This post was last updated on September 12th, 2015
Peru is known for a lot of things – its rich culture, diverse geography, emerging food scene, and, of course, Machu Picchu. This ancient Inca sanctuary perched in the Andes Mountains draws more than 1 million visitors annually, and for good reason – the iconic ruins are an impressive sight. But scattered throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas are dozens of other archaeological sites as well. These ruins are often overshadowed by the better-known Machu Picchu, and yet many of them hold just as much – if not more – cultural and historical importance. While Machu Picchu is certainly worth a visit, it is only part of a greater cultural heritage.
The stunning landscapes and beautiful ancient architecture vary among these sites, and the lure of nearby Machu Picchu means that other sites are much less expensive and much less crowded. These ruins are included in the Boleto Turístico, or Tourist Ticket, which gives you access to a variety of attractions in and around Cuzco for a great price. The Boleto Turístico is available for purchase at any of the included sites and costs about $46 for adults or $25 for students with a valid ISIC card. Partial tickets are also available for $25. All of these sites are in easy driving distance of Cuzco, making them especially accessible by rental car or taxi in addition to the options listed below.
If you are traveling to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, these ruins are all worth some time in your schedule. Don’t miss these 10 ruins to visit in Peru – that aren’t Machu Picchu.
Nestled among towering mountains and rushing rivers, Pisac’s expansive ruins paired with the bustling market in the town below are more than enough reason to spend a full day here – maybe two. The ruins – an Inca citadel – sit high above town, with incredible views of the surrounding mountains, rivers and valleys. It is surprisingly quiet and serene, in contrast with the vibrant market that the town of Pisac is known for. Vendors selling everything from potatoes and choclo (a variety of Peruvian corn) to pottery, jewelry, clothing and more fan out from the center of the town into alleyways and side streets every Sunday – an experience in itself.
While you may see the occasional busload of tourists in Pisac’s main plaza, few seem to venture beyond town to the ruins, making them an ideal place to get away from it all. There is plenty to explore at the top of the mountain, close to the entrance and waiting taxis; however, the best spots are located further down the main trail. Here, you will find ancient tunnels, tombs, temples, water channels, terraces and more. The trail continues down the mountain and right into the center of town, but if you decide to make the trek, be aware of what you’re getting into. The long, steep hike can leave your legs tired and shaking by the time you reach the bottom.
Getting there: Take a bus to the town of Pisac from Cuzco. From there, take a taxi to the entrance of the ruins, or hike up from the center of town (2 or more hours of steep, uphill climbing).
Getting back: Leave the same way you entered and take a taxi back down, or you can follow the trail down the mountain back into Pisac (about 1.5 to 2 hours downhill).
Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Qenko and Sacsayhuamán
Four sites are located on the main road just outside Cuzco – Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Qenko and Sacsayhuamán. It’s perfectly feasible to visit all four in one day since all but Sacsayhuaman are fairly small, and you can even walk from place to place.
Tambomachay is the farthest from Cuzco and the highest up the hill, making it a good starting point if you plan on walking to the rest of the sites. It is home to several ceremonial baths with water still running through the channels. The paths on the hills behind the baths are great vantage points for seeing the area.
Just across the street from Tambomachay is Pukapukara, which is thought to have been a guard post, hunting lodge or rest stop on the road to Cuzco. What really makes it worth seeing, however, is the view. As you reach the far edge of the ruins, the earth drops out from beneath you, opening into a wide expanse of rolling farmland shadowed by the mountains on the other side of the valley.
Next down the road is Qenko, a large limestone rock used for ceremonial offerings. Steps, benches and tables that were used for various purposes are carved into many of the existing niches. The walk from Pukapukara to Qenko is the longest – about 2.5 miles. You can flag down a bus going back to Cuzco or call a taxi to help make the trip.
A short distance from Qenko is the fortress of Sacsayhuamán, the largest of the four ruins. Sacsayhuamán – which tour guides like to say sounds roughly like “sexy woman” – is known for its walls made from 300-ton stones. Here, you can slide down natural rock slides, crawl through pitch-black tunnels, walk through the zigzagging giant boulders and visit the Rio-like statue of Jesus that overlooks Cuzco. Although there are usually a flock of tourists here, the ruins are so large that the crowds are never overwhelming.
Getting there: To get to Tambomachay, take a taxi or a bus heading from Cuzco to Pisac, making sure to tell the driver you want to get off at Tambomachay. (Pisac is more than an hour’s drive away – don’t miss your stop!)
Getting back: Take a taxi from Sacsayhuamán, flag down a bus, or walk down the trail into the Plaza de Armas.
The multiple levels of Tipón are home to various temples, terraces, canals and sprawling fields. And as with many of the Sacred Valley’s ruins, the higher you go, the better the views. A hike to the top of the hill overlooking Tipón rewards you with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and the stone structures that make up the ruins. Many of the buildings here are almost completely intact. They are surrounded by dozens of small irrigation canals, Tipón’s most interesting feature. Water still flows through them, dropping from terrace to terrace in miniature waterfalls. The water had (and still has) both agricultural and ritual uses, bringing physical and spiritual life to the valley.
