The Inca Heartland


The center of the Inca universe

The Inca Trail, the hidden city of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca all bring the Inca Empire to life for visitors on Peru tours. Here tourists learn first hand about the Incas' sophisticated engineering, hydraulics and agricultural techniques by viewing the Incan ruins along the Urubamba River Valley, an area that between Cusco and Machu Picchu is called the Sacred Valley. Among the major ruins here are the outer walls of the monumental edifice and ceremonial complex of Sacysayhuaman, assembled without mortar, using huge boulders, a little over a mile from the city. Between Cusco and Pisac are Kenko, a hillside limestone ceremonial center with animal and geometric carvings and a subterranean gallery and amphitheater with more carvings; Puca Pucara, five miles from Cusco, a red stone watchtower and the Inca canals and baths constructed to make use of the year-round springs of nearby Tambo Machay, a temple that may have been a place of worship.
While Peru’s most popular attractions for visitors on Peru tours are here, the region’s back roads through and above the Sacred Valley, skipped by most international visitors, offer an illuminating look into another world, of traditional village life as it was centuries before. Though the same may be said of other areas of Peru, in the Inca heartland, it is as though the conquistadors never arrived. One may watch craftsmen using pre-Columbian weaving techniques on primitive looms, see llamas packing produce and products to market and observe fields being plowed with the Chaki Taclla, a three-person tool designed by the Incas for cultivating steep hillsides.

The village of Pisac is famed for its crafts market and hillside ruins. The pretty town of Ollantaytambo has a crafts market and remains of a fortress, a pyramid and irrigated agricultural terracing. Nearby is Cachiccata, the quarry that was the source of the building materials for some of the Incas’ massive building projects. Between the town of Salinas and Maras are the salt pans that between May and October still operate as they have for centuries. Beyond Maras is the agricultural terracing at Moray, believed to have been an experimental crop nursery. Southern Explorations offers five cultural and historical Peru tour extensions in the Sacred Valley.

Increasingly, international visitors on Peru tours are seeking roads less traveled than the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu. Three of the most popular of these routes is through the plains of 6,271 ft Mt. Salcantay south of Machu Picchu; through the Lares Valley to the east and, from the direction of Choquequirao, another lost Incan city and archeological attraction in its own right, to the southwest, a more challenging route than the Inca Trail. Southern Explorations offers an eleven-day Alternative Inca Trail Tour itinerary and a seventeen-day Galapagos Multi-sport and Alternative Inca Trail Tour. The twelve-day Salcantay Inca Trail Hike Tour travels part way on an alternate route.

The well preserved ruins of the citadel make an indelible impact on all travelers who make the journey. Some on Machu Picchu tours choose to experience the ruins at sunrise, the best time to photograph the complex, sans fellow-tourists. Hardy hikers may choose to continue on another ninety minutes to Huayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks the city and is oft-photographed in magazine articles.

The Cities

The region contains few settlements with sufficient population to be called cities. Cusco is the hub for visitors on Machu Picchu tours. Surrounded by twelve protective mountains sacred to the indigenous inhabitants, the Incan royal capital of Cusco and its colonial makeover are visible in a fascinating mix of colliding cultures where colonial structures have been built over Incan walls. This hybrid Incan-Hispanic architectural style may be seen in both the monumental structures as well as the narrow stone streets. The Plaza de Armas, once lined by Inca palaces, today shares its perimeter with ornate churches, museums and government buildings. Though earthquakes have destroyed more modern structures, the Incan walls have endured.

The city’s fine museums house both Incan and colonial works of art including fine examples of the Cusco School of Painting, reflecting European roots and indigenous craftsmanship and the abundance of gold in brocade, gold-leaf ornament called "estofado.". The most famous of Cusco’s Inca ruins is the once elaborate Sun Temple, or Coriancha, (Golden Enclosure), very little of which was left after the Spanish built the baroque 16th century Santo Domingo Church on top of it. With its distinctive narrow streets, the restored San Blas neighborhood boasts a thriving arts community and a Bohemian vibe. Sights here include a colonial church with ornate pulpit, several museums and lots of shops containing one-of-a-kind vacation keepsakes by San Blas artisans including pottery, stoneware and religious art. Cusco is an excellent place for visitors on Peru tours to pick up alpaca and vicuna sweaters as well as silver jewelry.

Aguas Calientes, the closest city to Machu Picchu, is a transportation hub for the thousands of travelers who visit the citadel. It contains ample services including a hot springs that Peru hiking travelers especially appreciate.

