3 Great Alternatives to Machu Picchu in the Cusco Region of Peru
With so many people adding the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu to their bucket lists, the Peruvian historic ruin can be crowded and its mandatory timed tickets can be cumbersome to obtain. Where can you go if you want to visit Peru and see an Inca archeological site that’s just as beautiful and just as interesting but isn't so hard to get into?
Here are the top three alternatives to Machu Picchu, equally impressive in their engineering, natural beauty, and importance in Inca history. We present them here in increasing order of physical activity, from a simple walk that’s partly wheelchair accessible (Pisac) to a day hike (Waqra Pukará) to a multi-day trek (Choquequirao).
Editor’s note: Peru is currently dealing with domestic political protests that may block roads and affect transportation. Before traveling to Peru, check current conditions with the U.S. Embassy in Lima or consult the current travel recommendations of your government. All Americans going to Peru should voluntarily register with the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which helps authorities locate travelers in case of emergency.
Pictured above: Pisac
The Pisac archeological site sits high on a ridge with commanding views of the eastern end of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Like most important Inca sites, it’s divided into three areas: agricultural, residential, and ceremonial.
The agricultural terraces are what you see first upon arrival at Pisac. Walk across the top of the terraces and you’ll be at the foot of the residential area. The ceremonial section is on the far end of a narrow ridge, a half-hour walk from the main section of the ruins.
Follow the path down the ridge and through a small tunnel to find curved walls made with the classic Inca architecture of stones that fit together perfectly, surrounding an intihuatana ritual stone. The Quechua word intihuatana can be translated as “where the Sun attaches to the Earth.” The most famous intihuatanas are at Machu Picchu, though none of them are as impressive, or as perfectly preserved, as the one at Pisac.
Pisac has something else not found at Machu Picchu: an Inca cemetery. Walk around the back of the residential area and you’ll be faced with a cliff dotted with holes (pictured above). Each hole was once a tomb, though they were all looted long ago.
The town of Pisac, in the valley far below, is only a half-hour drive from Calle Puputi in Cusco. Taxis cost about $13, each way. It’s another 30 minutes from town up to the ruins. (Taxis from Pisac town to the ruins cost about US $10 each way). Go with a tour from Cusco (hotels can book one) or hire a driver in Pisac at any of the agencies near the town's bridge. Group tours usually include the entire Sacred Valley but give you only an hour at the Pisac ruins. To have enough time to hike to the end of the ridge and see the intihuatana, you need a minimum of two hours.
The entrance fee is part of the combined Boleto Turístico del Cusco (BTC); there is no separate ticket for only Pisac. As of 2023, the full BTC included sixteen sites and cost S/130 (about US $34) and the partial BTC, which included eight sites, costs S/70 (about US $18).
Waqra Pukará means "horned fortress" in Quechua, and the name couldn’t be more fitting. Two stone spires tower over the end of a ridge, giving it natural horns. Built high on a promontory, it looks down a canyon far grander than the narrow valley that you'd see beneath Machu Picchu.
Here, the Apurímac River flows more than 3,000 feet below. The peak and the horns are natural, so until you get close, you may not notice the architecture built into them. Once you see the stairs leading up to the site, you’ll also recognize terraces and doorways built into the cliffs.
The site is not as well preserved as Pisac and has not benefited from the restoration that Machu Picchu has received. However, the extraordinary Inca design accentuates the natural geology just as impressively as either of the other sites.
Waqra Pukará is also said to be the site of Inca drama, although there is no official interpretation of the Inca’s oral history. Local guides tell the story of Tito Cosnipa, who fell in love with the Inca's daughter. The couple eloped to Waqra Pukará, a ceremonial center for pilgrimages, but were pursued by soldiers. It is naturally defensible, and Tito Cosnipa fought valiantly before the Incan forces won. In recognition of his bravery, rather than put Tito Cosnipa to death, Huayna Capac sent him north to conquer what is now Ecuador.
The best way to get to Waqra Pukará on your own is to drive from Cusco to the town of Sangarará, which takes about an hour and a half (taxis from Cusco are about $16 per person, each way). Another half hour up from town, you’ll arrive at the trailhead. The hike is mostly flat over rolling hills, though it is at about 14,000 feet above sea level. While the 90-minute walk is not strenuous, it is best to spend at least two days in Cusco or another high-altitude location before attempting it (but that advice applies to Machu Picchu's treks, too).
Companies like Salkantay Trekking start the hike from the town of Santa Lucía rather than Sangarará. It’s a longer hike from Santa Lucía, but you hike through the Apurímac Canyon, which is beautiful.
In 2023, site guards may charge you a S/10 PEN (about US $3) entrance fee on arrival, though enforcement is inconsistent. You cannot buy tickets ahead of time and you must bring exact change.
Often called the sister site of Machu Picchu, Choquequirao has a similar feel. It is much larger, though—an estimated 80% of the site is still covered by dense jungle. What archeologists have uncovered so far shows the classic Inca division of agricultural, residential, and ceremonial areas. It also has what experts have called barracks, revealing Choquequirao as a place where the Inca’s army was stationed. The site is strategically located on the lower stretches of the Apurímac River, far downstream from Waqra Pukará. (It’s ninety miles/ 145 km between the two sites as the crow files).
One unique feature of Choquequirao is the circular, flat-topped ushnu, a natural bluff on the ridge that leads from the residential area to the ceremonial center. Walk up and over it, then down to the ceremonial center, and you will see two houses with high walls built around them. They were once a monastery where monks lived sequestered from the rest of society. Nearby, ancient terraces have silhouettes of llamas built into them with white stones.
Because it's difficult to access, Choquequirao sees a tiny fraction of the number of visitors that Machu Picchu does. A tram from the village of Capuliyoc has been planned for years, but construction permits have still not been approved, so you'll have to go on foot. Standing in Capuliyoc, you can see the archeological site on the opposite side of the Apurímac River, but the canyon is so deep that you can’t even see the water below. The trail from Capuliyoc descends over 3,000 feet, then climbs another 3,000 feet back up to Choquequirao, a return journey that most people take five days to do.
The drive from Cusco to Capuliyoc takes about 4 and 1/2 hours and a private drivers will charge about US $40 each way. You don’t need to bring food or camping equipment because families along the trail cook delicious meals for travelers and rent cabins that are rustic but comfortable. The trail is well-marked, so you can’t get lost, but you will need a guide at the ruins. Apurímac Adventures is a local business that specializes in Choquequirao. You can rent horses in Capuliyoc to help with the trail. However, the animals are not allowed inside the archeological site, and Choquequirao is not wheelchair accessible.
In 2023, the entrance fee was S/60 PEN (about US $15). Only cash is accepted, and exact change is appreciated.