Photograph by Gonzalez, Laif/Redux
Not long ago, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a result that will surprise none of the millions of people who’ve visited the spectacular stone citadel in the sky. What most visitors to Peru don’t know, however, is that the country is thick with ancient Inca wonders. Here are ten others worth checking out. Many are within a day’s journey of Cusco and can be combined with a visit to Machu Picchu.
The first is Sacsahuaman (pictured above). Arguably the greatest Inca ruin outside of Machu Picchu, this gargantuan complex overlooks the city of Cusco. (You can take a taxi or hike up in less than an hour.) Sacsahuaman is believed to have once been a royal retreat, a fortress, or both. Its zigzag walls are built with some of the largest stones to be found in Inca masonry; some are estimated to weigh as much as 300 tons, yet are fit together as tightly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
—Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
2. Vitcos/Yurak Rumi
Photograph by Mark Adams
When Hiram Bingham came to Peru in 1911 to search for the Lost City of the Inca, one of his top priorities was finding this former Inca settlement. The main palace here is enormous—its front wall measures more than 200 feet across—and its doorways feature some of the finest Inca stonework in existence. The real draw, though, is Yurak Rumi (pictured above)—“White Rock” in Quechua—an intricately carved granite boulder the size of a city bus, which was once one of the holiest shrines in the Inca Empire.
Photograph by Raach, laif/Redux
These ruins, overlooking the Urubamba River less than an hour northeast of Cusco, are notable for their Inca waterworks and beautiful, curving agricultural terraces, which offer excellent vistas of the Sacred Valley. The religious buildings in particular are as finely made as those at Machu Picchu, and the site features one of Peru’s only remaining intihuatanas, enigmatic carved rocks that were used for astronomical observation. The town of Pisac, located beneath the ruins, also hosts a popular local crafts market.
Photograph by Paul Spierenburg, Laif/Redux
In 1536, this settlement was the site of the Inca's greatest military victory over the invading Spaniards. Today, it is one of the only towns in Peru that retains its original Inca walls and street grid, dominated by long, ancient stone walls that once divided groups of homes around communal courtyards. An imposing set of stone terraces (from which the Inca assaulted their Spanish invaders with slingshots and arrows), capped by six enigmatic slabs of pink granite, looms above the town. Most trains to and from Machu Picchu stop at Ollantaytambo, making it an ideal overnight stop.
5. Cusco and the Koricancha
Photograph by Vassil Donev, EPA/Corbis
The name Cusco can be translated as “navel of the world,” and this holy city was once the nexus of the Inca Empire; four roads led out from its central plaza in the cardinal directions, toward the empire’s four quarters. Cusco was also home to the palaces of its rulers. Most of the original Inca buildings were destroyed by the conquistadors, but some walls—famous for masonry so precise that a knife blade cannot be wedged between stones—were incorporated into new structures. The walls were so well made that they’ve withstood major earthquakes and can still be seen in Cusco’s tight alleyways. The holiest site of all was the Koricancha, or sun temple, which at the time of the Spanish invasion was covered in sheets of gold. The precious metals have long since departed, but much of the original temple still stands beneath the veneer of a Spanish monastery.
Photograph by Ian Wood, Alamy
This unique archaeological site is one of the best examples—along with Machu Picchu—of what might be called extreme Inca landscaping. Three enormous pits, each with beautifully curved sides that staircase down like the interiors of titanic flowerpots, have been carved out of the earth to depths of up to 100 feet and more. Air temperatures between the top and bottom layers can differ by more than 20 degrees, which has led some researchers to theorize that Moray was an Inca agricultural site where experiments on crops were conducted.
Photograph by Jason Rothe, Alamy
Often referred to as Machu Picchu’s sister city because of its striking similarity to the more famous site, Choquequirao may in fact be the larger of the two. (Only 30 percent of the original complex is believed to have been uncovered; in 2005, several sets of ancient agricultural terraces decorated with stone llamas were found.) In addition to its fascinating ruins around a central plaza (as at Machu Picchu), Choquequirao offers the most breathtaking views of any Inca site. The arduous two-day walk to what was probably the estate of an Inca emperor is slowly gaining in popularity as an alternative to the Inca Trail, but to reach the ruins one must walk up and down the steep sides of a valley almost a mile deep.
8. Isla del Sol
Photograph by Karl-Heinz Raach, Laif/Redux
According to the creation myth of the Inca, this island in the middle of Lake Titicaca is where the waters that once covered the Earth receded and the all-powerful sun god, Inti, first emerged. Today the island—which is located on the Bolivian side of the lake—is still home to dozens of Inca and pre-Inca ruins connected by hiking trails (no cars are allowed on the island). Among the most impressive sights are the labyrinth-like structure called the Chincana (above) and the sacred Titi Khar’ka—Rock of the Puma—which gave the lake its name.
Photograph by Linda Whitwam, Getty Images
The Inca were brilliant engineers who strove to integrate their architecture with its natural surroundings. Tipon, a 500-acre site built around a spring near Cusco, has been called their masterpiece of water management. Because the waterworks were constructed as part of a country estate for Inca nobility, Tipon has beautiful stone structures akin to those at Machu Picchu, built in the imperial Inca style, with trapezoidal doors, and serviced by finely cut stone fountains. The intricate baths and irrigation channels still function five centuries after the Spanish conquest, which provides Tipon with an endless, soothing soundtrack of running water.
10. Huchuy Cusco
Photograph by Rebecca J. Spurling
This Inca town, whose name means “Little Cusco” in Quechua, is believed to have been constructed by an early Inca emperor to mark the conquest of a nearby rival tribe. Today, it’s best known for its impressive number of stone buildings and commanding view of the Sacred Valley. What makes the ruins especially appealing, though, is that they are accessible only on foot, and can be reached from (Big) Cusco in less than a day, making them a popular overnight trip. Much of the scenic uphill journey is made through winding gorges and on original stone Inca roads.
Travel With Us
Explore Machu Picchu with a National Geographic expert—delve into the world of the Inca on a nine-day expedition to Cusco, Lima, and the Urubamba Valley.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.