Ever heard of a little Incan citadel called Machu Picchu? Anyone who travels has at least the slightest ambition of exploring the nearly 600-year-old ruins at some point in their life. The alpaca sweater may be optional, but the trip itself is not. Machu Picchu is a traveler right of passage, really. But, as spectacular as the ruins may be, there is one real problem with visiting Machu Picchu. The park opens its gates to 2,500+ visitors per day every day of the year. Turns out it’s always a busy day at Machu Picchu.
In the interest of alternative travel, I set out to decide whether any of Peru’s 100+ archeological sites were just as cool as Machu Picchu. Ruins like Kuelap, Llactapacta, Choquequirao, and a handful of sites around the Sacred Valley came up as cheaper and quieter alternatives to Machu Picchu. But are they as good?
If you are left doubting whether Machu Picchu is worth it or want to supplement your Machu Picchu trip with something just a bit farther off the Gringo Trail, check out these Machu Picchu alternatives along with some practical information about visiting.
Why visit Machu Picchu?
As it stands today, Machu Picchu is paramount of all Incan ruins. With more than 8 square kilometers to explore, you’d be missing out by skipping it entirely. With stellar vantage points available from Wayna Picchu, Temple of the Moon, and the Sun Gate, you can spend a full day wandering and still have more to see. It may be a little overblown, but it’s still a World Wonder for a reason.
How to Visit Machu Picchu:
Getting There: The nearest town to Machu Picchu is called Aguas Calientes. To get to Aguas Calientes, you can either take a bus/train from Cusco, a train from Ollantaytambo, or one of the many treks to Machu Picchu. The Classic Inca Trail is the only way to hike directly into the park through the Sun Gate. All other methods of transport require that you take a bus the final few kilometers from Aguas Calientes.
Cost: The cheapest we’ve heard of anyone getting to Machu Picchu is $230, including transportation, meals, accommodation, and park entrance. The average is closer to $400 if you take the train and stay in mid-level accomodation. The Classic Inca Trail treks start at $500 and you are required to go with a guide. If you choose one of the alternative treks to Machu Picchu, expect to pay between $200-$500.
- Notoriety: Machu Picchu is the ruin of all Incan ruins (…duh)
- Size: The park is one of the largest archeological complexes in Peru
- Ease of Travel: Machu Picchu offers exceptional tourist infrastructure and is easy to get to
- Crowded: Go early or later in the day to ensure you have a bit of space.
- Expensive: Machu Picchu is expensive no matter which way you go. The Classic Inca Trail and the train are the most expensive, but any of the alternative routes to Machu Picchu will still set you back $200+.
Alternatives to Machu Picchu
Why visit Kuelap?
Sitting high in the hills of Northern Peru, the mysterious ruins of Kuelap were once inhabited by the “people of the clouds”. The three levels of Kuelap were built between 400BC – 1470AD, and are entirely unusual thanks to their round structure. In the excavation of the site, archaeologists discovered blonde mummies – it’s up to you to decide whether these cloud people were indigenous, Spanish, or (curveball!) Vikings.
How to Visit Kuelap:
Getting There: The nearest town to Kuelap is the surprisingly cute Chachapoyas. To get there, you’ll need to take a treacherous bus ride up from San Ignacio. A visit to Kuelap makes for an excellent add-on for anyone crossing the border from Ecuador to Peru or heading into the Amazon.
Cost: Kuelap is a super affordable alternative to Machu Picchu. While Chachapoyas is a bit of the way, day trips to Kuelap including transport, lunch, a guide, and admission only cost about S/ 70 (~$21). Accommodation in Chachapoyas is quite affordable too.
- Uncrowded: Kuelap is way the hell out of the way which ensures the ruins are uncrowded
- Cheap: If you’re already in Chachapoyas, you can arrange an inclusive day trip for about $21
- Timing: Construction of a cable car just finished in 2017. Keulap might not be this uncrowded for long.
- Difficulty of Travel: Both Chachapoyas and Kuelap are quite far from other tourist destinations in Peru. Unless you’re crossing the border from Ecuador, or staying nearby, it may not be worth the trip.
- Size: The ruins are great, but Kuelap just doesn’t have the grandeur of Machu Picchu.
Why visit the Sacred Valley?
Within the Sacred Valley, you’ll find a host of other ruins like Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuaman, and Pisac. While these ruins are slightly smaller and more spread out than Machu Picchu, you’ll have your fill of Incan ruins if you manage to visit them all. Grab a Boleto Turístico, and you can visit as many as 16 Incan ruins within the 10 days of validity.
How to Visit the Sacred Valley:
Getting There: The Sacred Valley includes Cusco, Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo, along with several surrounding towns. You can reach the various ruins on a day trip, or spend the night in the Sacred Valley for a more relaxing experience.
Cost: For the S/ 130 (~$70) boleto turístico you’ll gain access to 16 sites in the Sacred Valley. Transport costs will vary based on how many sites you choose to visit, but this is probably the cheapest option of all alternatives to Machu Picchu.
- Inexpensive: Entrance costs more than Machu Picchu, but 16 sites for the price is nothing to balk at.
- Ease of Travel: The attractions in the Sacred Valley are well served and you can get there by bus, collectivo, or inexpensive day trip from Cusco
- Size: Each of the individual ruins are spread out and less vast than Machu Picchu.
Why visit Choquequirao?
We’ve been places and seen things, but we’ve never seen anything quite as spectacular as Choquequirao. Accessible only by a very difficult trek, Choquequirao is a partially-excavated complex of Incan ruins estimated to be about 3x the size of Machu Picchu. Choquequirao only draws about 20 visitors per day, ensuring the ruins are undamaged and quiet all the time. If there is any true alternative to Machu Picchu, this is it! We wrote a guidbeook! Get “The Choquequirao Trek – Hiking the Other Inca Trail” for $6.99 now.
How to Visit Choquequirao:
Getting There: The trek to Choquequirao begins from a tiny town outside of Cusco. To get to the trailhead, you’ll take a bus from Cusco to Abancay, and a taxi onto Cachora where you’ll stay the night before beginning the trek.
Cost: You’d struggle to find a cheaper 4-day trek in Peru. Park entrance to Choquequirao only costs S/ 55 (~$17), and for 4-days, we rented gear, bought food, and paid for transport for under $100/person.
- Great Alternative to Machu Picchu: Of all the places on the list, this is the only one that we think is a true Machu Picchu alternative.
- Adventurous: For those up for adventure, the trek to Choquequirao is taxing and incredibly rewarding. Unlike the more popular Inca Trail, the trek to Choquequirao was inexpensive, averaging about $25 per day.
- Size: The ruins themselves are as expansive as Machu Picchu
- Uncrowded: It is possible to have the ruins of Choquequirao entirely to yourself at any time of day. There are talks of a teleferico, so you’ve got to get to Choquequirao before it becomes “the next Machu Picchu”!
- Ease of Travel: When we say this is a tough trek, we really mean it. The ruins are only accessible by plunging deep into a valley, climbing up the other side, and backing out in the same way. It’s entirely worth it, but should only be attempted by experienced hikers.
So, which is the best alternative to Machu Picchu?
Choquequirao is the best Machu Picchu alternative. Of all these ruins, it is the only one of similar grandeur. Additionally, the remote location made it the kind of adventure we were hoping for.