For most people, Peru is Machu Picchu. It's understandable: the site's location and prominence has earned it a place as one of the world's most iconic places.

But it's also a shame that this one set of ruins and the surrounding Sacred Valley has virtually eclipsed the rest of the country. Not only because Peru is a fascinating place itself, but also because it's absolutely jam packed with other ruins and historical sites – some of which rival Machu Picchu in their scale and beauty.

Exploring Peru's archeological sites beyond the small cluster around Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley opens up much more of the country’s unique history and the long line of pre-Columbian civilisations that pre-dated the Inca by centuries, possibly millennia. From the feline-obsessed religious ideology of Chavín de Huántar to the cloud forest Chachapoyas warriors and Kuélap, there is so much more to the country's pre-Columbian story.

Here's our essential guide to Peru's best ruins and alternatives to Machu Picchu.

Peru Choquequirao mist

Choquequirao, not far from Machu Picchu and equally impressive, receives a fraction of the visitors

Alternatives to Machu Picchu

It's a given that any trip to Peru will include a visit to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Just remember, Peru’s archaeological brilliance extends far beyond its famous Inca ruins. If you can, try to spare some time to venture further afield and see any of the following historical sites.

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The remnants of Caral, thought to pre-date Machu Picchu by several thousand years

Caral

Caral is a prehistoric city founded around 3000 BC in the Supe River valley, some three hours north of Lima. It’s a place of scant aesthetic distinction: parched brown sand flats, a few crumbling pyramids, and little else.

Nor is much known of the people who built it, who lack even an agreed-upon name. Yet Caral’s importance is incalculable, for it’s one of only a handful of places on the planet where humans crossed what archaeologists call ‘the great divide’ — where civilisation spontaneously arose out of its opposite.

Caral is not immediately prepossessing and most of the structures are severely decayed—unsurprisingly, given their extreme antiquity—so that the overall sense is one of desolation. But this initial glimpse is deceiving. In reality, the closer you get, the more Caral fascinates.

Most visitors to Caral spend four or five hours at the site. However, the outing is almost inevitably an all-day affair, since the trip from Lima (the most common point of departure) takes roughly three hours each way. An early start will guarantee you sufficient time to walk around.

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Chan Chan was the largest pre-Columbian city ever built

Chan Chan

Chan Chan was constructed by the Chimú, a powerful, visionary civilisation that arose after the fall of the Moche in the ninth century A.D.

In the wake of a disastrous El Niño event circa 1150, the Chimú began an aggressive campaign of expansion, incorporating several nearby cultures into their economy and swelling Chan Chan itself to cover some eight square miles. In 1470, just when the city was at its peak, the Inca overran it and took its rulers and artisans prisoner. The Chimú are now no more, but their surreal architecture remains, half-buried beneath scorching desert sands.

Arriving at Chan Chan today from the modern city of Trujillo, most of what you see are mud-brick mounds, severely eroded by wind and rain. These are the former outskirts of Chan Chan, and could easily be mistaken for red-clay hummocks. Upon entering the complex, rectangular walls appear, but it’s only after passing through the narrow openings of these walls that the site’s full majesty reveals itself.

For most visitors, half a day should suffice to see the site. Allow three to four hours — more if you want to see the archaeological museum outside the complex’s grounds.

Peru Chavín de Huántar gate

Chavín de Huántar: "The birthplace of South American culture"

Chavín de Huántar

“The birthplace of South American culture” — such was the great Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello’s epithet for Chavín de Huántar. Time may have qualified his judgment, but it’s done nothing to alter its basic rightness.

Chavín de Huántar was built by the Chavín people, a prehistoric Andean culture that takes its name from the site and that flourished between 900 and 200 BC. Most archaeologists believe the site was constructed in two stages: the so-called Old Temple took shape from 1,000 to 500 BC, while the adjoining New Temple was added between 500 and 200 BC. The resultant complex was in its day the most important pilgrimage destination in the Andes: worshippers would travel thousands of miles to participate in its sacred rituals and consult its oracle. Meanwhile, Chavín textiles, metalwork, and ceramics served to spread the monotheistic cult of a bizarre fanged deity throughout Peru.

The Chavín ruins are not especially impressive at first glance. Yet as one gets closer, one senses the place’s uncanny spiritual presence. The first sight upon arrival is a vast sunken courtyard, grass-covered and flanked by platforms. Next comes the grey-brown sandstone face of the New Temple, with its columned portal and protective scaffolding. Finally, continuing to the right, one arrives at the Old Temple, with another sunken courtyard. Not much to look at — but the true payoff is inside.

Half a day should suffice to see the ruins; many visitors take day trips from Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca. If you want to see the complex early in the morning and explore the site’s museum at your leisure, overnight stays at the mountain town of Chavín are highly recommended.

