Alternative Incan sites to
Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu = mucho people. It is one of the most spectacular sets of ruins on Earth, thanks in no small part to a soul-stirring location, high in the misty Andes. Until the 1980s, however, Machu Picchu was relatively unknown. And then UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site, leading to global wonder – and by 2013 some 1.2 million people were making the journey to see this ancient Incan citadel every year.

It has become so popular, in fact, that in an effort to cut environmental degradation the Peruvian government has been forced to introduce measures to limit visitors – 2,500 per day, and no more than 500 people at a time on the iconic Inca Trail, which includes porters. If Machu Picchu is on your bucket list, and if you’re reading this then it probably is, then you need to start planning your trip well in advance.
But much of Machu Picchu’s reputation comes down to name recognition. There are numerous Incan and Neo-Incan ruins scattered around Peru, as well as remnants of the earlier Moche, Huari and Nazca civilisations, many of a similar scale or function to Machu Picchu, some perhaps even more impressive. In addition, there are several superbly preserved sites within easy reach of Cusco.
Mark Rice, historian and author of Making Machu Picchu, which explores 20th-century tourism in Peru, sees substantial benefit from attempts by the Peruvian authorities to draw attention away from Machu Picchu: “I think they’re trying to be proactive, opening up places such as Choquequirao and Vilcabamba more, which will serve to relieve some of the pressure on Machu Picchu. Hopefully it will also encourage people to stay longer in the area too, and open up new avenues of income.”
If you’re looking to dig a little deeper into ancient Incan civilisation and culture, if you want a quieter, more relaxed experience, or you simply want the Indiana Jones-like thrill that comes of exploring vast archaeological sites where you might wander for hours without running into anyone else, then here’s a few alternatives to Machu Picchu worth considering. Anyone booking a tailormade holiday to Peru could quite easily arrange to visit one or several of these sites.

Chinchero

One explanation for Machu Picchu is that it was an estate for the Incan ruler Pachacuti. Chinchero, a small town between Cusco and Urubamba, is thought to have been a country retreat for Pachacuti’s son, Tupac Yupanqui. Amazingly, some of the terraces and aqueducts built for agricultural purposes then are still in use today. The centre of the Peruvian weaving industry, this is where you come nowadays if you want some beautiful handmade textiles as souvenirs. And of course whatever you buy is putting money directly into local communities which see a fraction of the tourists that Machu Picchu does.

Chan Chan

A Chimú sun-worshipping city, Chan Chan was extensively looted by the Spanish Conquistadores – one burial tomb alone is said to have yielded US$5 million of gold. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest adobe city in the Americas, Chan Chan is composed of several walled compounds housing burial chambers, temples, reservoirs and royal residences.

Choquequirao

Located 3,000m above sea level on a flattened hilltop ringed with boulders, and requiring a tough multi-day hike from Cuzco, getting to Choquequirao is the adventure Machu Picchu used to be. It’s thought it may have served as a ‘checkpoint’ for entry to Vilacabamba, ‘the Lost City of the Incas’. Choquequiaro would likely have been used for ceremonial functions, and its architecture and terraced landscape bear close resemblance to Machu Picchu. Heather McBrayne, founder of our specialist operator Discover South America, recommends Choquequirao: “The site is suspected to be larger than Machu Picchu and is still being excavated. It can be visited on a four or five day trek from Cuzco. Kuélap in northern Peru is another alternative, accessible by cable car for those who prefer a more leisurely form of transport. It’s built on a high mountain plateau with stunning views of the surrounding valleys and is characterised by circular buildings.”

Kuélap

A 6th-century walled settlement built on a limestone ridge, surrounded by cloud forest and overlooking the river valley, Kuélap has around 550 buildings and would have had some 300,000 inhabitants. The Chachapoyas (Cloud Warriors) were conquered by the Incas who themselves were shortly vanquished by the Spaniards, and the site was abandoned to the forest after the Spanish conquest. Kuélap is remote, reached with a mix of hiking and cable car.

Sipán

A city of the early Moche civilization, Sipán is well known for the recent discovery of several intact royal tombs, and a mummy, the Lord of Sipán. Other secrets the site has revealed include ornamental and ceremonial artifacts, among them tools and weapons used for ritualistic sacrifice.

Vilcabamba

The fabled ‘Lost City of the Incas’ and the last hold-out of the Incan people against Spanish colonial rule. Vilcabamba’s treasures were forgotten for two centuries after the last king was beheaded and most inhabitants left the area, before it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. The rugged steep terrain makes the journey to Vilcabamba only suitable for experienced hikers, and few people visit – you might have it entirely to yourself.

Our top Machu Picchu Holiday

Peru highlights tour, Inca trail, Titicaca and Nazca

Peru highlights tour, Inca trail, Titicaca and Nazca

Taste Peru's diverse landscapes and fascinating culture

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Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Machu Picchu or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mark Rowland] [Choquequirao: Mark Rowland] [Kuelap: Mart St-Amant] [Chinchero: Olivier Issaly]
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