Peru is a world-famous travel destination, making many bucket lists for those who wish to see the Inca ruins. Some of the most popular spots to view the remains of this great civilization include the Ollantaytambo, Moray, Pisac, and, of course, Machu Picchu. Many travelers plan their entire trip around a visit to this Inca citadel.
However, you’ll quickly realize there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of ruins to explore. You might even get tired of bumping shoulders with throngs of other travelers who want to see them, too. Luckily, it’s easy to get off the typical tourist trail and you’ll be so glad that you did!
1. The Vilcashuamán Inca Palace of Huayna Capac
Among the quirky joys of traveling in Peru (or anywhere in South America) is the realization that several places can have the same name. Especially when it comes to ruins, this can make it quite confusing to know where to go.
The word Vilcashuaman, in Quechua, means “Sacred Falcon” and is a common name for many Inca sites. There are several ruins in Peru with this name, but the one we are referring to is in the Ayacucho region.
It takes a day through the undulating back roads of Peru to reach the Inca Palace of Huayna Capac. It’s centered in a small, remote city with the name Vilcashuamán.
The Inca ruins here are the only remaining pieces of what was once a large ancient city topping out around 40,000 residents. There are two main areas to see, the Temple of the Sun and Usnu.
Ironically, before the ruins were discovered, the Spaniards also settled this area in the 15th century. They unknowingly built their cathedral right on top of the Temple of the Sun. This makes for a unique historic site with mixed architecture from both time periods.
Usnu is located a few blocks away. It is believed to have been a sacrificial plaza during Inca times. The ruins represent a truncated pyramid with a row of seats laced across the top. Enough of the building remains intact that you can cross through the original doorjamb. Then, climb the ancient staircases where Inca emperors stepped before you.
You can even sit in the chairs (once plated in gold) of the Inca rulers to experience their view of the surrounding scenery, and to imagine the ceremonies which took place below them.
2. Moche Huacas del Sol y la Luna
Far fewer travelers make it to northern Peru, which is understandable considering the gargantuan breadth of Peru. The country is almost twice the size of Texas. Yet, heading north reveals some special treasures, including the rather recently discovered Moche pyramids.
Located in Trujillo, Peru, the exceptionally well-preserved Moche sites of the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca la Luna were first noticed in the late 1980s. Excavations are still underway and you can see the archeologists in action.
The Moche civilization long predates the Inca. It was a class of elite warriors and ritualistic priests who ruled the area between 150 and 500 BC. So far, findings include two adobe pyramids (huacas), temples, plazas, and countless skeleton-riddled tombs of both sacrificed warriors and the deceased elite.
Vibrant, naturally-preserved wall paintings, mosaics, and facades are among the notable findings within the pyramids. According to on-site guides, some pictorial reference eerily predict events noted in the Bible. However fascinating, such claims may not be validated by official researchers. Wildlife is also portrayed with ornate depictions of snakes, foxes, cats, and more. Plus intricate pottery, jewelry, and sculptures that denote a society that practiced human sacrifice; ritualistically drinking the blood of their victims.
3. Sayhuite Apurimac Monolith
Also known as ‘Stone of the Inca,’ Sayhuite or Saywite, is a massive, hand-carved rock that seems to be a combined blueprint and topography map of the surrounding area. The rock measures 6.5’ x 13’ wide and stands about 5’ high.
Since the Inca didn’t leave behind any written text or maps, it’s a particularly important artifact from the civilization. Sitting atop a set of ancient irrigation terraces and canals, the rock lends a unique element to another set of ruins in Peru.
The ancient people carved this rock more than 15,000 years ago and it includes more than 200 engravings. Among the ornate elements are streets, buildings, canals, terraces, stairways tunnels, rivers, and ponds. But, also tiny animals like frogs, monkeys, jaguars, crabs, and birds.
