Older by centuries than Machu Picchu, South America’s northernmost archaeological site has only recently reopened to the public after intermittent warfare in the region between the government and guerrilla fighters. Ciudad Perdida, whose origins are unknown, comprises 169 intricate terraces carved into a mountain, a baffling maze of interconnecting roads, and circular plazas with an entrance that can be reached only after climbing over 1,200 stone steps in the heart of the jungle. The grueling but infinitely rewarding journey averages five days and is one of the last of its kind in South America.
Tiwanaku (often spelled Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu) is one of South America’s most important archaeological sites and is the former home of a remarkable civilization by the same name. Many scholars think the remnants of these people later formed the mighty Inca empire. But to this day, no one knows why the city – which, at its height 1,500 years ago, may have held as many as a million inhabitants – disappeared around AD 1000. Legends of powerful emperor-gods (also priests, for good measure), astronomers whose knowledge of the universe astounds scientists today, and masters of long-vanished crafts abound. The Aymara’s descendants still live in the region, in villages scarcely changed over two millennia.
At 8,920 ft (2,720 m), the cone-shaped pinnacle of Huayna Picchu is 1,180 ft (360 m) higher than Machu Picchu below but receives far fewer visitors. The view of Machu Picchu is vastly superior from this summit, a village of Inca royalty and priests centuries ago. The climb is quite challenging and not for the faint of heart. Steep stone steps suddenly turn into narrow passages overlooking ravines far below and twist their way along slippery, narrow paths before abruptly ending at a wonderfully preserved Inca storehouse. Only 400 visitors a day are permitted; if you’re one of the lucky few, you’ll see why many claim Huayna Picchu as the highlight of their visit to Machu Picchu.
The tranquil market town of Pisac takes little notice of the magnificent ruins in the hills behind it. For that matter, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize its historical link to the Inca Trail, which is probably just as well for travelers who want to see near-intact remnants of a glorious Inca civilization. To this day, the hillside is lined with terraces constructed by the Inca and still in use. The ruins themselves are divided into four areas, of which Q’allaqasa (the citadel) and Intihuatana (the Temple of the Sun) are the best preserved. The views from Intihuatana of the Sacred Valley below are nothing short of amazing. Pisac is also a trekker’s delight, with the area around ideal for spring and autumn hikes. Visitors here look to combine low-impact trekking with cultural tourism – a niche the town fills perfectly.
All these wonders are spread out over an area less than 3 miles (5 km) across, where your only companion will be intense silence, sometimes broken by the mournful winds of the Altiplano. While the number of visitors arriving at Tiwanaku is steadily increasing, it is still a remote place. Many come for the spring equinox to watch the sunrise precisely through the center of the archway of the Gate of the Sun on the first day of spring. Tiwanaku is filled with astronomical and mathematical legacies, leading some to believe it is linked with ancient Egypt and Babylon, two other civilizations with advanced astronomical calendars.