The easiest way to see the following set of Inca ruins just outside Cusco is as part of a half-day tour. The hardy might want to approach it as an athletic archaeological expedition: If you've got 15km (9 1/3 miles) of walking and climbing at high altitude in you, it's a beautiful trek. Otherwise, you can walk to Sacsayhuamán and nearby Q'enko (the climb from the Plaza de Armas is strenuous and takes 30-45 min.), and take a colectivo or taxi to the other sites. Alternatively, you can take a Pisac/Urubamba minibus (leaving from the bus station at Calle Intiqhawarina, off Avenida Tullumayo, or Huáscar 128) and tell the driver you want to get off at Tambomachay, the ruins farthest from Cusco, and work your way back on foot. Some even make the rounds by horseback. You can easily and cheaply contract a horse at Sacsayhuamán, but don't expect a chance to ride freely in the countryside -- you'll walk rather slowly to all the sites alongside a guide.
Visitors with less time in Cusco or less interest in taxing themselves might want to join a guided tour, probably the most popular and easiest way to see the sites. Virtually any of the scads of travel agencies and tour operators in the old center of Cusco offer them. Some well-rated traditional agencies with a variety of programs include Milla Turismo, Av. Pardo 689 (tel. 084/231-710; www.millaturismo.com), and SAS Travel, Garcilaso 270, Plaza San Francisco (tel. 084/249-194; www.sastravelperu.com).
Admission to the following sites is by boleto turístico, and they are all open daily from 7am to 6pm. Guides, official and unofficial, hover around the ruins; negotiate a price or decide upon a proper tip. There are a handful of other Inca ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, but the ones discussed below are the most interesting.
These sites are generally safe, but at certain times of day -- usually dawn and dusk before and after tour groups' visits -- several ruins are said to be favored by thieves. It's best to be alert and, if possible, go accompanied.
Note that new finds are continually being uncovered here, even as close to Cusco as the vicinity around Sacsayhuamán. Archaeologists recently announced the discovery of an ancient, pre-Inca temple, irrigation canals, and a series of rooms that held mummies and idols. The temple is believed to have been built by the Killke culture, which occupied the region around present-day Cusco from A.D. 900 to 1200.
Those Fabulously "Sexy" Ruins -- The pronunciation of Sacsayhuamán, like many Quechua words, proves difficult for most foreigners to wrap their tongues around, so locals and tour guides have several jokes that point to its similarity to the words "sexy woman" in English. You haven't really experienced Cusco until you've heard the joke with that punch line a dozen times -- from old men, guides, and even little kids.
The greatest and nearest to Cusco of the Inca ruins, Sacsayhuamán reveals some of the Incas' most extraordinary architecture and monumental stonework. Usually referred to as a garrison or fortress -- because it was constructed with forbidding, castlelike walls -- it was more likely a religious temple, although most experts believe it also had military significance. The Inca emperor Pachacútec began the site's construction in the mid-15th century, although it took nearly 100 years and many thousands of men to complete it. Massive blocks of limestone and other types of stone were brought from as far as 32km (20 miles) away.
The ruins, a steep 30-minute (or longer) walk from the center, cover a huge area, but they constitute perhaps one-quarter of the original complex, which could easily house more than 10,000 men. Today, what survive are the astounding outer walls, constructed in a zigzag formation of three tiers. (In the puma-shaped layout of the Inca capital, Sacsayhuamán was said to form the animal's head, and the zigzag of the defense walls forms the teeth.) Many of the base stones employed are almost unimaginably massive; some are 3.5m (11 ft.) tall, and one is said to weigh 300 tons. Like all Inca constructions, the stones fit together perfectly without aid of mortar. It's easy to see how hard it would have been to attack these ramparts with 22 distinct zigzags; the design would automatically expose the flanks of an opponent.
