Ask a random traveler to name a hotspot in Peru, and ‘Machu Picchu’ is probably the first response out of most people’s mouths. It’s probably the only place most travelers can name as being in Peru unassisted (‘Lima’ and ‘Cusco’ are cities and ‘the Galápagos Islands’ are in Ecuador, but thanks for playing).
So it’s clear, I have nothing against Machu Picchu – but when you learn there are older, more culturally significant, easier to reach, and far cheaper archeological sites to visit, it gets harder to justify the time and expense. As a bonus, most of these sites have decent tourist facilities in place, and some are UNESCO World Heritage sites as well.
Kuelap Fortress (Fortaleza de Kuelap) – near Chachapoyas
Pronounced KWAY-lahp, Kuelap’s Fortress is a walled city on top of a hill. It wasn’t until 1997 that it was first explored by modern archeologists, even though the country has known about it since the 19th century. The walled city dates from the 6th century, and is situated on a ridge that overlooks an incredible skyline. Some 400 buildings are still around, and it’s easiest to join a guided tour (part of the admission price) to ensure you see the best examples. It’s an easy daytrip from Chachapoyas, though you can expect to walk a few kilometers.
Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas) – near Pisco
Fans of cocktails may know a Pisco sour or the Pisco brandy, but the Ballestas (bye-YES-tahs) are just off Pisco’s coast. Sometimes referred to as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’, the boat-only round-trip is a chance to discover some Peruvian boobies (stop snickering), Humboldt Penguins, Guanay Cormorants, and some other exotic animals. Bring your long lens for your camera, and buy a cheap poncho or hat to prevent some guano from falling your way. No, there’s no ancient architectural sights here, but it’s a fun, offbeat sight all the same.
Huaca de la Luna – near Trujillo
Whenever a place has only been 10% excavated despite work having gone on for decades, you can guess it’s a huge place. There are no reconstructions here, just restoration – and that includes the piece you see above. This ‘temple of the moon’ requires a guided tour (which comes with the admission price) – the Huaca del Sol next door (which was partially destroyed by Spanish conquistadors) is closed to the public while research is ongoing. You’ll discover the temple is kind of like a set of Russian nesting dolls – each generation built a new structure on top of the existing structure.
A walking trail I call the Cusco Archeological Tour
If your heart is set on Cusco but your pocketbook shudders at the ripoffs that surround Machu Picchu, never fear. For a fraction of the costs related to Machu Picchu, a boleto parcial (partial / daily ticket) gets you into four archeological sights in Cusco –Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Qenqo, and Saqsaywaman. I call it the Cusco Archeological Tour (since I didn’t see any name given to the quartet of sights available under this ticket). Each of these sights has plenty going on, although you’ll want to hire one of the private guides or bring your own information as there’s precious little on-site. Take a bus or colectivo to the top-most sight (Tambomachay), get your ticket, and from there you can walk (or bus) downhill the rest of the way.
(If you’ve got loads of cash to spend and want to go all out, see this sister site of ours that has info on luxury travel in Peru.)