Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the world’s most mystical sites and the most famous archaeological site in South America. But this highly revered gem is just a pebble in the path of thousands of years of Peruvian history and settlement. If you have already been to Machu Picchu, or want to get off the beaten path in Peru—a place as complex and colorful as the images the name conjures up, then you’re in luck. Brimming with more beguiling archaeological sites than annual visitors at Machu Picchu, Peru is full of hidden treasures. Here are just a few.
Chavín de Huántar
Set on a wide valley floor 50 miles east of Huaraz, this pre-Inca temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site was once one of the world’s largest religious centers with about 3,000 priests and attendants. Considered the “mother culture” of the Andes, the religious cult of Chavín was the first in the Andes to spread its influence over an extended area. The complex was created between 800 and 500 BC by the Chavín people. It’s—are you ready?—a whopping 2,000 years older than Machu Picchu! Shrines here were built to honor mountain spirits and it consists of a massive plaza, ruined pyramids, and a huge main temple stacked up on a hill. While it lacks the celebrity of Machu Picchu, it also lacks the crowds, but it is certainly not lacking in mystique. For those interested in pre-Inca history, it’s an absolute must-see!
Explore Chavín de Huántar and its ancient underground labyrinth with Stanford professor John Rick, PhD, as our personal guide, along with his expert team of excavators, on our Mysteries of Chavín journey.
This hidden Inca site, whose lyrical name means “The Cradle of Gold,” is truly a lost city of the Incas, perched high at 10,000 feet and spread over several mountain slopes in an absolutely stunning location. Still full of hidden secrets, this site was first discovered in the 1700s but it wasn’t thoroughly explored or excavated until the 1970s. Less than 40% of its ruins have been uncovered, but its stunning plazas, mysterious shrines, and other remains that tower above the turquoise Apurimac River are well worth the trek. There is no road access, making the trek to this high-altitude dreamscape an adventurous one—exactly how we like it!
Visit Choquequirao on our journey Choquequirao: Trek to the Cradle of Gold.
The Chachapoya, or “the Cloud People,” were a warrior-shaman society who reigned over a large swath of cloud-covered tropical rain forest in Peru from 800 AD until around 1470. The Chachapoya region today is seldom visited and largely unknown—but not for long. It’s one of the richest archeological areas in the world, and the time to go is now. Among the Chachapoyan sites which are nestled in the Andean highlands, the walled city of Kuèlap is a stunner. Situated at the top of a cliff esplanade at over 9,000 feet with views that rival Machu Picchu, it sprawls over 15 acres, contains over 400 ancient dwellings, and is surrounded by a perimeter wall reaching 50 feet in height. Many of the original round houses remain, including the tunnel-like enclosures that housed their typical food: the guinea pig.
Visit the orchid-draped cloud forests of the spectacular Utcubamba River Valley on one of our new adventure in Peru, Chachapoyas!
The imperial city of Cusco is believed to have been constructed in the shape of a puma—a sacred animal to the Incan people, with the megalithic fortress of Sacsayhuaman having formed the puma’s head, and Cusco’s palaces, temples, squares, and streets forming the puma’s body and legs. Meaning something along the lines of “Royal Eagle,” or “the place where the hawk landed,” Sacsayhuaman was the largest structure built by the Incas and is said to have a capacity for 1,000 warriors, though it was not just used as a fortress. It also includes temples, notably one to the sun god, Inti. Today, visitors can watch performers in traditional Inca clothing carry out elaborate reenactments of Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun god, at Sacsayhuaman.
Visit Sacsayhuaman on our Hidden Inca Trail Private Journey, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and Inca Trail Private Journey.
Located at a soaring 12,000 feet above sea level in the Urubamba Valley and known as “La Ciudad entre la Niebla” (The City above the Clouds), these Incan ruins include a beautiful set of linked stone baths and carved stone channels where mountain water still runs, surrounded by agricultural terraces. From Phuyupatamarka, an Inca-built stone staircase plunges a half-mile down into high jungle vegetation. Many who visit Machu Picchu rush past this city in the clouds, but we love this gorgeous site and savor our time discovering these fascinating ruins.