Peru is best known as the home of Machu Picchu but there is an endless list of other amazing archeological sites to visit in Peru’s Cusco Region.
For the past twenty years, René Pilco Vargas has been excavating archeological sites in and near Cusco. He studied archeology at the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco and at the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos de Lima. He says that while Machu Picchu should be on your list if you’re coming to Cusco, there are also dozens of other Inca archeological sites that are worth your time and that you can drive to or access with a short walk or day hike. Here are the top 15 that Pilco Vargas says you should try to fit in your visit to Peru’s Cusco region.
Note: Some of these sites Cusco archeological sites are free, some have separate entry fees, and some are included in the Boleto Turístico de Cusco, also called the BTC. The full BTC includes sixteen sites in both Cusco and the Sacred Valley and costs s/130 PEN (about $34 USD). A partial ticket for either the sites in Cusco or the Sacred Valley costs s/70 PEN (about $18 USD). The Peruvian Nuevo Sol (PEN) is a volatile currency, so always check the current exchange rate when planning your trip.
Top 15 Inca sites in and near Cusco:
Sacsayhuaman is the giant Inca archeological site that looms over the city of Cusco. While the site is called a fortress in most history books, Pilco Vargas explains that it was more of a ceremonial temple. Ceramics and other artifacts from throughout Tahuantinsuyu (the Quechua name for the Inca Empire) were found there, leading archeologists to conclude that it was a place where ritual offerings were made.
The walls are so impressive that it’s easy to understand the confusion. Sacsayhuaman was much bigger, before the Spanish dismantled most of it and used the stones to construct their own buildings and churches. However, the massive stones that the Spanish weren’t able to move give you a good idea of what it was like before. Several are estimated to weigh over 100 tons with the largest estimated at 125 tons. The shape of Sacsayhuaman was designed to be the head of a puma, with the city of Cusco below shaped as the body.
How to get there: You can take a taxi from anywhere in Cusco up to the site, or you can walk up the picturesque Calle Siete Borreguitos and follow the stairs to the back entrance gate of Sacsayhuaman. This route takes you by the Sapantiana Aqueduct, though it does include lots of stairs and shouldn’t be attempted on your first day at altitude. The Sacsayhuaman archeological site is 11.6 square miles, so don’t expect to see all of it in the typical one-hour tour. Guides are readily available but not required to enter the site.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: Sacsayhuaman is part of the BCT, and is included on the Cusco City Tour. The main gate opens at 7:00 AM and closes at 5:30 PM. Some areas are accessible without entering any gates or needing the BTC. Only the main sections of the site are wheelchair accessible on dirt and gravel trails.
In Quechua, “qori” means gold and “cancha” is a wall or enclosure. The wall surrounding the Qoricancha was plated with gold when the Spanish first arrived. Today the wall still stands, though the gold has long since been stolen. Pilco Vargas explains that Andean society was organized with duality in everything. Cusco and other cities were divided in the upper half, “hanan” and the lower half, “hurin”. These two Quechua words explain why there was one important temple, Sacsayhuaman, above the city and another further down, the Qoricancha.
The Spanish built the church of Santo Domingo on top of the Qoricancha, but inside you can still see the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. The temples are built with classic Inca architecture of perfectly carved stones that fit together like Legos. The sun and moon are represented in most Inca temples as a sacred duality. The Qoricancha is the best place to see another kind of duality: Inca and colonial architecture coexisting in the same space. There are also representations of the Inca agricultural and ceremonial cycles displayed near religious Spanish paintings from the colonial period.
Across the street from the Qoricancha is the Plazoleta de Santo Domingo and the archeological site of Kusicancha. Pilco Vargas says that originally the Qoricancha was much larger. What are now treated as two separate sites, the Qoricancha and Kusicancha, were one temple complex. What is now called the Plazoleta de Santo Domingo was named Intipampa during Inca times.
How to get there: The Qoricancha is an easy walk from the Plaza de Armas or a short taxi ride from anywhere in town.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: The entrance fee is s/15 ($4 USD) for adults and s/8 ($2 USD) for students who have a student ID card with them. Children under ten years old are free. It’s open every day from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM and is wheelchair accessible.
