Incan ruins are more common than ceviche in Peru.
From Machu Picchu to Choquequirao, there’s no shortage of options for you here. But, you want to visit as many as possible.
And one way to do that is by grouping ruins together to maximize what you see. Before starting the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek, a few ruins are never a bad idea.
And the Qenqo, Pukapukara, Tambo Machay, and Sacsayhuaman ruins are perfect examples.
So, if you’re the adventurous type (there’s hiking involved), this is the guide for you.
Let’s get started.
Where are the Incan ruins?
The Incas were a widespread empire that dominated South America’s western coast.
Their reach extended from the southern point of Colombia to the southern part of Chile. As a result, you can find Inca ruins littered throughout South America.
However, the Inca ruins we’ll talk about today are in Cusco, Peru, and are considered “sitios arqueológicos” or archaeological sites.
What countries have Inca ruins?
Because the Incas spread so far, you can find ruins throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
The Amazon bordered the east, which acted as a natural border for the Incas and separated the western part of the continent.
What are Qenqo, Pukapukara, Tambo Machay, and Sacsayhuaman?
Besides being difficult to say for any native English speaker, this ruins group sits just outside Cusco.
Machu Picchu commands most of the attention of visitors to Cusco. However, many ruins are scattered around Cusco that are impressive in their own right.
Qenqo, Pukapukara, Tambo Machay, and Sacsayhuaman are just a few of these.
So, let’s highlight more of each of these so you can know a bit about what you’ll see.
Qenqo Incan ruins
You’ll see this name spelled multiple ways — Qenqo, Q’enqo, Qenko, and many other variations.
But, don’t worry, they’re all in the same place. And it was considered a sacred place for the Incas.
Qenqo is what’s called a huaca, which signifies something respect, usually some time of monument. And Qenqo was the site of various ceremonies and rituals. Fertility, solstice and equinox, and marriage rituals took place at this site.
Perfectly cut rocks form a zig-zag pattern for priests to pour the liquid down (usually blood). And where the liquid came out could signify a fantastic future or a very dark omen.
In addition, a series of tunnels and caves run underneath the structure.
Historians believe they were used for rituals or as a burial site for lesser nobles. Either way, take the time to admire the carvings lining the walls.
And last, relax at the amphitheater. Locals sit in the shade, read books, and play with their dogs in the area.
A beautiful set of ruins and one of the first Inca sites you’ll see due to the Qenqo-Cusco proximity.
Pukapukara Incan ruins
This site is a bit smaller than the other ruins but no less impressive.
Pukapukara, which translates to “Red Fort”, sits around six miles outside Cusco. So, you’ll have to do some traveling to get to it.
What’s interesting about these ruins is what they were used for. The Incas would combine uses for buildings, and Pukapukara was no different. It was a perfect defensive location, but it also served as a hunting and spiritual center.
Pukapukara sits with a perfect view toward Ausangate, which the Incas considered an apu or a spirit. However, apus weren’t spirits in the sense that we think of them today. Usually, they were in the form of mountains or rocks.
Beyond all of that, the view from the fort is amazing.
Tambo Machay Incan ruins
Tambo Machay (Tambomachay) sits very close to Pukapukara, and the two were probably used in tandem.
While Pukapukara was the hunting lodge/defensive position, Tambo Machay served as a place for ritual, with an interesting concept.
Cleansing, purification, and other rituals took place in the area’s waters.
There are three tiered platforms at Tambo Machay. On top is an area where the Incas likely placed statues of different gods. Below it, natural waters flow out a stone wall and down to the next level. Last, the water splits into two different paths, both of them pouring into a basin.
A small area but a beautiful display of the Inca’s masonry abilities.
Sacsayhuaman Incan ruins
The most famous set of ruins near Cusco, Sacsayhuaman is a staggering example of the Inca’s power.
Not only because of the size of the complex but also because of the Inca’s grander planning abilities. You may not know this, but the Incas designed Cusco in the shape of a puma.
And Sacsayhuaman forms the head of the puma.
What’s most astounding is the size of the blocks and where they came from. Scientists have found some of the stones were cut from quarries as far as 19 miles away! And, as if that’s not enough, it’s estimated around 20,000 men were involved in its construction.
But, what’s most important about this site is a famous battle that took place here.
In 1536, Sacsayhuaman was one of the last stands by the Incas against the Spanish. After being backed into one of the towers atop the hill, the Incas were surrounded. And, instead of accepting the humiliation of capture, they jumped from the tower.
For days, their corpses served as food for vultures and condors.
“Wow, Kyle, you went really dark with this,” you may be saying.
But, if you look at the Cusco Coat of Arms today, you can see eight condors commemorating the event.
Today, it has a much brighter purpose.
