Peru beyond Machu Picchu

Alternatives to the Inca heartland

Famed as the Inca heartland, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. In the peak summer months, more than 5,000 people visit the site each day, double the maximum of 2,500 advised by UNESCO. Overtourism is a very real danger here — and not just to the detriment of visitors’ experience, but also the site itself.

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For example, the Inca Trail — the 26 mile trek from kilometre 82 to Machu Picchu — has seen a massive influx of hikers over the past few decades. In 1984, just 6,000 people walked the trail. By 2000, this number had grown to 84,000, leading to erosion along the path and mountains of rubbish, with plastic water bottles a particular problem.

Japanese scientists from the University of Kyoto caused further panic in 2001 when their research suggested that the slopes on the western side of Machu Picchu were slipping down the hill by 1cm a month, prefacing a potentially catastrophic landslide for the site. Amongst their reasons for the movement was the number of tourists unsettling the site’s subsoil.

This, along with the ever-growing number of visitors to Machu Picchu and increased pressure from UNESCO, forced the Peruvian government to take action.

It started by introducing limits on the number of visitors to both Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. In 2001, unaccompanied walks on the Inca Trail were banned and strict rules were imposed on tour companies, such as banning the use of unauthorised campsites, forcing all rubbish to be removed by tour companies and limiting the weight porters could carry to 20kg. By 2005, new rulings limited the total number of people allowed to hike the trail to 500 and hiking permits were introduced.

In 2011, the Peruvian government introduced new regulations on visitors to Machu Picchu. The total number of people entering the citadel was capped at 2,500, with entrances to the Huayna Picchu trail limited to just 400. So how did we end with more than 5,000 people visiting Machu Picchu each day?

At a stroke on July 1st 2017, the Peruvian government — somewhat cynically — made all entrance tickets valid for just half a day, instead of a full day. At the same time, it raised the number of tickets for sale from 2,500 to 6,534. In theory, the site sees the same amount of footfall each day. In practice, half a day is enough for most visitors to the site.

It then updated visitor rules in 2019, replacing the half-day option with hourly tickets. The idea is to flow visitors through the site in a more orderly fashion, replacing the early morning rush and limiting the number of visitors inside the site at any one time. It also reduced the total number of daily visitors to Machu Picchu, capping it at 5,600 and cut the number of circuits to walk around to two.

However, given that the Peruvian government is aiming to double the number of tourists to the country to seven million by 2021, more wear and tear on Machu Picchu and its trails seems inevitable.

This is the juxtaposing challenge that lies at the heart of overtourism. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are historical sites well worth spending time and money on. For the Peruvian government and people, the Inca citadel is its most marketable venue and biggest cash cow. However, the more it encourages people to visit — and numbers are growing as travel becomes cheaper and easier — the more it harms the very site it needs.

Alternatives to Machu Picchu

Peru is awash with historic sites. Exploring beyond Machu Picchu opens up much more of the country’s unique place in history. From the feline-obsessed religious ideology of Chavín de Huántar to the cloud forest Chachapoyas warriors and Kuélap, there is much to see and learn about.

Ultimately, each traveller needs to make a decision about whether they should visit Machu Picchu or not. Just remember — Peru’s archaeological brilliance extends beyond its famous Inca ruins.

A brief history of pre-Columbian Peru

Five millennia of archaeology

For most travellers, Peruvian history can be summed up by one word: Inca. While the Inca civilisation remains the most studied and most encountered in Peru, it is merely one of many fascinating cultures you will meet on your trip through the country.

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Visiting the many ruins and cultural sites that Peru offers is a highlight for most travellers. The country’s wealth of sites matches those of Egypt, Mexico and the Mediterranean. What differentiates it is that the knowledge we do have about its history comes almost entirely from archaeological excavation, with almost no written records surviving.

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Chavín de Huantar 400-500 BC

Preceramic period

Evidence of human existence in Peru dates all the way back to 9,000 BC. Peru’s first people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in caves and hunting sabre-toothed tigers and mastodons. There are cave paintings of hunting scenes from these first people at Lauricocha and Toquepala.

Around 4,000 BC, Peru’s people began domesticating animals and planting seeds, moving from their nomadic hunting lifestyle to settled fisherfolk and farmers. Many settled on Peru’s coastal strip, trading with others in the Amazon basin and living in simple stone dwellings. These people also built ceremonial structures for ritual purposes, of which some still survive complete with friezes and human burials. The ruins of Caral are evidence of the oldest civilisation in South America, dating from 3,000 BC.

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Nazca Lines 500 BC-500 AD

Early horizon

Also known as the Chavín Horizon, the period between 1,000 and 300 BC is known for the religious idolatry of the Chavín culture and their spiritual centre of Chavín de Huántar, near Huaraz. Represented by the repeated motif of a stylised feline (usually a jaguar or puma), this period is known as a horizon as the same imagery appeared at different cultures independently, suggesting an exchange of ideas and beliefs.

The influence of this period is seen in the development of weaving, pottery, artwork and society — clear signs of a unifying culture.

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Chan Chan 850 AD

Intermediate period

The Chavín culture inexplicably lost its influence around 300 BC, although the importance of its contribution to Andean religion lives on in Peru to this day. From its demise, several cultures flourished between 300 BC and 1,400 AD, in what is known as the intermediate period.

The early intermediate period’s best known grouping is the Paracas Necropolis, named for a burial site found south of Lima. This culture is known for the quality of its textiles, which are considered the finest in pre-Columbian history.

Two other cultures that flourished during this period are the Moche in the Trujillo area and the Nazca on the south coast. You can see the history of both cultures at sites across Peru. The Moche built ‘pyramids’ (really platforms) called the Temples of the Sun and Moon near Trujillo and there is also a series of Moche tombs near Chiclayo. The Nazca are best known for the Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs carved into the soil of the Nazca desert. These depict animals, geometrical shapes and even humans.

The second half of the 6th century saw a catastrophic drought in coastal Peru, wiping out the Moche. This allowed the Huari people to emerge, based in the Ayacucho region of the Andes. An expansionist culture, the Huari were not afraid of combat and sought to subdue the culture of those they conquered. As such, little is known about other cultures between 700 AD and 1,100 AD beyond what archaeologists have excavated.

