Machu Picchu Alternatives: Five Historic Inca Places in Peru

Planning a trip to Peru? Most of the guide books will point you in the direction of good old Machu Picchu, which does in fact celebrate it’s 100th anniversary of discovery in 2011, making it one of the top travel destinations for 2011. But Peru is filled with Inca wonders and in this guest post, show us their five Machu Picchu alternatives…

The Inca empire – a once great and mighty civilization in pre-Columbian America has left behind a legacy of political, economic and socio-cultural influences which can still be observed even in modern-day societies. However, it is in the realm of monumental architecture that the Incas have carved their lasting and tangible place in history. Combining both magnificent form and practical function, they have built landmarks and sites all over South America that have either withstood the test of time or, after full restoration, revealed the inspiration and the sophisticated engineering behind the enigmatic structures.

In Peru especially, the Incas have left behind a number of archaeologically significant sites that are now important tourist destinations by themselves.  Whilst there is the Machu Picchu which by itself is an amazing Incan creation, there are other equally noteworthy sites in Peru that represent their handiwork.

A good place to base yourself is in Cusco. From here you can make day trips to many of the Machu Picchu alternatives suggested in this post. Read about Cusco hostels.


Loosely translated as “The Rock of the Owl” from the Quechuan language, Cusco is situated in the southeastern part of Peru, stretching throughout the Huatanay river valley and elevated at over 3,300 metres above sea level.  It was once the Inca empire’s political, religious and social capital, where legendary battles and rituals for the royal families were staged. At its prime, Cusco had exquisitely-carved granite walls and streets, magnificent and grandiose temples as well as palaces which were adorned with gold pieces.

The main square features Inca architecture such as the Acllahuasi (Temple of the Virgins) and the Koricancha or the main Inca temple where the Inti Raymi (Feast of the Sun) was traditionally held by the Incas.  In 1983 it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was consequently recognized as the “Tourism Capital of Peru and Cultural Heritage of the Nation.” Today, Cusco is an important hotspot of business and tourism in Peru and a popular setting off point for Machu Picchu.

Backpackers can find plenty of fun and cheap Cusco hostels from €4 per night.

Urubamba Valley

Near the Inca capital Cusco and the ruins of ancient Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas (El Valle Sagrado). The Urubamba Valley is said to span the magnificent Inca sites of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Lamay, Salineras and Calca among others. It was a bustling economic center for the Inca Empire, where maize was produced and the extraction of minerals and other natural resources were carried out.

In Pisac, visitors can marvel at the intricately carved farming terraces as well as an irrigation system that is still fully functional to this day. Salineras boasts the intriguing terraced salt fields. Ollantaytambo, on the other hand, holds historical and military importance as evidenced in the pink granite monoliths around the fortress, a sight that still leaves even scientists marveling at the exquisite craftsmanship. It was believed that it was here where Manco retreated after losing the battle to the Spaniards at Sacsayhuaman.

You can stay at hostels in Ollantaytambo or make day trips from Cusco hostels.


Another example of the Inca empire’s engineering legacy can be found in this archeological site near the town of Maras. Believed to be an ancient “greenhouse” or an experimental place for the Incas where better plant species were cultivated and developed, the site is renowned among tourist circles for its ringed agricultural terraces. The terraces were carved in a way that the different levels actually get different temperatures such that each level has its own “microclimate.”

Find accommodation in the nearby town of Urubamba. Las Chullpas Guesthouse is a charming house surrounded by lovely flora and fauna. They offer a free breakfast, a games room and a travel desk to help you plan trips.


High in the Andean ridges above the Apurimac River lies another cradle of Inca civilization. From the Quechuan phrase Chuqi K’iraw meaning “Cradle of Gold”, the city was a religious ceremonial center during the reign of King Pachacuti.  It is said to bear a lot of striking similarities to the structures found in Machu Picchu and like most of the Inca sites in Peru, the site hold well-preserved buildings, temples, living quarters, aqueducts and water springs.

Tambo Colorado

Said to be one of the best preserved Inca sites in Peru thanks to a dry climate in the area, Tambo Colorado is located at the Pisco River Valley and was believed to have served as a military checkpoint for those who travel or pass through it. Built in the mid 1400s during the reign of King Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the adobe complex of Tambo Colorado has retained most of its residual paint on the walls such that the red, white and yellow ochre are still recognizable to this day. The entire site can be characterized by trapezoidal niches with the main plaza also shaped as a trapezoid. Because the area lies on the Nazca fault lines where earthquakes are commonplace, the Incas designed their living quarters and windows in trapezoids and along diagonal lines so as to minimize the effects of the tremors and the seismic forces.

More and more historical Inca sites are being unearthed in Peru, proofs of the lasting contributions of this largest empire that once dominated the land.

Where to stay in Peru

If you plan to visit any of the cites discussed in this article, you can find hostels, cheap hotels and guesthouses  in many of these destinations. However, Cusco is popular base for backpackers and has a lively atmosphere. You can trek and visit archaeological sites and by night return to a town with plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars by night.

Yamanyá Backpackers is housed in a beautiful period house with a colourful and peaceful courtyard. They are a short walk from Plaza de Armas and offer comfy beds, a games room and free Wi-Fi. Dorms from €4 per night.

If you would prefer a Cusco hostel with private rooms, the El Tuco Hostel is one of our top-rated properties. Staff can help you plan your Inca Trail trips. All rooms have personal lockers and there is a bar and lounge area. Private rooms from €6 per night.

For other destinations search for hostels in Peru.

If you just can’t resit its allure read our guide on how to hike the Machu Picchu Inca trail.

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