Top 5 Archaeological Sites in Peru Beyond Machu Picchu

January 10, 2012 by

Best Of Lists, Day Trips, Suggested Itineraries

An aerial view of the Nazca Lines

Peru’s year-long celebration spectacular marking the 100th anniversary of archaeologist Hiram Bingham’s “rediscovery” of Machu Picchu is finally over. Laser light shows, live music, and other events have drawn unprecedented attention to the Incas’ amazing lost city, forcing national park administrators to consider increasing the number of visitors from 2500 to 4400 per day. That’s great news for folks worried about being turned away at the park entrance, not so much for those who prefer to commune with history well away from the crowds.

But, while the ancient city of Cusco, close to Machu Picchu and many other Inca cities, as well as the string of spectacular ruins along the Inca Trail, is considered the Archaeological Capital of the Americas, Peru offers much more for serious history buffs. Here are 5 archaeological sites in Peru worth seeing.

The Nazca Lines

The world’s largest and most important geoglyph field, the Nazca Lines are located just south of Lima and predate Machu Picchu by 2000 years. The arid desert has been emblazoned with some 70 enormous figures—including a monkey, hummingbird, spider, and “astronaut”—plus hundreds more geometric forms, all visible only from the air. Book a tiny plane for an unforgettable half-hour flight, perhaps  with a Nazca Lines combined trip to see the ancient Chauchilla mummies or Cantayo Puquios (aqueducts), still functioning after 2000 years.


This lovely little mountain town is most famously the site of the final 1532 battle of the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, and his army of 80,000, against Pizarro’s ragtag band of 168 Spaniards. The Spanish, shockingly, won without losing a man; the archaeological aftermath of the day the New World changed forever is visible all over town. Don’t miss the magnificent Complejo Turistico de Banos del Inca, the thermal pools where Emperor Atahualpa was bathing “with several women” when Pizarro arrived.


Northern Peru’s answer to the Inca Trail is a day hike up to the lost city of Kuelap, home of the mysterious Chachapoyas, or cloud forest people. Some 7315 visitors made the trip in 2010, roughly the same number of tourists that visit Machu Picchu in three days. Kuelap is about 600 years older, and with its unusual round stone houses and fantastic protected setting in the cliffs, was probably just as important—probably.

Chan Chan

The 1200-year-old adobe expanse of Chan Chan, capital of the Chimú Kingdom, sprawls 23 square kilometers (9 sq mi) along the Pacific ocean. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, home to 60,000 citizens before falling in AD 1470 to the Incas. The windswept ruins are remarkably ornate and well preserved, a magnificent complex cleverly designed to thrive on the arid coast, protecting homes, temples, and sunken gardens once watered with an immense irrigation system.


According to legend, this isolated mountain retreat was the last Inca city to fall to the Spanish conquistadors. Today, it is partially excavated and open to more intrepid tourists, who sometimes call it the “Other Machu Picchu.” Built in the late 1400s specifically to resemble its more famous sister city, and perhaps as a trade link between Cuzco and the rich Amazon basin, Choquequirao displays a similarly stunning layout and setting—with a fraction of the tourists. It is much less accessible, through a gorgeous two-day hike from Cuzco on a trail used by a tiny fraction of the tourist traffic along the Inca Trail. It’s the perfect alternative to Machu Picchu tour for agoraphobics and anyone interested in seeing more of Peru.

-Paige Penland

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