The flight from Peru’s capital of Lima to the Andean city of Cusco is quite simply remarkable. One is only in the air for little more than an hour, yet it’s a truly memorable journey. The view is astonishing; from the aircraft window one can clearly make out peaks of the Andes mountain range penetrating the clouds. Many have summits reaching 6,700 metres, making them feel unnervingly close, especially when the plane suddenly moves due to the inevitable bumps and jolts associated with a flight over mountains.
The gateway to the valley
For many visitors the adventure of exploring the famous Sacred Valley of the Incas begins with this extraordinary flight. The approach to land in Cusco is like nothing I have ever experienced before. You can see the city and its airport below, yet it doesn’t seem possible to reach them, as they are surrounded by steep mountains. That’s when the fun really begins with the aircraft quickly banking and turning, descending swiftly while at the same time safely negotiating the landscape, flying between the mountains and hillsides to the air strip below.
As the touristy gateway to the Sacred Valley, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cusco can at first seem somewhat overwhelming. This is far from a being a hidden corner of the world. Multitudes of fellow travellers throng the city’s squares and streets, which are already vibrant with city life. Take care negotiating the traffic and the busy streets as your balance will most surely be slightly off for the first day or more. That’s because Cusco is a city above the clouds, sitting at over 3,300 metres in the Andes; and having your head in the clouds, so-to-speak, can have side-effects.
Altitude sickness can last for the first 48 hours and can get even worse in higher altitude destinations such as Lake Titicaca. Expect to have a headache and feel a little dizzy - however many hotels offer free oxygen therapy for guests who find it tricky to adjust to the thinner mountain air.
Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, although now a sprawling city is undeniably charming. There is striking historical colonial architecture, especially around the central Plaza de Armas, where one finds the cathedral - and of course Inca heritage, from a culture regarded as the most sophisticated, pre-colonial civilisation in the Americas. In the old town, join the other tourists and catch a glimpse of the city’s famous ‘twelve-angled stone’ in ‘Hatun Rumiyoc’ (the street of the great stone in Quechua the indigenous language of the Andes). This huge stone has been cut to perfectly fit those around it within this ancient palace wall - and has become an icon of Inca architectural techniques.
Exploring the wonders
For me, it is once one is down in the Scared Valley that one can truly enjoy the heritage of the Incas as well as the charm of the shy yet friendly people. A little outside of Cusco is the train station where you can take the line, weather and maintenance permitting, all the way to Machu Picchu.
Try to resist the temptation to simply make a day trip out to the iconic city. After all, if you have taken that white knuckle flight to Cusco, then you might as well make the most of it and stay in the valley and explore its wonders, including plenty of extraordinarily well-preserved Inca ruins. What’s more, the train stations can sometimes close for no apparent reason, or the line experience lengthy delays due to mud slides, so it’s easier to have a little flexibility with the schedule, and expect the unexpected.
Taxis are relatively cheap and make it easy to travel without a rental car. As well as visiting the stunning Inca heritage, there are always colourful and fascinating insights into valley life to be enjoyed along the way. Shepherds patiently standing in the fields; mothers carrying their babies in capes, wrapped tightly to their backs; and modest village homes adorned with icons of religion and good fortune, like a small cross, or terracotta bulls.
The valley produces some of the best maize in the world, a crop well suited to this altitude, and the quality is in demand in markets across the world. In the autumn you can see large white cobs drying in the sun. The women sit and flick the dry, plump corn seeds off the cob into sacks while their children play by their side.
Typically when travelling through the valley, whether in an old taxi, hiking, or aboard one of the many train services, visitors all share a destination: Machu Picchu. This city above the clouds has captured the world’s imagination for over a hundred years. Left abandoned by the Incas before the Spanish came to Peru, it remained hidden in dense forest until local farmers helped explorer Hiram Bingham rediscover the royal citadel in 1911 and introduce the enigmatic mysteries of this lost city to the world.
Discovering Machu Picchu
Despite the sometimes unreliable train service, the organised chaos of the nearby tourist town of Aguas Calientes, and the absurdly fast little mini bus that speeds tourists up the precipitous mountain road to the entrance gates, once you arrive at this hidden city, you enter a different world. It’s hard to convey the emotions of excitement, awe and amazement that grow in intensity as you explore this ancient royal sanctuary. Although photographs are instantly recognisable, nothing you see before coming here can erode the impact of the place when you arrive. Expect to sit transfixed taking in the immense scale of the location. The ruins of this imperial city are perched high upon a ridge, surrounded by steep mountains, deep canyons, and dense sub-tropical forest.
At every turn the scene is animated by the constantly changing light that is filtered through those famous Andean clouds that linger upon the mountain peaks.