“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. And many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” –Mark Twain
In my most recent trip, I was lucky enough to visit Peru for the first time. Without a doubt, it was the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. While I was there I learned that so many tourists fly into Cusco for the sole purpose of seeing Machu Picchu and then fly home. While Machu Picchu was extremely impressive, to put it mildly, to solely visit one site is doing yourself a disservice. Peru has SO much more to offer and I’m here to help guide you for your next trip so you can see some of the other incredible ruins and unique spots that we don’t grow up hearing/learning about in school or in the media.
1. Sacsayhuaman (Pronounced similarly to “sexy woman” Sahk-Say-Wah-Mahn).
What: This archaeological site was an Incan temple complex that was also used as a fortress during the Spanish invasion. It was built during Pachacuti’s reign (1437-1471) and remains unfinished.
Where/How To Get There: 15 minutes from the center of Cusco. We took a taxi for 5 sol, but there are some people who walk there. It’s a LONG walk so keep that in mind.
Cost: Included in Boleto Turistico (130sol). GREAT value if you are going to the sites. Includes most on this list, but NOT Machu Picchu.
Why: From the first look at this site you will be unbelievably impressed. The stones are absolutely massive and constructed in a way that you cannot even fit a sheet of paper in between them. There are three levels of this temple complex which signifies the three levels of their spiritual beliefs. The snake represents the underworld, a jaguar the world in which we live, and the condor the afterlife. Many of the stones were looted by the Spanish to build churches however the foundations and many of the walls remain. The site is massive so make sure to spare a few hours. Take time to explore the other areas of the site as well. There are great views from the quarry across from the site itself and several terraces surrounding the main area.
To Guide or Not To Guide: We hired a guide for 40sol total (roughly $12). There are so many intricacies to this site that we would’ve walked right past had we not had them pointed out to us. The site had certified guides who speak both Spanish and English. It was well worth it.
2. Ollantaytambo (Pronounced Oh-Yan-tay-tahm-bo)
What: This site was once the main home to Incan nobility in the Sacred Valley. The town was conquered by Pachacutec and it later served as the last stronghold against the Spanish. The site was not originally a fortress, but a religious site.
Where/How To Get There: The town is called Ollantaytambo as well and is an hour drive from Cusco. You can get there in many ways. We traveled from Cusco by collectivo (minivan that seats about 15-20 people), which is a much cheaper option. They depart whenever they are full and it is a one-way trip you are paying for. We took the bus back as part of a package deal on the trip back from Machu Picchu. This is a great place to stop the day before you go to Machu Picchu as most trains to Aguas Calientes leave from here.
Cost: Included in Boleto Turistico (130sol).
Why: The site is set in between to peaks of a mountain range and the terraces leading up to the top are just plain impressive. There are many places of interest once you’re inside as well, such as the Water Temple, Sun Temple, terraces, Wall of the Six Monoliths, and Enclosure of the Ten Niches. The site was divided into four sectors: ancient town, temple hill, ceremonial area, and agricultural/storage area. You can hike to the Incan storage area on a steep path where you can get a great view of the site as a whole, however, that will add an hour or two to your time there.
Guide or No Guide: You never should feel obligated to hire a guide. We decided to pass on this particular site since we had already gotten so many and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. However, if it is one of the first places you’re visiting I would recommend it.
3. Tipon (Pronounced Tee-pone)
What: Tipon is a massive 15th-century Incan site featuring many water channels for which it is famous. The site also boasts many agricultural terraces that are irrigated by an intricate network of channels fed by a natural spring that has been flowing non-stop for over 2500 years.
Where/How To Get There: Tipon is a 30-minute drive from Cusco. There are many tour companies that offer full or half day trips there, but they all leave between 3-6am. We decided to hire a private taxi for the day (for the same price) and enjoyed a solo trip to the ruins. Tipon is not on the main tourist agenda and I have no idea why. We only saw two other people there, which was an amazing experience. Make sure to ask your driver if he will wait for you instead of dropping you off so you don’t become stranded.
Cost: Included in Boleto Turistico (130sol).
Why: There won’t be a million tourists you have to navigate around just to see the site or get pictures. You will see amazing views and the incredible water channels that are way more impressive in person that I could ever describe. If you climb a short hike to the top of a hill you will see a ceremonial area that looks out over the Sacred Valley, Incan housing, and the site itself. There is also a beautiful sacred fountain there that is a must-see
Guide or No Guide: We opted not to because of time constraints, but this is a site where you could possibly skip the guide.
4. Huacacina Oasis (Pronounced Wa-ka-chee-na)
What: A desert oasis full of adventure for those with a love for the adrenaline filled fun. Like riding in dune buggies and sandboarding down steep sand dunes? This is the place for you.
Where/How To Get There: The oasis is located in the town of Ica. There isn’t much around it at all except two excellent wineries. We booked a package tour that picked us up from the hotel and took us to two wineries, lunch, and then we had a dune buggy/sand boarding package. We came to Ica from Lima by overnight bus. Pro tip–pay the extra for the VIP seats when traveling overnight.
Cost: Price included winery tastings, dune buggy, and sand boarding. 4 sol entrance fee to the dunes not included. Price was around $35 for the package per person.
Why: This was one of the highlights of our trip to Peru. I love adventurous trips and this was right up my alley. We had a relaxing morning with a guide who was so helpful with teaching us more Spanish when ours was lacking. We then strapped ourselves into our private dune buggy with a different guide/driver who felt it was his duty to make us yell as much as possible, which was hilarious and so much fun. We also wanted to try the sand boarding experience so after we drove around the desert for a while and stopped for pictures he took us to a MASSIVE drop off on the dunes, took out several boards and told us to lay down on them and shoved us down the dune. Holy crap was it fun. My only complaint was that we only got to do it three times, but those three times were incredibly fun.
To Guide or Not To Guide: You have to book the sand boarding and dune buggy as a day trip package which automatically comes with a guide. You can book the day before depending on the season. They are closed in December.
5. Colca Canyon
What: The most beautiful place I’ve ever been. In a historical sense, it is one of the deepest canyons in the world and home to condors and many Incan ruins and grave sites. As an added bonus many of the terraces pre-date the Incas.
Where/How To Get There: We took a bus from Arequipa where our home base was for several days. It takes several hours to get there so tours leave very early in the morning and return around dinner time. This is a full day excursion.
Cost: $25 for a whole day. Breakfast included.
Why: Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the grand canyon and is the second deepest in the world. You can spend some time in the small town of Chivay and enjoy lunch before trekking or returning to the bus tour. We opted for a bus tour, but you can also spend several days hiking. Our bus left at 3am and arrived in Chivay for breakfast. Breakfast was nothing to write home about so bring snacks. We then stopped at over 6 viewpoints and even saw many condors, which were rare at the time of year we went (late February). This is a packed day where you will be on and off the bus many times. Prepare yourselves for major altitude and prepare well. Bring a rain jacket and something warm because of the altitude and also on the time of year.
To Guide or Not To Guide: All tour packages come with a guide(s).
Be sure to come back to check out ‘5 More Sites to See in Peru Besides Machu Picchu’ in a few weeks. Next week’s post will be ‘Tips for Traveling On A Budget.’