Ollantaytambo is now a sleepy little town, but it was once the site of the most famous battle between Manco Inca and invading Spanish forces in 1537. The Inca defended Ollantaytambo as the strategic gateway to Machu Picchu, according to Julio Rivera, licensed guide, and employee of the Ministry of Culture, who has worked exclusively at Ollantaytambo for five years.
Today Ollantaytambo is the most popular site in the Sacred Valley where you can see Inca buildings on the valley floor and impressive terraces leading up to the Sun Temple at the top. The wall that would have been the main part of the Sun Temple was partly destroyed by the Spanish. You can still see the faint outlines of three “chakana” and two puma heads. The chakana is usually translated as an Andean cross, though it represents different levels of existence, rather than the crucifix that the Christian cross represents. Below the Sun Temple are several unfinished walls that would have been the Moon Temple. Ollantaytambo doesn’t quite qualify as ruins because the site itself was unfinished when the Spanish arrived.
How to get there: From Cusco you can take a bus or taxi to the town of Ollantaytambo. Both are available at Puente Grau, five blocks south of the Plaza de Armas. The scenic drive takes about an hour and a half from Cusco to the Plaza de Armas in Ollantaytambo, which is only two blocks from the entrance to the archeological site. It is included in most tours of the Sacred Valley and is also the place where the train departs for Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: The entrance ticket is part of the BTC and is open every day from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The lower parts of the site are wheelchair accessible on dirt trails, but there are only ancient stone stairs leading up to the Sun Temple at the top.
The Inca ruins at Pisac are a city that was strategically positioned at the opposite end of the Sacred Valley from Ollantaytambo. According to Pilco Vargas, archeologists have uncovered ceramics that date back to pre-Inca civilizations, proving that the site was used long before the Inca dominated the area. Pisac also contains an intihuatana, which Pilco Vargas explains is a sacred stone, usually made from carved bedrock. The word “inti” means sun in Quechua and a “huatana” is a place of attachment. Thus, an intihuatana is where the sun attaches itself to the earth. There are hundreds of intihuatana in the Cusco area, including at Machu Picchu.
The Pisac ruins include wide agricultural terraces, residential buildings, a military lookout, a religious section, and a cemetery. Like all Inca cities, there is a complex system of aqueducts and canals which bring water from nearby mountaintops. Pisac has one of the best examples of an Inca cemetery, which consisted of small tombs cut into a cliff. Unfortunately, they have all been looted, but you can still see how small they were, as people were buried in the fetal position, exiting this world as they entered it.
How to get there: You can take a bus or taxi from Calle Puputi in Cusco to Pisac in half an hour. Calle Puputi is about ten blocks east of the Plaza de Armas, next to Colegio Garcilaso de la Vega. The Pisac archeological site is included in almost every tour of the Sacred Valley.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: There is a gate at the entrance, but no walls or fences around the site. The entrance ticket is part of the BTC and is open every day from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM. If you are there when the site is officially closed, you can usually still walk around, especially early in the morning. The first part of the trail along the tops of the terraces is wheelchair accessible, but the areas with buildings are not.
Inkilltambo is one of the least known, but best-preserved Inca cities close to Cusco. You can see the Inca’s signature wide, agricultural terraces, as well as a residential section and a religious section. Inkilltambo has some of the best-preserved storerooms, called ccolca, in the area. You can still see the ventilation system that kept the storerooms cold and dry. The ability to store food and transport preserved food around Tahuantinsuyu was one of the elements that gave the Inca so much organizational power.
According to Pilco Vargas, Inkilltambo didn’t receive any restoration work until 2005. At that time the Ministry of Culture funded a large-scale project led by several archeologists. Today there are still very few signs to explain what you are seeing, and those signs are mostly in Spanish. Pilco Vargas hopes that the Ministry of Culture will take a renewed interest in the site soon to make it more accessible to visitors.
