río Vilcanota. From Calca to Urubamba the river runs classes 2 to 3, but this rises to 5 in the rainy season. Calca to Pisac (Huaran) and Ollantaytambo to Chilca are among the most popular routes, while the most dangerous are further afield on the Río Apurimac. The easiest stretch is from Echarate to San Baray, which passes by Quillabamba. Costs range from around $40 to about $200 a day, with price usually reflecting quality, but it’s always recommended to use a reputable and well-established rafting company such as Mayuc. Remember that most travel insurance policies exclude this kind of adventure activity, and always ensure that you are fully equipped with a safety kayak, helmets and lifejackets.
Bungee jumping is big in Cusco. The tallest bungee jump facility in the Americas (122m) is offered by Action Valley Cusco, Santa Teresa 325 (240835, actionvalley.com), just a fifteen-minute walk from the plaza in Poroy (buses run here from block 8 of Avenida Sol). Equally breathtaking but slightly less scary is the option of a hot-air balloon adventure (from $400, shared between groups of 5 to 10 people) in the Cusco or Sacred Valley areas.
Psychedelic tourism is popular in Cusco these days, though not as developed as in Iquitos. This doesn’t involve taking drugs and wandering around the Andes: essentially, psychedelic tourism is based on traditional healing techniques that tend to focus on inner consciousness and well-being through often highly ritualized ceremonies. San Pedro and ayahuasca, the two principal indigenous psychedelic plants that have been used ceremonially in Peru for over 3500 years, can be experienced with the assistance of Etnikas Travel and Shamanic Healing (C Herrajes 148; 244516) or Another Planet (Triunfo 120; 2445168, anotherplanetperu.net), who also lead organized spiritual tours.
Most of the touristy artesanía and jewellery shops are concentrated in streets like Plateros around the Plaza de Armas and up Triunfo, though calles Herraje (first right as you head towards San Blas) and San Agustín have slightly cheaper but decent shops with leather and alpaca work. It’s worth heading off the beaten track, particularly around San Blas or the upper end of Tullumayo, to find outlets hidden in the backstreets.
The main street-market day for artesanía is Sat (10am–6pm). The central market, selling fresh produce, is at San Pedro. Out of town there are good markets for artesanía at Pisac and Chinchero, market days being Sun and Thurs, respectively.
Crafts and artesanía are Cusco’s stock in trade, with the best value and range of alpaca clothing in Peru, apart perhaps from Puno. It’s an ideal place to pick up weavings or antique cloths, traditional musical instruments like panpipes, and colourful bags and leather crafts. There are artesanía (craft shops) all over the centre, but the best prices and fullest range are found at the Centro Artesanal Cusco (Mon–Sat 8am–10pm, with most stalls open 9am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm) at the corner of Huanchac and Tullumayo, close to the huge sun-disc fountain on Avenida Sol. This large building brings together arguably the largest and best-value collection of artesanía under one roof in Peru; it’s a nice, clean and relatively hassle-free shopping environment very close to the train ticket office at Huanchac station.
Another good part of town for quality artesanía is the barrio of San Blas. This is the traditional artisan area of Cusco, home to a number of jewellers and art and antique shops. The Cuesta San Blas itself contains some of the finest artesanía, selling new and old oil paintings, while Hathun Rumiyoq has more good shops at its bottom end. There are some funky shops around the San Blas plazoleta too. The main street-market day for artesanía is Saturday (10am–6pm).
Apart from Lima, no Peruvian town has as varied a nightlife as Cusco. The Plaza de Armas is a hive of activity until the early hours, even during the week. Most venues in the city are simply bars with a dancefloor and sometimes a stage, but their styles vary enormously, from Andean folk spots with panpipe music to reggae or jazz joints, as well as more conventional clubs. Most places are within staggering distance of each other, and sampling them is an important part of any stay in Cusco. Most really get going between 10 and 11pm, then keep on going until 2 or 3am.
Cusco prides itself on its traditional dishes, which have evolved this century into a novo andino cuisine, fusing the best ingredients of the Andes with exquisite Mediterranean and even Argentinian influences. Generally speaking, trout is plentiful, reasonably priced and often excellent, and roast guinea pig (cuy) can usually be ordered – but pizza seems to lead in the popularity stakes.
The central market by San Pedro train station sells a wonderful variety of meats, tropical and imported fruits, local vegetables, Andean cheeses and other basics. The market also has a wide range of daytime hot-food stalls where you can get superb, freshly squeezed juices.
Eating out in Cusco is enjoyable, and restaurants range from cheap-and-cheerful pizza joints to exceptionally fine gourmet establishments. Many of the best restaurants and bars are within a block or two of the Plaza de Armas and uphill towards San Blas; the more central places serve anything from a toasted cheese sandwich to authentic Andean or criolla dishes. Quintas – basic local eating houses – serve mostly traditional Peruvian food, full of spice and character. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to categorize some of the establishments in Cusco as distinctly cafés, restaurants or bars since many fulfil all three functions, occasionally simultaneously, sometimes varying between different hours of the day.
