Places to view matchless Inca artistry

The Inca civilization is well known partly because it was in the ascendency at the time Spain, and thus Western civilization, reached the Pacific coast of South America.

The Incas had no written language, and much of the visual record was either in the form of golden artifacts, which were melted down for bullion, or in the form of architecture, which was destroyed for military reasons. But enough remains to confirm the Inca culture as extraordinarily sophisticated. Albrecht Durer was quoted as saying of some gold objects that reached Europe intact: ''Never in all my life have I seen things that delighted my heart as much as these. For I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marveled at the subtle ingenuity of the people of those distant lands.''

The Incas were the last of a long succession of cultures on the South American coast. The Paracas culture (200 BC to AD 200), for example, produced a quality of textiles unmatched anywhere. Moche pottery (AD 400-800) is wonderfully free and representational.

It would be unfortunate to visit Peru without seeing the wealth of the past that is recorded and collected in its museums.

I suggest at least two days in Lima to see:

* The Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology.

* The Amano museum, a superb private collection of pottery and weaving.

* The Gold Museum.

In Cuzco, the Archaeological Museum is important. But Cuzco itself is a great museum: The old Inca walls serve as foundations for the center city, and have survived every major earthquake since they were built, while later superstructures have crumbled around them. Segments of buildings remain as well.

The Coricancha was the principal temple of the Inca empire and is the finest example of Inca architecture extant. The massive fortress of Sacsahuaman and the elaborate complex rock at Qenqo are wonderful walk-in puzzles.

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