Back in the time of the Incas, the Route of the Sun or Ruta del Sol was the main road connecting the two symbols of this civilization: Lake Titicaca and the Sacred Valley.
This is the road followed by the legendary characters, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, sent by the supreme God, the creator of the Inca universe, Apu Con Tiqui Viracocha, to bring civilization to the Andean peoples.
Now, this road, measuring 385 Km, is an important touristic route connecting two large cities from the Southern part of the country: Puno and Cusco.
Ruta del Sol can be traveled on in two ways: by bus, on the road, or with the tourist train.
The tourist train travels several times per week, and a ticket costs somewhere around 200 and 300 dollars. This is an option used only rarely, given the long duration of the trip.
The most used option is by car, through one of the several tourist agencies operating on this route, an option that we also went for.
The drive takes 10 hours, by bus, and includes stops to the most important archaeological landmarks on this route.
Our journey started from Puno, via Juliaca, Pucara and then reached the tall Andean plateau, guarded by high mountains on either side.
The landscape is one of an alpine meadow or steppe, whichever term you prefer, which seems to be endlessly extending in the distance.
On both sides, there are local communities, which generally live from animal farming (lamas and alpacas) and live in clay cottages, covered in metal sheets, spread here and there, on the plateau.
The highest peak of the road is La Raya pass, at an altitude of 4332 m.
From up here, in the distance, you have a view of Mountain Apu Chimboya. ‘Apu’ is a prefix used for any tall mountain or place/thing in Quechua language.
Chimboya peak has an altitude of 5489 m and, from this mountain the famous river Urubamba springs. However, in this region the river is called Vilcanota, according to the denomination in Aymara language.
Here are some pictures of La Raya, the highest point on Ruta del Sol.
Like in our country, here, in a parking lot on the side of the road, tens of traders are gathered, tempting you with traditional products, made of alpaca wool of various colors.
Along the journey, in addition to the stop for food, which was included in the fare, the tourist route comprises of a series of visits to several archaeological or tourist attractions.
They are the following:
Located at 3900 m altitude, in the vicinity of the town with the same name, the archaeological site Pukara is the most important ceremonial center on Altiplano plateau.
This is where the Pucara was developed and it corresponds to the “formative period”, somewhere around 400 AC.
The site includes a series of “pyramids”, located at the foot of a mountain, probably used by this warrior people as fortifications.
Raqchi – Temple of Viracocha
The archaeological site of Raqchi includes a series of constructions from the Inca period, erected in the honor of the almighty God, Viracocha.
Next to the actual temple, at the entry, the site also includes partial reconstructions of the dwellings where locals used to live, as well as a series of circular warehouses where the Incas would store the agricultural crops in between the seasons.
For us, this was the first contact with the Inca religious architecture, characterized by the formidable attention to details. The remaining rocks of the temple are shaped to join each other perfectly, without requiring any plaster and the shape of each rock is different.
Andahuaylillas – Saint Apostle Peter Cathedral
The cathedral is called, as an exaggeration, of course, the ‘Sistine Chapel of South America’, its name coming from the extremely rich mural paintings on the ceiling and altar.
Being rich indeed, sometimes even too rich, they highlight a mixture of cultures resulted in Peru, following the Spanish invasion.
The local symbols (sun, snake) are intertwined with Christian symbols, in a mind-boggling cocktail, probably needed to impress indigenous populations.
Cusco – Tourism capital of Peru
As you get closer to Cusco, the landscape changes, step by step, and the wide meadows are replaced by deep valleys, where the route continues in hairpin bends.
Towns also become more colourful and well-organized. You finally start seeing more modern, plastered and painted houses.
The access to Cusco, as in Lima, is difficult, given the congested traffic. For this reason, it takes almost an hour to arrive in the city center.
After a 10-hour drive, we arrived in Cusco, quite tired, somewhere around 5.00 P.M. Still, we hurried to go out to get a feel of the local atmosphere.
This gave use the chance to admire “in the moonlight” the beautiful colonial architecture and the outstanding historical vestiges.
The former capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco is a pretty town, with narrow and picturesque streets.
The old town centre’s appeal is given by the old, short, single floor homes, with wooden balconies with sculpted details.
