Machu Picchu is far and away the most spectacular and well-known of Peru’s ancient ruins, but it’s certainly not the only architectural legacy left behind by the Incas. Within walking distance of Cusco city, a number of impressive and often lesser-known sites provide equally remarkable insights into a civilisation advanced beyond our comprehension. In fact, historians and archaeologists have even speculated that Sacsahuamán, the site nearest to the city, would have been even larger and more magnificent than Machu Picchu had it not been largely destroyed during the Spanish conquest.
Perhaps the best thing about these ruins around Cusco is that they are easily accessible entirely on your own, no guide or tour bus necessary— take a break from all the organised tours and instead hit the road yourself on this excellent DIY adventure. This guide contains absolutely everything you need to know about visiting Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Sacsayhuamán in a single day without a tour, including how to get between the sites, buying a Boleto Turístico, what to pack, and some of the important history of the site!
Getting between the sites
Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Sacsahuamán are all located in the hills around Cusco, a fair uphill climb from the city, but still very close! The absolute best way to explore these archaeological sites, then, is to take an Uber (S/10) from your hostel up to Tambomachay (the farthest site) and then walk back down towards Cusco throughout the day, stopping at the other sites along the way. Allow 4-6hrs for this DIY excursion, including time at all 4 archaeological sites and a quick detour to Cristo Blanco.
As you can see on the map below, Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are only about 5min apart, then there’s a 45min walk to Q’enqo, another 15min onwards to Cristo Blanco, and 10min farther to Sacsayhuaman, from which it’s a 20min return to town. It doesn’t sound super long, but keep in mind that there’s a fair bit of walking around the ruins, too— my Fitbit read 16km at the end of the day, so come prepared for lots of walking!
If you want to shorten the excursion or if you’re just feeling exhausted, you can also take a colectivo from Puka Pukara to Q’enqo for S/1-2, which cuts out the longest stretch of road walking. Flag the bus down on the road just outside the ruins.
Buying a Boleto Turístico
In order to visit Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Sacsahuamán, you’ll need to purchase a Boleto Turístico, essentially Cusco’s “tourist ticket”. There are a number of options in terms of tickets, but for this day trip you’ll either need to purchase:
- Boleto Turístico Parcial Circuito 3 (partial), which includes only these 4 archaeological sites around Cusco. This ticket is valid for just 1 day and costs S/70.
- Boleto Turístico General (full), which includes these 4 ruins, most sites in the Sacred Valley, and a number of museums within Cusco city. This ticket is valid for 10 days and is the best option if you’re also planning to visit the Sacred Valley during your trip (almost all tours require you to purchase your own Boleto Turístico). The ticket is S/130, but you can actually get it for S/70 with a valid student ID card (your card must list the current year, though!).
It’s possible to buy your Boleto Turístico at the COSITUC office (located on Avenida El Sol 185, one block off the Plaza de Armas in Cusco), but the easiest way is just to purchase your ticket directly from Tambomachay, which is the first site you’ll visit if you’re following my recommended itinerary. If you do decide to visit in a different order, though, just know that you can also purchase your Boleto Turístico from any one of these sites!
What to pack
- Passport: I wasn’t actually asked for my passport, but you’re supposed to have it when you purchase the Boleto Turístico, so bring it just in case.
- Cash: Bring at least S/70 to buy your ticket, plus any additional money for lunch, snacks, drinks, etc throughout the day.
- Phone: Download the Google Map above onto your phone and save it for offline use if you don’t have a SIM card!
- Jumper or warm fleece, plus a down jacket: The temperature drops rapidly in Cusco as soon as the sun goes down.
- Runners: You don’t need hiking boots, but you’ll absolutely want comfortable walking shoes for the day.
- Hat, sunnies, sunscreen
- Water bottle: There are places along the way to buy cold water or other snacks if you need, but make sure you have some water with you.
Begin your day at Tambomachay, a beautiful site whose name means “place of rest” or “guest house” (depending on the Quechua translation) and which is believed to have been a bath house for the Inca. Similarly, the Spanish referred to this structure as El Baño del Inca— the bath of the Inca.
