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Cuzco is the sacred capital of the Inca Empire. Known to the early Incas as the 'navel of the world', it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America, and the gateway to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu.
Visitors will see the city's legacy in its straight, cobbled streets, and the remains of exquisite, Inca-built stone walls. They will also pass ancient stonework incorporated into colonial buildings, all while the Inca's Quechua-speaking descendants fill the streets with their bright dress and colourful handicrafts. The Inca Trail, the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, and the nearby Sacred Valley's archaeological ruins are Cuzco's chief attractions.
The destination is relatively unspoiled, too, despite its popularity. Indeed, its beautiful setting in the Andean Mountains is guaranteed to leave visitors spellbound. The stately Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city. Visitors touring the area will see Peru's national flag and the Inca Empire's rainbow-coloured flag. The display emphasises Cuzco's unique blend of the ancient, colonial and modern.
The Plaza de Armas is Cuzco's graceful main square, and is lined with colonial-style covered walkways, and houses that contain souvenir shops. Visitors will also find bars, restaurants and travel agencies. A large cathedral is the most prominent structure overlooking the square. Its elaborately carved wooden altar is covered in gold and silver plate, and its carved wooden choir stalls are regarded as Peru's finest. Cathedral visitors usually linger over The Last Supper painting, which portrays Jesus Christ and his disciples gathered around a table, which presents a platter of the local Inca delicacy, cuy (roasted guinea pig). La Compania is also on the plaza. It's one of Cuzco's most ornately decorated churches and is often floodlit at night. History lovers should make a point of walking the alleyway of Loreta, as it's lined with Incan stone walls.
The sacred complex of Coricancha was considered the centre of the Inca world. Its name means something like 'Golden Enclosure', though Inca stonework is all that remains of the ancient Temple of the Sun. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of opulence that was 'fabulous beyond belief'. Spanish colonists constructed the Church of Santa Domingo on the site, destroying the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Major earthquakes have severely damaged the church, though the Inca stone walls still stand, and are a testament to their superb architectural skills and sophisticated stone masonry. Visitors will find an underground archaeological site museum nearby. It contains a number of interesting pieces, including mummies, textiles and sacred idols. Tourists will have the best experience if they explore the site with a guide, as good tours provide context and bring the place to life.
Of the four ruins near Cuzco, Sacsayhuamán is the closest and most remarkable. Spanish conquistadors used it as a quarry during their day, given its proximity to Cuzco and the dimensions of its stones. Indeed, the site provided many of the materials for the city's colonial buildings. The Spanish destroyed the original complex to such an extent that little is known about the actual purpose these magnificent buildings once served. That said, the complex is usually referred to as a fortress because of its high, impenetrable walls. Some believe it may just as easily have been a religious or ceremonial centre. The ruins cover an enormous area, but only 40 percent of the original complex remains. History lovers must visit, as the site offers a fine example of the Inca's extraordinary stone masonry. According to estimates, the complex took about 100 years to build, requiring thousands of labourers. The massive blocks of stone fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar. Each one weighs between 90 and 125 tonnes, and stands around 16ft (5m) tall.
History buffs will note that the Inca and Spanish fought at the centre during the infamously bloody battle of 1536. The conflict left thousands of native people dead, providing food for circling condors. Since then, Cuzco's Coat of Arms has featured eight condors in memory of the event. Today, the site holds the annual celebrations of Cuzco's most important festival, Inti Raymi: the sun festival. Tourists should attend the colourful and spectacular affair if at all possible.
Cuzco has a sub-tropical highland climate, which is characterised by dry, temperate weather. There are two defined seasons: the dry season (April to October) and the rainy season (November to March). The dry season is mild and sunny, with temperatures ranging between 32°F (0°C) and 68°F (20°C), while the wet season has similar temperatures but fewer sunny days. Rain tends to come in short downpours and the sun is seldom gone for long.
Hiking can be uncomfortable in the rainy season, and the Inca Trail closes for maintenance in February. Hail and frost are fairly common in Cuzco, but snow is virtually unheard of. Incidentally, Cuzco has the highest ultraviolet light level on Earth, making it extremely important that tourists protect themselves from sun damage.
June, July and August are the most popular months to do the Inca Trail, and visitors generally prefer the dry season. However, the wet season can be beautiful in the mountains, which are lush and colourful between November and March.
