Let us explain.
Some (most) people - us included - can’t imagine going to Peru without making a stop off at Machu Picchu, the famous, picturesque Incan ruins hidden high in the Andes. But here is a little secret about Peru - it is chock FULL of amazing ruins. It is not like Machu Picchu is the only wonder of past civilizations still standing. The country is covered in stunning archeological sites that will truly make you stop and say, wow. The only real difference between those ruins and Machu Picchu, is that the latter is popular - we are talking Disneyland-crowds popular.
Machu Picchu is also relatively easy to get to. You can hike, take a bus and then hike for a bit, take a bus and then a train, or go the bougie, glamorous route and just take the train the whole way. Or you can follow in our footsteps and take a motorcycle and have a truly amazing and adventurous road trip. No matter which form of transportation you choose, you likely will have very little trouble actually reaching the ruins. That is not always (honestly seldom) the case with many of the other ruins that dot the country.
But that only adds to their appeal.
If you are willing to head off the beaten path, take some backroads and explore areas that won’t appear in most guidebooks, you will be rewarded with stunning ruins that rival Peru’s most famous landmark. And better yet, you will likely have them all to yourself. Curious? Here are four stunning ruins to check out.
Located just over 100 kilometers from Cusco (the best city to base yourself for awesome outdoor exploring) are the ruins of Raqch’i. While this archeological site was also built by the Incans, compared to Machu Picchu it looks very different.
The largest ruins are multiple-story high walls that once held up the Temple of Wiracocha, a religious site that sits inside the 4 kilometer long stone walled boundary. The ruins also are host to numerous other buildings. Including, what some archeologists believe are baths, lodging houses for travelers (the site is on the ancient road to Cusco), administrative buildings, and fortifications for defense (some historians also think the lodging buildings could have been for troops).
Besides the Temple of Wiracocha, there are also 220 perfectly circular buildings (called qullqas) all in uniformed lines. Archeologists suggest these were used for storage - either for the travelers that would pass through, or for the troops that would be stationed there to guard the area.
We suggest doing a day trip out to Raqch’i from Cusco or stopping by on your way to Lake Titicaca (the main highway passes right next to the ruins). Similarly, also consider exploring the area nearby the ruins - including, walking along the ancient tracks that lead through the stone walls and up to a mirador (viewpoint). This is a great way to get a better idea of the size of the ancient site (spoiler alert - it is massive) and get an awesome view of a nearby volcano called Quinsachata.
If you want to explore ruins that are completely different than Machu Picchu - even built by a totally different group of people - then Huari is the place to see. Located 22 kilometers outside of Ayacucho, a town now completely off the tourist trail due to past terrorism activity (it is totally safe now), is Huari, an archeological site that is home to both Wadi ruins and an archeological museum.
We stumbled upon Ayacucho after looking at a map of Peru and seeing that there was a very nice scenic road connecting the area around Ica with Cusco. And then after doing a bit of digging, and realizing that Ayacucho isn’t very popular for tourists, we booked a one-way bus ticket and quickly set off. The ruins and museum, like Ayacucho itself, are pretty off the beaten path. When we visited we were the only ones there (which was totally fine by us).
Spend the afternoon checking out the museum to learn more about the Wari people, a civilization that flourished in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about 500 to 1000 AD. The civilization started to decline around 800 AD due to drought, which in turn led to internal warfare and raiding. Luckily, today you can still get a pretty good idea of their culture through the numerous archeological sites once used by them that can be found dotted around the country. But the largest is Huari - the one-time capital city of the civilization.
After perusing the museum, head outside to get an up-close view of the actual structures. There are a couple of trails that criss-cross around the site, as well as a good number of little tracks that meander through the wide array of stone walls and structures.
These ruins are definitely worth exploring, just for the uniqueness alone. While the Incans were amazing and extremely advanced, the Wari people were their predecessors and some archeologists believe helped begin the advancements that the Incans are famous for (including terraced farming). Ruins are still being discovered, meaning it is very much an active archeological site - so act accordingly.
Note: to get to the ruins, you need to find one of the local buses that regularly ply that area. We ended up having to walk to one of the main squares in Ayacucho to find the right bus. Luckily, locals are very friendly and helpful.
By far one of the ruins we MOST wanted to visit during our time in Peru, but unfortunately couldn’t due to timing. If we ever head back to the country though, you can bet Choquequirao will be at the top of our bucket list.
Of all the archeological sites on this list, these ruins are by far the closest to Machu Picchu. In fact, they are relatively close by to one another - both are located in the area considered to be Pachacuti’s estate (he was one of the rulers during Incan times). They also look very similar - both follow the Chachapoya design (the Chachapoyas people, aka the "Warriors of the Clouds" - which might just be the best name ever - was a culture of the Andes who lived in the cloud forests of the southern part of the Amazon before being taken over by the Incans).
But besides similarities in location and structures, the two sites couldn’t be more different. Whereas Machu Picchu is an archeological Disneyland, Choquequirao sees barely any tourists (mainly due to the fact that you have to hike for two days to reach the site and that it isn’t as established on the tourist trail).
That alone makes us, and hopefully you, want to visit the site. But what is also great about the ruins is that they are still being unearthed. Right now, archeologists are still discovering more structures that had been overwhelmed by the thick jungle. So if you really want to feel like Indiana Jones, we cannot suggest exploring Choquequirao enough.
Note: curious about the history? Learn more about the ruins and their purpose (and the very cool designs found there) here.
6° 25′ 5″ S, 77° 55′ 24″ W
These ruins are the farthest from Machu Picchu - located way up in the northern region of the country (close to the town of Chachapoyas). The walled settlement of Kuelap was also built by the Chachapoyas people, though in the 6th century (Machu Picchu was built around the 15th century). It is located in the Amazon district, meaning the ruins (like Choquequirao) are surrounded by cloud forests.
The walled settlement was built in a north-south orientation and is 584 meters long making (in total, the ruins are about 6 hectares in size). The walls of the ancient settlement are 10 to 20 meters high and made up of limestone blocks that were finely worked to create an airtight structure (similar to the walls that would be built later by the Incans in Machu Picchu, Cusco, and many other cities). Of the 550 structures on the site, only 5 are not circular - very different than the other ruins on this list (except Raqch’i).
One of the ruins, one of the few that have been restored, is believed to have been a solar observatory. The structure is roughly 5.5 meters high and known as El Tintero (which is Spanish for “inkwell”). There is also a tower that could have been used for defenses and stone canals for irrigation.
Like Machu Picchu, you have a couple of options to reach the site. Including, starting in the town of El Tingo and then hiking up a horse trail, taking a cable car close to the top, and then hiking the last two kilometers, or going the most adventurous route, and hiking 37 kilometers along a dirt road that will (eventually) end at the ruins.
Visiting Machu Picchu is often quite high on people’s travel bucket list - we admit it was for us as well. And for good reason: the site is stunning, the history is rich, and the landscape is breathtaking. Plus, it is Machu Picchu - one of the most well-known ruins in the world.
But if you are looking to get away from the tourist track, and have real authentic experiences, sadly, Machu Picchu is not the place to go. It is crowded, expensive, and touristy. You will be shuffled in like a cow heading to the slaughterhouse, and then stand in queue lines for every viewpoint or amazing archeological structure. While we don’t regret seeing it, we do know once is definitely enough. Especially knowing there are ruins that are just as amazing elsewhere in the country.
So if you are looking for a grand adventure, or just want to avoid tourists and crowds, definitely consider the four ruins we have offered up here. We promise you will not be disappointed.
Learn more about our adventures in beautiful Peru, including our unexpected route to Machu Picchu, here.