An Uber from the Plaza de Armas or San Blas should only cost about S/10, which is incredible considering the drive is nearly 30min! Once at the site, you can buy your Boleto Turístico at the entrance and then take some cute photos with llamas and baby lambs before proceeding to the ruins themselves. Still intact are a number of small baths, aqueducts, and even waterfalls cascading through the rock. Climb the hill for a great overview of the whole site— you can even see Puka Pukara, your next stop, in the distance.
It’s a short 5min walk along the main road to reach Puka Pukara, also known as the “red fortress”. This former Incan military stronghold has great views of the surrounding mountains, as well as impeccably preserved stonework, but is amazingly devoid of tourists. It should only take a few minutes to explore Puka Pukara before carrying on to the next site.
From Puka Pukara, you’ll need to walk about 45min downhill to Q’enqo along the side of the road. It’s not the most pleasant walking terrain, but you’ll pass local farms with alpacas and horses, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. Halfway down, you’ll also walk through the small town of Huayllarcocha, which has a few restaurants and a heap of shops selling alpaca souvenirs, like sweaters, scarves, and hats. I found things to be a bit expensive, but the quality was very good (and there’s a lot of room to bargain).
Q’enqo, which translates to “zig zag” in Quechua, was once the site of ritual sacrifice and is believed to have been one of the most sacred places in the Cusco region. As its name suggests, the complex is built something like a maze, with channels carved into the rock to transport blood towards the lower caves. Not only were death rituals performed at Q’enqo, experts also believe that many of the dead were embalmed here and preserved for their entry into the next life.
Bonus stop: Cristo Blanco
About 15min from Q’enqo, you can take a quick and extremely worthwhile detour to Cristo Blanco, the white Jesus statue overlooking Cusco, on your way to Sacsahuamán. Hiking up here is one of my absolute favourite things to do— the views are truly spectacular and will give you a great appreciation for the size and spread of Cusco city.
From Cristo Blanco, you can see an enormous archaeological site off to your right, easily reached in 5-10 minutes. Sacsahuamán is by far the most impressive of the ruins you’ll see on this day trip and an incredible display of Incan masonry— this is the site that experts believe would have been even more staggering than Machu Picchu had it been left in tact.
All that remains of Sacsahuamán now is a three-tiered wall, but even this is impressive— some of the boulders and stones that have been slotted together to form this wall are estimated to weigh as much as 200 tonnes, and yet they appear laser-cut, fitting perfectly with every stone above and below. Archaeologists have speculated that the Incas used a combination of small pebbles and llama fat to roll these stones uphill and into place, but the exact construction of this expansive site still remains something of a mystery.
You could easily spend an hour or two exploring Sacsahuamán, but once you’ve had your fill of ancient ruins, it’s just a 20 minute downhill walk back into the centre of town— the end of an excellent self-guided tour!
- Limbus Restobar: Widely regarded as one of the most scenic bars in Cusco, expect crowds but also some pretty incredible sunset photos from the terrace. Book in advance if possible; the bar is on Calle Pasñapakana.
- Mirador San Blas: The perfect (free!) place to watch the sunset over the ochre roofs of Cusco, this viewpoint is only about 200m from Plaza San Blas along Calle Tandapata.
- Iglesia San Cristobal: This Spanish church on Plaza Sán Cristobal (immediately on your way down from Sacsahuamán) is another fantastic city lookout, even offering views as far as Ausangate on a clear day.
- Organika: Without a doubt one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at ever, this farm-to-table Peruvian fusion restaurant is beyond amazing in every way. I’d highly recommend the alpaca steak and the mint lemonade, but honestly, I tried everyone’s food and it was all incredible.
- Restaurante Qori Sara: For an incredibly inexpensive Peruvian meal, try the S/10 menu del día at this local restaurant on Plaza San Francisco. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but for the price, it’s still bloody good.
Read more about what to do in Cusco
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