As the imperial capital during Inca times, Cusco was the most important place of pilgrimage in South America, a status it retains today. During Easter, June and Christmas, the city centre becomes the focus for relentless fiestas and carnivals celebrated with extravagant processions blending pagan pre-Columbian and Catholic colonial cultures.
Soroche, or mountain sickness, is a reality for most people arriving in Cusco by plane from sea level and needs to be treated with respect. It’s vital to take it easy, not eating or drinking much on arrival, even sleeping a whole day just to assist acclimatization (coca tea is a good local remedy). After three days at this height most people have adjusted sufficiently to tackle moderate hikes at similar or lesser altitudes. Anyone considering hiking the major mountains around Cusco will need time to adjust again to their higher base camps.
If you do encounter altitude-related health problems, many hotels and restaurants have oxygen cylinders to help; alternatively, for serious cases, try the Clinica Peruano Suiza (English spoken) at Calle Meson de la Estrella 168 (open 24hr; t237009, wclinicaperuanosuiza.com), which also has a dedicated medical network whose details can be accessed at wo2medicalnetwork.com, and the Clinica Cima at Av Pardo 978 (t255550).
Colonial Cusco evolved into an exceptional centre for architecture and art. The era’s paintings in particular are curious for the way they adorn human and angelic figures in elaborate lacy garments and blend traditional and ancient with colonial and Spanish elements. They are frequently brooding and quite bloody, and by the mid-seventeenth-century had evolved into a recognizable school of painting.
The Cusqueña art movement dedicated itself to beautifying church and convent walls with fantastic and highly moralistic painting, mainly using oils. The Cusqueña school is best known for portraits or religious scenes with dark backgrounds, serious (even tortured-looking) subjects and a profusion of gold-leaf decoration. Influences came from European émigrés – mainly Spainish and Italian – notably Juan de Illescas, Bernardo Bitti and Mateo Perez de Alessio. At the close of the seventeenth century, the school came under the direction of Bishop Manuel Mollinedo. Bringing a number of original paintings (including some by El Greco) with him from his parish in Spain, the Bishop was responsible for commissioning Basilio Santa Cruz’s fine 1698 reproduction of the Virgen de la Almudena, which still hangs behind the choir in Cusco’s Catedral. He also commissioned the extraordinarily carved cedarwood pulpit in the church at San Blas.
The top Cusqueña artists were Bernardo Bitti (1548–1610), an Italian who is often considered the “father of Cusqueña art” and who introduced the Mannerist style to Peru, and Diego Quispe Tito Inca (1611–81), a mestizo painter who was influenced by the Spanish Flamenco school and whose paintings were vital tools of communication for priests attempting to convert Indians to Catholicism. Bitti’s work is on display in the Museo Historico Regional, while some of Quispe’s works can be seen in rooms off the second courtyard in the Religious Art Museum at the Archbishop’s Palace in Cusco. The equally renowned Mauricio García (painting until the mid-eighteenth century) helped spur the form into a fuller mestizo synthesis, mixing Spanish and Indian artistic forms. Many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cusqueña-mestizo works display bold compositions and colours.
By the eighteenth century, the style had been disseminated as far afield as Quito in Ecuador, Santiago in Chile and even into Argentina, making it a truly South American art form and one of the most distinctive indigenous arts in the Americas.
The megalithic fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which looks down onto the red-tiled roofs of Cusco from high above the city, is the closest and most impressive of several historic sites scattered around the Cusco hills. However, there are four other major Inca sites in the area. Not much more than a stone’s throw beyond Sacsayhuaman lie the great huaca of Qenko and the less-visited Salumpuncu, thought by some to be a moon temple. A few kilometres further on, at what almost certainly formed the outer limits of the Inca’s home estate, you come to the small, fortified hunting lodge of Puca Pucara and the stunning imperial baths of Tambo Machay.
Originally known as T’oqokachi (“salty hole”), the San Blas barrio was the first parish to be established by the Spanish in Cusco and one of twelve administrative sectors in the Inca capital. After the Conquest it became the residence for many defeated Inca leaders. It rapidly grew into one of the more attractive districts in the city, reflecting strong mestizo and colonial influences in its architecture and high-quality artesanía – even today it’s known as the barrio de los artesanos (artesans’ quarter). Hit hard by the 1950 earthquake, it has been substantially restored, and in 1993 was given a major face-lift that returned it to its former glory. The process of rebuilding continues, with many old houses being converted to hostels, shops and restaurants.
At the barrio’s centre, on the southeast side of the Iglesia San Blas, lies the Plazoleta San Blas, with 49 gargoyles set on a fountain that’s laid out in the form of a chakana, or Inca cross, with four corners and a hole at its centre.
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.
About 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.
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.
Both 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.
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.
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.
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 archaeologists believe it was an Inca experimental agricultural centre, much like Moray, as well as a citadel.
