Missed by the Spaniards in the 1500s and only rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, there’s a reason Machu Picchu is an icon of mystery and the most famous archaeological site in South America. The once-forgotten, 15th-century Incan citadel built high in the Andes Mountains of Peru is mesmerizing, winning the adoration of archaeologists, explorers, and travelers so much so that visitor rates have jumped from 80,000 tourists in 1991 to over 1.5 million in 2018—that’s an average of 4,300 visitors per day. Though this sprawling ancient site is remarkable (it’s even recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World), it can’t withstand the world’s mounting interest, leading UNESCO to contemplate placing the site on its “List of World Heritage in Danger” prior to the Peruvian government implementing stricter entry requirements, which now include hour-specific tickets.
Though Machu Picchu is certainly worthy of a visit, Cusco is home to myriad lesser-known and equally as impressive natural and cultural wonders waiting to be explored. Whether you’ve already been to Machu Picchu or are planning your first trip to the Cusco region, be sure to add these experiences to your itinerary.
Learn Quechua Textile Traditions With Master Weavers in Chinchero
Set 45 minutes outside of Cusco in Chinchero is the Away Weaving Association of the Centro de Tejedoras de Cusco, a women’s group launched by indigenous Quechua weaver Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez to empower fellow artisans in 10 communities within the region. During a visit to the center, take weaving classes with a collective of over 50 women and girls in the central, open-air courtyard as you practice sustainable natural-dyeing techniques and ancestral Incan textile designs, such as ñawi awapa, the traditional ribbon of Chinchero that depicts an all-seeing eye of protection. After you’ve learned the cultural importance of the craft and the process of back-strap weaving while making your own piece, shop the center’s array of ponchos, scarves, and blankets to directly support the weavers as they preserve ancient techniques and symbols.
Quad Bike to Ancient Crop Circles and Salt Ponds
When you stay at a hotel like Selina near the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, take advantage of the property’s on-site adventure concierge to book a day-trip to one of the area’s most accessible and impressive archaeological sites. Whether you drive, quad bike, or cycle there, you can’t miss a visit to Moray, set 30 miles northwest of downtown Cusco. Though the origin of the site’s mysterious circular and terraced depressions remains unknown, studies suggest it was a grand agricultural experiment of the Incas; they may have imported soil and gathered seeds from other regions within the Andes Mountains to see what crops grew best under micro-climates within the terraces. Before returning to Cusco, pass through the town of Maras to visit the area’s salt ponds, a series of shallow, spring-fed evaporation pools that have been harvested by local families since the Inca Empire.
Celebrate South America’s Most Important Pilgrimage
On an expedition with Mountain Lodges of Peru, travel three hours east of downtown Cusco to join thousands of locals in the Sinakara Valley for Qoyllur Rit’i, a celebration of the harmony of man with nature, the stars, and old mountain spirits known as apus. As the continent’s most important pilgrimage, the three-day festival (also regarded as the Snow Star Festival) takes place during the sixth full moon of every year (around June) and includes a nearly 19-mile, round-trip journey that combines Catholic and ancient Incan beliefs—centuries-old ceremonies and rituals unfold, which honor the harvest season, the Pleiades star cluster, Catholic ideology, and the local glacier at the peak of Mount Sinakara, which is held to be sacred and regaled as a frozen star god.
Climb a Sheer Rock Face in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
Venture to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, or the Urubamba Valley, for one of Cusco’s most thrilling adventures—while clipped to a steel cable with carabineers, climb a series of metal ladders (known as a via feratta) to scale a 1,300-foot sheer rock face to arrive at Skylodge Adventure Suites, a series of luxury glass hotel pods fused into the side of the mountain. The journey takes around four hours to complete, and while you’re suspended over the landscape, don’t miss the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime meal in one of the lodge’s own dining capsules, where you can feast on Peruvian fare while enjoying panoramic views of the valley floor. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, spend the night in one of the translucent pods to enjoy unmatched stargazing by night and an ethereal sunrise by daybreak.
Trek to the Peak of Peru’s Most Colorful Mountain
On an overnight journey with Flashpacker Connect, discover Peru’s wondrous Vinicunca—also known as Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors) or Rainbow Mountain—at daybreak before the crowds arrive. On day one of your adventure, depart Cusco before sunrise to arrive at a trailhead set below Ausangate Mountain, where hundreds of alpacas roam amidst a green valley harvested by local farmers. After conquering Puccacocha Pass, savor views of Puccacocha Lake and its actively calving glacier before trekking onward to your camp for the evening. With a fresh cup of coca tea in hand, rise while the stars are still agleam in the night sky to make your final ascent up Vinicunca, where you can savor the mountain’s multi-colored hues with no other travelers in sight.
Discover the Lost City of Choquequirao
Skip Machu Picchu’s more famous treks to discover the lost Incan city of Choquequirao during a challenging, multi-day adventure with Exodus Travels. Ascend steep paths through dense cloud forests, over spectacular scenic passes, and along ancient Incan paths until you arrive to this under-the-radar archaeological site and Peru’s best-kept secret. Though Machu Picchu may draw the crowds, Choquequirao is larger, untouched, and incredibly secluded, forming a vast complex of nine areas which were used for religious, political, and military functions. Though much of the site is still unexcavated, the stonework has stood the test of time and includes preserved ritual baths and temples dedicated to three central spirits of the Incas: the sun, moon, and Pachamama, or Earth. Climb to the Sunch’u Pata hilltop to get the best glimpse of Choquequirao and the Apurimac Valley from above, a maze of high-quality stonework that indicates the site once housed Incan royalty.
Fly High Over the Sacred Valley of the Incas
To gain a birds-eye view of the lesser-known ruins of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, opt for a stay at Sol y Luna to hit the skies with renowned paraglider and co-owner Franz Schilter during a tandem paragliding flight above the area’s most impressive sights. After a quick safety brief, prepare for the flight of your life on a customized ride: you can soar above bustling Cusco and the myriad glaciers of the Sacred Valley or venture to the snow-capped peaks and tranquil waters of Laguna Huaypo and the salt mines and crop circles at Maras and Moray. For more experienced paragliders, Schilter can even guide you as far as Puno, a city set around 7 hour southeast of Cusco and home to the famous Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America (and one of the world’s highest) set on the border of Bolivia and Peru.