How to get there: It’s a 20-minute taxi ride from the Plaza de Armas to the trailhead. The trail takes about half an hour and slopes gently uphill, following a stream. On the way, you pass two Inca kilns and a site named Huchuy Choquequirao. This is a stack of circular terraces used as an astrological observatory and as a site for ceremonies related to the movements of the stars. You can also have a taxi take you on a dirt road to the top of the ruins, from where you can walk down.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: There is no entrance fee, nor any gates or fences to close it at night or on holidays. It is not wheelchair accessible.
6. Huchuy Q’osqo
The Inca Wiracocha had this miniature city made for him and the Quechua name translates to “Little Cusco.” When the Chanca people were attacking Cusco, Wiracocha retreated to Huchuy Q’osqo, abandoning Cusco. A common soldier heroically led Cusqueñians to victory and was subsequently named Inca, after which he took the name Pachecutec. The Inca Pachecutec is one of the most well-known Inca and was responsible for building thousands of temples and towns, the most famous being Machu Picchu.
According to Pilco Vargas, the original name of Huchuy Q’osqo was Hakiapicahuana. “Hakia” means lightning and “picahuana” is a lookout or viewpoint. When the Inca Wiracocha had the place redesigned as a miniature version of Cusco, the name changed. However, geographically it is the perfect place to watch lightning storms roll through the Sacred Valley.
How to get there: Huchuy Q’osqo is one of the most difficult sites to access, though it is well worth the effort. You can walk uphill from Lamay, which is near Pisac and about an hour drive from Cusco. From Lamay, cross the river to where the trail starts. It’s only three miles long, but very steep and gains over 2,000 feet of elevation. Alternatively, you can walk downhill from either Chinchero or Patabamba, which is about six miles. Taxis to both towns are available in Cusco.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: On arrival you will be greeted by the guardians who live on site and will sell you the s/10 ($3 USD) ticket. There are no gates around the site, which is open every day of the year. This can be done as a full-day hike but there is also a camping area, and nearby are local families who rent rooms and cook meals for travelers. It is not wheelchair accessible.
7. Maukallaqta & Puma O’rqo
Like Inkilltambo, Maukallaqta has not yet made it to the tourist circuit. It’s out of the way enough that it has not been as looted as many other Inca sites. You can still see pottery and molds used to make silver plates. The city is one of the oldest Inca sites and, across the valley, is the famous cave Puma O’rqo, where the Ayer brothers emerged. The Ayer brothers are part of the founding myth of the Inca and a fascinating read.
Pilco Vargas explains that “mauka” means ancient and “llaqta” means town. There are dozens of sites named Maukallaqta in Peru, though this is the one that is related to the Ayer brothers and the beginning of Inca culture. Considering how extensive Tahuantinsuyu was, many different ethnic groups were under Inca control, though they retained their own culture and beliefs. Each ethnic group had their own origination myth and their own Maukallaqta, the place where their people began or were created.
How to get there: To get there, drive to the town of Yaurisque, about an hour south of Cusco on the road to Paruro. From Yaurisque, it’s a 20-minute drive on a dirt road to the trailhead. From the trailhead, it’s only a 15-minute walk, mostly flat, to the entrance to the archeological site. Some locals rent horses in Yaurisque, so you can ride directly to Maukallaqta.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: There is a guardian at the entrance to the site and the price is s/10 ($3 USD) per person. There are no gates or fences, so you can still enter if the guardian isn’t there. You can access the area by horse, but not with a wheelchair.
One of the many marvels of Tahuantinsuyu was their mastery of agriculture in so many diverse ecosystems. Moray is a naturally formed basin which the Inca modified to create a series of terraces. Each terrace that descends into the bowl is warmer than the one above, providing a perfect greenhouse. Archeologists have found evidence of hundreds of kinds of crops, many of which were probably hybridized here so the Inca could continually improve the yearly yield that they depended on.
How to get there: The site is a half hour drive from Urubamba and is included in most Sacred Valley tours. There are also tours that include Moray with Maras, which is an interesting historical and cultural place, though not an archeological site.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: Moray is open every day from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM and the entrance ticket is part of the BTC. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible on a dirt trail.