The Huari’s aggressive rule meant other cultures viewed them warily. By 1,000 AD, their influence was waning and their governance replaced by local cultures in individual areas. These include the Chimú of Trujillo, who built the impressive adobe capital Chan Chan; the Chachapoyas warrior tribe of the cloud forest and the Kuélap citadel; and the coastal Sican, descendants of the Moche. These individual states would thrive for the next 400 years.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu 1450 AD

Inca empire

The most famous pre-Columbian civilisation is undoubtedly the Inca. And yet, for all its strength, the Inca empire only flourished for a century. Prior to Pachacutec in 1438, the Inca had been constrained to the valley of Cusco. However, a successful battle with the neighbouring Chanka tribe gave the Inca a thirst for conquest.

Over the next 25 years, they would conquer much of the central Andes, before expanding their empire from Colombia to Argentina. They would also build many mountaintop citadels, including Peru’s famous Machu Picchu. However, Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and subsequent Spanish invasion in 1532 was the beginning of the end for the Inca. At Cajamarca, the Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, succeed in capturing the Inca king Atahualpa, forcing them to retreat to the jungle. They would never recover.

How to get to Caral

Peru's oldest civilisation

How to get to Caral
By Mike Gasparovic

In 1994, archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis stumbled on a strange mound in Peru’s grey lunar desert. Today, a quarter-century later, the city beneath that mound, Caral, has become one of the keys to understanding humankind’s leap from barbarism to civilisation.

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.

What do the ruins look like?

Caral is not immediately prepossessing. Entering from the ticket area, you see a harsh grey expanse strewn with what look to be mud-brick mounds. 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.

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The site

Caral’s urban sectors occupy some 163 acres, divisible into a central area and a periphery. The former consists of an upper and a lower half, with 32 public buildings, while the latter is made up of farms and residential districts. When you visit, you’ll be guided one-by-one through the ruins — several of which are quietly astonishing.

Take, for example, the Great Pyramid, located along the northern edge of the town’s upper half. Built of locally quarried stone, it has a massive sunken plaza, a broad staircase leading to its upper deck, subterranean galleries, and a host of platforms and sacred spaces on top. It’s easy to envision a priest here in his headdress and tunic, arms outstretched over the fire pits in the centre.

Or take the so-called Amphitheatre Temple: built like a stadium, it has the city’s biggest circular plaza, subterranean ventilation ducts, and rows of mysterious niches. Dozens of flutes and horn-like instruments have been recovered from inside, suggesting the Supe River people were no strangers to large-scale carousing.

Other constructions exist too. Step-pyramids figure elsewhere on the grounds, as do artists’ workshops and cramped housing blocks. Not all of these edifices are gems, architecturally speaking. Yet the collective story behind them is extraordinary.

The history of Caral

Caral is one of only six places on the planet where civilisation sprang up — the others being China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. That means sometime around 3000 BC, ancient Peruvians decided it would be beneficial to leave behind mere survivalism and band together for a common good. The result was a quantum leap forward for humans across the hemisphere.

Why did such a leap occur? For years, archaeologists assumed the answer was obvious — defence. But when Ruth Shady and her colleagues analysed Caral’s ruins, they found no weapons, barricades, or defensive walls. Caral appeared to be entirely peaceful. What, then, gave rise to its revolution in social organisation?

What Shady eventually determined was that trade, not war, lay behind Caral’s flowering. Cotton bags and fishing nets found at the site indicated the city was the centre of a vast commercial network, one that stretched from the desert coast to other settlements in the Supe Valley, and then to the Amazon jungle. Caral’s inhabitants appear to have provided cotton for clothes and nets, while its partners supplied fish from the ocean and vegetable products from the rainforest.

Two conclusions loomed large: One, Caral was a bridge, between geographical regions as well as between historical epochs. And two, prehistoric humans perhaps weren’t as nasty as had been thought.

Norte Chico culture

Caral and the other cities of Peru’s Norte Chico region flourished from 3000 to 1800 BC. Centred around three river valleys — the Fortaleza, Patavilca, and Supe — in a single 40-mile coastal stretch, they included as many as 30 settlements at their peak. Sometime around 1800 BC, the region went into decline, possibly owing to climate-based disasters.

Beyond its role as South America’s mother city, Caral’s influence has been vast. Its U-shaped buildings with sunken central courts were copied throughout the Peruvian Andes — notably at Chavín de Huántar — while its monumental architecture became a touchstone for large settlements everywhere. Caral’s stylistic elements, too, were adopted by later cultures: witness the zig-zag detailing among the Chachapoya, or the geoglyphs among the Nazca. Finally, Caral seems to have been the first community to employ quipus, the knotted-string system used to record information and bequeathed to other cultures all the way down to the Inca.

How to get to Caral

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.

Caral’s tourist services are a standout. Not only are there abundant materials at the site to explain the city’s layout and significance, but guides are often trained archaeologists or their assistants.

The best way to get to Caral is to take a bus from Lima’s Terminal Terrestre near Plaza Norte. Get off at the town of Supe; there will be taxis waiting near the bus stop to shuttle you to the complex.

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Key Features

Most of Caral’s most important discoveries have been whisked away to museums in Lima. However, you can still visit the site and its small interpretation centre.

Caral’s pyramids: Climb any of Caral’s six stone pyramids for views over the site and the Supe Valley.

Chupacigaro geoglyph: Just west of the main site lies a large image etched in circular stones. Called a geoglyph, the image shows a human face with streaming hair and a gaping mouth. Although its meaning is unclear, the geoglyph is believed to have been constructed at the same time as Caral.

How to get to Chan Chan

The Chimu's eerie fortress

How to get to Chan Chan
By Mike Gasparovic

With its strange, honeycomb-like walls and labyrinth of wavelike parapets, this sprawling adobe capital looks at first to have been made by extraterrestrials. But don’t let its weird alien geometry fool you: Chan Chan was the seat of the greatest American empire prior to the Incas — and the largest pre-Columbian city ever built.

