Machu Picchu, Peru

Travel Guide: Discover the Top Nine Unmissable Locations of Peru

Located in South America and sandwiched between the Pacific ocean and Brazil, Peru holds many treasures. North of Peru lie Ecuador and Colombia. To the south and southeast are the countries of Chile and Bolivia. Founded in 1535, Peru’s capital, Lima, has a population of roughly 10 million. The official language of Peru is Spanish, but many individuals also speak Quechua as well as other indigenous languages. Peru has a population of 33 million and areas include parts of both the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest. 

This country has hundreds if not thousands of incredible historical sites. Peru was home to ancient civilizations such as the Norte Chico as well as the Inca Empire. Other civilizations like the well known Inca Empire have also given Peru its famous name. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors arrived and conquered the region in 1522. By 1529, Peru became the country’s legal name. Peru declared independence from Spain in 1821.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Peru
credit: machupicchu

Translating to ‘Old Peak’, Machu Picchu remains Peru’s most visited location. The site lies 50 miles northwest of Cuzco and has an elevation of 2,350 meters. It’s pristine condition makes it one of the few major ruins sites in Peru that have remained untouched. Machu Picchu became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 for obvious reasons. Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site in 1911, leading to many years of excavation and research. This research resulted in a hypothesis as to the site’s purpose. It was suggested that Machu Picchu was part of a series of pucaras (fortified sites), tambos (inns) and signal towers. All of which went along the foot highway in the Andes mountains.

Inhabited until the mid 16th century and built at the beginning of the 15th, this site has been around for over six centuries. Machu Picchu’s construction style has led researchers to believe the site was a royal palace or retreat. Lack of water is theorised to be the reason for the site’s abandonment but there are many differing beliefs. 

Machu Picchu has several different areas within it. There are residential areas, plazas, terraces and cemeteries, as well as other major buildings. Steps either placed or carved into the rock connect the buildings in the site. The only formal entrance is located at the south-eastern part of the site. This entrance leads directly to the Inca Trail while the main plaza is in the north of the site. Machu Picchu has the Temple of the Sun and The Temple of the Three Windows. Religious ceremonies and solar observations were the main purpose of the Temple of the Sun. However, the purpose of the Temple of the Three Windows remains unknown for the most part.

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu
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Huayna Picchu, which translates to ‘Young Peak’, sits atop a mountain directly behind Machu Picchu. Also rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, this site has led to more questions than answers. This site rises 2,720 meters, over 350 meters above the Machu Picchu and allows for spectacular views. The grounds consist of a citadel with several temples and terraces where high priests lived with the local virgins. While no one knows the true purpose of Huayna Picchu, some have theories. Some suggest that the priests signalled the sun rise to those in Machu Picchu.

The Temple of the Moon, the name given to the Great Cave, sits below Huayna Picchu. As with many Incan structures, the purpose of the temple remains ambiguous. Due to the throne-like structure inside, sacrifices may have taken place here.

Reaching Huayna Picchu poses a challenge for many. The climb is steep and requires adventurers to be on their hands and feet for some portions. You need to be reasonably competent to make the climb to the summit and rules state that children below 12 are not to make the climb. Additionally, guidelines suggest that those with a fear of heights or vertigo do not attempt to traverse the steps.

Choquequirao, Machu Picchu’s Sister City

credit: peruhop

This lesser known site sits 40km from Machu Picchu and translates from Quechua to ‘Cradle of Gold’. The city rests at a junction of three rivers and reaches 3,000 m above sea level. Choquequirao has been given the title of Machu Picchu’s sister city due to the similarities in architecture. Less than half of the site has been excavated but it has been thought to be 18 kilometres squared. There are temples, plazas, bath systems as well as elite residences within the city. The majority of the buildings are well preserved and several have been restored. A large area of the land around the site was levelled in the 15th century to allow cultivation and water flow. 

The Giant Staircase, temple sites and water shrines are a few of the scenes to take in at Choquequirao. In the platforms of the city there are even depictions of white llamas, a simple but wonderful thing anyone would like to see.  

While not recommended, tourists can make the two day hike to the site on their own. Currently Choquequirao is difficult to access due to the steep terrain and it’s remote location. Because of this, hiring a guide is ideal as it will also enable travellers to learn more about the site. The Peruvian government hopes to install networks to the site to make it more accessible. This means that it will likely become more popular in the near future and have crowds similar to Machu Picchu.