Arriving at Chinchero, what most people notice first is the grand vista of the glacial peaks that line the horizon. These are some of the most important apus, as sacred mountains are called in Quechua. Chinchero is at a higher altitude than Cusco, on a plateau between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The Inca ruins at Chinchero were part of a palace for the Inca and they couldn’t have been better placed, considering the view. There is now a Catholic church on top of the ruins, another example of how two belief systems continue to coexist.
The ruins consist of buildings that are right next to the church and wide agricultural terraces descending along a stream below the church. If you’re not interested in the church and the main area of ruins, you can walk downhill from the market and visit just the agricultural terraces. The Chinchero market, a traditional Peruvian market, draws locals from several nearby villages.
How to get there: Taxis and buses to Chinchero are available in Cusco at Puente Grau and on Jirón 21 de Mayo. The archeological site is only included in a few Sacred Valley tours, though many tours visit the weaving shops in the town. Some of these shops are billed as cooperatives, though the only weaving cooperative still functioning in Chinchero is The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: Both the church and the ruins are part of the BTC and are open every day from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM There is a person checking tickets at the entrance near the church. The church is still active, and services are held on Sunday morning. If you walk downhill from the market, there is neither a gate nor place to check tickets for the terraces. The site is not wheelchair accessible.
10. Temple of the Moon & Monkey Temple
Many ethnic groups inhabited the Cusco valley before the Inca came to rule the land, so when they came to power, there were already numerous temples like the Temple of the Moon and the Monkey Temple. As with almost all pre-Inca sacred sites, they were then appropriated, modified, and used by the Inca. The Temple of the Moon is a massive outcropping of limestone, with carvings on top, covering the sides and in the caves underneath. Only one of the caves is accessible to the public and it is still used for offerings today. The shelves carved into the cave walls are covered with coca leaves, incense, and other offerings left by Peruvians who still follow their ancestral traditions.
Pilco Vargas explains that though it is commonly called the Temple of the Moon today, the original name was Amarumarkawasi. In Quechua, “amaru” is a snake and “wasi” is a house. Hence, the former name means “the house of the snake.” There is a smaller archeological site called the Monkey Temple, which is just downhill from the Temple of the Moon. Neither site has interpretive signs explaining what you are seeing.
How to get there: The Temple of the Moon requires some walking. From the San Blas neighborhood in Cusco, walk uphill along the Qhapaq Ñan, which is the network of Inca trails that linked all four corners of Tahuantinsuyu. You can drive up to the Temple of the Moon, but you will miss the Monkey Temple. Taxis are available anywhere in Cusco.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: There is no entrance fee or gates around this site. Only a small part is wheelchair accessible on a dirt trail.
Piquillaqta is an extensive city, built in the pre-Inca period by the Wari people. There are two parts to this archeological site, one being the city and the second being the Inca gate. Pilco Vargas is part of a family of archeologists and his relative Remy Pilco has worked for years as an archeologist at Piquillaqta. According to his studies, the site that we see today as an empty city, was full of buildings up to three stories high. Horizontal ladders were used to link upper floors of adjacent buildings.
As with Maukallaqta, in Quechua “llaqta” is a town. “Piqui” means flea. This could have been a condescending Inca name for a place that they conquered but then didn’t use much. The architecture of the town of Piquillaqta is much more primitive than Inca architecture, which would have been typical of Wari builders.
However, the Inca gate that is just south of the Wari town is classic Inca construction with massive stones that fit together perfectly. The Inca gate protects the Cusco valley from invasion from the south. Any travelers coming from the southern parts of Tahuantinsuyu, in what is now the Lake Titicaca region, Bolivia, and Chile, would pass through this Inca gate.
How to get there: From Cusco drive southeast 30 miles along the road to Puno. The main city of Piquillaqta is on the left side of the road. If you pass it, you’ll immediately see the Inca Gate on the right side of the road. This archeological site is included in any South Valley Tour. Taxis and buses are available in Cusco. There is an entrance and guard house at the main archeological site, but not at the Inca Gate.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: The main archeological site is open from 9:00 AM. to 5:00 PM and the entrance ticket is part of the BTC. Some of the dirt and gravel trails are wheelchair accessible.
