Peru's must-sees near Machu Picchu that aren’t Machu Picchu
You’ve seen that photo on Facebook—the one with some friend you vaguely know squatting or sitting with Machu Picchu in the background. The world wonder zoomed from bucket list checkmark to profile photo status in just a matter of years.
Thing is, Machu Picchu isn’t the only cool thing in Peru—that’s like saying the only cool thing in New York is the Statue of Liberty. Peruvians know how to party, but until you’ve thrown back a chicha morada (purple corn beer), you wouldn’t know. And there’s plenty more to know.
So here are the four best places to visit in Peru, outside Machu Picchu.
It’s Lima time—it rhymes with Zima, and has nothing to do with the bean.
Pack your fat pants, since you’ll probably pack on a few pounds while you’re in this coastal city. From clapboard corner ceviche spots to Gastón Acurio’s world-renowned Astrid & Gastón’s lip-smacking cuisine, Lima’s food scene lands it squarely as Latin America’s unrivaled gastronomic capital.
If you’re into fresh and complex flavors layered on top of one another (who isn’t?), then Lima’s for you. Walk the coast, visit the capital’s historic sites, like the Plaza de Armas, and pop into Mario Testino’s museum MATE. Lima deserves time for exploration—plus, your flight in and out of Peru will probably land/take off here anyway.
Unless you hike in via the Inca Trail at the break of dawn, you’ll have to deal with massive crowds at Machu Picchu. There are daily caps on visitors, but that’s like telling college students to just take one slice when there’s free pizza.
You won’t have anything close to solitude at Machu Picchua. For that, however, you have the rest of the Sacred Valley. The entire Sacred Valley, or Urubamba, is dotted with Incan sites that, while they don’t boast the fame of Machu Picchu, are impressive in their own rights.
Pisac is one of many small, traditional Andean towns in the valley, and despite covering only a smattering of blocks wedged into the base of a valley, it’s one of the most bustling of the bunch with a popular weekly fair. The archaeological site of the same name is located three miles from town, mostly uphill, and tiered terraces the Incans built are carved into the mountainside all the way to the top. You can hike it or catch a ride to the top and then walk the loop of the ruins, where the valley stretches out below for miles. And you’ll have it mostly to yourself.
If you’re hungry in Pisac, head for the mammalian equivalent of Red Lobster at San Francisco Colonial Oven. There you can pick one of the guinea pigs scurrying around a pen to be roasted for your dinner. Guinea pig, or cuy, is a delicacy in Peru, by the way.
And yes, it tastes like chicken.
While Lima claims its own share of historical sites, it’s more contemporary, whereas Cuzco is more traditional. Andean culture and its influences appear in everything Cuzco, from food to how locals dress in colorful knits. Additionally, it serves as the jump-off point for Peru’s Sacred Valley, which includes Machu Picchu.
You’ll get the best views of the one-time capital of the Incan empire from the cluster of ruins at Sacsayhuamán. Be prepared for the most dizzying altitudes of the trip in Cuzco, though—it’s even higher up here than at Machu Picchu. Keep chomping on coca leaves and sucking down coca tea, since they fight altitude sickness, and you'll be pretty high. And yes, coca is the same stuff cocaine's made from, but you won't actually be getting high from leaves or tea. You'll be "high" as in altitude-wise, silly.
Keep in mind if there’s an ongoing celebration in Peru, then it’s probably happening in Cuzco. The Corpus Christi festival returns every June, and while it starts as a religious affair, the whole place turns into a party that lasts several days.
Unless you’re pitching a tent (not a euphemism), it’s impossible to stay any closer to Machu Picchu than Aguas Calientes. Most people bunk there before heading to the archaeological site. And while nearly impossible to say three times fast, neighboring Ollantaytambo is an easy 1.5-hour train ride from Aguas Calientes. Plus, an Incan fortress chiseled into the mountains flanks the town and the remnants of Incan ceremonial areas and temples give you plenty to look at. The Patacancha River runs through town, which is gloriously serene—unless, of course, there’s a festival underway.
Ollantaytambo also serves as a logical base for half- or whole-day hikes, including to Salineras, a patchwork of multicolored salt flats descending into the valley that locals still work today. Sightseeing in the Sacred Valley doesn’t have to be a stiff affair, either; hike, bike, or raft to amp things up a bit.