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.

What do the ruins look like?

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.

The different sectors of Chan Chan are in varying states of conservation. One of its precincts, the Tschudi ciudadela (royal compound), has almost been fully restored; its royal court, audience chambers, and mausoleum are the principal attraction for tourists today. Other areas of the city, however, are severely decayed, and frequently closed to the public.

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The site

Chan Chan as a whole consists of between nine and twelve ciudadelas, depending on how you count. These were rectangular enclosures with 30-foot walls that served as palaces for the Chimú kings. When one king died, his ciudadela would be converted into a mausoleum, and his successor would build another enclosure to serve as his own royal court.

The Tschudi ciudadela is a hybrid reconstruction consisting of original adobe walls and modern fibreglass detailing. As you enter, you’ll see a vast ceremonial plaza with a raised platform against the far wall. This may have been a waiting area for subjects requesting an audience with the king. From there, the tour continues to the right, where you’ll see an exterior wall ornamented with mud-brick friezes of fish, waves, and pelicans.

Next stop is a row of chambers called audiencias, which likely served as administrative offices for courtly officials. They’re adjacent to a second ceremonial plaza, from which a ramp leads up to a sunken garden that’s been filled with a freshwater pond and totora reeds. At the far end of the compound lies the royal mausoleum, where the king was buried with his entourage of young girls (the Chimú practised human sacrifice) as well as gold, silver, and spondylus-shell treasures.

The history of Chan Chan

Chan Chan, like all metropolises, was diverse. Apart from the royal precincts in the city centre, it had several barrios that housed artisans: metalworkers, weavers and ceramic makers. Some of these craftsmen enjoyed considerable prestige, for handicrafts were among Chan Chan’s chief exports. Apart from this, there were humbler sectors for labourers and merchants in the city’s periphery, while fishers and farmers lived outside the urban walls in simple wattle-and-daub huts.

Chimú culture

The Chimú may have arisen as a civilisation around 900 or 1000 AD, but their imperial phase began in earnest in 1150, after a massive El Niño event made them question the fragility of their agricultural system. As a result, they sought to reclaim vast swathes of territory from the desert by means of canals, and this led them to conquer or enter into economic alliances with nearly all of the cultures of northern Peru.

In the 1300s, they took over the Sicán people in the Lambayeque valley to the north, learning from them the art of fine metalworking. By 1400, they controlled nearly 800 miles of coastal territory from Tumbes in the north to Chancay in the south. Their empire ended only with their invasion by the Inca in 1470.

The Chimú are probably best known for their society building. Chan Chan was home to more than 10,000 homes and urban spaces such as wells, canals and temples allowed people to gather together. The Chimú even decorated their homes with precious metals and friezes to distinguish wealth.

How to visit Chan Chan

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.

As is frequently the case in Peru, signage and other information at Chan Chan is limited. Maps and brochures are available, but they’re best supplemented by an informed guide, available either outside the ticket office or back in Trujillo. There’s also an interesting museum for the site, inconveniently located a third of a mile down the road from Chan Chan’s entrance.

At the time of writing, the Chan Chan museum (though not the site itself) is closed on Mondays.

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Key features

A few features to watch out for include:

Friezes: Many of the friezes at Chan Chan depict marine subjects. The ubiquitous cross-hatching on the walls probably represents a fisherman’s net, while the fish and waves refer to the Chimús’ principal source of protein. However, the artists were sometimes given to fits of caprice: in one chamber, the designs show squirrels playing with what appear to be pet geckos.

Anti-earthquake design: Peru is notoriously earthquake-prone, but Chan Chan’s walls have successfully resisted tremors due to their anti-seismic design. This includes a slight inward taper and adobe-brick construction to absorb shocks.

Riding the waves: In addition to their skills at architecture and metallurgy, the Chimú are also credited with having invented the caballitos de totora (reed-woven canoes), still used by fishermen along Peru’s north coast. Surf enthusiasts can head to Huanchaco, Chan Chan’s neighbouring beach town, to try one out.

How to get to Chavín de Huántar

Ground zero for Peru's first religious cult

How to get to Chavín de Huántar
By Mike Gasparovic

“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.

What do the ruins look like?

Chavín de Huántar is situated in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, some 160 miles north of Lima, in a fertile valley near the confluence of the Mosna and Huanchecsa rivers. The area is flanked by green and grey hills, with snowy Mount Huantsán in the distance.

The Chavín ruins are not especially impressive at first glance. Most are greatly deteriorated, owing to their extreme antiquity, and the whole front façade of the temple is heavily corroded by landslides, tomb raiders, and villagers (the latter pilfered its stones to build their houses, sometimes right on the complex’s grounds). 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.

Chavín-de-Huántar

The Chavín de Huántar site

From close up, Chavín de Huántar’s hybrid nature reveals itself. Like Caral and other cities of the coast, it features a massive shrine in the form of an inverted U, with the New and Old Temples as the left and right prongs. Also like Caral, it has a sunken circular courtyard that probably served as a fire pit for sacrifices and open-air rituals. But a deeper parallel lies within — in its subterranean passageways.

These passageways are creepy enough for us today; one can only imagine what they must have been like for acolytes of the Chavín cult. Winding labyrinths, carved air shafts, dank underground galleries: the bowels of this archaic cellar are the stuff of nightmares. More macabre still, at its centre lies the Lanzón, a leering, 15-foot statue of a malevolent feline deity that was the object of the Chavín people’s worship. The current interpretation holds it represented the dark power of the life force — profoundly sacred for Andean people.

The other half of Chavín’s dual nature appears outside, in its iconography. Serpents and caimans, jaguars and monkeys: the carvings on the walls make clear the influence of Amazonian art and shamanism. This hybridism is unsurprising, given Chavín’s location exactly midway between Peru’s coasts and the jungle. By a strange irony of history, the mother culture of the Andes sprang from the region’s desert lowlands and humid tropics.

The New Temple also has galleries and plazas in its interior, but not all of them are currently open to the public.