Huchuy Qosqo, Little Cuzco

Little Cusco
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Huchuy Qosqo, or Little Cusco, remains one of the little known wonders of Peru. The site was built in 1420 to be the holiday home of Emperor Viracocha. Located above the Sacred Valley and directly overhead the city of Lamay, this historical site is stunning. It’s elevated 3,650 meters above sea level in the Andes mountains in the north of the Cusco region. Lamay, a popular hiking start to the site, lies just an hour from Cusco city, making it easily accessible. 

The site, full of stone buildings and agricultural terraces, was ransacked by the Spanish in 1534. Invaders looted all valuables in the city and burned the mummified body of Emperor Viracocha before using the land for farming. The great hall and series of irrigation systems around the site speak volumes as to the skill of Incan architecture. 

The trek to Little Cusco can vary depending on your level of fitness and will. Two day hikes are available as well as a single day. The journey can be done without a guide but should only be done if you are an experienced hiker. The landscape is beautiful but can be dangerous.

Sacsayhuaman, the Ancient Citadel

credit: howtoperu

This site may be the most impressive for many reasons. The name means ‘the place where the hawks are satisfied’. If you see this monumental site for yourself, the name makes perfect sense. On the hills in the northern outskirts of Cusco city, there are wide open spaces and beautiful clear skies. Llamas enjoy the hillsides in large numbers, along with hawks and all kinds of other local flora and fauna. Sacsayhuaman spreads over 3,000 hectares and researchers believe it to be only a small portion of what once stood there. Forming the walls, which can reach 18 meters tall, are some of the largest blocks used for building in the Incan empire. Some of these stones weigh over 100 tonnes and fit together so well a piece of paper cannot be placed between them. 

Researchers think that the invasion of the Spanish in the 1500’s led to the site being partly destroyed. However, as the Spanish were unable to remove the largest rocks, they have remained as a symbol of Peru’s freedom. Evidence suggests that Sacsayhuaman was once one of the most important military bases in the Inca Empire. The base, however, could have also been used for storage, sanctuary and religious purposes. Today, it is still used for ceremonial purposes and for re-enactments, which you can buy tickets to enjoy on your next visit. 

Puka Pukara, Peru’s Red Fortress

Puka Pukara, Peru
credit: larkonthemove

Puka Pukara, which translates to ‘Red Fortress’, lies 8 kilometres from the city of Cusco, northeast of Sacsayhuaman. Despite the name, no evidence has been found that the site was used as a fortress. In fact, the full extent of its purpose remains unknown. However, researchers suggest it was used as a checkpoint to enter Cusco and a tambo, or resting place. The exact year or construction remains ambiguous but may be similar to the sites around it. 

Inside, there are ancient roads, bathrooms, interior squares and aqueducts. Unlike many other Inca sites, this structure was built using rocks with rough surfaces. Additionally, the buildings are made of smaller and medium sized rocks, unlike those from Sacsayhuaman, which lies roughly 6km away. Like Sacsayhuaman, however, Puka Pukara is constructed on the hills and has several levels.

Chauchilla Cemetery 

Chauchilla Cemetery
credit: anywhere

Located in the desert almost 30 kilometres from Nazca, this cemetery is extremely hot and dry. The cemetery has not been used since the 9th century but has been victim to grave robbers up until 1997. In 1997 the Peruvian law protected the site and located the missing bodies that had been scattered in the surrounding areas. The site has been reconstructed to be as close to the original as possible and showcases some of the heads, bones and bodies. 

Chauchilla cemetery holds many mummified bodies and heads. Some of the heads, which are decapitated, have holes drilled through them and are even threaded with rope. Initially researchers saw these to be trophy heads. However, research pointed to the heads being from the same population of the mummified bodies within the cemetery. The bodies themselves were put in cotton clothing and painted with a resin before being put to rest. The tombs they were buried in were made from mud brick and helped preserve them further. 

While this site does not mirror the beauty of Machu Picchu or its sister city, it offers a different perspective. This cemetery helps travellers see the side that is often ignored when enjoying Peru.

