Machu Picchu is at the top of most travelers’ lists of destinations to visit in Peru. In fact, nearly one million people visited the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2022. But the most famous Incan ruins are starting to feel the wear and tear of mass tourism.
Fortunately, there are several lesser-known but highly worthwhile archeological sites in Peru that you don’t have share with with 2,500 other visitors.
This is Peru’s second lost city – Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1909, two years before he found Machu Picchu. But because it requires a four-day trek to get there and back, more people visit Machu Picchu in a single day than visit Choquequirao in an entire year.
Currently, the only way to access Choquequirao is by foot, but the Peruvian government has announced plans to build a road and a cable car. The most common starting point in the village of Cachora, a four-hour bus ride from Cusco. To support the local economy, hire a local guide in Cachora rather than one in Cusco.
Located in the region of Amazonas near the village of Tingo, Kuélap is another great alternative to Machu Picchu. The ruin was built around 800 AD by the Chachapoyas culture. Containing over 450 stone roundhouses and other structures, it was once home to some 3,500 people.
Just getting here used to be quite a journey, but flights now run from Lima to Jaén, which is about four to five hours by ground transportation from Kuélap. Accessing the site itself is easier now, too – Kuélap became the site of Peru’s first cable car in March 2017. Visitors can now reach the ruins on a 20-minute gondola ride from Nuevo Tingo.
Located on the northwestern coast of Peru, the city of Trujillo is within easy reach of multiple ancient marvels, including Chan Chan, Huaca del Sol, and Huaca de la Luna. While it lacks the natural splendor of the Sacred Valley, Trujillo’s ruins offer a glimpse of several pre-Columbian societies and some of the country’s more interesting and accessible archeological sites.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site well worth visiting, this complex of temples and terraces was built by the Chavín people around 900 BC. Despite being one of the oldest pre-Columbian sites in South America, it’s the work of a highly sophisticated culture, with a mysterious network of subterranean chambers and stonework richly carved with snakes, felines, and semi-human creatures.
Located east of the Cordillera Blanca, the site is best accessed from the city of Huaraz.
While Peru isn’t as overcrowded as some destinations, tourism is definitely on the increase. The Peruvian government raised its tourism budget by 15% in 2023, with much of the effort going towards showcasing alternantives to Machu Picchu.
To help reduce your own impact, hire local guides, buy directly from artisans, and find ways to minimize your environmental footprint.
You can’t drink the tap water in Peru, but you can reduce the number of plastic bottles you throw away by buying water in bulk and refilling a reusable bottle. Many hotels will also offer a water dispenser in the lobby.
Several organizations offer short- and long-term volunteer opportunities and internships in Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and the Amazon. Opportunities include community development, teaching English, and working with conservation initiatives. Volunteers can stay with local families or in shared flats with other volunteers. Make sure that organizations work closely with the local community and are responsive to local needs.
Peru’s handicrafts range from intricately carved gourds to warm alpaca sweaters. Whenever possible, visit artisans’ workshops and buy directly from them.
For ethically sourced handcrafts, check out these shops in Lima’s Barranco district: Dédalo, Artesanos Don Bosco, and Artesanías Las Pallas. In Cusco, visit the non-profit Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, where you can also see traditional weaving demonstrations. You’ll pay more, but the shops all work to ensure that artisans receive a fair price for their work.
With permits limited on the iconic, well-trodden Inca Trail, these alternative routes to the treasures of the Andes are ever more appealing.
Our insider Marisa guides you through 48 action-packed hours in the famed former capital of the Inca empire.
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