When you think Peru, you probably think mountains, alpacas, colorfully clothed locals, and ruins. While most of these ruins will be remnants of the Inca Empire, there are much older sites that you can explore to see how pre-Inca cultures lived.
A trip to Peru wouldn’t be the same without these glimpses into history. Luckily, you don’t have to travel far to bump into an Inca site or two. You weren’t planning on going to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu, were you? But some of the most mysterious sites, like Vilcabamba, are hidden deep in the jungle and require days to trek to.
Even Cusco city itself will let you uncover some Inca knowledge when you explore Sacsayhuamán and Qoricancha.
This post may contain affiliate links. We earn a small commission if you make bookings through my links, at no additional cost to you. This helps us keep this blog free, thank you!
In Northern Peru, you’ll be able to travel even further back in time. Chan Chan and Pachacamac were built way before the Incas even started dreaming about ruling the land. One of these sites is an easy day trip from Lima, the other a short flight away.
Here’s our list of the top ruins to visit in Peru:
Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and Qorikancha (Coricancha) was the most important temple in Cusco, making it the most important temple in the Inca Empire.
When the Spaniards took over, they took Qorikancha’s Temple of the Sun apart and used the stones for their own little building projects. Most of the stones were used to build the Convent of Santo Domingo, which is the church that sits right on top of Qorikancha’s base. So when you get to Qorikancha, the church is the new building and the stone walls on the bottom are the Inca leftovers.
The walls of Qorikancha were once covered in gold, with golden statues all around. The Spanish were fascinated by all the bling, and when they captured the last Inca leader, Atahualpa, in 1533, the Incas paid the ransom for him in gold from Qorikancha.
Tip: Much like the Spaniards in Peru, the Spaniards in Andalusia, Spain took over the Moors’ religious buildings and turned them into churches. Usually though, they’d just keep what was there and move right in. Or, like in the instance of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, they built a church dome in the middle of the mosque and called it a day.
You might’ve read about how amazingly well-built Inca structures are, with massive stones sticking tight like they were glued together, but in fact it was just the precise cutting and fitting that allowed them to withstand time and natural events.
The Spaniard took a century to build their cathedral on top of the Inca temple’s base. A few earthquakes later, the church was severely damaged while the Inca base was just sitting there, as perfect as ever, smirking condescendingly at the poor work of the Spaniards.
The Temple of the Sun is only one of many temples that used to stand in the Qorikancha site, but they are all in ruins now. There is a museum attached to the Temple of the Sun with artifacts from Inca history, like textiles, ceramics, paintings and musical instruments.
Qorikancha is part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuit 2 and 3 (both cost s/70). You can find out more about the Cusco Tourist Ticket in our Sacred Valley Guide.
You’ll need a maximum of 1 hour at Qorikancha.
Our top tips for the best ruins to visit in Peru: 😮 Is it worth it? I was worried Machu Picchu wouldn’t be worth the hype, but it was! And I’m not easily impressed. 🎫 The Inca sites in Cusco and Sacred Valley (Qorickancha, Moray, Pisac and Ollantaytambo) can all be visited on one ticket: see our Sacred Valley Guide for details on the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
The true Lost City of the Incas, Vilcabamba (also known as Espiritu Pampa), is where the Incas tried to hide from the Spaniards deep in the jungle. For 35 years, that plan worked. And then, in 1572, the Spaniards got them. The jungle swallowed up the city and was searched for numerous times over the centuries, but remained a mystery.
The jungle hasn’t moved, so in order to visit Vilcabamba, you have to go on an expedition of your own. Since you’ll be finding a lost city, it’s recommended to take a tour or guide. You aren’t Indiana Jones.
Most tours on offer start in Cusco and are 7 or 8 nights with camping along the way. The trail starts in Huancacalle, but just driving to the village takes 6 hours from Cusco. You’ll descend into the jungle, following the trail that the fleeing Incas probably took when searching for a hiding spot. You’ll only reach Vilcabamba on the second to last day. The hiking on these longer trips is mostly downhill, but it isn’t a walk in the park. Prices are around USD 1,200.
If you are feeling a little more adventurous, you can make your own way to Huancacalle and ask around for a guide and mule. You won’t have trouble finding someone to take you, plus you’ll get the added excitement of sleeping in villagers’ houses, meeting locals and having Espiritu Pampa almost all to yourself. By one traveler’s account, he paid only about USD 100 for the whole trip.
Hiram Bingham, who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911, likely also came across Vilcabamba on his adventurous and sometimes dangerous expeditions, but somehow Machu Picchu ended up being the Lost City in his mind. Apparently Bingham twisted the facts just a little bit to make Machu Picchu out to be The One. He certainly didn’t think that Vilcabamba was Vilcabamba, which is why he didn’t spend any more time there. Oops.