Espiritu Pampa, Peru’s Lost City

Espiritu Pampa, Peru
credit: treksincusco

Espiritu Pampa is what Hiram Bingham was searching for when he rediscovered Machu Picchu. This site is thought to be the last Inca stronghold. The Lost City of the Incas sits in Vilcabamba, a stunning jungle region in Peru. The site was constructed to be a short term refuge from the Spanish in the 1500’s. It was built under the rule of Manco Inca, the last Incan ruler. Espiritu Pampa was built quickly and without the usual resources and materials, due to the chaos of its birth. The royal family resided in the city for 30 years before it was discovered by the Spanish in 1572 and largely destroyed. 

Over the years several restoration attempts on the site have started and been abandoned. This may be due to the remote location as hikes to the city can take up to a week. Recently, however, archaeologists have been seen working in the city so there may be a bright future ahead. 

If you are planning on making the journey to see these beautiful ruins, hiring a guide seems the best way to go. The trek can be arduous and difficult, but is wholly worth it, especially if you wish to see it before it grows in popularity.

The Inca Trail, Peru’s Holy Grail

The Inca Trail
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One of, if not the most famous trail in Peru. The Inca Trail is a four day, 26 mile trek from start to finish. While longer trails are available, this one has remained popular for good reason. This trail belongs to a network called the Royal Road and takes you past eight different historical sites. The route passes through a section of the Andes Mountains and makes up part of the original Inca trail used in the 15th century. Alpine tundra as well as cloud forest make for an unforgettable four day journey.

Honourable Mentions of Peru’s Countryside

Llama in Peru
credit: globehopper

If only this article could be a novel. Peru holds so many beautiful and mysterious locations. Some remain hidden away in jungles and rainforests, others lie in deserts. Perhaps there are more that will be discovered? Below, I will leave you with a few more honourable mentions that you would not want to miss. These sites may be world famous, or maybe you have never heard of them until today. Either way, they deserve the world to know about them.


Moray, Peru
credit: traveltriangle

Located 50 kilometres northwest of Cusco, Moray’s purpose has confused researchers for years. New scientific methods suggest that the Incas used Moray as an agricultural research site in the 1500s. Testing samples proved that each terrace and pit had soil from different regions in the country. This suggests that the Incas were testing which plants could and could not grow in these different areas. Even the temperature varies from the top terrace to the bottom pit, a staggering difference of 15 degrees Celsius. 

This site speaks volumes for how advanced the Incas were when it comes to agriculture. The set up of Moray mimics today’s greenhouses and sets Incan ingenuity apart for obvious reasons.


Vinicunca, Peru
credit: mybestplace

A three hours drive from Cusco, Vinicunca translates to ‘seven coloured mountain’. The mountain lies 5,200 meters above sea level and has only recently been discovered. As strange as it sounds, this recent discovery is due to the snow finally melting and making the colours visible. These colours come from natural sediments and minerals. Over recent years the mountain has become one of the most well known sites in Peru. If the colourful peaks are not enough to tempt you, you will be glad to know that llamas, horses and alpacas live in the area. For the hikers who are intimidated by the mountains, renting horses nearby will make the trek much easier.

Nazca Lines, Southern Peru

Nazca Lines, Spider
credit: sciencealert

The final and one of the most famous of Peruvian sites, the Nazca Lines. Everyone knows about these so I will make it quick. These mysterious carvings are located in the Nazca desert, in southern Peru. The site spans over 1,000 kilometres squared and features depictions of animals and plants. Some carvings are 30 meters wide and stretch up to 9 kilometres. These unusual lines can be seen the best from the air or from nearby hilltops. Recently researchers have proposed that the site and its carvings are a part of a rain-bringing ritual. However this has not been proven.

Conclusion – Why Visit Peru?

credit: flickr

There are many reasons to visit Peru. Even one’s love for llamas should be enough to hop on a plane and take on the journey. However, the amount of history sitting on Peruvian mountain tops and in the depths of the jungle is incredible. A trip to Peru is not a cheap one, and neither are the tours that would make the trip more than worth it. But who can put a price on Machu Picchu, or the Inca Trail when nothing else compares to them? 

If you enjoy history and learning more about it, Peru sounds like a destination for you. Otherwise, there are always the fascinating catacombs of Rome, or Angkor Thom. If you feel like finding out more about the more refined and luxurious places in the world, check out Sao Tome and Principe as well as France.

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