Discover Legends & Ancient Mysteries – Cuzco, Peru

Travelers are no doubt familiar with the highly developed Inca civilization, Machu Picchu, and the ancient history of Peru, much of which has been filmed and written about. To discover the mysteries and culture of this lost civilization for yourself, visit the fascinating city of Cuzco, once the capital of the magnificent Inca Empire. Although the Spanish conquered the Incas in the 1500’s, evidence remains of their superior, unusual building skills in architectural marvels and the unique Puma shape of the city.

Archeological & Artistic Attractions: There are a number of monuments and churches around the Plaza de Armas including La Compania de Jesus, the Cathedral, La Merced, and the Santa Catalina convent and art museum. Leaving the plaza, follow the narrow cobblestone streets up to the San Blas district, the artists’ neighborhood of Cuzco, dating back to prehispanic times. For centuries, generations of families have lived here and created wonderful artwork from wood, clay, and wool. Visitors will find small workshops filled with religious items, figures of the Manuelito children and the Nativity, pottery, and jewelry, many available for purchase. While in San Blas, visit the church of San Blas, with the 17th century pulpit, beautifully crafted of cedar and gold and silver filigree. The bronze base is sculpted with figures representing various dissenters to the Catholic doctrines.

About a half hour from the plaza, explore the incredible stone masonry of the ruins of the 15th century fortress and the sacred temple to the sun at Saqsayhuaman, which forms the head of the Puma. The throne of the Inca’s is on a small hill nearby. Festival of the Sun held each year in June.

(Purchase a $10 or $20 tourist ticket for entrance to the sites.)

The Andean Children’s Art Museum has an interesting collection of over 4,000 paintings and drawings by native children depicting ancient Inca legends and beliefs. Hours: Mon-Fri, 10am-1pm, 2-5pm. Free admission.

Tours/Day Trips: Unless you’re an avid hiker, the best way to visit Machu Picchu, the legendary centerpiece of the Inca Empire, is by train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. (From here, a 1-hour hike or shuttle bus to the ruins.) 3 to 5 hours, first train at 8:20am, last at 4:20pm. Backpacker – $68, Vistadome – $105. Hiram Bingham, luxury seating, brunch, drinks, entertainment, guided tour, dinner & drinks – $495. Daily, except Sunday, 9am-6pm. Helicopter tours – $200. (Prices subject to change.)

One of the world’s greatest mysteries is the Nazca Lines, an amazing group of over 300 geoglyphs drawn in the sand, with an estimated total of 15,000 geometric patterns across the entire expanse of Peru’s southern desert. What makes these strange lines and figures of animals and birds even more intriguing is the fact that they can only be seen from above. The mystery has led to much speculation about who created them, whether the Incas were so advanced that they could fly, whether the miles of lines formed ancient calendars, or whether the drawings were used as landing strips for aliens from outer space. Interestingly enough, similar lines can be seen from above Area 51, in China, and in other remote parts of the world. Recent archaeological discoveries in the desert have uncovered large groups of severed heads, believed to belong to an ancient tribe, the Nasca who lived from 200BC-700AD and may be a part of this fascinating mystery.

Guided Tour: 3 days/2 nights. Leave Cuzco at 8pm overnight bus ride, with VIP seating, arrive Nasca around 9am. Documentary before 35-minute flight over the Nasca Lines (map provided). Afternoon free. Leave at 8pm for return to Cuzco. Small breakfast, no meals, or other extras included. Price: $305 p/p. (Other tours available.)

Accommodations:

The very luxurious Hotel Monasterio beside the central square is a former monastery and national monument dating back to the 16th century. Since 1965, the hotel has kept the appeal of Renaissance architecture in cloisters, quiet courtyards, gardens, and interior décor. Known worldwide as one of the best in South America, the hotel is featured as a unique destination in Peru’s Orient-Express collection. Deluxe guestrooms and suites are equipped with pumped in oxygen because of the very high altitude, about 10,000 feet, which guests should consider. Recommended for fine dining here is the Illary Restaurante (see below). Massages for singles or couples, 30-minutes, $45 p/p, 60-minutes, $90.

Rates: From $500/night w/ buffet breakfast. Packages available including the Hiram Bingham trip to Machu Picchu.

The Libertador Palacio del Inka, built on the site of Pizarro’s palace, is recommended for location near the Plaza de Armas, Spanish colonial architecture, and reasonable rates. All rooms with private bath (some with balconies), bar, and sauna. The Inti Raymi restaurant at the hotel features nightly entertainment. Rates: $264 p/p.

(Information on other accommodations at smaller hotels and hostels can be found online.)

Dining: Visitors will find a number of inexpensive, informal places to eat in Cuzco, as well as a few restaurants known for fine dining. The Restaurante Illary in the Hotel Monasterio offers an excellent menu of Peruvian specialties such as alpaca tenderloin, duck with rice stew, poached kingfish, and rack of lamb. Good service and nice selection of desserts and wine. Prices: $13-$24 (main courses). Hours: 11am-4pm, 7pm-11pm.

Highly recommended is the MAP Cafè, known for excellent food and an elegant atmosphere within the courtyard of the Museo de Arte Precolombino. First class service, live music in the evening, wine selection or try the local Pisco Sour, and menu featuring Andean steak, trout tartare, and the popular guinea pig confit, Peru’s national dish. Prices: $6 – $17, 4-course dinner by candelight, $35. Hours: 11am-10pm.

Other restaurants with positive reviews in the San Blas district include the Granja Heidi serving traditional vegetarian and Andean cuisine (open for lunch) and the Inka Fe for snacks, fresh fruit smoothies, and other a la carte items. Open breakfast & brunch, prices $4-$20. The Kintaro restaurant has a full bar and good Japanese food such as miso soup, yakisoba, teriyaki, and sushi. Hours: 12Noon-3pm, 6-Midnight. Closed Sundays. Prices: $5-$20 (cash only).

Street food is popular and cheap, about $2 to $3, with vendors selling everything from chicken soup, cheese, and ceviche to breaded trout and corn tamales. To experience the local culture of Peru, visit the San Pedro Central Market. Enjoy tropical fruit juices; browse the clothing aisles and stalls of fresh flowers, produce, and mysterious medicinal herbs.

Getting there: Domestic and international flights. No direct flights to Cuzco, but they are available from many major cities in the U.S., Canada, and some European countries to Lima (the hub for air travel in Peru). 6 or 7 daily 50-minute flights to Cuzco from Lima, about $75.

Popular in town transportation by combis, small vans, about 25 cents.

Sharon L Slayton

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