12. Waqra Pukará
Waqra Pukará is a truly impressive site. From a distance, it looks like a natural rock formation with horns, which is where the name comes from. In Quechua, “waqra” translates to horns or horned and “pukará” means fortress. When you get closer you will see that what looks like a natural cliff is also covered with Inca walls. The area between the horns has been flattened and surrounded by buildings, only some of which remain. You can see an intihuatana, astrological observation points, and boulders that still hold evidence of grinding herbs.
Like many Inca sites, Waqra Pukará was created by pre-Inca cultures and incorporated into the Incan Tahuantinsuyu. During the reign of Inca Wayna Qapaq, it was the site of royal drama. A rogue general, T’ito Qosñipa, and his troops took refuge there after attacking the Inca’s army. After quelling the rebellion, rather than executing him, Wayna Qhapaq decided to send him north to fight the Kañaris in what is today Ecuador. T’ito Qosñipa defeated the Kañaris and brought some of them back with him. Today the last name Cañari is still common in the area.
How to get there: There are three trails to reach the site, and each can be done roundtrip in a day. The easiest trail involves a two-hour drive from Cusco to the village of Sangarará, from where you drive uphill for half an hour to the trail head. The hike takes about three hours each way and crosses a high-altitude plateau before a short descent into the canyon where you get your first view of Waqra Pukará.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: There is a s/10 ($3 USD) entry fee, charged by the guardians who live on site. There are camping areas for those who want to make this a two-day hike, though no bathrooms or other facilities. It is not wheelchair accessible.
This site has interesting caves, where you can see stone tables used for sacrifices and an area that feels like a small amphitheater, with an intihuatana nearby. There are also tunnels, which were used symbolically to link the world of the living with the underworld. The name in Quechua means labyrinth and walking through the carved limestone walls you’ll see why. Look for the channels carved into the rocks, which could have been used to drain away the blood of sacrificed animals or for ritual use of chicha, a fermented corn drink. Several animals are carved into the walls, with figures that look like a monkey and a frog, among others.
How to get there: Q’enqo is very close to Cusco and can be accessed by walking up from the San Blas neighborhood along the same trail that takes you to the Temple of the Moon. You can also take a taxi or the public buses Huerto or Cristo Blanco.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: The admission fee to Q’enqo is included in the Cusco City Tour and part of the BCT. There is an entrance gate, which is opened from 7:00 AM to 5:30 PM. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible on dirt trails.
Tambomachay was the site of a temple dedicated to water and part of the structure remains. The most important features are the water system and the fountains, which still flow year-round. There was also a residence for the Inca, said to have been used for hunting trips.
How to get there: It is possible to walk to Tambomachay, though part of the walk includes a busy road without sidewalks. You can also take the public buses Huerto or Cristo Blanco. It is recommended to hire a taxi or visit with the Cusco City Tour.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility:Tambomachay is part of the BCT and is open 7:00 AM to 5:30 PM. It is somewhat wheelchair accessible on a rough stone path.
15. Puka Pukará
Puka Pukará is a Quechua name that translates to Red Fortress. From this former military and administrative center, you have a spectacular view of Cusco and the valley south of the city. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of military barracks and quarters for government officials and messengers. This was also a point of control for the Qapaq Ñan, the system of Inca trails that connected most of South America. When the Inca visited Tambomachay, the soldiers who accompanied him would stay at Puka Pukará.
How to get there: It is possible to walk to Puka Pukará from Tambomachay, which is only about ten minutes away. You can also take the public buses Huerto or Cristo Blanco, a taxi, or visit with any of the agencies that offer the Cusco City Tour.
Price, hours of operation, and accessibility: Puka Pukará is part of the BCT and is open from 7:00 AM. to 5:30 PM. You can view most of the ruins from the outside, though if you enter the site, there is an expansive view of the Cusco valley from the top. There are no walls or gates to close the site before or after hours. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible on dirt trails.