Local tour guides show the ruins to visitors, and regular festivals take place, like Inti Raymi or various sun festivals.
Get the Boleto Turistico
This ticket gets you access to around 16 sites and saves you money. For example, this ticket gets you into:
- Tambo Machay
- Pisac ruins
- And most of the museums in the city
The ticket costs 130 Peruvian Soles, or around $33. In addition, it’s valid for 10 days, so you have plenty of time to visit each site.
I can’t recommend the Boleto Turistico in Cusco enough if you plan on visiting all the ruins and museums.
Where to buy the Boleto Turistico for access to Incan ruins
The building to buy the ticket isn’t readily apparent, but it’s hiding in plain view.
If you’re in Plaza de Armas, head toward Avenida de Sol in the southeastern corner of the plaza. About 300 feet ahead, you’ll find the COSITUC office.
Head inside, and make an immediate left when you enter the building.
There will be a line of glass windows with workers behind them. Tell them you want the ticket, and you’re set to go!
What to bring with you on the hike
You don’t need to bring a lot with you for this trip, but there are some key items to keep in mind:
- Small backpack to store your things
- A hat (if it’s sunny)
- Extra money to buy any additional items
You’ll have your expenses covered if you purchase the tourist ticket beforehand. Other than that, just enjoy the ruins and the hike!
4 Ruins in 1 Day route map
How to see 4 Incan ruins in 1 day
I mentioned in the intro that this would be for the adventurous type and those who like hiking.
And that’s because you’ll hike around 14 miles in all. But, you can cut a few of these miles off by skipping the part I’ll explain at the end.
But, no more wasting time. Let’s get into it.
Cusco → Sacsayhuaman
You start the day off in a big way, and with the most popular site by visiting Sacsayhuaman.
I recommend starting around 6:30-7:00 to ensure you have enough time. Plus, 7:00 is when most of the sites open, so you’ll beat the rush to the first few. This is even easier if you get an Airbnb close to the center.
Getting to the Sacsayhuaman Incan ruins
You’ll start your hike from Plaza de Armas.
Head northwest on Calle Suecia before turning right onto Balcon Turistico. Make the first left onto Resbaloso until it meets Don Bosco, where you’ll turn right. Keep following Don Bosco up the hill, ignoring any of the turnoff streets.
After about half a mile in total, you’ll approach a bend that goes left. You’ll see stairs that continue straight and a sign for Sacsayhuaman.
Follow these steps.
At the top of the hill on your left, you’ll see Sacsayhuaman. If you bought the tourist ticket, simply show it to the workers at the entrance gate and they’ll clip off Sacsayhuaman. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee, which is around $20.
After, you can opt to pay for a guide or to solo it and check out the ruins yourself.
I had a Rough Guides guidebook that detailed the ruins pretty well, but I still opted for a tour guide simply for the knowledge a local gives you that you can’t get from a book.
I’d recommend you do the same.
What you can’t miss at Sacsayhuaman
The entire complex is impressive, but there are a few things you can’t miss. A guide will naturally show and explain these to you, but if you opt to do it solo, here’s what to see:
- Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman) Wall
- Stone figures created in the walls
- Agricultural terraces
- Muyu Marca, Salla Marca, and Paunca Marca Towers
- The Sun Temple
- The Rodadero
- Circular terraces of Qocha Chincanas
- The Calispucyo sacred spring
You can spend a lot of time here, so take your time. However, most things can be seen around an hour before you move on to the next site: Quenqo.
Sacsayhuaman → Qenqo
After you’ve finished at Sacsayhuaman, it’s time to head to the small huaca of Qenqo.
Luckily, it’s not a far walk. And, just like Sacsayhuaman, simply hand them your tourist ticket as soon as you arrive, and you can walk right in.
Getting to the Qenqo Incan ruins
First, head north out of the complex.
You’ll know you’re headed right if you pass through the parking area. Eventually, the road will split. Take the right path.
You’ll walk past a series of shops on your left-hand side for less than a mile and arrive at Qenqo.
Again, you can pay for a guide if you’d like. I opted not to because the ruins are small, and I felt my guidebook covered them well enough. However, make your own decision based on what you want.
Ultimately, Qenqo won’t take long to cover before you’re heading off to Pukapukara.
What you can’t miss at Qenqo
As I mentioned, Qenqo isn’t very big. We spent about 20 minutes here and visited everything, even while reading my guidebook and exploring.
But, make sure not to miss:
- Complex carvings on all the walls
- The Zigzag channel used by priests
- Summer solstice Intihuatanas (hitching posts)
- Tunnels and caves
Once you’ve seen everything, it’s time to take a longer stroll to Pukapukara.
But don’t worry, you’ll get some epic views along the way.