It wasn’t until archaeologist Gene Savoy started thorough excavations of Vilcabamba in 1964 that it was finally concluded that this site was actually the Lost City.
Since Vilcabamba is a fairly recent discovery, there are still many questions left to answer about it. For example, it appears that the Incas didn’t actually build Vilcabamba, rather adapting and modifying an already existing city that was left by the Wari culture. Perhaps that’s why the structures aren’t of the same quality that we’re used to seeing from the Incas? Or maybe that had something to do with the circumstances that surrounded the Incas moving here in the first place? How well would you construct a house in the middle of the jungle with a bunch of Spaniards breathing down your neck?
The highest point in the trek is at an altitude of 3,900 m (12,800 ft), so you could get a little light-headed. Read up on altitude sickness before you go, just to be on the safe side.
Sacsayhuaman is a large, fortified Inca complex located on the north side of Cusco. It sits on the top of a steep hill.
The most fabulous of the site is the central plaza, which is where ceremonies were likely held. It could fit thousands of people at once. The massive stones used in the walls surrounding the plaza are some of the largest used in any site in the Americas.
The Incas were known for their precise cutting and shaping of the individual stones that interlocked so perfectly that no mortar was ever used, but still their buildings would withstand any earthquake. Another amazing part of this feature is that thousands of men had to gather the stones from a quarry 20 kms away and bring them to the hill above Cusco.
After the Spaniards seized Cusco, they started taking Sacsayhuaman apart stone by stone. Those stones were used to build new structures in Cusco, like churches and governmental buildings. Only the largest stones stayed in Sacsayhuaman, since even the Spaniards couldn’t move them. So again, how in the world did the Incas do it?! These things measure 5 x 2,5 m!
Besides the Inca ruins, you can also catch amazing views of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman, and the sacred mountain Ausangate is visible in the distance, too.
There is no ticket exclusive to just Sacsayhuaman, you have to get the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 (s/130) or 2 (s/70).
Have you ever wondered where rainbows start from? Well you’re in luck! Chinchero is the birthplace of the rainbow. No idea why. It’s not why you visit Chinchero anyway, so who cares.
Chinchero is a picturesque town at a respectable altitude of 3765 m, about 30 km from Cusco in the Sacred Valley. People here still wear traditional dress as they go about their business. Visit on a Sunday and experience the vibrant Sunday market. The Quechuas are known for their weaving techniques, so go ahead and buy some souvenirs! You can also take weaving classes.
The archeological site is one of the main attractions of Chinchero, though excavations are still underway. It’s only a few years ago that more terraces were uncovered, and it is estimated that part of Chinchero town stands on more Inca ruins.
A palace built for Túpac Yupanqui, son of the first Inca Emperor, stands, or rather lies, in the center of the Chinchero Inca site. The Spaniards and some fires turned the palace into just a base and a few corner niches.
The colonial church in Chinchero was built on the foundations of an Inca temple, as have other buildings in the town. The terraced Inca ruins at Chinchero feel almost abandoned compared to other Inca ruins you’ll be visiting in Peru. They’re located on the north side of the town.
You need a ticket to enter the main plaza with the church and the Inca ruins. Chinchero is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4 (see our Sacred Valley Guide for details).
Ollanntaytambo is mainly known as the place where you get on the train to go to Machu Picchu (you have to take the train since there are no roads leading into Machu Picchu Pueblo), but there’s more to it than that!
The Ollantaytambo ruins are about 1 hour and 20 minutes away from Cusco by car.
The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo are some of the best preserved in all of Peru. They’re huge; probably more expansive than the ones at Machu Picchu. The ruins at Ollantaytambo copy the mountain terrain, so you’ll be doing quite a bit of climbing up and down. But you know what climbing up gets you? Views!
Just like the terraces at Moray, the sunken terraces at Ollantaytambo were used for growing crops that would’ve otherwise not grown at this altitude.
Since Ollantaytambo was a full-on Inca city, you can also find storehouses, quarries and defense walls, letting you wonder how the Incas worked with such huge slabs of stone. The stones for the Wall of the Six Monoliths had to be moved 6 km (3.7 miles) from a quarry on a mountain on the opposite side of the river. Say what?! They didn’t use the wheel, so how did they do it?!
You can get a guide or just wander around on your own. A visit will take you 1–2 hours. Ollantaytambo ruins are part of Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4 (see our Sacred Valley Guide for ticket details).
