A Cultural Journey in the Andes: Exploring the Legacy of the Incan Empire
At Aqua Expeditions, our heart lies in the jungle. We safely navigate the precious waters of the Peruvian Amazon River basin, far from the large crowds and cities to gaze in awe at the natural wonders we encounter on every journey, where no day is ever the same. But Peru is a country of contrasting landscapes with each region having a fascinating story to tell. While our specialty lies in the remote heart of the rainforest, an Amazon river expedition on the Aqua Nera is perfectly combined with an exploration of the country’s many stunning attractions. This time, we take you to the far-flung and majestic Andes, where one of the world’s greatest civilizations flourished despite its isolation.
Exploring the archeological past of the powerful and vast Incan empire is one of the greatest cultural journeys you can embark on. An ancient civilization whose early beginnings date back to the 12th century as a pastoral tribe in Cusco, the Incas began their expansion in 1428 to become the most important empire in pre-Columbian America. Extending from Peru to central Chile in the south and northern Ecuador in the north with a population of over 10 million, this expansion was known as Tahuantinsuyo in the native Quechua language, translated as “four parts”, representing the four regions the empire was divided into.
The Incas were not only great conquerors but achieved major advancements and developments in areas such as architecture, the building of roadways, and the construction of a system of terraces and irrigation canals to master farming. Certainly, the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and New Seven Wonder of the World Machu Picchu is the most important legacy of Incan engineering and architecture, “a unique testimony to the Inca civilization” as described by UNESCO.
Only 80 kilometers stand between Machu Picchu and Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire but Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish colonizers — whose conquest of the Incan empire lasted between 1532 and 1572, culminating in the execution of the last Inca Tupac Amaru I. Therefore, the ruins remained undamaged and fairly unknown (only those within the area knew of its presence) until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention.
An adventure in ‘The Lost City of the Incas’ (mistakenly called so by Hiram Bingham in his quest to find a different city called Vilcabamba) should be on the bucket list of every travel aficionado. Located 2,430 meters (7,972 feet) above sea level, seeing for the first time these enigmatic ruins, standing on top of the mountain in perfect harmony with the tropical nature that surrounds it, is a feeling never to be forgotten. A tour of the complex will include numerous attractions such as the Sun Temple, Sacred Rock, Intihuatana ritual stone, water fountains, and residences among many others, each revealing fascinating aspects of Incan history, society, construction techniques, as well as its spiritual and astronomical significance.
If you are driven by adventure and looking to explore lesser-known but equally impressive Inca sites, then Choquequirao (“Cradle of Gold” in Quechua language) is the place for you. Built around 1538, it is believed to be where the last Inca rulers took refuge after the city of Cusco was lost to the Spanish conquerors. A challenging but highly rewarding trekking journey at an altitude of 3,050 meters (10,010 feet) will take you across the deep Apurimac Canyon, its stunning landscapes, and a rich variety of flora and fauna, then uphill traversing the dense cloud forest to reach this archeological jewel.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Urubamba River valley is the perfect complement to your visit to Machu Picchu. It is a land bursting with magnificent views and diverse geography — perfect for a wide range of outdoor adventures such as trekking, climbing, biking, horseback riding, and even stand-up paddleboarding in its beautiful tranquil lagoons. However, it was the vast fertile soil that the Incas valued most, making this region an important agricultural producer during the empire. Now dotted with some of the Inca’s greatest archeological complexes, it will without a doubt take you back in time.
To witness first-hand the incredible domain of the land the Incas mastered and their scientific approach to cultivation, look no further than the circular terraces of Moray. This enigmatic complex of symmetrical descending terraces was believed to be an Incan agricultural laboratory – a 15th-century research center in which the depth of each terrace, as well as orientation regarding the sun and wind, created different microclimates. In fact, the temperature variation between the top and bottom terraces reaches 15°C (27°F), allowing the Incas to study the crop’s adaptability to distinct conditions. Among the main crops cultivated in Moray were potatoes, quinoa, kiwicha, corn, and coca leaf.
In 2018, talented Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, of the famed Central restaurant in Lima, chose this unique site to establish MIL, a unique restaurant-laboratory overlooking the Moray archaeological complex, at 3,568 meters (11,706 feet) above sea level. In continuation of the Incan legacy, the MIL experience offers an eight-course culinary journey highlighting local Andean ingredients from eight ecosystems of elevation through innovative dishes. The MIL immersion experience also includes a visit to their farmlands to connect with the local communities that cultivate in these lands, as well as an exploration of the area, their botanical route, and distillery — an unmissable immersion into the wonders of Moray!
At the very heart of the Sacred Valley, lies the picturesque town of Pisac, home to one of the most famous craft markets in the region where visitors can find a great selection of unique items made by local artisans and communities. From beautiful jewelry, ornaments, and pottery to top quality knitwear and alpaca products, you will enjoy searching for the perfect souvenir to remind you of your trip to Peru, while strolling around its colorful stands and sampling delicious traditional delicacies.
Other must-visit spectacular Inca sites: Ollantaytambo, the oldest Inca town inhabited continuously since the 13th century — a symbol of Incan living culture, in which its people carry on the traditions and customs inherited by their ancestors. Sacsayhuaman, the 15th-century temple-fortress dedicated to the Sun God (“Inti” in Quechua), with its impressive zig-zag walls built with huge stones – is also where the famous Inca festival Inti Raymi is celebrated every 24th June, marking the winter solstice.
Combining a journey to the land of the Incas with a river expedition into the depths of the Amazon rainforest offers the perfect opportunity to discover Peru’s unparalleled cultural and natural diversity, boasting a wide range of activities and excursions to choose from. Click here to check our Aqua Nera Amazon expedition availability and start planning your dream trip to Peru now!