The restaurants along the road leading to Tipón are a great place to try a Peruvian specialty called cuy – guinea pig. Cuy meat is tough and tastes similar to chicken. It is a great way to get a taste of the local culture.
Getting there: Take a taxi, or take a bus from Cuzco that is heading to Urcos or Tipón. Let them know that you want to get off at Tipón. (The bus will actually stop at a town just outside the ruins.) From there, take a taxi or colectivo up to the ruins.
Getting back: Take a taxi or flag down a bus heading back to Cuzco (there will be signs in the window).
Perhaps one of the most distinct archaeological sites in the area, Moray is home to large agricultural terraces descending in concentric circles. In the time of the Incas, each terrace served as a microclimate to grow different types of plants, since the air temperature and humidity are subtly different at each level. It is thought to have been a kind of laboratory to determine the optimal altitude to plant certain crops.
Now, only grass covers the terraces, making it easy for visitors to climb down to the bottom. Steps are made of stones protruding from the terrace walls, and some of them are quite far apart from one another, so climbing up and down isn’t as easy as it looks, but it will certainly change your perspective on an important aspect of Inca life.
Getting there: Take a taxi or colectivo from Urubamba or Cuzco.
Getting back: Not many taxis come to Moray without passengers, so it may be best to ask your taxi driver to wait to avoid getting stranded. Be prepared to pay extra for this service.
What Pikillacta lacks in grand structures and mountain views it makes up for in winding, walled paths and wildflowers. This was a Wari settlement, one of the few non-Inca ruins in the area. The land surrounding Pikillacta was used largely for agriculture during the Wari Empire, and the compound itself was likely used as a ceremonial center.
There are a few archaeological sites here – two-story buildings on opposite ends of the compound and several covered archaeological sites with remnants of the buildings that once stood there. But the vast portion of this site is dedicated to the undulating compound walls that mimic the rolling hills. Wind your way through the dirt paths surrounded by beautiful yellow and purple flowers to enjoy the peace and solitude that is Pikillacta. The site is typically not crowded since it is farther out of the way than the other attractions in and around Cuzco. Just across the road is Rumicolca, a large Inca gate that was built on Wari foundations, and a little farther down the road is Tipón.
Getting there: Take a taxi, or take a bus from Cuzco that is heading to Urcos or Tipón. Let them know that you want to get off at Pikillacta.
Getting back: Take a taxi or flag down a bus heading back to Cuzco (there will be signs in the window).
Qorikancha was once the “Golden Courtyard” of the Incas, a temple literally covered in gold. Now, the same circular stone foundation that supported the temple supports the colonial-era Spanish church of Santo Domingo. The original temple was looted and destroyed by the Spaniards, but some of it has been excavated and preserved. You can take a tour of the church and convent or explore on your own, witnessing the unusual but fitting patchwork of Spanish and Inca architecture. The gold is all gone, but remnants of Inca life remain beyond the ropes and protective glass.
Below the church is a small museum that holds a few interesting pieces. Most of the objects here were excavated from Qorikancha and include pre-Inca, Inca and Spanish pieces. It’s an interesting museum for learning more about Cuzco’s history. The museum is part of the Boleto Turístico, but it costs S/. 10 (about $4) to get into the church.
Getting there: Located on the Avenida del Sol in Cuzco, Qorikancha is within easy walking distance of the Plaza de Armas, or you can take a taxi for a few dollars from most places in the city.
Getting back: Taxis and buses go up and down the Avenida del Sol constantly and can take you anywhere in the city for a few dollars.
Most people pass through the town of Ollanta on their way to Machu Picchu. There is a train station just outside of town heading to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu, making this a popular stop along the way. In town there are several street vendors selling traditional Peruvian handicrafts, a few quiet restaurants and a small market selling fruits, vegetables, meats and prepared foods. Some of the steep terraces of Ollantaytambo can be seen from the town. Inside the ruins are what were once a fortress and ceremonial center. Ollantaytambo was the site of one of the few battles in which the Incas defeated the Spanish. Opposite the ruins and also visible from town is a large stone face protruding from the mountainside. This is Tunupa, the guardian of Ollantaytambo. Several other smaller faces can also be spotted among the rocks – see how many you can find!
Getting there: Take a bus from Cuzco to Urubamba, then from Urubamba to Ollanta. The entrance to Ollantaytambo is across the bridge and at the edge of town.
Getting back: Take a bus from Ollanta’s main plaza to Urubamba, and from there you can take a bus back to Cuzco. Otherwise, take the train on to Machu Picchu.
What ruins in the Sacred Valley have you visited? Do you have any other recommendations of ruins to visit in Peru?
Bio: Katie created her travel and culture blog, Wanderer’s Purpose, with the goal of inspiring peace and tolerance through travel. She explores how to connect with humanity across all different backgrounds, whether it is in your own neighborhood or halfway around the world. For more on how to make the most out of your travel experiences for yourself and the people you meet, visit http://www.wandererspurpose.com