This religious center was built by the Moche and Huari people more than 1,000 years before the Incas started to rule the land, though even the Incas considered it an important sacred site.
Pachacamac is named after the god who created the Earth, Pacha Kamaq (literally “Earth Maker”). Pachacamac has been called the Mecca of Peru, and it’s surprising it doesn’t get more tourists. It was extremely significant back in the day. The Incas even thought he was so cool that they accepted him into their beliefs as the son of the sun god Inti.
Pachacamac is located right on the coast about half an hour south of central Lima, so an easy drive.
Before heading out to the ruins, which are vast but honestly not the most spectacular, visit the fantastic museum. There are awesome artifacts in there and you’ll learn about how life was in this part of history that you can then picture in your head while you’re outside walking around.
The archeological site is enormous. There are bikes for rent if you don’t want to walk the 5-km (3-mile) or so dirt path. Or you can save yourself the energy and just drive to the different parts of Pachacamac.
Not all areas are accessible and you can only see them from behind the ropes. Much of the place is really in ruins, so you need to use your imagination and your guide’s talk to really try to see what Pachacamac used to be. Look out for the restored Inca road! That’s pretty awesome. Again, imagination!
The Temple of the Sun is ginormous—30,000-km2 (323,000 sqare ft). It was dedicated to Pacha Kamaq himself and might have been entirely covered in gold. You can climb to the top for some panoramic views of Pachacamac site as well as a view of the ocean.
Tickets can be bought at the museum for s/15. A guide will cost an extra s/25 and a tour takes 1.5 hours.
Ps. If you see naked dogs wandering around, say hi. It’s the Peruvian Hairless Dog, also called the Inca Orchid, Peru’s national dog. They aren’t missing hair, they’re glamorous and think they walk around like they rule the place.
4. Chan chan
Another non-Inca site, Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Empire roughly from 900–1470. In its time, it was the largest city in the Americas. The Chimu then fell under Inca rule, apparently believing that the Incas were invincible. The Incas barely had to lift a finger to persuade the Chimu to submit to them.
UNESCO listed Chan Chan on its Heritage List in 1986.
Chan Chan is located a few kilometers west of Trujillo city on the coast of Peru 480 km (300 miles) north of Lima. It covers an area of 20 km2, making it the largest adobe city in the Americas and second in the world.
You can drive to Chan Chan from Lima, but that means 8 hours in the car and even more if you take the bus (yuck). There is also an airport in Trujillo that has direct flights from Lima. There isn’t a huge selection of good hotels in Trujillo, but the Costa del Sol Wyndham does the trick (pool, good breakfast, staff speaks English). Just so you know, if you book any hotel on booking.com by clicking through any of the hotel links in this article, you’ll be paying nothing extra, but we’ll make a small commission. We would really appreciate it if you think of us and use our links when making any future bookings.
Chan Chan literally means Sun Sun, so I’m going to take a wild guess and say the place was sunny, hot and dry when they built the city. These arid conditions were the reason why the adobe structures of the Chimu were preserved so well over time. Unfortunately, since it’s basically made of dirt, it is very vulnerable to extreme weather events and erosion has affected Chan Chan. Extensive restoration efforts have been and still are working to get Chan Chan back in shape.
The central city of Chan Chan was split into ten walled palaces, each containing temples, residences, ceremonial halls etc. You can see the reliefs and carved decorations on the walls. There are currently conservation efforts going on, with a roof erected over a part of the site protecting the precious historical city from the rain.
The central area is where the highest class lived, and it’s also the most interesting. Poor people had other things to worry about than carving fish and bird pictures into the walls of their houses. Their flimsy walls didn’t withstand the test of time, so most of what you can see at Chan Chan today is the leftovers of the rich class.
Before you get to the archeological site of Chan Chan there is a museum where you can learn a bit about Chan Chan and the Chimus’ history, buy your tickets for s/10 and get a guide (if you choose to). You don’t need a guide but know that there is zero signage at the site, so you’ll be just looking at the ruins with no info. Get a guide. They cost s/50.
Chan Chan is a vast site that will take a couple hours of exploring for you to get through. It is really interesting, especially when most of the ruins you will be seeing in Peru are Inca sites. You’ll appreciate how different Chan Chan is after all those Inca terraces!
Another fascinating Inca site, Moray is a giant experimental agricultural laboratory.
The Incas created round, terraced depressions where they would, through trial and error, grow different crops. The terraces were constructed with the direction of the sun and wind taken into account, and the difference in temperature between the top and bottom levels was 5°C (9°F), making each level its own little microclimate. Soil from various parts of Peru was brought in to mimic different conditions on the individual levels, too.
