Unseen Inca: More than just Machu Picchu

Disclaimer: The following article was done as part of a submission for a local travel agency. The company in question chose not to use the article, but I still rather like it.

Just whisper ‘Peru’ in a crowded room and it’s likely to inspire esoteric imagery of verdant, cloud-tipped mountain peaks, encasing the intricate stone terraces of Machu Picchu in even the least imaginative traveller. After all, the ancient Incan citadel is on the itineraries of 99% of international visitors to the country. But despite playing host to 5 000 inquisitive adventurers a day, Machu Picchu’s vast, labyrinthine layout conceals unseen hideaways and secret sites that will surprise those returning for a second- or even a tenth time. In this way, Machu Picchu isn’t just one of Peru’s most famous landmarks, it’s also an apt metaphor for the country as a whole.

Of the 1 million travellers who brave the 90-minute hike up to the Sun Gate every year, all who bring their cameras quickly realise the struggle of simultaneously capturing the sheer magnitude, exquisite detail, and deep sense of reverence that the famed site inspires. Those familiar with the weather patterns will remind eager adventurers not to pin their hopes on seeing the sun actually rise at the Sun Gate; Machu Picchu is nestled beneath full cloud cover on most mornings, regardless of the season. But looking through the ghostly wisps of misted forest adds an air of mystical solemnity to the experience. One that’s best appreciated after a 03:00am group breakfast, buzzing with shared- but unspoken- anticipation.

The traditional Inca trail has become more regulated in recent years, restricting the number of people allowed to just 500 a day (including guides and porters), but the wealth of ruins, temples, fortresses, and exotic flora and fauna seen from the route make it well-worth the advanced booking. That said, the Inca were cunning tacticians, and knew better than to limit access to their hidden mountain city to just one entranceway. It’s worth investigating alternate paths- such as the longer, but also gentler, Salcantay Route- which offers comfortable lodges along the way to those who are willing to walk the walk, but are less keen to ‘rough it’ come bedtime.

Base your journey in the modern city of Cusco and you’ll be well positioned to take a humbling day-trip to the mammoth descending terraces of Moray. Hundreds of years ago these concentric plantations grew enough beans, corn and potatoes to feed the voracious appetites of a race of ambitious warriors and skilled stonemasons. From here, you’ll also be able to quietly reflect at the still-working water fountains of Tipón, or the gargantuan stonewall spectacle of Saksaywaman. In the evening, you can head back to the city for a taste of fusion ‘Novo Andino’ cuisine that ranks amongst some of the finest in the world.

Modern Peruvians live side-by-side with well-preserved remnants from the past. You can experience this chronological patchwork for yourself when you browse the bustling Pisac market on a Sunday before exploring the nearby ruins, or by joining hundreds of enthusiastic kite fliers assembled at Cristo Blanco on any given Sunday in August.

Regardless of the route, those wanting to pack all the archaeological awe they can into their time in Peru would do well to pre-plan the specific sites they’d like to explore. “Don’t try to see every Incan site in the whole Sacred Valley,” recommends our specialist, “It’s too much. You’ll be overwhelmed.” This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get a holistic impression of Peru in a single visit.

Just like Machu Picchu, Peru’s innumerable histories are written inside every artefact, down every narrow alley and beneath every impossibly, perfectly laid stone.

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