Above the walls are the circular foundations of three towers that once stood here; they were used for storage of provisions and water. The complex suffered such extensive destruction that the primary function of Sacsayhuamán continues to be debated. What is known is that it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles between the Spaniards and native Cusqueños. More than 2 years after the Spaniards had initially marched on Cusco and installed a puppet government, the anointed Inca (Manco Inca) led a seditious campaign that took back Sacsayhuamán and nearly defeated the Spaniards in a siege of the Inca capital. Juan Pizarro and his vastly outnumbered but superior armed forces stormed Sacsayhuamán in a horrific battle in 1536 that left thousands dead. Legend speaks of their remains as carrion for giant condors in the open fields here. After the defeat of the Inca troops and the definitive Spanish occupation of Cusco, the Spaniards made off with the more manageably sized stone blocks from Sacsayhuamán to build houses and other structures in the city below.
The Inti Raymi festival is celebrated here annually, and it is truly a great spectacle -- one of the finest in Peru. A flat, grassy esplanade (where the main ceremony of the festival is celebrated) separates the defense walls from a small hill where you'll find the "Inca's Throne" and large rocks with well-worn grooves, used by children and often adults as slides. Nearby is a series of claustrophobia-inducing tunnels -- pass through them if you dare.
Walking directions: A couple of paths lead to the ruins from downtown Cusco. You can take Almirante, Suecia, or Plateros. Head northwest from the Plaza de Armas. Take Palacio (behind the cathedral) until you reach stairs and signs to the ruins; or at the end of Suecia, climb either Huaynapata or Resbalosa (the name means "slippery") until you come to a curve and the old Inca road. Past the San Cristóbal church at the top, beyond a plaza with fruit-juice stands, is the main entrance to the ruins. Plan to spend about an hour here for a brief run-through, and up to 3 hours if you're a photography buff or if you have kids who want to play on the slides and in the tunnels.
Can't Leave Well Enough Alone -- The Peruvian authorities are notorious for messing with ancient Inca ruins, trying to rebuild them rather than let them be what they are: ruins. You'll notice at Sacsayhuamán and other Inca sites that unnecessary and misleading restoration has been undertaken. The grotesque result is that small gaps where original stones are missing have been filled in with obviously new and misplaced garden rocks -- a disgrace to the perfection pursued and achieved by Inca stonemasons.
The road from Sacsayhuamán leads past fields where, on weekends, Cusqueños play soccer and have cookouts, to the temple and amphitheater of Q'enko (Kehn-koh), a distance of about a kilometer (1/2 mile). The ruins are due east of the giant white statue of Christ crowning the hill next to Sacsayhuamán; follow the main road, and you'll see signs for Q'enko, which appears on the right. A great limestone outcrop was hollowed out by the Incas, and, in the void, they constructed a cavelike altar. (Some have claimed that the smooth stone table inside was used for animal sacrifices.) Visitors can duck into the caves and tunnels beneath the rock. You can also climb on the rock and see the many channels cut into the rock, where it is thought that either chicha or, more salaciously, sacrificial blood coursed during ceremonies. (Q'enko might have been a site of ritual ceremonies performed in fertility rites and solstice and equinox celebrations.) Allow a half-hour to tour the site, not including travel time.
A small fortress (the name means "red fort") just off the main Cusco-Pisac road, this might have been some sort of storage facility or lodge, or perhaps a guard post on the road from Cusco to the villages of the Sacred Valley. It is probably the least impressive of the area sites, although it has nice views of the surrounding countryside. From Q'enko, Puca Pucara is a 90-minute to 2-hour walk along the main road; allow a half-hour for your visit.
On the road to Pisac (and a short, signposted walk off the main road), this site is also known as Los Baños del Inca (Inca Baths). Located near a spring just a short walk beyond Puca Pucara, the ruins consist of three tiers of stone platforms. Water still flows across a sophisticated system of aqueducts and canals in the small complex of terraces and a pool, but these were not baths as we know them. Most likely this was instead a place of water ceremonies and worship. The exquisite stonework indicates that the baños were used by high priests and nobility only. Plan on spending an hour here.