The history of Chavín de Huántar

Chavín de Huántar was ground zero for the Andes’ first religious cult. As reconstructed by archaeologists, the cult’s rituals went as follows:

First, participants would use nose tubes to snuff up hallucinogenic drugs made from the San Pedro cactus. Next, they would follow priests into the temple labyrinths, where their senses would be overwhelmed by the darkness and the bellowing of conch shells. Finally, they would encounter the Lanzón, the primal god himself — an overwhelming vision that served to reinforce the power of the priests who ruled Chavín.

In this way evolved a powerful system of social control that paved the path for two thousand years of Andean spirituality.

Chavín culture

Chavín culture flourished in and around the Huántar sanctuary in the so-called Early Horizon period (900 to 200 BC). During this time, the town was successively occupied by at least three distinct groups, and grew into a quasi-urban centre with a bustling handicrafts industry. It declined sometime in the second century BC, possibly due to its lack of state apparatus to guarantee long-term stability.

The artistic work of the Chavín is more stylised than that of later Peruvian cultures like the Moche and Nazca, making it harder for archaeologists to get a true picture of what everyday life was like in Chavín de Huántar. However, there is evidence (from the architectural treasure that is ancient rubbish dumps) that the Chavín developed agricultural practices, with corn a staple and squash, avocado and other crops grown.

Chavín’s greatest achievement was its creation of the Andean religion. Scholars are still debating the exact nature of this cult — monotheistic vs polytheistic, animism vs personalism — but there’s no doubt as to its pervasiveness. By means of textiles and metal objects bearing religious imagery, the priests and artisans of Chavín laid the basis for a belief system that shapes Peruvian culture to this day.

How to get to Chavín de Huántar

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.

Local guides to the ruins are a step up from what you normally find in Peru; some day-trip leaders from Huaraz are quite knowledgeable. There’s also the excellent on-site Museo Nacional de Chavín, jointly sponsored by the Peruvian and Japanese governments, which contains many stelae (stone or wooden monuments) and artifacts of the complex.

Highlights include the missing tenon heads from the external walls; the Tello Obelisk, an intriguing pillar discovered by a local peasant; and the Stela Raimondi, a slab inscribed with uncanny religious images that can be read from two different directions.

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What to see at Chavín de Huántar

Key features to look for at Chavín de Huántar include the following:

Tenon heads: At one time, the exterior walls of the complex were covered with grotesque stone heads representing the fanged deity of its religious cult. Unfortunately, only one is still in place: look for it along the New Temple’s back wall.

Psychedelic carvings: The plaza sports carvings of men transforming themselves into jaguars. Frequently they are holding the San Pedro cactus, a mescaline-based hallucinogen used in Chavín’s shamanistic rituals.

Water channels: Underneath Chavín’s courtyards run several miles of underground conduits. Scholars speculate the sound of rushing water was part of a shock-and-awe spectacle that heightened the religious experience in the temples.

Black and white portal: At the entrance to the New Temple is a portal with a stone lintel. Look closely at the columns: they’re covered with mythological figures.

How to get to Choquequirao

Machu Picchu's best alternative

How to get to Choquequirao
By Mike Gasparovic

Machu Picchu 2.0: so rave visitors to this mountaintop citadel in Peru’s rugged Vilcabamba region. And indeed, if any Inca ruin can give the more celebrated site a run for its money, it’s this one.

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.

What do the ruins look like?

Choquequirao is situated on a leveled 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.

Upon arrival, the first thing you’ll see are massive walled terraces rising to the right. Like most of Choquequirao’s stonework, these are very well preserved. From there, you haul yourself up a short rise to the main or lower plaza, with its manicured green lawn and crisp grey dwellings. But the full revelation comes when you look up at the surrounding peaks: the views are awe-inspiring.

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The site

The key reference points at Choquequirao are the lower and upper plazas, two grassy plains roughly 650 feet apart.

The former is the starting point for all tourists. It’s surrounded by a variety of buildings, including three two-story houses for elite residents, a small sun temple, and a six-door kallanka (assembly hall). It’s connected to the citadel’s upper precincts by water channels and stone stairways. Behind it, but still on the same level to the north, is a series of cruder buildings designed for the Inca’s attendants. These likely included kitchens, storehouses and workshops.

The upper plaza has a more distinctively religious cast. There, you’ll find temples and priestly quarters, a ceremonial bath, and colcas (storage units) that possibly served as refrigerators for foodstuffs. Also present are a series of stone water channels, which served important aesthetic as well as religious functions for the Inca.

The history of Choquequirao

As with Machu Picchu, there’s still a good deal of debate about Choquequirao’s function. The most plausible hypothesis is that it was a sort of hermitage for Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who sought to rival the architectural achievements of his father, the great Pachacutec. The latter had built royal estates at Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, and it’s likely his son felt the need to erect a monument to his own royalness in the same Sacred Valley.

The dating of Choquequirao is facilitated by the Chachapoya elements in its construction. We know the Inca conquered the Chachapoyas, the great warrior tribe from the north, sometime in the 1470s, and peculiarities in the complex’s rock inlays make it clear they imported Chachapoya workmen to assist with its detailing not long after. This makes Choquequirao a true one-off among Inca monuments.

Inca culture

The Inca were the greatest empire that has ever existed in the Americas, with territories stretching from modern-day Colombia and Ecuador all the way to Chile and Argentina. At its peak, the empire covered some 800,000 square miles and exacted tribute from some 10 million subjects. Yet for all its grandeur, it was surprisingly short-lived: just 100 years in its peak phase, from the start of Pachacutec’s reign in 1438 to the Spanish Conquest in 1533.

Aside from their monumental architecture, built without horses, the wheel, or iron tools, the Inca are known for their 25,000-mile road system, the Capac Ñan, which unified their far-flung empire into a cohesive whole. They also had a genius for administration: out of a chaos of warring tribes, they built a unified state based on discipline and a firm ethical code. Finally, through their sophisticated cultivation of crops on hillside terraces, they created a society where hunger effectively ceased to exist.

How to get to Choquequirao

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.

Choquequirao has no on-site guides or museums. It’s possible, however, to hire expert guides back in Cusco who can provide thorough explanations of the ruins.

