The history is interesting, but I enjoy present-day Cuzco more, which is why, when Devy hands us a pass to Cuzco's rash of museums, I stuff it in my pocket and discover a lively town instead. The Incas knew Cuzco as "the navel of the world," and it remains a maelstrom of activity today, with frying meat smells spilling from restaurants, boys kicking soccer balls up steep sidewalks, painters working inside shadowy doorways, and streets upon which no auto insurer in its right mind would ever venture.

In Cuzco we also meet Eddie Pizarro. Our guide for the trip, Eddie is a native of Cuzco. He studied tourism and Inca history at the Universidad Andina Del Cuzco, and is a wealth of Inca information, at least what information there is to tell.

What is known? Without formal tools or written instruction, workers and craftsmen quarried stones, hauled them improbable distances, and then cut them so they folded upon each other like lovers, creating buildings solid enough to withstand the fervent wrath of nature (Peru has suffered powerful earthquakes) and the Spanish.

"So perfect," Eddie says, "the Spanish thought the Incas were devils."

Endowed with a Zenlike calm and a ten-year-old's sense of fun and wonder, Eddie obviously enjoys the mystery that overhangs most everything he tells us. There are some things, he says, we can count as fact. For instance, that Inca was actually the name of the godlike rulers descended from the son of the Sun, and Quechua (pronounced "Catch-wa") was their culture. Beyond that, well … . "People guess about everything." He shrugs. "UFOs. Aliens. You can make your own theory because nothing is proved."

Cuzco is interesting, but the real magic begins when we get out on the trail. Few places rival Peru's natural beauty, and few places give you a better gander at it than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. From its jumping-off spot at Chilca, the trail is only thirty-three miles long.

But it winds through a potpourri of stupefying natural wonders. Peru's mountains don't hump into the sky; they sheer straight up, like mossy shark fins. Far below, amidst a broccoli-mass of trees, rivers glint like silver thread. Between the two, birds wheel gracefully in stomach-lurching space. Now and again, as we round a bend and the world drops away below us, we see, on a grassy bluff or a near-sheer terrace, temples crafted from cow-size stones, and Eddie smiles as he points out that the nearest quarry was twelve miles down and away.