As one of South America’s most alluring experiences, Machu Picchu beckons thousands of travelers each day who revel in ancient ruins. Though the majestic stone citadel may be the most popular archaeological site on the continent, there are plenty of other Inca wonders worth witnessing in Peru.
If ruins are on your radar, Peru is a prime destination for exploring captivating ancient dwellings – the entire country is teeming with historic sites that shed light on its early civilizations.
These lesser-known ancient Inca sites are astounding in their own right, and pairing a visit to any of their ruins with a trip to Machu Picchu provides an enlightening glimpse into Peru's rich Andean culture.
Choquequirao: more than Machu Picchu's 'sister city'
Much like braving the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a visit to Choquequirao must be earned by the hardiest of trekkers. A grueling four-day round-trip journey deep into the Andes is the only way to access these remote ruins, dubbed the ‘sister city’ to South America’s most famous ancient Inca site due to their striking similarities in layout, which include a spectacular series of terraces surrounding a central plaza.
But a little sister she isn’t; popular notions reference Choquequirao as a ‘mini-Machu Picchu’, though it may actually be the larger of the two – only 30% of the site is believed to be unearthed.
The government of Peru has approved plans, to the concern of conservationists, for installation of the country’s first cable car system that will enable more visitors to access the site from Kiuñalla in 2017. Get there quick to experience the serenity of its secluded state – for now, scaling the steep slopes of the Vilcabamba mountain range is the only way to witness the dazzling grandeur of this ancient citadel, where tranquil solitude awaits as a well-earned reward.
Sacsaywamán: the Inca empire's masonry marvel
With a Quechua name that means ‘Satisfied Falcon’, Sacsaywamán is indeed satisfying to the eye. The stones of the zigzag walls that form the three-tiered complex overlooking Cuzco are stacked with a precision unseen at any other archaeological site. Constructed during the reign of emperor Pachacútec, the mid-15th century masonry of these ruins is an Inca engineering phenomenon.
Individual limestone blocks of varying sizes (the ones forming the foundation weigh in at nearly 300 tons) converge with seamless, Tetris-esque accuracy and stick together sans-mortar. A single sheet of paper couldn’t slip between the cracks of this ancient jigsaw puzzle, which serves as the site of Peru’s annual Inti Raymi festival, a colorful celebration of Quechua culture honoring the Inca sun god.
Between Sacsaywamán and Cuzco, pause along the way to pick up a handcrafted souvenir from one of the local women dressed in traditional garb or pose for a pic with one of their amicable alpacas.
Moray: mysterious testing grounds of ancient agriculture
The amphitheater-like arrangement of Moray’s concentric terraces may appear as an elegant display of archaeological simplicity, but according to some theories, their range of widths and depths within the earth (maxing 30m deep and 220m wide) rendered each a unique, complex test kitchen for Inca agricultural experimentation.
Each level of the archaeological site’s three sets of terraces has a its own micro-climate with temperature variances of 15ºC from top to bottom, and scientific studies report that each featured soil imported from around the Inca empire. These distinctive characteristics allowed ancient farmers to test different crops and determine optimal growing conditions for a range of species in order to project what would grow best where across the land. While the ruins of Moray may seem far off the beaten track, they're relatively easy to reach on foot or bike from the village of Maras, via taxi or bus from Urubamba.
Pisac: pause for placid reflection along a cascade of terraces
Overlooking the tranquil village of the same name, the Inca citadel of Pisac is frequented by fewer tourists in comparison to other archaeological sites in the region, making it the perfect place for reflective repose while soaking up spectacular views of the Sacred Valley. The graceful curvature of the cascading terraces are peacefully juxtaposed against the imposing jagged peaks of the surrounding Andean landscape.
A complex system of ancient baths and water fountains, altars, a ceremonial platform, and one of Peru’s remaining intihuatanas (ritual stones associated with the astronomical clock and calendar of the Inca) adds to the enigmatic atmosphere of these ruins. Be sure to stop by the popular crafts market in the town below to browse colorful wares handmade by the welcoming locals.
Ollantaytambo: the Sacred Valley’s spectacular stopover
The town of Ollantaytambo, or simply Ollanta to locals, is one of the most popular departure points for the Inca Trail – but a dedicated half-day stopover to explore the ruins here at the beginning or end of a venture along South America’s most famous trek is time well spent. The steep terraces guarding the fortress (which features a ceremonial platform worthy of witnessing after the trudge to the top) is one of the few places where Spanish conquistadors experienced defeat in a major battle against the Inca.
Amble along the sprawling grounds for a look into the fascinating dwellings beneath the terraces, or take in an impressive sunrise view of the mammoth site from afar with a trek to Pinkulluna on the mountain across the way. Avoid the masses by spending the night in town and rising early to see the site before tourists take over; if day-trippin' is indeed your speed, get there by bus directly from Urubamba or by bus or train from Cuzco.
MaSovaida Morgan traveled to Peru with support from PromPerú (promperu.gob.pe) and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (adventuretravel.biz). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.