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Cusco and Machu Picchu Spotlight

Journey into the land of the Incas and beyond

By Kaitlin Keaveney

May 17th, 2007

There's a reason Cusco (meaning "navel" in Quechua) has maintained its "Navel of the World" moniker for centuries. Nestled high among the Andes Mountains at an impressive 11,150 feet above sea level, the former imperial Inca capital – established in the 11th century and conquered by the Spanish in 1533 – has risen from its war-torn past to become the crown jewel of Peruvian tourism. Standing tall as the gateway to the Sacred Valley, the Inca Trail, and the once "lost" city of Machu Picchu, Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America (45% of its population is indigenous).

Once gilded in gold, Cusco still shines thanks to a captivating blend of ancient Inca and colonial Spanish architecture, a wealth of museums, and an eclectic nightlife scene that lasts till dawn. At any given time you'll find cobblestone streets buzzing with tourists and taxis, locals dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, and street vendors selling everything from fresh choclo con queso (corn-on-the-cob with cheese) to colorful chica (corn-brewed beer). Its lively center, Plaza de Armas, hosts a plethora of hotels, restaurants, bars, discothèques, cafes, and shops. But look past the hustle and bustle and you'll discover a miraculously pristine landscape, where ancient Inca ruins dominate cloud-blanketed hills, and wild llamas, alpacas, dogs, bulls, and cows roam freely over emerald-green pastures.

With three days you'll have just enough time to adjust to the altitude and sample the markets, museums, and nightlife surrounding Cusco's Plaza de Armas and the historic arts district of San Blas before taking in the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuamán, Quenqo, Puca Pucará, and Tambomachay. With five days you can visit the Sacred Valley ruins and markets of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Urubumba before squeezing in a one- or two-day trip to Machu Picchu. Seven days gives you ample opportunity to truly discover all that Machu Picchu, and its surrounding frontier town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, have to offer, whether arriving there by train or hiking the Inca Trail.

Don't let the thought of soroche (altitude sickness) hold you back from this Andean eden. The worse symptoms – fatigue, headaches, and dizziness – are best cured with water and one or two cups of hot mate de coca (coca tea), which can be found at nearly every restaurant and café in Peru (although it's banned in the U.S.). So pack your hiking boots, backpack, raincoat, camera, and Spanish dictionary, just in case – you're about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

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