Everybody knows that Machu Picchu is THE place to visit in Peru. However, there are many other fascinating Inca sites that are worth a visit, and most are within easy reach of Cusco. If you are backpacking on a budget and can’t afford to visit Machu Picchu, or simply want to explore more, the Sacred Valley is filled with Inca ruins to discover. Here are a few of the best Inca sites to visit that aren’t Machu Picchu!
Awesome Inca Site Number 1: Sacsayhuaman
On the hill above Cusco lies Sacsayhuaman or Saksaywaman, one of the easiest Inca sites to visit from Cusco. More easily remembered by the English pronunciation “Sexy Woman”, the name actually means ‘satisfied falcon’ in Quechua, the language of the Incas. Located on the mountain overlooking Cusco, Sacsayhuaman was the capital of the Inca empire. The city was designed in the shape of a jaguar, with Sacsayhuaman as the head. Built like a fortress, but more probably used for religious purposes, Sacsayhuaman was constructed using huge stones that fit together so well that not even a pin could fit between the stones. Some of the stones are massive, weighing in at nearly 300 tons, so it is hard to imagine how the Inca could build it with such precision and expertise, and without the use of mortar. Now all that remains are the stones which are too big to move; the Spanish destroyed the rest and built colonial Cusco using the remnants of the ruins. If you’re feeling energetic, you can walk up to the ruins from Cusco, or hop in a taxi if you’re struggling with the altitude as I was. Some tours to other Inca sites also include a visit here, so check what is included before you double up on a trip.
Every year, Peruvians and tourists from all over the world come to Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun which marks the summer solstice on 24th June. A spectacular festival, the prices will be sky high during that week, but if you can time your visit to coincide you will be in for a hell of a party!
Awesome Inca Site Number 2: Pisac
An hour’s collectivo ride away from Cusco is the town of Pisac. Now known for its vast market and hippy vibe, the real draw of Pisac is the Inca site of the same name. The Incas built Pisac high up on the mountain (they really liked a good view!). You can hike up to the ruins taking a path behind the market place, or take a taxi. Your choice may depend on your fitness and how you have adjusted to the altitude. I decided to take a taxi up, and walked down so I had the best of both worlds! When I visited in the afternoon, Pisac was quieter than some of the other Inca sites which was a pleasant surprise. Although the path downwards wasn’t particularly well signed, I still found my way with the help of other visitors and an occasional warden. Wandering through the ruins, you will find temples, a citadel and agricultural terraces. The views are, of course, spectacular, and across the valley you can also spot hundreds of holes in the mountainside – Inca tombs which were plundered by grave robbers, and sadly off limit to visitors.
Awesome Inca Site Number 3: Moray
Moray is different to the other Inca sites in the Sacred Valley as it appears to have been designed as an agricultural experimentation centre, not for residential or religious purposes. The Inca were skilled farmers, building terraces on the side of mountains to stop the nutrients and water from washing down the hillside. Here at Moray, archaeologists believe they were experimenting to find the perfect climatic conditions to grow their crops. Moray’s circular terraces are unique, and there is some 15°C temperature difference between the top and the bottom of the terraces, suggesting the Incas knew their stuff!
Although this site is more challenging to get to on your own, it is possible by public transport and a bit of luck. We took a bus as close as we could get, then a taxi for the last leg. However, we couldn’t find transport back so hitchhiked to the nearest town then took a bus back to Cusco. Alternatively, you can arrange tours from Cusco, which also visit the nearby salt mines of Maras.
Awesome Inca Site Number 4: Ollantaytambo
Perhaps the most oddly named of all the Inca sites, Ollantaytambo was built by the Inca emperor Pachacuti as a fortress and a temple. Here, Manco Inca, the last Inca, used Ollantaytambo as a stronghold against the Spanish conquistadors, before finally retreating to Vilcabamba. He defeated the Spanish by flooding the plain beneath the fortress, but his success was short lived when the Spanish returned with four times as many men, forcing him to flee to into the jungle. Standing at the top of the ruins, looking into the valley below I took a moment to imagine the Spanish soldiers clamouring for revenge after their previous defeat; a scary thought.
Ollantaytambo is the usual starting point for the traditional Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but is well worth a visit in its own right. A steep stone staircase leads up to the fortress, with agricultural terraces on the right, and the remnants of buildings clinging to the rock on the left. Following the path around the ruins, you’ll get excellent views of the valley below as you come across temples, storage buildings and homes. Some of the agricultural terraces are still in use here, and were full of quinoa when I visited, it was fascinating to see this superfood growing how the Incas would have planted it!
To visit any of the Inca sites above you will need to purchase the Boleto Turistico tourist ticket, which allows access to 16 different Inca ruins and museums in Cusco. The ticket is valid for 10 days to give you plenty of time to explore, and can be bought at the sites themselves, or from the Tourist Office on Avenida del Sol in Cusco. The ticket currently costs 130 soles, or 70 soles for students with a valid student ID or ISIC card.
Awesome Inca Site Number 5: Vilcabamba
Want to get away from the crowds at Machu Picchu? Vilcabamba really is off the beaten track. Said to be the ‘real’ lost city of the Incas, this is what Hiram Bingham was really looking for when he found Machu Picchu. Manco Inca fled here after his last stand at Ollantayambo, to escape the Spanish conquistadors. The Incas remained there until the Spanish finally ended the Inca Empire by killing the last Inca ruler in 1572. Since then, the city was forgotten and reclaimed by the jungle, its location disappearing into the mists of time.
Still shrouded in mystery and only partially excavated, the archaeological ruins of Vilcabamba are only accessible by a 4 to 9-day trek through the jungle. Although it is nowhere near as impressive as Macchu Pichu, the lack of tourists makes it feel extra special. The trek can be extended to include a visit to Machu Picchu if you are still craving a trip to the king of all Inca sites!
As you can see, there are plenty of other amazing Inca sites in Peru to explore, not just Machu Picchu. Each of the ruins offer something unique to enjoy, from the ancient Inca capital at Sacsayhuaman to a real adventure hunting down Vilcabamba, you certainly won’t get bored!
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