The two Peruvian gateway cities to Lake Titicaca are Juliaca and Puno. Juliaca is a city that most visitors on Peru tours just pass through. Puno, on the other hand, is considered Peru's folkloric center where the choreography of some 140 traditional dances are archived. It is the most popular departure point for day-trips along the west side of the lake and an affordable place to purchase high-quality Andean knits as well as the lake's signature pottery pieces.


In February, Puno is the site of the Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, a colorful event that brings costumed dancers, singers and musicians from neighboring villages to perform. During Holy Week, Cusco’s Patron Saint, the Lord of the Earthquakes, is celebrated in a colorful procession into the main plaza. The region’s largest festival, also the second largest festival in South America, Inti Raymi, takes place in late June. Paying homage to the Incan Sun God, the event is held near the Sacysayhuaman archeological complex on the edge of Cusco. Southern Explorations is offering an eight-day Inti Raymi Festival and Machu Picchu Tour for the festival.

Corpus Christi occurs around the same time as Inti Raymi in Cusco and includes a parade of Patron Saints from various churches. In July, the town of Paucarbambo, north of Cusco, pays homage to the Virgen del Carmen, the Patron Saint of mestizos, with much dancing in costumes designed to scare away the devil. The Day of the Dead (All Souls Day), is big everywhere in Peru, especially on the altiplano. On Christmas eve in Cusco, the Santuranticuy, a large craft fair, is held in the Plaza de Armas where religious decorative objects of the season are sold.

Machu Picchu is the most popular destination of Southern Explorations’ Peru tours. Of the twenty-two Machu Picchu tours, most get there via Inca Trail though other routes as noted above are also available for periods when the Inca Trail permits are sold out or for travelers on Peru tours who prefer the road less taken. All of our tours to the Inca heartland spend time in Cusco.

Active Sports

Peru adventure travelers have lots of options in the Inca region. Whitewater rafting is a popular activity. The Urubamba River offers Class II and IV rapids between Calca and Urubama and from Huambutio to Pisac, plus Class III and IV rapids starting at Ollantaytambo. For experienced rafters on Peru tours, the Apurimac River offers an exciting ride, starting in Cusco. Scenic mountain biking routes from Cusco pass through villages along the way. The route from Cusco to Paucartambo in the Cosnipata Valley is not for beginners. Paragliding trips are an unforgettable way to view the ruins and landscape of the Sacred Valley. Southern Explorations offers a twelve-day Raft, Bicycle & Hike Tour that rafts down the Apurimac River and mountain bikes in the Sacred Valley. We also offer tour extensions for these activities.

Lake Titicaca

The Inca Region is a scenic landscape of snowcapped mountain ranges and fertile river valleys. It contains the Cordillera Vilcanota, the Vilacamba and the Urubamba Andean mountain ranges, and the stark high plateau called the altiplano that stretches from into Chile. The region has its dry season from April to October, and its rainiest days fall in February and March. The most temperate months are May and October, and nights get cold during July and August.

Terrain and Weather

With the world's highest navigable lake located so close to Peru's major Inca ruins, it only makes sense to include a visit to Lake Titicaca during your Machu Picchu tours. While air connections from Peru's major cities into Juliaca are available, the picturesque way to reach Lake Titicaca is the nine-hour train ride with first-class service from Cusco. The lake's stark landscape and the glimpse of indigenous life make Lake Titicaca a memorable excursion, whether on the western Peruvian side or across the border in Bolivia. The lake's major Peruvian sights are the forty floating islands of Uros, built of the reeds that grow there and are the basis for its economy, and Taquille Island. Taquille is known for fine quality weaving that is crafted by the island’s artisan cooperative. A worthwhile side trip on your Peru travel during your Lake Titicaca visit is the centuries-old necropolis of Sillustani on a hillside northwest of Puno where twenty-eight cylindrical burial chambers of the Colla civilization are found. Several of Southern Explorations' Machu Picchu tours include Lake Titicaca in the itinerary: the nine-day Machu Picchu & Lake Titicaca Tour, the eleven-day Peru Highlights Tour, the twelve-day Inca Trail & Lake Titicaca Tour, the fourteen-day Best of Peru Tour and the eighteen-day Adventure Peru Tour. We also offer a transportation upgrade on all Lake Titicaca tours to travel aboard the Andean Explorer train.

Other Sights and Activities

Between Machu Picchu and Quillabama to the north, birdwatchers come to observe endangered high-elevation species at 14,200-ft Abra Malaga.