Although its purpose is only a guess, experts say it may have been a teaching tool for city planners and the so-called architects of the day. Also, included at the Sayhuite site are nine ancient fountains at the base of a terraced irrigation canal, spattered throughout the underlying countryside.
To see it means taking a day trip from Cusco, as it’s about a three-hour drive away. You can also visit it from Abancay, which is about an hour outside the city.
4. Tumbas de Yuraq Qaqa
Most travelers head into Peru’s Colca Canyon to experience epic hiking trails in one of the world’s deepest canyons. Although it’s not far from Arequipa, the true main hub of the canyon is the small town of Chivay.
Far too many people fail to pause here, thinking there is nothing more to do than soak in the thermal pools after several days of hiking. But, high-tailing it out of Chivay is a big mistake, as the surrounding areas harbor several barely-visited ruins in Peru with big wow factors.
One of them is the Tumbas de Yuraq Qaqa, part of the San Antonio Archeological Complex. You can reach it via an easy trail that gracefully climbs up from the croplands of Coporaque, a tiny neighboring village along an old mud farm road. As it rises, the terrain changes from great plains and pastures to towering cliffs filled with deer and condors.
At the top of the short trail, one side of the path opens up to spectacular views of the Peruvian countryside while the other ends against a cliff. The natural wall is flanked with small adobe structures that serve as tombs to the Colaguas people, who lived here prior to the arrival of the Inca.
The real attention grabber here is the fact that even today, the skeletal remains have not been removed from these ancient mausoleums. You can actually peek through the windows to see skulls, bones, and other artifacts that have been here since 200AD.
5. Sacsayhuaman of Chivay
Once again, very few explorers head to these ruins in Peru. Located on the less-touristy side of the area, referred to as Old Chivay, you can find the Sacsayhuaman of Chivay perched high above the residential side of town.
A short, but steep walk up an old staircase from the main plaza unravels a rather impressive set of ruins that happen to share their name with the famous Sacsayhuaman of Cusco. But, the experience is entirely unique.
The first impression is met with a collection of chulpas, small adobe structures that resemble brick igloos alongside tall cylindrical towers. This type of Inca structure is rare and many people traverse all the way to Puno to see what is touted as the only set of such ruins in Peru. Very few realize that they can be seen in the Colca Canyon, without a tour and for free.
Beyond the chulpas is an extensive trail network leading to more ruins including a circular, terraced amphitheater very similar to the very famous Pisac ruins, an Inca sundial, and several exceptional lookout points marked by the locals. From up above the city, you can clearly see the Misti Volcano in the distance, unique perspectives of the Colca valley, and an aerial perspective of Chivay’s stone Inca Bridge.
6. Sondor Ruins
The theme of getting into the countryside continues with a trip to Andahuayalas. You can spend a full day here paddle-boarding or fishing on the Pacucha Lake and then hitching a ride up to the Sondor Ruins.
A true local’s gem, very few tours make it here and you’ll probably have to rely on other visitors or the townsfolk to get to the ruins. But, it’s worth it.
The structures may be considered less impressive than others, but the location and the rare cultural experience you’ll get here are parallel to none. A 10-acre site that seems to dart right into the Andes hints at rural life before the Inca arrived, and the keepers of the ruins can’t wait to tell you all about it.
Just past the entrance on the way up a big hill that overlooks the lake and panoramic valleys, an attendant waits with a collection of ancient-clothing remakes. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience to literally dress up like an ancient emperor in colorful clothing and crowns before taking a seat on the mountain-top throne.
The dress-up game is meant to mimic the lifestyle of the ancient culture that reigned here before the Inca pushed them out, the Chanka society. After relishing the special activity to connect with ancient deities, the best part of the ruins is the climb 500 stairs to reach the ceremonial center.
Today, the effort reveals a mountain-top vista worthy of an Andean peak ascent. But, those who trod before us were usually climbing this hill to meet their fate. Legends say it was the nearest place to the sun, where the society offered human sacrifices to their gods.