Peru’s Machu Picchu travel alternatives

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Peru’s Machu Picchu travel alternatives

Llama rock work on the terraces of Choquequirao, PeruLlama rock work on the terraces of Choquequirao, Peru, alternative ruins to visit.
Photo by Matthew Barker, 2010

It’s not just about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail – the country round Cusco offers a diverse range of landscapes and sights, and plenty of different trekking opportunities. Check out some of our favourite off-the-beaten path sights in the Cusco area.

An off-the-beaten path trek to the ruins of Choquequirao

The Inca Trail closes for routine maintenance during the peak of the rainy season every February, but you can still experience many of the Cusco region’s other unrivaled trekking opportunities.

One of the most dramatic (and least visited) alternative Inca Trail treks is the four-day hike to Choquequirao, a challenging route that is rewarded with a visit to the magnificent ruins of Choquequirao; a huge and deeply impressive site that receives a fraction of Machu Picchu’s annual visitor numbers.

The trek crosses a range of environments, beginning in the rolling fields and small farming settlements of the sierra before entering the savage Apurimac valley with the river thundering several thousand feet below. The trail drops almost 5,000 feet to river-level and the following day climbs back up the steep valley walls an equivalent distance.

Eventually entering Choquequirao itself is well worth the challenge, especially since yours may well be the only group in the entire site. It takes at least a full day to explore the ruins in their entirety, and of particular note are the enormous complexes of agricultural terraces, some of which were decorated with unique patterns and designs that are not found in any other Andean site.

The route back from Choquequirao follows a different trail, entering the more humid semi-tropical environment of the high-jungle, where parakeets and tarantulas are a common sight and the trees drip with tropical fruits such as mangoes and avocados. After spending the third night on the grounds of an old colonial hacienda, the trail re-enters the rolling landscapes of the first day before rejoining road transport for the journey back to Cusco.

The secret ruins of Tipon, Piquillajta and Andahuaylillas

This series of lesser-known and under-visited ruins just west of Cusco offer a fascinating insight into the size and strength of the Inca Empire, as well as features and a history that aren’t to be found at the more famous citadel of Machu Picchu.

The ruins of Tipon are thought to be an ancient Inca palace and are home to elaborately engineered waterways, baths and fountains, plus a functioning irrigation system that reveals the ingenuity of the Inca’s engineers.

From here it’s a short journey to Piquillajta, which was originally a pre-Inca ruin from the Wari civilization and was probably conquered and re-settled by the Inca as their empire expanded. A tour of Piquillajta gives an interesting insight into the growth of the empire, and how the Inca were able to incorporate previously independent civilizations into their own.

You will get a full picture of the area’s history rounding off your day at a colonial-era archeological gem known as the “Andean Sistine Chapel. This 17th century church at Andahuaylillas famous for its beautiful decorations and unique interior design. The church’s intriguing décor, complete with graphical depictions of the routes to heaven and hell, glittering golden gilding and a blend of Christian and indigenous iconography all reveal early attempts by the Spanish to convert the locals to Christianity.

Inca ruins and traditional villages in the Sacred Valley

The beautiful Sacred Valley that runs below the city of Cusco along the Urubamba river (and eventually passes Machu Picchu) is home to a huge number of ancient settlements and towns, ruins and glorious landscapes.

It is possible to take a day tour of the Sacred Valley’s highlights, starting from and returning to Cusco. Tours start early and descend through unchanged landscapes into the Valley itself before reaching the town of Ollantaytambo.

Olltantaytambo is one of the oldest continually inhabited towns in the Andes and people have been living here since at least the 13th century.  The town is characterized by ancient stone houses built in the trademark style of the Inca, winding cobbled streets bisected by atmospheric flowing rivers and spectacular hillside ruins that rise above the entire settlement.

The ruins have a fascinating history, as the location of a great Inca victory over the Spanish conquistadores, which almost caused the invasion to fail.

After touring the town and the ruins, it’s a short journey to the next destination, the buzzing town of Pisac. It is well worth timing your tour to coincide with the market on Sundays and Wednesdays when the town comes alive with campesinos descending from the surrounding hills to sell their wares and stock up on provisions. You’ll see everything on sale, from live chickens to coca leaves, as well as a large range of wonderful handicrafts.

You also have the option to visit Pisac ruins, dominating a breathtaking location on the hilltops above the town. The trail around the site runs above steep hillsides and deep ravines, allowing stunning views of the entire valley.

The startling ruins of Pisac in Peru's Sacred Valley, Peru For LessThe startling ruins of Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Other adventures in the Sacred Valley

Take a tour of Maras and Moray and see the research laboratories of the Inca. The circular terraces at Moray were alledgedly used to examine the full range of growing conditions and environments across the Inca Empire, ensuring that food was never scarce and the entire empire was well fed. Other theories suggest the structures were amphitheatres or temples for ceremonies.

Go rafting down the Urubamba River, which is even suitable for beginner rafters with no previous experience. Trips last around 2 hours and can range between class 2 and 3 rapids.

The countryside surrounding Cusco is perfect for horseback riding, with tours exploring a beautiful landscape dotted with villages and farms where life has changed little over the centuries.

Additional Resources

Websites:
South American Explorers
Independent Inca Trail information
How to get to Choquequirao
Hidden Cusco Travel Ideas

Books:
Trail Blazer Guides 

Photos:
Choquequirao Peru

Videos:
Sacred Valley
Ollantaytambo
6-day Hike to Choquequirao
Choquequirao

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About Author

Matt left England for Peru in 2008, originally planning to stay for just 12 months but ending up settling down in Lima working for Latin America For Less for three fun-packed years. He remains a perpetual traveller, working and writing his way through Europe, North America and Asia but he has always saved a special place in his heart for Peru and South America.