Want a less crowded or less expensive alternative to Machu Picchu? Here’s all you need to know about Choquequirao, Kuélap, and the Sacred Valley including cost of visiting, how to get there, and pros and cons compared to Machu Picchu.
Ever heard of that 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.
That’s because Machu Picchu is a traveler right of passage 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. Every day is a busy day to visit Machu Picchu.
I set out to determine whether any of Peru’s other 100+ archeological sites were just as cool as Machu Picchu. Ruins like Kuélap, 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 everything you need to know about planning a visit.
Why Visit Machu Picchu?
As it stands today, Machu Picchu is big one 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 overblown, but it’s still a World Wonder for a reason.
- Notoriety: Machu Picchu is the ruin of all Inca 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+.
How to Visit Machu Picchu
How to Get to Machu Picchu: 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 the other Inca Trails and methods of transport require that you take a bus the final few kilometers from Aguas Calientes.
Cost of Visiting Machu Picchu: 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 accommodation. 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.
Alternatives to Machu Picchu
Why visit Kuélap?
Sitting high in the hills of Northern Peru, the mysterious ruins of Kuélap were once inhabited by the “people of the clouds”. The three levels of Kue´lap were built between 400BC – 1470AD, and are entirely unusual thanks to their round structure. In the excavation of the site, archaeologists discovered blonde mummies – no one really knows whether the cloud people were indigenous, Spanish, or (curveball!) Vikings.
- Uncrowded: Kuélap 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. Kuélap might not be this uncrowded for long.
- Difficulty of Travel: Both Chachapoyas and Kuélap 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 Kuélap just doesn’t have the grandeur of Machu Picchu.
How to Visit Kuélap
How to Get to Kuélap: The nearest town to Kuélap is the surprisingly cute Chachapoyas. To get there, you’ll need to take a treacherous bus ride up from San Ignacio. A visit to Kuélap makes for an excellent add-on for anyone crossing the border from Ecuador to Peru or heading into the Amazon.
Cost of Visiting Kuélap: Kuélap is a super affordable alternative to Machu Picchu. While Chachapoyas is a bit of the way, day trips to Kuélap including transport, lunch, a guide, and admission only cost about S/ 70 (~$21). Accommodation in Chachapoyas is quite affordable too.
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 combine several of them together. Grab a Boleto Turístico, and you can visit as many as 16 Incan ruins within the 10 days of validity.
- 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.
How to Visit the Sacred Valley
Getting to the Sacred Valley: 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 of Visiting the Sacred Valley: 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.
Why visit Choquequirao?
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!
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- 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.
How to Visit Choquequirao
Getting to Choquequirao: 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 of Visiting Choquequirao 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.
So, what’s the best alternative to Machu Picchu?
In a showdown between Kuélap, Choquequirao, and the many ruins in the Sacred Valley, my vote is on Choquequirao.
It’s the only ruins with a similar grandeur to Machu Picchu without the crowds. And the remote location made the trip to Choquequirao the kind of adventure we were hoping for.
Have you been to any of these alternatives to Machu Picchu? Did you think they were as good as the real deal?