Machu Picchu. Cuzco. The Hatunrumiyoc or twelve-angled stone. Even for travelers who’ve never been to South America, these Inca sites are iconic to the point of near-cliché. Splashed across Facebook and Instagram backgrounds like pre-Colombian wallpaper, they’re magnets for selfie-snappers and bucket-listers everywhere. Not just history fanatics, but all manner of would-be archaeologists and spiritual seekers make pilgrimages to them each year, hoping to tap into their uncanny aura.
But ojo: just because the Incas’ brand recognition is high, doesn’t mean visitors necessarily know about this enigmatic civilization.
Few, for example, are aware that smack in the middle of Cuzco’s downtown, it’s possible to stand in the exact spot the Incas considered to be the navel of the universe. Or that Inca priests conducted plant-breeding experiments in outdoor labs that look like crop circles out of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
Most tellingly, few realize that Peru today is still criss-crossed with a web of unsung but interconnected Inca holy places. Places whose spell is every bit as bewitching as Machu Picchu’s, but which only a tiny percentage of travelers will ever end up visiting.
Where are these hidden corners of the Americas’ most mysterious empire? Read on: your personal guide awaits…
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Space aliens: so exclaim many visitors upon witnessing these stunning, 500-foot-deep ringed terraces an hour or so outside Cuzco. And while skeptics may roll their eyes, it’s undeniable that the knowledge of crops and microclimates evinced by the Inca agriculturists who built these amphitheater-like pits make Moray the space-age technology of its time.
Temperature was the key. Between the lowest and the highest terraces there’s a differential of up to 60°F, which mirrors the gap between Peru’s coast and its Andean highlands. Modern historians speculate that on Moray’s steps, it was possible to simulate all the microclimates of the Inca empire, thus permitting the priest-scientists who worked there to experiment with different foodstuffs to feed the burgeoning population.
Green technology? Or an homage to pachamama, the goddess of the Earth? Decide for yourself, when you visit this towering example of the Incas’ futuristic genius.
2. Vitcos and the White Rock
Remoteness makes these ruins, which lie on the edge of the Peruvian jungle some 60 miles northwest of Cuzco, relatively unvisited by tourists. Those who go, however, encounter a spellbinding place of magic—and murder.
The murder was that of Manco Inca, the warrior-king who put up a fierce resistance when the Spanish invaded Peru in the 1530s. After fleeing into the forbidding jungle terrain, he ruled what was left of his empire from Vitcos’s labyrinth of temples and palaces, until finally being tracked down and assassinated there in 1544—ironically by the same men who’d previously killed the conquistador Francisco Pizarro.
The mystery is even more intriguing. It surrounds the nearby shrine known as the “white rock”—which isn’t white, but rather a massive granite outcropping the Incas called Chuquipalta, or Yurac Rumi. One of the most sacred temples in all the Andes, its peglike protrusions and steps have mystified archaeologists ever since Hiram Bingham stumbled on them back in 1911. Today it’s still possible to see the ceremonial bath filled by a spring from under the rock, and to sit on the smoothly carved “living stones” of this holy of holies.
How many legends surround this, the most sacred shrine in all the Inca empire? To start with, there’s the story that beneath the temple to the sun-god Inti, there exists a network of subterranean corridors (true). Also that the building’s massive Inca masonry has never been shaken by Cuzco’s many earthquakes, even though said tremors have devastated the Spanish church built on top (also true). Also that the stone well in the central plaza, the cuzco cari urumi, was considered by the Incas to be the center of their universe (unconfirmed, but very likely true).
When you go, you’ll experience first-hand the source for all the buzz. Located in the heart of Cuzco’s downtown, the Qorikancha sports gorgeous ashlar walls that once housed chambers dedicated to the sun, moon, stars, thunder, and rainbows. These walls were covered with plates of solid gold and adorned with life-size gold and silver statues—llamas, corn stalks—that the Spanish melted down after sacking it in 1533. From this mystical epicenter, spiritual lines called ceques radiated out to holy places in every corner of the Inca realm.
