Peru is a country full of historical, cultural and archaeological splendour, and is an excellent country to visit for a holiday experience like no other. Its geography is varied resulting in incredible biodiversity – it is one of only 17 countries in the world classed as “mega-diverse”, its food is rightly and finally starting to earn a reputation as some of the best in the world, and the adventure opportunities are endless – trekking, sand-boarding, rafting, bungee, kayaking to name but a few.
Despite all this, however, the jewel in the crown for Peru is its majestic array of archaeological ruins dotted all over the country. There are many ruins to visit in Peru, so this list is intended as a guide on the Top 5 ruins to try to visit on a holiday to Peru.
1.Machu Picchu must visit on Peru holiday
It would have been impossible to write a list of the best archaeological ruins in Peru without mentioning Machu Picchu, the most famous and most popular tourist destination in the Americas. The UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World is surely one of the most iconic and awe-inspiring places in the entire world. The classic “postcard” photo, showing the sprawling ruins with the mountain peak of Huayna Picchu as a backdrop, is almost as iconic as the site itself, and has been used as the photo for endless guide books, postcards, and magazine covers.
The site is not mentioned in any of the Spanish chronicles, so it believed the Spanish Conquistadors were not aware of its existence, and it was hidden from the western world for hundreds more years, until Hiram Bingham discovered the ruin, with the help of some indigenous locals, in 1911.
Today visitors to the site get a very interesting and educational tour of the ruins by a professional guide, aside from the views the Inca stone-work is exceptional, and the water system the Inca devised to transport water throughput the site is nothing short of genius.
For anyone up to the challenge by far the best way to experience the site is to trek the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which arrives at Machu Picchu on the morning of the 4th day before sunrise so tired trekkers can watch the first rays of the sun rise of the ruin. However the town of Aguas Calientes, in the valley below Machu Picchu, is where most tourists stay overnight before catching a 20 minute bus up to the site entrance. Aguas Calientes is reached by train from Cusco.
Although Machu Picchu is the only Inca site in Peru to be listed here, the area surrounding Machu Picchu and Cusco is full of excellent Inca archaeological sites that may be less famous than Machu Picchu but are definitely worth visiting… amongst the best are Ollantaytambo, Choquequirao, Sacsayhuaman, Moray, Pisac, Qorikancha and Tambomachay.
2.Caral – The Oldest Civilisation in the Americas
Caral, around 2 hours north of Lima by road, is an incredibly large UNESCO World Heritage Site which is very important in the cultural and archaeological history of Peru.
The Norte Chico civilisation lived in this area of Peru from as early as 5000 years ago, and Caral itself is though to be around 4000 to 4500 years old. It is the oldest civilisation to have been discovered in the entire Americas.
Today Caral is little-known, with only a handful of visitors per day, however that might change soon – the Peruvian government is investing time and money in ongoing restoration of the site, with plans to expand access and make it the “Machu Picchu of the Pacific coast” within the next 15 to 20 years.
In terms of size Caral far exceeds Machu Picchu – Caral encompasses a series of 19 pyramids spread out over 35 square miles, with the main site featuring 9 large pyramids encircling a giant enclosure.
Onsite guides will give a tour throughout the entire site, visiting all the pyramids and showing stone carvings that are thousands of years old.
3.Kuelap – City of the People of the Clouds
One of Peru’s best kept secrets, the ruin of Kuelap can be visited by tours from the nearby northern Peruvian city of Chachapoyas. The Chachapoyas region of Peru has just as many interesting and adventurous tourist destinations as the much more famous Cusco region in the south of Peru, but is far less-visited.
Kuelap, built around 1000AD, is a very visually impressive site – giant man-made “cliffs”, up to 12 metres high, surround the hill-top ruin and enclose round brick houses where the Chachapoyas people lived.
The countryside surrounding the ruin is typically Andean, with endless mountains and valleys and terraced farmland. The views from the ruin are just as spectacular as a visit to the ruin itself. Although access to Chachapoyas is more difficult than Cusco, Kuelap is an astonishing place to visit on a Pery holiday .
The outstanding Gocta Waterfalls, one of the top ten highest waterfalls in the world, are near to Kuelap and Chachapoyas and are definitely also worth a visit.
4.Chan Chan – The largest adobe city in the world
Around 800 years ago Chan Chan, on the outskirts of the modern city of Trujillo (famous for its cuisine and accessed easily by bus from Lima), was an incredibly large and important city. It was the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas, and is the largest adobe city in the world, which at one time housed tens of thousands of people over an astonishing area of almost 30 square kilometres.
Today the site is so large that only part of it can be visited, and whilst restoration of the remaining parts of the ruin will continue, it is likely that full restoration will be impossible simply due to the sheer scale of the site.
The northern region of Peru is often over-looked by tourists, but it has a rich array of sites to see, of which Chan Chan might possibly be the jewel in the crown. A visit to the site is very interesting, with endless walkways, plazas and richly decorated adobe brickwork. For beach lovers, the nearby village of Huanchaco is famous for its traditional reed-boats, and the beach-side town of Mancora, and the resort of Punta Sal, are easily accessed with Trujillo being an excellent stop-off point en route from Lima.
5.Huaca de la Luna y Huaca del Sol
Like Chan Chan, the “Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun” (Huaca de la Luna y Huaca del Sol)are also adobe ruins and are also on the outskirts of the city of Trujillo, however that is where the similarity ends. The Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun are around 600-800 years older than Chan Chan, and whereas Chan Chan is the largest adobe city in the world, the Temple of the Sun is the largest adobe single-structure on the planet, made with more than 100 million adobe bricks!
However, despite the size of the Temple of the Sun it is the Temple of the Moon that is much more worth visiting. Although the Temple of the Moon is smaller, it is much more extensively excavated, and archaeologists have opened it up into a maze of corridors, rooms and chambers, some of which feature 1500 year-old original painted decorative features which are astonishing.
Author: Jonathan Lillie lived in Peru throughout 2008 and 2009 and has travelled extensively throughout the country. After returning from his adventures he helped set up the Peru travel company Go Andes. One of his favourite things to do is to spend a day people-watching and taking photos of the wonderful sites in the city of Cusco, before spending the evening watching the sunset over the main plaza.