Peru is one of the cradles of civilization, although its historical significance is criminally overlooked. Most are familiar with the World Wonder of Machu Picchu. Not so many are aware that before the Inca conquered Peru, dozens of other Pre-Inca civilizations thrived in the region. From the Chachapoya and Chimu in the north to the Tiwanaku and the Nazca in the south, Peru is a hotbed of history and archaeology. Some of Peru’s earliest civilizations, like the Chavin and the Caral, even pre-date civilizations like the Greeks and Romans.
Here are some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring archaeological sites and ruins that Peru has to offer.
Machu Picchu | Cusco Region
I don’t really need to go into much detail about this one, do I? As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu isn’t exactly a hidden gem. This Inca fortress is situated high in the mountains and deep in the jungle. Machu Picchu is one of the most marvelous sites that the world has to offer. No matter how popular it gets, it is simply unthinkable to skip out on.
Ollantaytambo | Sacred Valley of the Incas
The ruins of Ollantaytambo might be the most impressive in the Sacred Valley. The village of Ollantaytambo is the starting point for the five-day Inca Trail, making Ollantaytambo fortress an essential stop for trekkers before their trek. This fortress is built into a mountainside and has a lot of significance in Inca history. The defense of Ollantaytambo is one of the only battles the Inca won against the Spanish conquistadors, led by the great general Manco Inca. Walking through the vast city and its many parts is a surreal experience.
Pisac | Sacred Valley of the Incas
For travelers making their way through the Sacred Valley, no trip is complete without visiting Pisac. The ruins are situated on a mountain overlooking the village of Pisac and the Sacred Valley. Pisac is significantly less touristy than Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, but without sacrificing any of the wonder. One can roam aimlessly for hours without a group of tourists to ruin the immersion. Give yourself at least four hours to explore these expansive ruins and to take in the breathtaking views of the Sacred Valley.
Kuelap | Amazonas
In the Amazonas district of Peru, you will find Kuelap. It is often referred to as the Machu Picchu of the north. And yes, Kuelap is an archaeological site situated upon a mountain, but the comparison stops there. Kuelap is a remnant of the Chachapoya civilization, also known as the Warriors of the Clouds. A visit here is unlike anything you’ll find in the Sacred Valley. You can visit Kuelap from Chachapoyas, the main hub for the Amazonas region. Chachapoyas is home to a plethora of off-the-beaten-path adventures, some of which you’ll read about later in this post.
Chinchero | Sacred Valley of the Incas
Let’s bounce back to the Sacred Valley with a few sites that may not be as popular. Chinchero is probably the most overlooked Inca site included on the Cusco tourist ticket. It is unfortunate because Chinchero is an amazing place to visit. It is only 30 minutes from Cusco, and a $1 colectivo ride will drop you off just minutes away from the site. The terraces and structures are well-preserved, and the adventurous traveler can even continue along the Qhapaq Nan (Inca Road) all the way to Urquillos for an amazing hidden gem of a day trek.
Moray | Sacred Valley of the Incas
The archaeological site of Moray is one of the most unique you’ll find around Cusco. You’ll find that terraces are a common theme among Inca sites, especially in Pisac, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. Moray also has terraces, but unlike those other sites, they were built in a concentric circle fashion. A walk through the wide open fields of Moray is a different experience than other sites in the area, where the ruins are often built onto and into mountains.
Chan Chan | La Libertad Region
Long before the colonization of the Americas, Chan Chan was once the largest city on the continent. Located along the Pacific Ocean are the remnants of the coastal Chimu civilization. These ruins are unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in Peru. While most Inca and Pre-Inca ruins are megalithic stone fortresses, Chan Chan was built of adobe. Walking around this desolate stretch between Huanchaco and Trujillo was otherworldly. The desert landscapes along with the architecture made it feel like roaming through ancient Egypt instead of Peru.
The ruins of Chan Chan can be explored alone or with a guide. I recommend shelling out a little bit of extra money for the guide. That way, you’ll know what you’re looking at. While the Inca civilization might be relatively well-known, the casual traveler might not know too much about the Chimu civilization. Our guide was able to give us a lot of important information. Otherwise we would just be looking at carvings and adobe walls. The context behind the ruins are important, such as how they were able to withhold an Inca invasion thanks to their ahead-of-their-time water systems.
Kuntur Wasi | Cajamarca
Kuntur Wasi, Quechua for House of the Condor, is one of the largest archaeological sites in the north of Peru. Located a couple of hours from the city of Cajamarca, these ruins are a perfect day trip for travelers who find themselves in this off-the-beaten-path city. Archaeologists believe that the site was occupied as early as 1,200 BC, with the civilization lasting over a thousand years. It is one of the most fascinating sites in Peru, famous for its monoliths, tombs, and artifacts that showed the likelihood of trade with other civilizations as far as modern-day Chile and Ecuador.
Chavin de Huantar | Ancash Region
One of the craziest things about Peru is just how tiny the Inca Empire was in the grand scheme of things. They existed as a blip on the grand timeline of civilization in Peru. The Chavin? You would have to go back thousands and thousands of years before the Inca. Chavin de Huantar is dated back as early as 2,500 BC. It is one of the largest pre-Inca sites in Peru. Tucked away in the northern Peruvian Andes, these ruins are a must-do day trip from Huaraz.