Qenqo → Pukapukara
It’s time to head to Pukapukara.
These were probably my favorite ruins, mostly because of the scenery that came along with them. I hope you enjoy them just as much.
Like the previous sites, a worker will be waiting to take your tourist ticket.
Getting to the Pukapukara Incan ruins
Exiting Qenqo, continue north along the same road you came in on.
The road will split right, go straight on a short section, then turn left going up a steep hill. Follow this road until you reach a small roundabout with a straight trail. Follow the trail.
The trail will continue for about half a mile until another trail intersects across it. Stay on your trail (going straight) and head north.
After around a mile, a small town (Huayllarccocha) will be on your left side. Continue straight.
Eventually, the trail will meet with the main road, and you’ll see a sign for Pukapukara, with the ruins just in the distance.
Like Qenqo, Pukapukara is small, but the view you get from the fort is incredible.
What you can’t miss at Pukapukara
Honestly, there isn’t much to see here besides the ruins themselves.
Mostly, take the time to enjoy the views. I could have sat here for hours simply staring out into the scenery. It’s that good.
It’s easy to see why it was a popular recreational spot.
Pukapukara → Tambo Machay
Alright, it’s time to head to the last ruins of the day: Tambo Machay.
The unique Inca aqueduct-like system here is an interesting feature you won’t want to miss.
And it’s just a short walk from Pukapukara to Tambo Machay. Once you arrive, check off the day’s last ruins from your tourist ticket!
Getting to the Tambo Machay Incan ruins
Honestly, you’ll probably realize that you can see Tambo Machay from Pukapukara.
A little further north on the road (less than a half mile), you’ll run right into Tambo Machay and the entrance.
Upon arrival, step into line, hand over your ticket, and continue on toward the three-tiered water system.
What you can’t miss at Tambo Machay
Besides the water system, there isn’t much else to see here.
There is a small grotto that sits less than a mile further into the site, but I couldn’t find it when I visited. Instead, I continued on and made my way toward a beautiful viewpoint I had read about.
Interested? Keep reading.
Tambo Machay’s gorgeous viewpoint (optional)
And now we arrive at the final stop of our trip (if you want).
If you would like, it’s perfectly fine to skip this and grab a colectivo or bus back to Cusco, or just retrace your steps back. I’ll also attach a GPX file you can download to follow if that’s more of your style.
But, if you’re up for a bit more adventure, keep reading.
Getting to the viewpoint
Honestly, explaining this is difficult because part of it was spent on the trail before the trail would quickly disappear.
But, when you’re at the water system in Tambo Machay, follow the path that would be behind you if you were looking at the system.
It will rise up to a small clearing where you get a good view of the site.
Then, make a left and follow the (faint) trail that continues northwest of the site. It will wind its way left and right, up and down, but it will continue toward the northwest.
Eventually, you’ll arrive at an area where the trail dips sharply into a small creek before rising again on the opposite side (just as sharply).
Just follow this trail, retracing your steps when you get off the trail and using the GPX file.
Eventually, it will open to a wider, ascending trail with yellow grass on either side. Keep continuing up the trail as it rises toward the mountain’s peak.
Eventually, you will reach the peak of one of the smaller mountains. And you have a choice.
You can take the path to the right, which will continue climbing to an even higher peak and a better view. Or, you can call it here (which is what I did because of darkness) and head back.
Make the right decision for your situation.
What you can’t miss at the viewpoint
Simply, the view. On all sides of you, you’ll be surrounded by gorgeous mountains, greenery, and purple flowers that line the sides of the mountain.
Enjoy as much time here as you can.
Tambo Machay → Cusco
Once you’re finished at the viewpoint.
As you’re looking down the way you came, you’ll see a trail that breaks off right and descends down a nearby mountain.
Follow that trail.
You’ll follow this trail, descending for around two miles until it winds its way into a small town.
Beware of dogs in the area. Some were locked up when I passed through; others had to be fended off until I could get past.
Eventually, you’ll pop onto the road between Tambo Machay and Pukapukara.
Now, it’s time to grab a ride back to the city of Cusco. Or, you can take the option I did and save some money by retracing your steps.
With that saved money, reward yourself with a beer and some delicious ceviche in Plaza de Armas!
Will you see all 4 Incan ruins in one day?
And that’s it.
If you’re visiting Cusco before retracing Hiram Bingham’s footsteps through the Valley of the Inca to the Lost City of the Incas, I strongly recommend this day trip. The same if you’re stopping over before heading toward Lake Titicaca. And there’s also Laguna Humantay on the way to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail, which is. stunning lake.
And, if you have even more time, be sure to stop by the alternative Rainbow Mountain of Palcoyo.
Paired with the tourist ticket (Boleto Turistico), it’s a perfect match.