Today, the superimposed Dominican church blurs somewhat the Qorikancha’s full effect. Nevertheless, for those attuned to awe, this sun-temple’s monumental grandeur remains.
Machu Picchu 2.0: so rave the tour guides and just-got-back pilgrims to this mind-blowing citadel, located some 120 miles west of the city of Cuzco. And while the four-day, 17-mile trek to reach the site from the drop-off point in Cachora pueblo is a test of anyone’s stamina, those who undertake it reap abundant rewards.
Those rewards start with the grounds themselves. Gabled ceremonial halls, sweeping stone terraces decorated with llama designs, “refrigerators” for storing food: this complex, at three times the size of Machu Picchu, would have allowed a population of several hundred to live royally. Nor are aesthetics lacking. Here the masonry of plazas, temples, and aqueducts is more than sufficient to give Hiram Bingham’s little affair down the valley a run for its money.
The difference is solitude. For all its sublimity, Choquequirao only gets 20 or so visitors per day. That means cosmic-minded trekkers have a chance here to experience the immensity of the Andes in a way that’s impossible elsewhere. Listening to the wind as it whips across the peaks, watching the dark constellations of the Inca Milky Way reel overhead, you shudder with the same awe that drove the Incas to scale 10,000 feet to erect this monument to the gods of the mountain.
Scholars might still be debating Choquequirao’s exact purpose—only some 30 percent has been cleared of vegetation. But one thing is obvious: for anyone looking to feel the wonder of the Andes in all its power, this site is unmatched.
5. Wiñay Wayna
“Forever young” is how this Inca farming town’s name is usually translated from the Quechua. And indeed, the place exercises a curiously rejuvenating influence over all who visit.
Partly this is due to location. Located at the last overnight stop along the Inca trail before Machu Picchu, Wiñay Wayna is frequently used as a campground by travelers eager to arrive at the latter’s sun gate early the next morning. Waking up to a vision of its sun-dappled terraces is like seeing the world made new.
But Wiñay Wayna’s true regenerative power lies elsewhere—in its fairy-tale beauty. Crowning the hillside, a round, castle-like structure overlooks a pristine valley shrouded in morning mist; below, roofless houses gleam dazzlingly in the early sun. Here you’ll find stone fountains burbling alongside a narrow stairway, while in the distance a cataract spills from the heights in soft slow-motion.
Wiñay Wayna offers a vision of loveliness amidst the purple valley orchids that give it its name. A vision that lingers in the imagination long after the traveler has gone.
If Wiñay Wayna represents the Inca Trail’s home stretch, Patallacta is its starting salvo. Situated less than a day’s walk from the trail’s head at railway Km. 82, this large complex is the first ruin encountered on South America’s most famous hike by the Machu Picchu-bound, and may have been an agricultural community that supplied food to the region. Unfortunately, it was partly burned by Manco Inca during his retreat from Cuzco in 1537.
Most visitors only see Patallacta from the hillside above. If, however, you go in for a closer look, you’ll find some fine dwellings, as well as a panorama of the meeting of two rivers.
Nota bene: Patallacta is sometimes referred to as “Llactapata,” which is, properly speaking, the name for a different, harder-to-access site west of Machu Picchu. Confused? Don’t feel bad: professional archaeologists have made the same screw-up.
Water, water, everywhere: fluid dynamics are the key to Tipón’s magic. Here soft-purling streams nourish this royal pleasure garden (or is it an agricultural terrace?) via a network of stone channels. So impressive is its husbandry of liquid resources that the American Society of Civil Engineers feted it as one of only ten ancient marvels worthy of its List of International Historic Landmarks.
Tipón’s soothing aura makes itself felt immediately. By climbing to the top of the hillside where it’s situated, you can follow its watercourses as they branch, becoming first two, then four, and finally reuniting at the monument’s base. You can also see the site’s ruined palace, reputed to be that of Yahuar Huaca, an early Inca, while savoring the silence of a peaceful valley just 30 minutes outside Cuzco. A fitting final stop on your tour of the Inca heartland’s hidden glories.
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.