Choquequirao is not easily accessible to tourists. This is its chief drawback — or virtue, depending on your outlook. Its remoteness means that only 20 or so people visit each day, so if you’d like to experience what Machu Picchu was like before the tourist hordes invaded, this is your chance. Remember, the site does require a strenuous two-day trek from the drop-off point at Cachora pueblo, with lots of rugged climbs and rudimentary camping facilities. If you’re not up for a taxing five- or six-day round trip, it might be best to wait for the cable-car system that Peru’s government apparently has in the works.

Choquequirao

Key features

Key features to look out for include the following:

Giant stairway: Descending from the upper plaza is a massive stairway that stops abruptly mid-hillside. It apparently served as a solar marker: the sun shines directly on it on the summer solstice.

Ceremonial platform: To the south of the main plaza is one of the complex’s most striking features: an usnu (raised circular platform) that provides sweeping views of the whole landscape. The Inca would have used it for astronomical and mountain worship.

Llama terraces: The Inca’s Chachapoya workmen built what is Choquequirao’s most colourful adornment: a series of high terraces inlaid with quartzite llama figures. They’re located down a steep slope to the east of the usnu.

Satellite huacas: For those interested in exploring the site more fully, there are two sacred temples or huacas located several hours’ hike from the main complex. Their stonework is worth seeing, but each represents a full day-trip in itself.

How to get to Kuélap

The Chachapoyas' cloudforest citadel

How to get to Kuélap
By Mike Gasparovic

This much is indisputable: Kuélap is hands down the greatest architectural marvel in northern Peru. After that, things get a bit hazy.

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.

What do the ruins look like?

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.

The citadel itself is imposing at first glance: towering walls of yellowish sandstone loom up out of the mist. Inside, however, most of the site is in ruins, composed mainly of the foundations of the 400-plus circular dwellings that once housed the inhabitants of this walled city.

Kuélap

The site

To visualise Kuélap’s layout, imagine a huge aircraft carrier topped with an oblong superstructure, with the ship’s bow pointed due north. The ‘deck’ of the carrier is the so-called Pueblo Bajo or Low Town, the residential district where the Chachapoya actually lived, while the ‘superstructure’ is the Pueblo Alto or High Town, an elevated precinct perched atop a 36-foot wall and crowned by a tower known as El Torreón.

The function of the Pueblo Alto is not altogether clear: some archaeologists argue it answered to purposes of defence, while others have proposed it was purely ceremonial. Regardless, most of what you’ll see in Pueblo Bajo are the remains of the city’s circular houses, liberally interspersed with trees weighed down with shaggy epiphytes.

The history of Kuélap

As with Machu Picchu, Kuélap’s purpose is still being debated. That the citadel served some sort of defensive function seems undeniable, given its remote location, 60-foot walls and narrow, single-file entryways. Some archaeologists have also highlighted the complex’s use as both a warehouse and a sacred site. Numerous buildings were clearly used to store foodstuffs against periods of scarcity caused by the El Niño phenomenon, and crowded grave sites have been found all over the compound, including inside the walls — indicating the Chachapoya would routinely bring their dead here for burial.

None of this detracts from the fortress hypothesis; ancient Andean structures routinely served many purposes.

Chachapoya culture

Studies of Chachapoya civilisation are in their infancy, but the culture appears to have flourished between roughly 900 and 1570 AD, when it was vanquished by the Spanish. Its people occupied a swath of Peru’s northeastern Andes around the Utcubamba and Marañón rivers, which were used to trade with the Amazon and the coast. Descendants of the Chachapoyas still exist today, as evidenced by the several towns bearing their name in different parts of Peru.

The Chachapoyas’ reputation was a fearsome one: they were known as bellicose warriors, herbalists, and sorcerers. Possibly this stemmed from their independent spirit, which impelled them to struggle fiercely against the Inca, even after the latter subjugated them in the 1470s.

The structures the Chachapoya built were heavily influenced by the nature around them — indeed, they could even be described as environmentalists. They took advantage of their local environment when building their structures, perhaps inspired by their veneration of powerful animals like serpents, condors and pumas.

The Chachapoyas’ unusual culture can be seen in their mausoleums, which are often worked into cliff faces more than 1,000 feet off the ground and contain tightly bundled mummies and eerie sarcophagi, such as those of Karajía to the north. Intriguingly, the Chachapoya appear to have enjoyed a lifestyle that was highly egalitarian: no evidence of social hierarchies has ever been found, either in their architecture or in their burial sites.

How to get to Kuélap

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.

Unfortunately, visitor information at Kuélap is lacking. There are basic signs, in English and Spanish, but no museum. Guides hang around the ticket booth, offering their services, but you never know beforehand what you’re getting. It might be best to hire one back in Chachapoyas.

Kuélap is now easier to get to than ever, owing to the Peruvian government’s new Telecabinas transport system. Opened in 2017, this comfortable ski-lift whisks visitors up from outside the village of Nuevo Tingo to a platform that’s just under a mile from the citadel. From there, a moderately steep stairway leads to the ruins.

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Key features

Key features to look out for include:

El Tintero: This inverted-cone structure is considered by many to have been the citadel’s Grand Temple. One hypothesis is that it was used for animal or even human sacrifices — an underground pit beneath it was discovered to be full of bones.

El Torreón: Situated at the northernmost tip of the complex, this tower probably served as a lookout point, though it may have had a ritual function as well. At some 23 feet tall, it’s the loftiest of Kuélap’s structures.

Circular platform: Near El Tintero is a rounded platform where a huge ossuary has been unearthed. Damage to the stones indicates it was the site of a massacre and subsequent fire, possibly as a result of a power struggle among the Chachapoya sometime around 1570.

Relief carvings: On countless walls throughout the complex you’ll find bas-relief carvings of birds, lizards and human faces. For many scholars, they testify to the influence of Amazonian culture on Chachapoya art and mythology.

