SALKANTAY PASS, Peru – Our hiking group had reached the highest point of our trek through the Andes to Machu Picchu. Now our guide was leading us in a Quechua ritual. We took turns placing stones in an "apacheta" pyramid over herbs and bits of chocolate bars, offering them to Apu Salkantay, the spirit of the mountain sacred to the Incas. Its ice-covered peak shone above us, spotlit by the sun.
Three days earlier in Cuzco, the region's gateway city, I had watched hundreds of people carry glittering statues of Catholic saints in procession around the main plaza, past rippling Baroque churches and whitewashed houses with carved wooden balconies. In another three days, I would see the dawn's first sunray fill a stone window in the 550-year-old Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu.
The Incas' "lost city" is one of the world's iconic destinations, with over 1.2 million visitors in 2015. But to absorb the mesmerizing historical and spiritual significance of this region, I first explored Cuzco's fusion of native traditions and colonial heritage, and then trekked with locals through the steep 15,000-foot (4,500-meter) mountains surrounding it.
Cuzco was built on an 11,150-feet (3,400-meter) Andean plateau. By the mid-15th century, it became the umbilical center of the Incas' continent-spanning empire.
The perfectly-fitted, massive mortar-free walls of their palaces and temples still line many of the narrow streets, though most buildings were rebuilt after the violent conflicts during the Spanish conquest a century later. The rounded boulders of the Incas' central sanctuary, Qoricancha, became the foundation of Santo Domingo, whose convent courtyard encloses the temple's tapered niches.
European and indigenous imagery mixes in Cuzco's celebrated paintings, most conspicuously in an 18th century "Last Supper" canvas in the cathedral that features a paws-up, roasted Andean rodent as the meal's entree.
I preferred seafood ceviche at Limo restaurant or local charcuterie at Museo del Pisco, paired with potent pisco sours. But I did try cuy (guinea pig) in chiriuchu, a dish including fish eggs, corn fritters, seaweed, sausage, dried meat, cheese, chicken and singeing rocoto pepper prepared for the Corpus Christi celebration, held 60 days after Easter.
That holiday and Inti Raymi, the winter solstice celebration in late June, are Cuzco's wildest mingling of piety and partying. They fall at the start of prime hiking season (May-October).
ABOVE THE CLOUDS
From my glass-covered igloo, the swirls of stars framing Salkantay were breathtaking, even more so than hiking to this camp at 12,631 feet (3,850 meters) on the Salkantay trail, which follows ancient routes and is considered the best alternative to the often sold-out Inca Trail.
For four days, we hiked past glaciers and through cloud forests to Machu Picchu. Our guides, Kenneth Leon and Irvin Llacta from Salkantay Trekking, showed our group of nine from four countries turquoise mountain lakes, tiny mud-brick villages, and centuries-old Inca channels.
They also grounded us in local life, explaining Quechua traditions like medicinal uses of plants they picked by the trail, where we also found mouthwatering avocados and granadillas (a type of passion fruit). Their team of cooks and horsemen prepared eight-course meals and afternoon teas of mate de coca, which alleviates altitude sickness.
TOWARD THE SUN
From the village of Aguas Calientes, I looked across the river straight up vertical peaks and cheated, taking the shuttle instead of 1,500-plus steps to Machu Picchu.
In the mid-15th century, the Incas built this improbable citadel nearly 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) up on a skinny ridge between precipices where the Andes meet the Amazon basin, and abandoned it a hundred years later. It lay covered by the rain forest until the 1910s, when Yale historian Hiram Bingham brought it global renown. (Many artifacts he took were recently returned to Cuzco, at Museo Machu Picchu Casa Concha.)
For two days, I wandered the main site along steep staircases, climbed the "you-slip-you-die" path to the ruins on Huayna Picchu, the peak overlooking the citadel, and walked the Inca Trail to the Intipunku viewpoint.
The nearly 200 gray houses, temples and agricultural buildings are haunting, but the practical and cosmological engineering is mind-blowing. From every perspective, the view defies logic: Terraces clinging to sheer, 1,640-feet (500-meter) drop-offs hold up colossally heavy granite palaces and sanctuaries. Carved stones, foundations and windows precisely trace the sun's travels and line with sacred peaks like Salkantay.
Late on my last afternoon, a white llama grazing inches from my feet woke me from a doze on a terrace overlooking the citadel. Most of the thousands of daily tourists had gone, and workers raked highlighter-green grass in the main plaza.
Archaeologists still debate why the Incas built this citadel. As I watched the sun slant through the peaks, tinging wisps of clouds at eye level, the real and symbolic magic of Machu Picchu's placement seemed answer enough.