The skillfully lighted facades, during the night, caused a strong impression, particularly by contrast with the extremely poor areas that we visited in the last days.
After an excellent dinner at “La Estancia Andina” restaurant in Plaza des Armas, where we had one of the local dishes, alpaca stake, we went to bed, eager to start exploring the city and its surroundings, on the second day, first thing in the morning.
Qorikancha- The Inca temple of the sun
Any tour of Cusco starts with this defining landmark for the Inca civilization.
Qorikancha means the ‘golden book’ in Quechua and during the Inca time this was perfectly true, the temple walls being literally covered in gold.
Chronicles mention that the walls, floors and ceilings were covered, upon the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, with 700 massive gold sheets, each weighing about 2 kg.
The temple also had massive gold altars, dedicated to different Andean deities, the mummies of the Inca kings being also buried here.
Unfortunately, as of the 16th century, the Spanish invader destroyed most of the temple, eager to wipe away the Inca kings and the old religions, considered pagan, from the memory of conquered populations.
Using the stone of the old temple, they built the monastery and Dominican church that exist today. Moreover, given its strategic position, on a hill, military facilities were built to accommodate Spanish garrisons.
It was only after two strong earthquakes, causing the colonial constructions to collapse, that the Spanish started appreciating the skill of Inca architects, because the only walls standing were those remaining from the Incas.
So, for reconstruction, they kept the original foundations, thus resulting in this combination of styles that we can admire to date, in Qorikancha.
I would recommend visiting this site only with a well-prepared guide, explaining you various details of the Inca culture and civilization, in parallel to the remaining ruins.
We had the fortune to be accompanied by a great guide, Maria Cristina, fluent speaker of Quechuan, who is extremely proud of her Inca origins.
This video shows her pronouncing in Quechuan the full name of the Viracocha god, the creator of the universe for the Incas.
Sacsayhuaman – The fortified citadel
Less than 30 minutes away from the centre of Cusco, on a hill, the Inca citadel Sacsayhuaman is waiting to be discovered.
Parts of this citadel were built by the Incas during the Killke period, in the interval 900-1200 AD, being expanded as of the 13th century, up to the monumental size we can admire today.
The construction is amazing, its walls being made of massive stone blocks, some weighting between 180 and 200 tons!!!
Each block was cut of andesite, in quarries, to the approximate size, and then carried over the mountain, using only human force and systems of ropes and ramps.
Then, the blocks were meticulously finished on site, starting from wooden models and overlapped without any type of plaster, so that not even a sheet of paper can fit in between them.
It must have been a great effort, in which thousands or tens of thousands of people participated.
Climbing up the slopes, to the citadel, we were surprised to discover geological formations that we’ve also seen at home, in Buzău Mountains.
These are sandstone concretions, easily recognizable by the round shape and parallel layers of deposits. However, the ones here were gigantic.
Conclusions and recommendations
Ruta del Sol is the most well-known tourist route of Peru where you can travel by car. For this reason, there are plenty of transport possibilities, both from Cusco and Puno, and back.
Tourist buses are comfortable, air-conditioned, and their staff is comprised of three individuals: the driver, the guide and an attendant sharing drinks during the trip and serving the passengers. These people take their jobs seriously, so I don’t think I’ve seen somebody dissatisfied.
Please note that I wouldn’t recommend renting a car. The reason is the slightly poor condition of the roads and the lack of tourist signs for individual tourism.
It would be much better to use a bus operated by a local tourism agency and benefit from all the facilities and visits in archaeological sites, for the same price.
Cusco is a gem, particularly the city centre.
In terms of accommodation, I would recommend looking for a place in the old town or in the surrounding area. It can be anything, from a hotel to a hostel, even, since some look as if they are fairy-tale-inspired.
It is not recommended to choose something too far from the centre, since the neighborhoods are poorer and can be quite dangerous, especially by night.
Do not miss San Pedro Square of Cusco! It is huge and you can find anything you might think of there, from local fruits to lama or alpaca mummified organs!
Moreover, you should briefly visit Mama Cucharitas, in San Francisco Square, the most famous local ice-cream place, where they make your ice-cream right in front of you, after you choose the flavors from the menu.
Last modified: 11 October 2019