Of course, there was an irrigation system that fed the terraces with water from the surrounding mountains. The Incas loved their irrigation!
There are 3 different circular sunken terraces at Moray you can walk around all of them and try to understand the ingenuity behind the Inca’s thinking. You’ll need 30 minutes to see all there is to see. The scenery at the site is, no surprise, stunning.
Moray is part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4.
Check out our complete Moray and Maras Guide for details on getting there, buying tickets and more.
Pisac is a former Inca fortification that sits at about 3,000 m (9,800 ft), so it’s like you’re getting views of the views of Sacred Valley, and they’re phenomenal. Honestly it’s the ruins that you’re supposed to come to Pisac for, but it’s the views that you’ll remember even more. They’re second only to Machu Picchu itself.
Pisac probably served as protection for the Sacred Valley from the east, just as Ollantaytambo guarded it from the west. The mountain slopes covered with hundreds of terraces are a phenomenal sight. You can see the valley below you from the windows of the former fortress towers or wander through the rooms of the city buildings.
The ruins are not in Pisac town directly. The Pisac archeological site is about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) north of town, so it’s best to have your own car or at least a driver for the day to take you. Otherwise, you can take the 2-hour trek out of Pisac town on your own two feet.
The drive from Cusco to Pisac is about an hour long. Pisac is included in the Cuzco Tourist Ticket in circuits 1 and 4. We explain all the circuits and tell you where to buy your ticket and for how much in our comprehensive Sacred Valley article.
Besides the Inca ruins, you also have the chance to visit Pisac town itself and get a glimpse at rural life in Peru. Pisac is very popular with tourists, so it’s not like you’ll be getting a candid view, but it’s pleasant nonetheless.
If you want to see the Sunday market, go with adequate expectations—it has become very much geared towards tourists, with many stalls selling souvenirs. For a more traditional market experience, stop by Chinchero instead.
You’ll need 2 hours at the ruins in Pisac. Add on time for the town if you want to have a little extra wander.
1. Machu Picchu
The Inca city of Machu Picchu doesn’t need much introduction, you’ve all seen the photos. Machu Picchu are the ruins of a massive Inca city that was built atop a mountain with phenomenal views. And it’s not easy to get to, either, adding suspense, adventure, and a whole lot of spending on transportation to actually be able to witness Machu Picchu with your own eyes.
Machu Picchu was never really lost, the locals always knew it was there. So when Yale University history professor Hiram Bingham III discovered it in 1911, he actually just found it. Or more precisely, a local showed it to him.
He didn’t even want to find Machu Picchu, since his trip was all about finding Vilcabamba, the last city of the Incas where they tried to hide from the Spaniards, regroup and survive. For 35 years, they did, until the Spaniards got them in 1572.
Machu Picchu is sometimes called the Lost City, because Bingham twisted the research and facts from and made it seem like Machu Picchu was in fact Vilcabamba. But he knew it wasn’t. And we now know it isn’t. Vilcabamba is Espiritu Pampa. But Machu Picchu is more fabulous, and so it became and stayed more famous.
In a nutshell, to get to Machu Picchu, you’ll be driving for about an hour from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (or taking another, slower mode of transportation), getting on a 1,5-hour train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and a 20-minute bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu Inca city. Plus you have to account for time to buy bus tickets, getting to and from train and bus stations and waiting for an empty bus, too. All that will take half a day and you haven’t even entered Machu Picchu yet.
Tip: Not sure when the best time to visit Machu Picchu is? We have an article just about that, too. See if you should avoid wet season and why we think trying to get to Machu Picchu for sunrise is a waste of beauty sleep. This article also includes a bonus section with the best accommodation options in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu Pueblo.
You’ll also need to purchase your tickets to Machu Picchu up to 6 months in advance—that is if you’re visiting in high season—June to August—, and you can choose from several ticket combinations of the Inca city visit + one of three hikes to surrounding mountains.
The hike we took, Huayna Picchu, was certainly steep, narrow, and a little hair-raising, but how else do you want to get those views of Machu Picchu?! Again, see our full Machu Picchu guide for details on the individual hike options.
It’s important to know that if you do choose one of the hike combinations, you can’t choose the best, most comprehensive trail within the city. You automatically get entry only to one of the lesser circuits. That alone could be a reason to consider visiting on two separate tickets, possibly extending your Machu Picchu trip another day. Again, read our Machu Picchu articles to make sense of it all.
You can support our blog
If you like our posts and would like to get some awesome bonus material like itineraries, our e-book or exclusive content, you can check out our Patreon memberships. If you decide to show your love, thank you!