Of course everyone traveling to Peru will want to visit Machu Picchu, the infamous “Lost City of the Incas,” but there are countless other awe-inspiring archaeological sites to see as well. Many were created by the Incas, but some date back even farther to earlier civilizations. Below are a few of the ones I saw (and recommend) from my recent trip to Peru.
With its provocative-sounding name (it’s pronounced like “sexy woman”), the ruins of this Incan fortress-temple are definitely worth a visit. Located in the hills above Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, enormous zigzagging stone walls are all that remain. The giant boulders were fitted so perfectly together—without the use of mortar—that they resemble a movie set. The tiered walls are up to 25 feet (8 meters) tall and stretch for a quarter mile (400 meters). Unfortunately, with the fall of the Incan Empire, most of the complex was raided by the Spanish for building materials for their churches and other buildings in Cuzco. Still, Sacsayhuamán’s location affords spectacular views of the colonial city below and gives you a sense of the mighty civilization that once lived there.
Did you know that right in the heart of the Peruvian capital city of Lima there’s a giant pyramid? Located in the tony Miraflores district, Huaca Pucllana was constructed around 500 C.E. by pre-Incan indigenous people. For less than $5.00 you can scramble to the top of the adobe brick complex as part of a guided tour. There’s also a nice restaurant adjacent to the ruins, offering stunning views while you dine. Much of the site has been restored and excavations continue to uncover artifacts, pottery, and even human remains.
Strategically located in a deep gorge at the western end of the Sacred Valley (El Valle Sagrado) is the town of Ollantaytambo. The city was built by the Incan ruler Pachacútec in the mid-fifteenth century and features agricultural terraces much like the ones found at Machu Picchu. Visitors to the site can climb the steep steps to reach the religious sector, home of the Temple of the Sun, among other buildings. Perched high in the cliffs above the site are various storehouses. The cold, dry air helped to preserve their food. The train bound for Machu Picchu begins nearby and Ollantaytambo also marks the starting point of the Inca Trail, for hikers who are a bit more adventurous.
Wedged in a deep canyon within the Sacred Valley are the salt flats of Maras. The only access to the area is via a treacherous roadway without guardrails, but if you can white-knuckle the trip down, it’s well-worth the effort. Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating the salty water that emerges from a subterranean spring. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down into several hundred shallow, terraced pools. As the water evaporates, salt crystallizes on the surfaces of the pond’s earthen walls. Then, the salt farmer collects the crystallized salt, which varies in color from pure white to reddish brown. At the site, vendors sell handicrafts, jewelry, and of course salt gathered from the ponds. I purchased a small baggie to cook with back home and just as expected, it tastes just like salt!
One of the most spectacular Inca ruins is located very close to the Maras salt ponds, only about 30 miles (50 km) from Cuzco. The site of Moray consists of multiple enormous, concentric indented terraces, the largest of which is nearly one hundred feet (30 meters) deep. Each level exhibits different temperatures due to their varying exposure to wind and sun. There can be as much as 27 °F (15 °C) of temperature variation between the top and bottom of the site. It’s believed that the Incas used Moray as a sort of agricultural laboratory to study the effects of climatic conditions on crops. Click here to see more photos from my visit.
On the route through the Andes highlands from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca is the archaeological site of Raqchi. Most impressive are the ruins of the Temple of Wiracocha, which include a gigantic roofed wall that measures over 300 feet (92 meters) long by 84 feet (25 meters) tall. The Spanish conquistadores destroyed most of the temple, which is believed to have had the largest roof in the Incan Empire. Alongside the temple are several dozen cylindrical storehouses, each measuring thirty feet (10 meters) in diameter. As I wrote in my article about the cuisine of Peru, this region was the origin of such common foods as potatoes, quinoa, and corn. The Incas used these buildings to store their harvests in order to feed the people during the harsh winter months.
Have you been to any of these Inca ruins? Have you been to any others? What were your impressions? Feel free to comment in the section below!