Discovering Cusco & Machu Picchu with Ross Wehner & Renée del Gaudio

1. Why is Machu Picchu a place that everyone should visit?

Ross: Until I visited Machu Picchu, I never believed it would be possible for humankind to transform a natural landscape into something more beautiful than its original pristine state. But that’s exactly what the Incas did at Machu Picchu – they took the forested ridge of a sugarloaf mountain in the cloud forests of Peru and re-envisioned it around their cosmology of the sun. Every stone cut, path and terrace at Machu Picchu contributes to the whole and works in rhythm with the rivers, mountains, forests and constantly changing skies around sanctuary. There is a palpable spiritual energy at Machu Picchu and it’s common to see normal, everyday people sob the moment they enter this highly energetic place.

2. When discussing Machu Picchu, it’s difficult to not mention The Sacred Valley and Cusco. Despite being separated by distance, how are they intertwined?

Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Cusco are like the three legs of a tripod and a visitor to the area should make sure to visit all three. We like to visit first the Sacred Valley, the Inca’s lush bread basket and the place that they considered, literally, heaven on earth. Next comes Machu Picchu, which was the Inca Pachacutec’s summer palace and the best surviving example of Inca religious and imperial architecture. The final stop is Cusco, which is sort of a New World Jerusalem. Catholic cathedrals built on top of the foundations of Inca palaces are evidence of a city that has evolved in the context of a 500-year antagonistic relationship between two strong cultures, the Inca and the Spanish. The Sacred Valley-Machu Picchu-Cusco progression respects the chronology of history in this part of the world, and also helps travelers acclimate by starting at the lower elevations of the Sacred Valley (9,000 feet, approx.) before heading to the thinner air of Cusco (11,000 feet, approx).

3. Can you describe the landscape travelers will experience there?

Travelers heading from Cusco the Sacred Valley will be amazed by an alternating patchwork of high-altitude fields, planted in quinoa, maize and potatoes. Once in the Sacred Valley, the planes outside of Cusco yield to forests of eucalyptus and native Qeuna trees, the snow-capped peaks of Verónica and Chicón peaks and the Urubamba River. Travelers to Machu Picchu descend by train along the Urubamba River, which begins as a smoothly flowing river and transforms into raging, jangly rapids by the time the train pulls up to Machu Picchu. The cloud forests around Machu Picchu are a world apart from Cusco – bird and insect noises, strong plant and earth aromas, blasts of humidity and vistas of densely forested mountains on all sides.

4. Peru has an incredible and rich 7,000 year old cultural history from which the Inca evolved. How have the Inca and their culture remained so resilient through time?

Peru is one of the great cradles of civilization alongside Egypt and Mesopotamia. Recent archeological findings at Caral prove that ancient Peruvians were living in organized city states and building adobe pyramids by 2900 B.C. – nearly 200 years before the Egyptians erected the first of their great (albeit, much larger) pyramids. The Incas synthesized more than a dozen ancient Peruvian cultures into an Empire that stretched from modern-day Chile to Colombia. This level of cultural and political organization has allowed Inca (or, more properly speaking, Quechua culture) to survive nearly five centuries of brutal Spanish domination. Only recently are Quechua-speaking communities in many areas of the Andes able to achieve the kind of economic and political autonomy that they enjoyed before the Spanish Conquest. Quechua-speaking people in the Sacred Valley region of Peru live much as they have for centuries, despite repeated and constant contact from the outside world. Their way of life works for them and is rooted in a deep spiritual attachment to the natural world that stretches back thousands of years, long before the Inca Empire.

5. Cusco & Machu Picchu have elevations around 10,000 feet. What are some tips for acclimating?

The best tip for acclimatizing is to not stay in Cusco! Better to start in the Sacred Valley at 9,000 feet, approximately, and work your way up to Cusco at 11,000 feet, approximately. The Bolivians have an expression for preventing soroche, or altitude sickness, which goes: “Tome poco, come poco y duerme solo.” This translates to “Drink little, eat little and sleep alone.” In other words: when you arrive at altitude, do not drink alcohol, avoid heavy meals and avoid exercise of any kind! If you can arrive well-rested that is a huge help in acclimating, in my experience. If you are flying a red eye into Lima and transferring on immediately to Cusco, take a sleeping pill and sleep as much as you can on the flight!

6. What are some highlights of Peruvian cuisine?

We spend a lot of time in our guidebooks covering Peruvian cuisine, which is one of the most diverse national cuisines in the world. Kazia Jankowski, a food expert that co-authored the second edition, added immeasurably to the books’ coverage of coastal, Andean and Amazonian cuisines. Each region of Peru has its own infusion of ingredients and historical cultures. Ross: My favorite dish? Chupe de camarones, which is a cream-based soup with potatoes, milk, eggs and lima beans, and laden with succulent sea shrimp.

7. You both spent 10 months traveling across the Andes Mountains. What are a couple of your favorite spots?

Renée and I crossed the Andes a half dozen times over 10 months in a borrowed jeep as we wrote the first edition of Moon Peru. We very much enjoyed floating down the Amazon River for three days in a river boat while we lounged in hammocks and ate bananas. We also enjoyed driving across the spectacular countryside of Peru’s Andes between Cajamarca and the Cañon de Pato near Huaraz (this route, as we note in the book, would make an amazing 3-4 day mountain bike ride). Finally, we loved Túcume, a highly spiritual and ancient place north of Chiclayo on the coast of Northern Peru. This is a great place to turn off your cell phone, put down your laptop and watch the sunset over the area’s giant, and largely unexcavated, adobe pyramids.

8. When is the best time to visit?

The best time to visit the Andes and the Amazon is the dry season from June to August. Even better are the “shoulder months” of April/May and September/October – there are fewer travelers in Peru during these months, which are outside of the November – March rainy season. The months of April and May in particular are great because the rainy season has recently ended and the mountains are covered in flowers and lush, green ichú (Andean grass). The best time to visit the Peruvian coast is the Andean summer from December to March, when coastal fog dissipates to reveal bluebird, sunny skies.

9. How much time do you need to get a sense of these incredible destinations?

Ross: It all depends what you want to do. I myself like nature, so I would spend as much time as possible in the Sacred Valley doing an extraordinary range of hikes, not to mention horseback riding, rafting, mountain biking, exploring off-the-beaten-path archeological ruins, etc. Machu Picchu I increasingly see as a one-day visit – I take the first train from Ollantaytambo to arrive in the sanctuary as early as possible and leave again in the early afternoon. I am not a big fan of Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, so I never overnight there. Cusco is one of the most eclectic, fun cities in South America so plan your time according to your appetite for museums, galleries, high-end restaurants and night clubs.


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