The two major places to visit northeast of Cusco are Paucartambo, 112km from Cusco, and Tres Cruces, another 50km beyond Paucartambo. The road between the two follows the Kosnipata Valley (“Valley of Smoke”), then continues through cloudy tropical mountain scenery to the mission of Shintuya on the edge of the Manu National Park. Legend has it that the Kosnipata enchants anyone who drinks from its waters at Paucartambo, drawing them to return again and again.
The area along the Río Urubamba from Machu Picchu onwards, to the north, is a quiet, relatively accessible corner of the Peruvian wilderness. As you descend from Ollantaytambo, the vegetation along the valley turns gradually into jungle, thickening and getting greener by the kilometre, as the air gets steadily warmer and more humid. Most people heading down here get as far as the town of Quillabamba, but the road continues deeper into the rainforest where it meets the navigable jungle river at Ivochote. Many come to this region to explore its mountains, cloud forest and rainforest areas, either to check out known Inca ruins or to search out some new ones. It’s relatively easy to visit the hilltop ruins of the palace at Vitcos, a site of Inca blood sacrifices, and possible – though an expedition of six days or more – to explore the more remote ruins at Espíritu Pampa, now thought to be the site of the legendary lost city of Vilcabamba.
Major Inca sites are still being discovered in this jungle region. In April 2002 British explorer Hugh Thomson – author of The White Rock – and American archeologist Gary Ziegler, following rumours of a lost city, led an expedition, which discovered an Inca city in the virtually inaccessible valley bottom at the confluence of the ríos Yanama and Blanco in the Vilcabamba region. Apparently seen briefly by Hiram Bingham nearly a hundred years ago, the coordinates were never recorded and this settlement of forty main buildings set around a central plaza hadn’t been spotted since. Although very difficult to access – due to river erosion – there appears to have been an Inca road running through the valley, probably connecting this site to the great Inca citadel of Choquequirao. This settlement is believed to have been Manco Inca’s hideout during his rebellion against the conquistadors, which lasted until his execution in Cusco in 1572.
Eternally spring-like because of the combination of altitude and proximity to tropical forest, the pretty village of PAUCARTAMBO (“Village of the Flowers”) is located some 110km from Cusco in a wild and remote Andean region, and guards a major entrance to the jungle zone of Manu. A silver-mining colony, run by slave labour during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s now a popular destination that is at its best in the dry season between May and September, particularly in mid-July when the annual Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen takes place; visitors arrive in their thousands and the village is transformed from a peaceful habitation into a huge mass of frenzied, costumed dancers. Even if you don’t make it to Paucartambo for the festival, you can still see the ruined chullpa burial towers at Machu Cruz, an hour’s walk from Paucartambo; ask in the village for directions. Travellers rarely make it here outside of festival time, unless en route to the rainforest by road.
The beautiful main plaza, with its white buildings and traditional blue balconies, holds concrete monuments depicting the characters who perform at the fiesta – demon-masked dancers, malaria victims, lawyers, tourists and just about anything that grabs the imagination of the local communities. Also on the plaza is the rather austere iglesia, restored in 1998 and splendid in its own way, simple yet full of large Cusqueña paintings. It’s also the residence of the sacred image of the Virgen del Carmen, unusual in its Indian (rather than European) appearance. When the pope visited Peru in the mid-1980s, it was loaded onto a truck and driven to within 30km of Cusco, then paraded on foot to the city centre so that the pope could bless the image.
Paucartambo spends the first six months of every year gearing up for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. It’s an essentially female festival: tradition has it that a wealthy young woman, who had been on her way to Paucartambo to trade a silver dish, found a beautiful (if body-less) head that spoke to her once she’d placed it on the dish. Arriving in the town, people gathered around her and witnessed rays of light shining from the head, and henceforth it was honoured with prayer, incense and a wooden body for it to sit on.
The energetic, hypnotic festival lasts three or four days – usually July 16–19, but check with the tourist office in Cusco – and features throngs of locals in distinctive traditional costumes, with market stalls and a small fair springing up near the church. Clamouring down the streets are throngs of intricately costumed and masked dancers and musicians, the best known of whom are the black-masked Capaq Negro, recalling the African slaves who once worked the nearby silver mines. Note the grotesque blue-eyed masks and outlandish costumes acting out a parody of the white man’s powers – malaria, a post-Conquest problem, tends to be a central theme – in which an old man suffers terrible agonies until a Western medic appears on the scene, with the inevitable hypodermic in his hand. If he manages to save the old man (a rare occurrence) it’s usually due to a dramatic muddling of prescriptions by his dancing assistants – and thus does Andean fate triumph over science.
On Saturday afternoon there’s a procession of the Virgen del Carmen itself, with a brass band playing mournful melodies as petals and emotion are showered on the icon of the Virgin – which symbolizes worship of Pachamama as much as devotion to Christianity. The whole event culminates on Sunday afternoon with the dances of the guerreros (warriors), during which good triumphs over evil for another year.