All in all, Cuzco is a rewarding travel destination year-round, but it is best to visit in April/May or September/October. That way, visitors can miss the worst of the tourist crowds and still make the most of the good weather.
The easiest way to get around Cuzco is on foot, as many of the hotels and tourist attractions are close together. That said, travellers should remember that Cuzco is a high-altitude destination, which makes walking tiring. Visitors should hire the city's relatively inexpensive taxis for longer distances. Taxis are regulated and fares are standardised, though the vehicles are not metred. For this reason, tourists should call a registered taxi company if they're travelling at night, to the airport, or to the bus or train station.
Cuzco's list of cultural wonders and archaeological treasures can keep tourists occupied for weeks. The city's high altitude can be challenging, though, and travellers should give themselves a little time to get used to it - especially if they're intent on visiting its most famous attraction, Machu Picchu.
Cuzco is also the gateway to many other ancient Incan sites. Indeed, tourists will find some stunning hikes in the mountainous region, apart from the Inca Trail. The Sacred Valley contains many gems and wonderful, dramatic scenery, and the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuaman are some of the most fascinating in the country.
Visitors can enjoy the destination's attractions at a reduced rate by purchasing the Cuzco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistica del Cusco). It allows entry to 16 sites within a 10-day period. Variations of the ticket that are active for less time and cover fewer attractions are also available. Visitors can buy tickets at any of the sites, such as Puca Pucara, Sacsayhuaman, Tambo Machay, Qenko, the Cathedral, San Blas, the museum of Santa Catalina, the site museum at Qorikancha, the museum of regional history, the museum of religious art, the museum of the municipal palace, Chincheros, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Tipón, and Pikillaqta.
Known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, this breathtakingly beautiful and fertile valley stretches between the villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Travellers will navigate it on the winding Urubamba River, with ancient Inca ruins watching from the hilltops above. The river's course also passes a sprinkling of small, traditional settlements. Visitors should note that the centrally situated Urubamba town has a decent tourist infrastructure, and is becoming a popular base from which to explore the valley. The region's most-visited sites are the citadel above Pisac and the fortress of Ollantaytambo. Culture lovers will enjoy the quaint village of Pisac, which is known for its interesting Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning markets. Agricultural terraces flank the steep sides of the mountain and have seen many centuries of use. Alarmingly narrow trails lie above them and lead to the cliff-hugging citadel. Visitors will find massive stone doorways and stairways cut into the rock.
The road terminates at the far end of the Sacred Valley, where travellers will encounter the ancient traditional town of Ollantaytambo. Its temple-fortress clings to the nearby cliffs. Originally developed as an Inca administrative centre, the town's layout is one of the few remaining models of an Inca grid plan, and the existing town lies on the remaining Inca foundations. The ruins include the Royal Chamber, the Princess Baths and the Temple of the Sun.
The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is regarded as the most significant archaeological site in South America, and one of the finest examples of landscape architecture in the world. It is the most enthralling of the region's citadels, and lies high in the Andes. Fortunately, Spanish colonists didn't discover and destroy the structure, as it's completely concealed from below. In fact, the western world didn't find it until an American explorer stumbled across its thickly overgrown ruins in 1911. The site is surrounded by grazing llamas and steep agricultural terraces, and consists of a central plaza, towers, palaces, water canals, ornate fountains, food storehouses, perfectly balanced archways and a sacred ceremonial area of royal tombs and intricately carved temples. The sacred Temple of the Sun is one of the site's highlights. Another is the mountain called, Huayna Picchu, which forms a dramatic backdrop to the city. All told, 'The Lost City of the Incas' has an abiding sense of majesty and mystery, despite its popularity among tourists.
Located in Peru's central highlands and crossed by two mountain ranges, Ayacucho has much to delight history lovers. Indeed, the region is home to some of the country's most significant archaeological attractions, as well as gorgeous, pastel-coloured colonial buildings. An ancient capital city, some of the oldest pre-historic remains found in America, and richly decorated churches are all part of the destination's inheritance. Ayacucho is a relatively unknown tourism gem, though, due largely to political unrest. That is, as the capital of an isolated and traditionally poor department, it allowed Professor Abimael Guzman to foster the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist Revolutionary movement, causing thousands of deaths in the region during the 1980s and 1990s. Fortunately, travellers are rediscovering Ayacucho. The best time to visit is around Easter, when the city's carnival celebrations are in full swing.
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