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Peru's Cuzco once center of 10,000-foot-high empire

Tourists can see the beauty of the Incan empire as well as old Spanish churches.

John Bordsen
John Bordsen is the Travel Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Explorer, author and wilderness educator Josh Bernstein is host of Discovery Channel's “Into the Unknown” program, shown at 10 p.m. Mondays. The 37-year-old New Yorker's episode on the vanished Chachapoya tribe of northern Peru will air in September. One of his favorite places is Cuzco, in Peru's southern mountains.

Q. What's special about Cuzco?

It's one of my favorite places in the world, probably because of its blend of culture and beauty. The Incan empire picked it as its capital for a reason – its landscape is spectacular. At 10,000 feet, it certainly takes some adjusting to the altitude. It's like any mountain town in North America – like Telluride, Colo., for instance.

But when you're acclimated, you see it's a magical place. The blending of Spanish and Incan history touches me.

The Incans' choice of Cuzco was not accidental. They picked it because its elevation was a place of worship for sacred geography, both solar and celestial. It's in a valley with mountains around it.

Q. How ancient is Cuzco?

The Incans came into power between the 13th and 16th centuries, and Cuzco was their capital. Before then, the Kilke culture (A.D. 900-1200) was in Cuzco.

Q. The conquistadors were known for destroying what they found and reassembling ruins into Spanish colonial buildings. Is there much of Cuzco today from the pre-Spanish times?

There certainly are famous ruins. If you go to The Coricancha – the sacred “Temple of the Sun” – you'll see the Incan walls. The Incans were some of the best stone masons in history, and The Coricancha is a must-see.

The city of Cuzco is built on top of ancient stone walls. There are entire streets that are all Incan.

Q. How can you tell?

If you know what Incan stone looks like. There's the type of stone and the quality of craftsmanship and the number of cuts on the stone. People travel from all over the world to see the Incan stonework, and it stands out. You don't miss it. It's like walking through the Louvre and not seeing the “Mona Lisa.”

Cuzco isn't very big, and all the temples – there are a handful – are around the main square.

Q. What's the local take on this?

There are natives who have an appreciation of the pre-Spanish world, and tourism helps show the beauty of the Incan empire as well as the old Spanish churches. But others don't understand the profoundness of the place.

It's akin to Jerusalem or the Vatican. It helps to be aware that Cuzco was the center of an empire.

Q. What does Cuzco offer besides Incan ruins?

Cuzco is off the beaten path for many, but you'll find fantastic textiles if you're interested in Andean fabrics made into ponchos and blankets. You'll find beautiful fabrics made with incredible skill.

And if you're making the trip to Machu Picchu, (the ruins of an Incan city built in the 1400s), one of the most spectacular sites on the planet, you can hike there from Cuzco.

Most people in Cuzco take a train to Machu Picchu; it takes about three hours. But you can hike the Incan Trail there, which takes several days.

Q. What does the trail look like?

It varies from place to place depending on foot traffic. It's sometimes easy to spot – where it's wide and laid with stone. The Incans had an extensive network of roads – thousands of miles. Portions of the Incan Trail that I hiked were maybe 12 feet wide.

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