How to get to Moche Valley

Pyramids of the Moche

How to get to Moche Valley
By Mike Gasparovic

Pyramid building, art, ritual murder: all three flourished at the Moche huacas in northern Peru. Archaeologists have long been spellbound by these pre-Columbian people, whose exquisite metalwork and vase painting frequently rival those of ancient Greece. Yet such beauty masks the darker aspects of Moche culture, among them a terrifying decapitator god and ceremonies drenched in human blood.

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.

What do the ruins look like?

Passing by the Huaca del Sol on the road to the Moche Valley, one’s first impulse is to mistake it for a huge hilly mound. Then, slowly, the eye picks out individual bricks from the sand, and the realisation dawns: this thing is man-made. Finally, the grey slopes of Cerro Blanco heave into view, and with them the crumbling walls of the Huaca de la Luna, shaded by protective awnings. This is the smaller but more interesting of the two pyramids.

It’s a scene of harshness, due to the site’s extreme decay. But it’s nothing compared to the strangeness inside.

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The site

There are two structures remaining at what once was the Moche capital. The Huaca del Sol, or Temple of the Sun, is bigger, but paradoxically less impressive. Meanwhile, the smaller Huaca de la Luna, or Temple of the Moon, is for most visitors deathly fascinating.

The Huaca del Sol is situated on the western end below the city’s tutelary mountain. Time and human vandalism have done their worst, rendering it almost unrecognisable. At one point, it stood 160 feet high, with a summit platform in the shape of a cross and some 140 million bricks constituting its multiple layers. However, in 1602, the Spanish diverted the Moche River to wash out the gold from the tombs inside, destroying two-thirds of the pyramid in the process. Today, what was once the largest monumental structure in the Americas is a mere shell of its former self — and closed to the public too.

The Huaca de la Luna, meanwhile, is a labyrinth of surprises. Standing 105 feet tall, and composed of some 50 million adobe bricks, it was built at roughly the same time as the Huaca del Sol and is oriented around two main platforms (there are actually three, but the third is in a separate area, and not open for viewing). These two platforms are linked by a maze of plazas, ramps and terraces. The huaca was built over six successive centuries and generations, with each expanding on and completely covering the previous structure.

Platform two is the starting point for most tours. Here, in one of the grisliest rituals in all of pre-Hispanic America, the Moche would practice ritual human sacrifice, slitting the throats of tribal captives and stripping the flesh from their bones. Priests would then collect the victims’ blood in goblets and drink it before the assembled masses.

From that emotional high point, the tour advances to platform one, which is the roof of the huaca’s main structure. It’s divided into upper and lower areas, with the whole serving as another ceremonial area for priests. Here you can see some of the most impressive polychrome friezes left by the Moche — still vibrant in red, yellow, white, and black. Later, the tour winds through a sequence of galleries and plazas, before descending a 45-degree ramp to the main plaza below.

The history of Moche Valley

The Huaca del Sol has received comparatively little scholarly attention. It may or may not have been a religious site, but the consensus is that it contained storage areas, tombs, and elite residences. The Huaca de la Luna, by contrast, appears to have been entirely sacred in nature; no domestic artifacts have ever been found there.

One of the latter huaca’s most fascinating aspects is its construction. At several points during the tour, gaps and tunnels open up that allow you to peer into the building’s bowels — and so witness the stages of its growth. The Moche, like the Aztecs, built up their pyramids in layers, adding a new outer shell over the old one every generation or so. Each time a priest died, he would be ceremonially buried inside the structure, and a new layer would be added for his successor to work in. In this way, the ecclesiastics would be transformed into ancestors, and the power of the priestly caste would be re-legitimated.

Moche culture

Moche civilisation began around the year zero, and gradually grew to encompass two different urban centres: one in the Moche Valley, the other further north near Pampa Grande. They were not an empire, but rather a loose confederation of city-states that shared culture and religion.

The Moche expanded considerably between 0 and 800 AD; at their peak, they held lands from Piura in the north to Huarmey in the south. Around 550, however, the gods abandoned the Moche: a horrific El Niño event brought torrential rains and then drought to Peru’s coast. They were forced to pack up and move north, first to Lambayeque, where they left the tombs at Sipán, and later to the surrounding desert, where they were lost to history.

Foremost among the Moche’s achievements is their art. Masters of every type of ceramic, they produced an astonishing array of pottery, from red-figure vases to stirrup vessels representing every variety of sex. For the interested, Lima’s Museo Rafael Larco Herrera has an entire room dedicated to Moche crockery depicting many different types of sexual practice.

The Moche were also highly skilled at metallurgy. Alloys, oxides, gilding and silvering, soldering, even electrochemical plating: almost every technique used by today’s artisans were known to Moche metal workers. This allowed them to make headdresses, chest plates, and beautiful tumi knives.

How to get to the Moche Valley

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.

Trujillo-moon-and-sun

Key features

Some key features include:

Great Patio: On the lower level of the pyramid’s main platform, you’ll find murals of Ai-Apaec, the fierce creator god of the Moche religion. Depicted here with bulging eyes and sharp fangs, this octopus-like deity was known as the Decapitator for demanding the heads of his human victims.

Looter’s tunnel: From the corner of one of the plazas, it’s possible to look down into the tunnels carved by tomb-robbers in the 19th century. These openings were used to penetrate the pyramid and pillage its gold.

North façade: The north façade’s six-banded polychrome mural of religious and political subjects is impressive. Look for the chain gang of prisoners and the spiders depicting Ai-Apaec.

Rebellion of the objects: Moche mythology recounts the dark story of the “rebellion of the objects”, in which the technological implements created by humans rise up with murderous intent. See the mural near the pyramid’s north face.

How to get to Qhapac Ñan

The great Inca Trail

How to get to Qhapac Ñan
By Karam Filfilan

Although the Inca Empire was relatively short-lived -- roughly 100 years from start to finish -- it was, at its zenith, the largest and most powerful empire in pre-Columbian America. The arms of the Inca state stretched the entire length of the Andes, from Argentina and Chile in the south to Colombia in the north, encompassing most of modern-day Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in between.

