Can’t get to Cusco and Machu Picchu for awhile? The best thing you can do is start studying and learning right now. The more you know and understand, the more everything you see will mean to you.
I’ve first came to Cusco in 2005, traveled to Peru over 30 times before becoming a permanent resident in 2018, and have explored the surrounding region extensively.
I’ve visited Machu Picchu about 25 times in the past year and have probably been more than anyone except those who actually work there, yet I on every single visit I still discover new things. Much of this is a direct result of studying the work of others long before I get there.
Before I go any further, I think it necessary to say that if you generally get your knowledge about a a place from YouTube videos, then you probably should just skip everything that follows. YouTube is dominated by con artists who feed their viewers a steady diet of pseudoscience based on absolutely nothing just so they can monetize their videos or, even worse, promote outrageously expensive “tours” where they share the same babble.
It always seems more interesting to hear stories about aliens and unknown ancient civilizations spread by people who are too lazy to do real research because there are plenty of people who will pay money to hear just about anything.
There have been countless scientists, archaeologists, engineers, and other educated people who have spent significant portions of their lives doing actual research. If you’re not willing to take the time to learn from these people, then the rest of this post is not for you.
[Note: The links will take you to Amazon.com, but these are not affiliate links for me. I don’t get any commission. I included them simply to make it easier for you to make a purchase from Amazon should you choose.]
Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost (6th Revised edition)
This is considered the basic “Bible” by those who live in Cusco. Peter’s research is exhaustive and the amount of detail is unmatched. His overviews of the city and the region will get you just about anywhere you need to go with a good bit of information along the way. I especially like his descriptions of places in the central historical district of Cusco.
Some things are constantly changing in Cusco, but the fact remains that some things never change. Frost does a great job of capturing and explaining both.
This is the the book for visiting Cusco. Just get it.
The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self Guided Tour by Ruth M. Wright and Dr. Alfredo Valencia Zegarra (Revised Edition)
Read this book before you go and carry it with you when you visit Machu Picchu. It’s easily the best book available with actual facts based on real research written by authors who have extensive experience and research knowledge. There isn’t a better guidebook available on Machu Picchu and I recommend this wholeheartedly.
Wright and Zegarra break up the ruins into specific sections which helps to digest each specific part of Machu Picchu. I was a little disappointed that there was not more about some of the places (e.g., the Sun Gate, or Into Punku and the Inca Bridge) that are not part of the normal tour agenda, but which are fascinating places to see.
Of all the books on the list, this is by far my favorite. It’s unbelievably entertaining and provides more factual detail about Machu Picchu and Hiram Bingham than you’ll probably think you want to know, but you’ll find yourself so engrossed in it that you won’t be able to put it down.
I have met and know some of the characters introduced in the book and I can guarantee that they are every bit as colorful as described without being cartoon characters. They are real, interesting people with a passion for Peru and the Andes that is difficult to describe. Yet Mark Adams does a pretty good job of doing just that!
I have the audio version (which I strongly recommend) of the book as well as the Kindle version. Every time I go to Machu Picchu I listen to sections of it again on the train ride to refresh myself on certain things I plan to see and explore on each trip.
I can’t recommend this book enough not only for what you’ll learn, but for sheer entertainment.
Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center by Johan Reinhard
For over a century people have wondered what was the actual purpose of Machu Picchu. Was it a fortress? Was it holy religious center? The truth is no one knows for sure, but Reinhard’s detailed studies built upon the foundations of those before him and his own work are now accepted as the most likely explanation for the site’s purpose.
Despite it’s thickness, the book is a fairly quick read. The attention to scholarly detail may at first seem a little overwhelming, but the overall descriptions of Machu Picchu in relation to the it’s surroundings will absolutely blow you away. Virtually nothing at Machu Picchu was designed and constructed haphazardly. Everything was part of a plan that extended far beyond the central complex itself.
Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel by Kenneth Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra.
I waited a long time before buying this book because of it’s high cost and the expense of having it shipped to Peru. Not only was it worth the wait, but I should have bought it months earlier. There is simply no book that goes into the detail of the construction of Machu Picchu like this.
It was the first book on this list which I read through twice. On the second reading I took extensive notes to continue my personal research on Machu Picchu. Along with Reinhard’s book, these two are essential if you really want to get to know Machu Picchu far and above the information — often inaccurate — presented by tour guides.
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming
This is considered the scholarly book on the Spanish conquest. If you want to learn just how horrible this period in the 16th century really was, then read Hemming’s book.
Pizarro and his band of conquistadores were not educated noblemen as history often portrays them. They were generally illiterate adventurers who, like the gold miners in the 1800’s US west, were solely intent on getting rich no matter what. Hemming’s book is long, but is the best if you want to get into the details of the period.
The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
Another book on the Spanish conquest of the Incas. Though not as detailed and scholarly as Hemming’s book, I enjoyed this one much better and recommend it for this who want to get an overview of the period.
To me, it read more as a novel but is still every bit as historically accurate. I have both the Kindle and the audio book versions. I find myself listening to the audio version regularly when traveling as I can review certain chapters that fit my current specific interests.
Forgotten Vilcabamba: Final Stronghold of the Incas by Vincent R. Lee
This book surprised me. I bought the Kindle version to read as preparation for one day being able to explore the final Inca capitol which for centuries was lost in the rainforest north of Cusco. (This was the final Inca citadel that Hiram Bingham thought he’d found when he “discovered” Machu Picchu.)
I enjoyed the book so much that I bought the large paperback version here in Cusco in order to get the many graphics left out of the Kindle version. It cost a lot, but was certainly worth it!
Vilcabamba (more commonly known as Espiritu Pampa here), is not only the last Inca capital, but it is still in much the shape that it has been for the past 450 years. A lost city in the jungle that is still difficult to reach, I hope to visit there this year!
Ancient Cusco: Heartland of the Inca by Brian S. Bauer
It’s surprising how little archaeologically research has actually been done on Cusco and the immediate area. Bauer’s research provides a ton of information about places that tourists can visit, but for which there is very little accurate information available.
As with a few of the other books on this list, it is one that I have read thoroughly and taken extensive notes because there is so much of interested presented. Even the Kindle version is a little expensive, but worth it if you want to learn more than normal about Cusco itself.
Vilcabamba and the Archeology of Inca Resistance by Brian S. Bauer, Javier Fonseca Santa Cruz, and Miriam Aráoz Silva
This book is my most recent acquisition and is also the most recently published (2016) of all of these.
Anyone who follows me knows that I have a deep fascination with the rainforest region around Machu Picchu. There is so much more there than the world’s most famous mountain citadel and it’s accepted that there is still a lot to be explore and discovered.
As I wrote before, Vilcabamba is a place of intense interest for me and the top place on my “must explore” list. While the ruins where known to a few, it was only in the sixty years ago that its actual identity was confirmed. Only in the last few decades has any real research been conducted here.
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland by Hugo Thompson
Like Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu discussed above, this is a great adventure book about exploring the region. If you have the time and any inclination to really get off the beaten path and channel your inner Indiana Jones, then this book is your inspiration.
A New York Times’ Bestseller, it really does read like a non-stop Indiana Jones adventure. The difference is that this was real life in real places that can still be visited today by those with a little grit and determination.
That’s my own personal list. There are lots of other great books to inform and inspire. As I said before, these books are based on real science and research and won’t waste your time with a lot of fake stuff made up by people trying to con you out of your money.
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