Peru Choquequirao terraces

Choquequirao's uniquely decorated terraces

Choquequirao

Choquequirao was erected in the latter part of the 15th century, most likely under the reign of Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471-1493). Like Machu Picchu, it was probably designed as a pleasure retreat and administrative centre for the Sapa Inca, but after the empire’s collapse in the late 1500s, it too lay abandoned and unknown for centuries.

As with its more famous sister, its obscurity owed a great deal to geography: the site lies on the far, unpopulated side of a peak overlooking the Apurímac River, at a height of some 10,000 feet.

Choquequirao is situated on a levelled hill saddle some 60 miles as the crow — or condor — flies from Cusco. Its location reflects the Inca notion of sacred geography: both the Apurímac River below and the glaciated 18,000-foot peak above were considered holy.

The site occupies seven square miles, three times the size of Machu Picchu, of which only 30% has been cleared of vegetation.

At least one full day is necessary to see Choquequirao properly. However, since visitors inevitably come equipped with camping gear, they can extend their time as long as they like. Two, three, even four-day stays are common to explore the many satellite precincts. The only limit is one’s eagerness to get back to civilisation.

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Kuélap, the 'Machu Picchu of northern Peru'

Kuélap

Constructed by the Chachapoyas people, a formidable and mysterious pre-Inca civilisation who referred to themselves as ‘Warriors of the Cloud’, Kuélap was probably first settled sometime in the fifth or sixth century AD and gradually built up over almost a millennium. Current scholarly opinion posits it took on its present form sometime in the 1000s, remaining inhabited well into the 1500s. But as with all things Chachapoya, these dates are tentative at best.

For such a grand monument, Kuélap sees surprisingly few visitors. Those who do make the trek to the cloud forest are rewarded with some of the most spectacular pre-Columbian ruins in the continent.

Kuélap consists of some 16 acres of ruins atop a steep mountain ledge in what Peruvians call the ceja de la selva (eyebrow of the jungle) — the eastern side of the Andes that faces the Amazon. This means it’s surrounded by cloud forest, and on the many days in the region when it’s rainy, you’ll look down from the mountaintop on an abyss of fog.

Half a day is sufficient to tour the site. Monumental as the architecture is, only hardcore archaeology buffs will feel the need to spend more than four or five hours seeing it.

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Frescos at the Moche ruins near Trujillo

Moche Valley

The Moche’s chief temples, the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, were constructed between 0 and 500 AD, under the scabrous, ashy pile of Cerro Blanco near modern-day Trujillo. Like the Aztecs, the Moche would continually add to their pyramids, building them upward and outward in ever-expanding layers. But suddenly, around 550 AD, this fierce desert people vanished, decamping for other sites to the north.

Some key features include: Great Patio, Looter’s tunnel, North façade and Rebellion of the objects.

Half a day should be sufficient to see the pyramids. Signage at the Moche capital is minimal, but some of the local tour guides are excellent.

Included with admission to the site is a visit to the Museo Huacas de Moche, which includes highly informative displays about Moche art, history, religion and human sacrifice. Buses leave for the pyramids approximately every half an hour from Suarez in Trujillo or you can take a taxi.

Outdoor Gardens Convent of Santo Domingo with ruins of Qorikancha Temple Coricancha City of Cusco Peru

The much-modified temple of Qorikancha, in Cusco

Qorikancha (Cusco)

The Qorikancha is to the Inca what the Kaaba is to Islam or the Temple Mount to Judaism: the Holiest of Holies. Built, like Machu Picchu, during the 15th century reign of Pachacutec, it’s far and away the most important edifice in Cusco — and, defacements aside, one of the most sublime.

The temple covers three city blocks just south of Cusco’s main square. Constructed from the same hard andesite as other Inca monuments, it features tapered-stone walls and a maze of inner shrines to the sun, moon, stars, thunder and rainbows.

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Sacsayhuamán, overlooking the city of Cusco

Sacsayhuamán (Cusco)

Sacsayhuamán was built in the 15th century on a high hill overlooking Cusco from the west. It served as a religious and military complex until 1536, when it became the site of a desperate pitched battle between the Spaniards and the Incas that was one of the turning points of the Conquest.

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Machu Picchu & the Sacred Valley

No round-up of Peru's historical sites can ignore Machu Picchu and the Inca’s most famous archaeological site needs no introduction. Built during the reign of emperor Pachacutec (1438-71), the Alexander the Great of South America, this mountaintop citadel has mesmerised travellers the world over ever since Hiram Bingham stumbled across it back in 1911. Scholars are still debating exactly what it is: Summer retreat for the Sapa Inca? Andean administrative centre? Refuge for a culture in decline? No matter what they conclude, for countless visitors the site will forever be the high point of their South American sojourn.

In this guide:

Peru's Other Ruins: Alternatives To Machu Picchu

Hugh Thomson

Hugh has led several research expeditions to Peru and is the author of The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland and of Cochineal Red: Travels through Ancient Peru.

Peru's Other Ruins: Alternatives To Machu Picchu

Mike Gasparovic

Mike is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week and has created two book-length guides to his new hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish speaking world.

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