Remarkably, the Inca elite were able to administer their mountainous empire without the use of the wheel, the written word, or even large draught animals -- the biggest working animal at their disposal was the llama; fine for light loads, but far too small to carry people.

Instead, they had the Qhapac Ñan, “beautiful road” in Quechua; a 25,000 mile road network that stitched their entire empire together into one unified state.

But the Qhapac Ñan was much more than a highway. It represented a key foundation of the entire Inca system. It was the infrastructure by which official runners (chasqui) covered superhuman distances to relay urgent messages throughout the empire. It connected temples and spiritual centres, and it allowed the Inca army easy access to their expanding frontiers. It even allowed caravans of llamas to transport produce so efficiently that the Emperor in Cusco could enjoy fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean and everyone, slaves included, were well-fed and nourished.

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Crowd-free ruins on the Beautiful Road

Credit: Christian Declercq / Kmcero

But the Inca’s hyper-efficient communications system was their own undoing -- once the Spanish conquistadors arrived, their horses, gunpowder and smallpox spread quickly, penetrating the heart of the empire and quickening its collapse.

As colonial Peru’s centre of gravity shifted towards the coast, this once great road system swiftly fell into disrepair, so much so that massive tracts are barely visible today.

There is one big exception of course: the world-famous and carefully restored “Inca Trail”, which was actually a tiny and relatively insignificant segment of the original network.

But with demand for the classic Inca Trail trek (and its popular alternatives) reaching unmanageable levels, there has recently been renewed interest in the old road network. The Qhapac Ñan was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, and new trekking routes are being established along some of the old roadways, paving the way for adventurers to start exploring this historic path.

These routes are further north, in the Huaraz region, and they explore areas that few outsiders ever get to see. Rarely visited Inca constructions, remote villages, pristine mountains and lakes and, of course, the ancient road system itself. The main appeal for this trek is the opportunity to appreciate a gorgeous area in the Andes that few people outside of those that live there ever get to see. Visitors experience how locals farm, weave, cook and work with the llamas, giving an insight into ancient cultural practices that are impossible to appreciate with a simple day visit to a community. And you’ll even learn how to work with the llamas yourself, as they come along with your group as the pack animals, just like in the days of the Inca.

Other archaeological sites in Peru

Machu Picchu and more

Other archaeological sites in Peru
By Mike Gasparovic

Machu Picchu

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.

Machu Picchu’s ruins comprise a huge variety of structures. The Torreón, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Sun, royal chambers, prison cells, the famous intihuatana or ‘hitching post of the sun’: nearly every part glows with gorgeous stonework and astronomical significance. Here is a place where sun, stone, and heaven come together, a work of art on a truly geolithic scale.

Visiting Machu Picchu

Most visitors arrive at Machu Picchu in one of two ways. The more intrepid hike the four-day Inca Trail, starting near Ollantaytambo, while the less venturesome arrive via one of the many daily trains. Either way, it’s highly recommended to spend the night at Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of the ruins: Machu Picchu encompasses too much to see in just one day.

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Cusco/Qorikancha

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.

Visiting can be a mixed experience: the stonework is genuinely stunning — witness the gently curving wall that graces the structure’s northwest corner. On the other hand, the sanctuary was heavily vandalised in the 1530s by the Spanish, who stripped away its gold plating and erected the average Church of Santo Domingo on top. For some, the structure comes off as a jarring hybrid of Incan and Spanish Colonial styles. If you’re among them, focus on its many glories: trapezoidal doorframes, anti-seismic architecture, sacred fonts and a lovely outside garden that once gleamed with gold statues of llamas and corn stalks.

Visiting Qorikancha

The Qorikancha requires several hours to appreciate fully. Look for an expert guide in Cusco’s main square, one who can explain the site’s full history, and be sure to ask about the tunnels underneath.

Qoricancha_cuzco-4

Sacsayhuamán

Stones weighing over 300 tonnes; stacked tiers of zig-zagging ramparts; high towers overlooking the Inca capital from a soaring hilltop: everything about Sacsayhuamán is truly gargantuan — and this despite the fact that only 20% of this stunning fortress citadel still remains.

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.

After the Spanish pulled out a last-minute victory, they were able to consolidate control of Cusco and drive the Inca into the jungle. Today, the staggering masonry is a potent reminder of what the Inca achieved. An added attraction: Sacsayhuamán is also the setting for the Festival of Inti Raymi, a traditional Incan sun festival held every June 24th.

Visiting Sacsayhuamán

The fortress is one of the attractions included on Peru’s Boleto Turístico. A ten-day pass costing approximately $45, this ticket allows entrance to key sites in the Sacred Valley. It’s sold at several points around Cusco.

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Pisac

Architecturally speaking, Pisac is a huge question mark. For decades, scholars have beaten their heads — figuratively — against its fine stone walls, seeking to understand exactly what it is. Yet another estate for the Inca Pachacutec? A ceremonial site? A self-sustaining defensive complex? Debates continue to rage, but no definitive answer has appeared.

Pisac is perched high above the town of the same name, on a rockface overlooking a valley of soft green terraces. Built most likely in the late 15th century, it consists of four neighbourhoods, each with a broad array of constructions: barracks, fortifications, civilian residences, aqueducts, agricultural precincts.

Of special note is a sun temple carved from pink granite, graced with an intihuatana (sundial) used to chart the movements of the heavens. Highlights apart, however, what captivates in Pisac is its sheer variety. Not even Machu Picchu sports such a vast abundance of marvels.

Visiting Pisac

Pisac is a good candidate for a day trip from Cusco. Go early enough, and you’ll be able to visit the colourful indigenous market in the town below. It’s also included on the Boleto Turístico.

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Ollantaytambo

Fear and panic: that was the Spaniards’ reaction when they first saw Ollantaytambo back in 1536. That’s because this 200-foot fortress, composed of 17 massive terraces and wrought into a steep Andean mountainside, was the perfect redoubt for a fierce Incan army bent on revenge. Spanish qualms proved well-founded: Ollantaytambo was the site of the bloodiest European defeat during the wars of the Conquest, in which the Inca diverted the nearby Patacancha River and washed their enemies right out of the valley.

