Off the Grid South America

3 Excellent Alternatives to Machu Picchu | Peru

Taylor looking at Machu Picchu

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. The alpaca sweater may be optional, but the trip itself is not. It’s 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?

I checked a few of them out myself. If you are looking for an alternative to Machu Picchu 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 the 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.Machu Picchu View

How to Plan a Trip to Peru - Machu Picchu

How to Plan a Trip to Peru - Machu Picchu

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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons: 

  • 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+.

Plan your Trip: Momondo | Booking.com

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 (curve ball!) vikings.Ruins of Kuelap in Peru

Ruins of Kuelap
Ruins of Kuelap

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 onto 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.

Pros:

  • 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 teleferico is supposed to finalize in 2017. There’s never been a better time to get there while it’s still hard to get to!

Cons:

  • 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.

Plan your Trip: Momondo | Booking.com

Why visit the Sacred Valley?

Within the Sacred Valley, you’ll find a host of other ruins like Ollantaytambo, Sacsahuaman, 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.Alternatives to Machu Picchu - Ollantaytambo

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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • Size: Each of the individual ruins are spread out and less vast than Machu Picchu.

Plan your Trip: Momondo | Booking.com

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!The Alternative to Machu Picchu - View of Choquequirao

Ruins of Choquequirao
Choquequirao Ruins in Peru - View of the Park

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.

Pros:

  • 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”!

Cons:

  • 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.

Plan your Trip: Momondo | Booking.com

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.

Into alternative travel? You might also like:

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Want a less crowded or less expensive alternative to Machu Picchu? The pros / cons of Choquequirao, Kuelap, + the Sacred Valley as alternatives.

Have you been to any of these alternatives to Machu Picchu? Did you think they were as good as the real deal?

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    why you can't miss the Choquequirao ruins - Travel Outlandish
    February 9, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    […] sites. But if you’re seeking a quieter more adventurous experience, there’s only one alternative to Machu Picchu as far as we’re concerned. High on a hill in the Vilcabamba mountain range is the […]

  • Reply
    stephanie
    February 9, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Oh my. Choquequirao looks amazing…but the “difficult trek thing’ scared me.
    I think it is not a good idea for me’.
    But thanks for sharing these alternatives.
    x

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      February 9, 2017 at 5:50 pm

      I’m not sure we would have been up for it if we hadn’t had some warmup hikes around South America. Worth it, but definitely tough!

  • Reply
    battle of the bays: Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay?
    February 9, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    […] Bay is on par with Machu Picchu as far as “things you really ought to see before you die” go. Hell, Ho Chi Minh […]

  • Reply
    Pascal H.
    January 8, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    Hi thanks a lot for your post .. great job! I know the chance is very low but.. if there is someone out there in cusco who wants to join me doing the unguided tour to choquequirao trek during the next 10 weeks.. leave a comment!

    • Reply
      Susanne
      February 10, 2018 at 11:20 pm

      Hi Pascal, have you done the trip yet? Because I actually would be up to do it. 🙂

  • Reply
    Alicia
    January 9, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    Heya like the guy above I will be going out in May and would love to do this towards the end of the month if someone is also interested? Thanks!

    • Reply
      Johanna
      April 9, 2018 at 11:48 pm

      Hi Alicia,
      I would be interested but I have no idea how tough it really is and wether you have be the sportiest human in the world 😀 I didn’t hike in Peru yet.

  • Reply
    Michele
    December 8, 2018 at 6:30 am

    Is it possible to learn the elevation gain, loss and distance for each day, as well as starting and ending elevation? That would make it easier to decide how tough of a hike it is.

    • Reply
      Taylor
      December 11, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      Hey Michele. Are you asking about the Choquequirao trek? You can find more info on that trek here!

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