Ventanillas de Otuzco | Cajamarca
The Ventanillas de Otuzco are some of the most unique remnants of pre-Inca civilization that you can find in Peru. Little is known about the Otuzco civilization. These are among their last remnants, and all signs point to them being mausoleums. Bodies were folded and interred in the “little windows” of Otuzco. Their unique look also gives them their name, with Otuzco meaning “eaten by moths”. No trip to Cajamarca is complete without seeing these eerily alien structures.
Nazca Lines | Ica District
Next to Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines might be Peru’s most iconic attraction. These mysterious petroglyphs are attributed to the Nazca Civilization, although not much is known about them. They’ve become symbolic to Peru and travelers come from far and wide to see them in person. A 15-minute flight costs about $100 US, which is a bit steep for me, but undoubtedly worth it for others to see this one-of-a-kind attraction.
Caral Archaeological Site | Lima Region
The Norte Chico of Caral are the oldest known civilization in the entire Americas. That’s what I’m talking about when I say Peru is a cradle of civilization that hardly gets any credit. Eurocentric educations almost entirely ignore the Americas prior to colonization, which only added to the wonder I felt while roaming through these ancient Peruvian sites. Most of us are so unfamiliar with these civilizations that they might as well be alien to us. Dated at around 4,600 years old, the city of Caral was a thriving civilization around the same time as the ancient Egyptians.
Sacsayhuaman | Cusco Region
The fortress of Sacsayhuaman overlooks Cusco in stoic majesty. Sacsayhuaman is one of the best things to do in Cusco, especially because it can be done right from the city. A quick hike up will take you these megalithic structures. Standing alongside the massive stone blocks is a humbling feeling and a strong reminder of just how powerful the Inca were in their prime. Plus, the views from here aren’t too bad. They overlook the whole city and the surrounding mountains, making it one of the best photo spots in Cusco.
Puka Pukara | Cusco Region
After visiting Sacsayhuaman, one can continue down the road away from Cusco to visit a number of other archaeological sites. My favorite among these is Puka Pukara. It’s about a 5-minute ride by car or a 30-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman. Sunset is a popular time to come here as the stones turn a reddish hue at golden hour. With the mountains as the backdrop, this small but beautiful archaeological site is well worth a quick visit.
Tambomachay | Cusco Region
You can find Tambomachay just opposite from the ruins of Puka Pukara. They aren’t the most jaw-dropping ruins around, but they are included on the Cusco boleto turistico. A stop here is a good way to get your money’s worth. Tambomachay is a good ending point for a loop that includes Sacsayhuaman, Puka Pukara, and Qenqo.
Qenqo | Cusco Region
While more of a stopover on your way to Puka Pukara and Tambomachay, Q’enqo is still a cool spot for a little visit. It is unique and doesn’t resemble the megalithic Inca fortresses that you’ve likely grown used to. It lacks the smooth, clean surfaces and looks more like a big, lumpy cave. But again, you can’t go wrong with the views or the otherworldly experience.
Huaca de la Luna y del Sol | La Libertad Region
Most of the ruins you’ll visit in Peru seem like they’ve been unearthed entirely. However, Huaca de la Luna y del Sol still feels like an active excavation site, because it is. There is a lot more to discover here, and a visit provides some fascinating insights into the history of the Moche civilization that inhabited Peru.
For example, Huaca de la Luna, or Temple of the Moon, has many similarities to Mayan structures. It opens up the possibility that at some point, the Maya or even the Aztecs may have stretched all the way out to the Moche civilization. Or at the very least, travelers between the two empires were able to exchange ideas and concepts that led to similar designs, deities, and architectural styles.
Sarcofagos de Karajia | Amazonas
What the Sarcofagos de Karajia lack in size, they make up for in mystique. These are absolutely fascinating relics, and only exist today because of their hard-to-reach location. Situated along a high cliffside, grave robbers left these watchers on the wall alone due to how dangerous it was to get up there. You can visit these artifacts from Chachapoyas. Following a short hike, you’ll be able to get a nice view of the tombs. Although there’s not much else to do, it is definitely a fascinating visit for any history enthusiast or alien conspiracist (like myself).
Choquequirao | Cusco Region
One of the top things on my Peru bucket list that I’ve yet to do is pay a visit to the ruins of Choquequirao. While most archaeological sites have become pretty accessible, Choquequirao remains a challenge to reach. A visit to Choquequirao requires a lengthy trek of around four days. For those prepared to take on the challenge, they are treated with scenes akin to Machu Picchu but nearly devoid of tourists. Choquequirao remains one of the best hiddden gems in all of Peru.
Mausoleo de Revash | Amazonas
I desperately wanted to visit the Mausoleo de Revash while I was in Chachapoyas, but time constraints forced me to miss out. Being nearly six hours away roundtrip, I regretfully had to save it for another trip. Here’s a guide on Revash if you want to make the journey to these unique ruins.
Tipon and Pikillacta | Cusco Region
Tipon and Pikillacta are two sites that I regrettably didn’t have enough time to visit while in Cusco. These two sites are close to each other, and both a quick ride away from Cusco’s city center. However, they couldn’t be any more different. Tipon is a sprawling Inca archaeological site, while Pikillacta is home to remnants of the Wari civilization. Pikillacta serves as a reminder that there were civilizations present in the Sacred Valley before the Inca conquest.
There is so much to explore in Peru. The best part? The history of Peru is constantly being unearthed. One could spend lifetimes in Peru and still feel like they’ve barely scratched the surface.
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