The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the most well-known vacation opportunity in all of Peru. It can be a challenging hike for those who want to take it all the way (as opposed to riding a van or bus up to a certain point), but more importantly it takes you to some of the most stunning ancient ruins anywhere in the world. And ultimately, the mystique of Machu Picchu speaks to the impression much of the world has of Peru as a place where the ancient cultures of the “New World” Americas have endured in the form of various landmarks.
It’s these landmarks, and the idea of cultures from centuries past, that largely represent Peru in pop culture around the world. For instance, Machu Picchu has inspired its own board game, and has appeared in some form or another in numerous films. Gonzo’s Quest, one of the most popular online video games of the past several years, makes a point of being set in Peru as it surrounds the theme of an explorer seeking treasures in a New World wilderness. While it may not be entirely fair to the modern country and culture of Peru, it’s things like these that make it such an alluring place to so much of the world. We imagine it as a snapshot of an older time.
Cusco is a particularly fascinating landmark because it’s still a thriving city. Historically however, it’s not entirely unlike Machu Picchu (though much larger). It’s located in the Andes in southeastern Peru, and beginning in the 13th century it was the capital of the entire Incan Empire. Following the Spanish conquest however it wasn’t abandoned or destroyed, but rather maintained such that it is now one of South America’s most interesting historical cities.
Machu Picchu gets most of the attention because of its high elevation, stunning surroundings, and fascinating historical connection to the great Inca civilization. However, it’s not actually that old by the standard of ancient world relics. Kuélap is effectively a ruined town or fortress in northern Peru that is far older and far more obscure than Machu Picchu. Its origin predates the Incas altogether, and it was built by a people called the Chachapoyans.
Chavin de Huantar
This is somewhat like Kuélap, not so much visually but in its description. It’s another archaeological site in the Andes mountains, and another one that pre-dates Incan times (representative of the Chavin people). Despite its relative obscurity compared to Machu Picchu or even Cusco or the Nazca Lines, Chavin de Huantar is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Spider (Nazca Lines)
Some consider the Nazca Lines to be up there with Stonehenge, the Easter Island heads, and the Pyramids as ancient landmarks that almost can’t be explained. They’re massive “geoglyphs,” which is basically a term for inscriptions made in the land itself, and they’re believed to have been drawn by the Nazca culture thousands of years ago. The mystery is that they can’t be interpreted properly without the benefit of an aerial perspective, and yet there they are, clear and uniform. They’re quite something to see in person. And it turns out, there may be more of them than we thought!
The Sillustani Tombs are, as you might have guessed, an ancient burial site, most notable for its position along the sides of Lake Umayo, which is near Lake Titicaca - one of the highest elevation lakes in the world. The tombs are remnants of the Incan Empire, though they’re believed to predate the empire itself, having belonged to another people who were conquered by the Incas.