Today, Ollantaytambo is considerably more peaceful, if no less august. Built during Pachacutec’s great public-works campaign of the 1400s, it comprises a number of ceremonial structures as well as fortifications. After climbing the 200-plus stairs to the ramparts, visitors will find a sun temple, an enclosure of ten niches, and a lovely ceremonial bath carved from a single block of stone. Best of all, the fortress is set within the cobbled streets of the eponymously named pueblo — the only surviving Inca town in the Andes.

Visiting Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is located two hours from Cusco and is the chief point of departure for trains going to Machu Picchu. The fortress ruins are included in the Boleto Turístico.

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Moray

Dried corn: such is the meaning of moray in Quechua. The name is apt, for these stunning, 500-foot-deep circular terraces were likely some of the hemisphere’s first laboratories for agricultural science. Green technology 500 years before the fact, they’d have been invaluable to the Inca in feeding an empire of 12 million.

Moray’s three terraces stand 30 miles outside Cusco, in a quiet spot in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Like many Inca monuments, they were probably built during the late 1400s, but their design strikes a new note in Andean culture. Modern investigators have observed a 30-degree differential between the top and bottom levels, which would have allowed priest-scientists to simulate different micro-climates in the Andes as they tested out new seeds and crop species.

Visiting Moray

Moray is easy to get to. Tours are available from downtown Cusco, or you can hire a taxi and have the driver wait.

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Nazca

The lines at Nazca may not have been drawn by space aliens, but they’re no less otherworldly. Etched into the ruddy sands of Peru’s coastal desert sometime between 500 BC and 500 AD, these huge geoglyphs comprise a bizarre menagerie of forms: hummingbirds, spiders, lizards, condors, monkeys, and strange, astronaut-like figures that, even today, leave archaeologists mystified.


The lines are the work of the Nazca culture, a pre-Hispanic civilisation renowned for its technicolour textiles and futuristic underground aqueducts. Located some 250 miles south of Lima and covering 200 square miles, they’re also a favourite of unsolved-mystery lovers everywhere. Were they walkways between sacred points traced in the desert? Or a vast agricultural calendar? Or monuments of a weird fertility cult, aimed at coaxing life out of the bone-dry waste around them? The lunar desert only keeps its silence.

Visiting Nazca

The lines can only really be appreciated from above, which typically means a 30 minute flight in a light aircraft. It can be turbulent, pricey, and not particularly carbon-friendly, so proceed with caution and choose your operator carefully: some of the aviators are real cowboys and the safety record isn’t great.

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Sipán

In 1987, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva had an Indiana Jones moment. Called by Peru’s police to investigate some stolen pre-Hispanic artifacts in the northern city of Chiclayo, he was rushed out to Huaca Rajada, an earth-covered pyramid outside of town, where he encountered a group of tomb raiders pillaging a Moche burial site. Alva succeeded in stopping the looters, but in the process, he stumbled on one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The find was El Señor de Sipán, a Moche lord who ruled around 200 AD and was interred in an ornate tomb with his eight-person entourage (a Moche high priest was buried nearby). That in itself would have been major news, but the hoard of gold, turquoise, and ceramic objects that came with it made it the richest burial site ever found in the Western hemisphere. Today, visitors can stand beneath Huaca Rajada and see mock-ups of the original excavations, but the real glories of Sipán are indoors, in its two fascinating museums.

Visiting Sipán

Most of the artifacts from Alva’s discovery are now in the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán in Lambayeque, a world-class showcase for the pectoral plates, earrings, nose shields and sceptres unearthed with the Moche lord. The museum is well organised, with informative displays and guides throughout. Also worth a visit is the Museo de Sitio Sipán, located right at Huaca Rajada and filled with some of the overflow from the Museo Tumbas Reales. A rare instance in Peru in which the museum exhibits are more interesting than the archaeological site itself.

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Lima — Pachacamac

Pachacamac was, for 1,500 years, the most important temple on the Pacific seaboard of South America. First inhabited by the Lima culture around 300 AD, it was later expanded by the Huari, a highland tribe who turned it into a major pilgrimage destination circa 700. Last came the Inca, who ruled it from the 1400s until the site’s dismantling by the Spanish in 1532.


What made the sanctuary such a hot property? Principally, its oracle of Pachacamac — ‘he who shakes the earth’. Feared as the creator god responsible for earthquakes, this strange, fish-faced deity was represented on an ornately carved wooden staff that local rulers would consult to divine the future.

Later, votaries would pass through the complex’s criss-crossing alleys and offer sacrifices atop its platforms, which include the red-and-yellow-frescoed Painted Temple and the Temple of the Sun. All of these crumbling ruins are still visible today, along with a reconstructed Inca sanctuary for mamaconas (holy virgins of the sun).

Visiting Pachacamac

Pachacamac is located some 25 miles from downtown Lima on the Panamericana highway. Signage is minimal, but there’s an excellent new on-site museum, and guides are available. Take plenty of water and sunscreen when you go: the track through the complex is long and dusty.

Pachacamac

Lima — Huaca Pucllana

For out-of-towners, it might seem bizarre to find a pre-Columbian pyramid in the heart of Miraflores, Lima’s ultra-modern tourist district. For limeños, however, sites like Huaca Pucllana are just part of the scenery — everyday fare in a capital that dates back 2,000 years.

Huaca Pucllana was built around 400 or 500 AD by the Lima, a pre-Hispanic civilisation that occupied the central Peruvian coast. Originally a ceremonial site where shark-eating and pottery-smashing were frequent rituals, it was overrun sometime around 700 by the Huari, a militant highland tribe who converted it into a huge necropolis. Today, tour guides take you up to the temple ramparts, where you’ll see the tombs of elite Huari women sacrificed to the gods, along with their children. There’s also a small zoo with llamas and alpacas, and an informative museum.

Visiting Huaca Pucllana

Huaca Pucllana is a good option for families with kids: an on-site programme allows youngsters to dig for small artifacts. Meanwhile, adults will enjoy the spectacular nighttime views of the pyramid from the terrace of the adjoining restaurant, which is one of the best in Lima.

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