The Best Inca Sites in Peru
Any mention of the word “Inca” immediately conjures up visions of mystical ruins surrounded by thick luscious green trees and coated in a velvety layer of cloud. The most famous Inca ruin of all is undoubtedly Machu Picchu, a truly iconic site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the most visited tourist destinations in South America.
However what many people don’t realise is that Peru has many many more Inca sites that are worth visiting in addition to Machu Picchu, and this guide highlights some of these less-well known sites and “hidden gems” that Peru has on offer but that are definitely worth visiting if you are going to Peru for your holidays.
Pisac is a Peruvian town situated at the bottom of a steep valley, around 45 minutes drive from Cusco, and can be easily reached by tour or bus from Cusco. The drive from Cusco to Pisac is epic, passing through beautiful rolling mountains and valleys, with unbelievable views of the famous SacredValley between Cusco and Machu Picchu stretching away into the distance.
Pisac town is famous today as a market town, but high up on the valley slopes above the town is the ancient Inca ruin of “Pisac”, that shares its name with the town. This is a fabulous ruin to visit to admire the staggering size and scale of its Inca terracing – the settlement is perched high up on the mountain side, with great defensive views of the surrounding countryside, but from the ruin hundreds and hundreds of terraces cascade down the valley providing outstanding crop-growing flexibility for the ingenious Incan inhabitants.
The site of Moray is not a ruined settlement, but nevertheless it is one of the most interesting and unique Inca sites in the whole of Peru. Moray sits about halfway up the SacredValley, and is best reached either on a tour and by mountain bike – bike tours are possible and can be booked in Cusco
The site consists of 2 giant circles of terraces that descend into a deep depression into the ground. The construction originally confused scientists, who were unsure what its use was, but evidence of plant growth and seeds on the terraces has suggested that this was a massive biological and plant experiment by the ingenious Inca. By building the terraces deeper and deeper into the ground they had created multiple micro-climates, with the temperature difference between the top terrace and the bottom terrace as much as 15 degrees. Different seeds found at different levels of the complex have now led scientists to believe that Moray was a fascinating agricultural experiment so that the Inca people could learn what crops grew best at differing climate conditions.
Near the ruin of Moray, Maras also sits about halfway along the SacredValley. The road that leads to Maras offers spectacular views of the Andean mountains on the horizon, with many of the peaks over 5000m above sea-level.
Although this is not technically an “Inca” site, as its origins are difficult to precisely date and it is believed it may pre-date the Inca, it was certainly an important site during the Inca period. Maras consists of hundreds and very impressive and visually stunning salt pans, that spread out in various shades of cream and brown across the entire side of a valley.
Local indigenous people still farm the region for its salt: the small pools are used to collect water, which then heats and evaporates in the hot Andean sun leaving behind salt crystals which are collected by the farmer. The salt is used today within the local community.
Machu Picchu is world famous, and deserves the credit it receives, but it is visited by thousands upon thousands of tourists per day, and this can be an unattractive proposition for many travellers. The best way to visit Machu Picchu is to do the 4 day Inca Trail from Ollantaytambo, which arrives at Machu Picchu very early in the morning of the 4th day (before the bus-loads of tourists), and gives an opportunity to admire the site whilst it is still relatively quiet. However, the ruin of Choquequirao offers a great alternative to Machu Picchu.
The site can only really be reached via a 3 or 4 day trek, starting in Cusco, although some horse-trekking options are available. In terms of its size and structure it is remarkably similar to Machu Picchu, but from a tourist perspective the beauty is that there are far fewer travellers that visit the site on a daily basis, so it is a much more peaceful ruin to explore.
The site is thought to have been one of the last sites to be inhabited by the Inca people after they had been forced out of Cusco by the Spanish.
Sacsayhuaman sits just above the city of Cusco, and can easily be reached either via a walk from the central plaza of Cusco up through the outskirts of the city (this will take around 45 minutes to 1 hour), on one of the many tours that depart from Cusco each morning, or by local bus.
Today the site is where the annual Inti Raymi festival takes place, which is the annual festival of the winter solstice and new year, but the site was equally important historically, and it was used in 1536 by the Inca when the Spanish settlers were laying siege to the city of Cusco just below the ruin.
Although a large proportion of the site was destroyed by the Spanish so the masonry could be taken and used to expand the city of Cusco, the site is still a very worthwhile and impressive place to visit. The most impressive thing about the site is the sheer size of some of the stones that were used in its construction, with some stones thought to weigh anything up to 200 tonnes, which would have been brought from quarries many miles. The stones are so large, and the stone-work so accurate and precise, that it is still debated as to exactly how the site was constructed.
Peru’s Inca History
Peru’s archaeological and cultural history stretches back many thousands of years, and includes a variety of important cultures including the Lima Culture, Moche, Nazca Culture, Huari, Chachapoyas and the Inca. However it is the Inca that are by far the most famous, partly due to the fact that they were one of the most recent cultures to have existed, and unlike some of the earlier cultures who lived in easily eroded adobe-brick structures, they have left us with a rich and impressive archaeological history that can be easily enjoyed by travellers on Peru tours and holidays. This list is just a snapshot of the hundreds of Inca ruins in Peru, and some of the others worth exploring include: Ollantaytambo, Tambomachay, Vilcabamba, Qorikancha, Puca Pucara, Wiñay Wayna and Raqchi.