In search of Mama Quilla: 5 of the best Inca sites in Peru

Jan 21, 2016 BY Dion Wick

Peru, for many people, is all about one thing. And that ‘thing’ – that awe-inspiring, truly majestic ‘thing’ – tends to overshadow all the other ‘things’ that Peru has to offer. Need I state what it is? Alright, that ‘thing’, is Machu Picchu. But Peru offers a lot more, check out five of the best Inca sites in Peru below.

5 of the best Inca sites in Peru: Machu Picchu Machu Picchu Flickr image by Maria Grazia Montagnari

‘The Lost City of the Incas’, with its llama at the fore and its mountain at its rear, is an image so well imprinted in our minds, that those who haven’t been there think that they have and those who have…well, they’re still scratching their heads wondering whether it’s all real.

But is it really one of the best Inca sites in Peru?

Yes it is. But to ensure ‘MP’ didn’t top my list (scandalous, I know), I looked for the places where the visitor can really connect with the people who built this once mighty empire, as well as the legendary gods, such as Mama Quilla, the ‘Mother Moon’, who oversaw it.

best Inca sites in Peru Flickr image by ©Sergio

5 of the best Inca sites in Peru

While I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the ‘Lost City’, I would like to encourage a visit to some of Peru’s other archaeological gems as part of an overlanding trip around this amazing country. So here they are five of the best Inca sites in Peru.


Sacsayhuaman, or Sexy Woman (as some tourists so lovingly put it), is one of the most impressive feats of human engineering you’re ever likely to see outside of Oldham. Its zigzag walls were built with colossal stone blocks estimated to weigh more than 200 tons a piece – yet they fit as perfectly as the pieces of a jigsaw.

If you want a good example of human endeavour, the same human endeavour (and perhaps a little human sacrifice) that built the Inca Empire, Sacsayhuaman is right up there with Machu Picchu.

5 of the best Inca sites in Peru: Machu Picchu Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Sacsayhuaman is also a deeply moving place: its walls, behind which the Incas made their last stand against the Conquistadors in 1536, seem to resonate with murderous cries of death and slaughter (as well the sound of one or two ogling alpacas).


In the same year that the Incas made their last stand in above mentioned fortress above Cuzco, they also achieved one of their greatest military victories. It happened here, in Ollantaytambo, now a convenient stop-off for those on their way to Machu Picchu.

Why does it make my list? Because it’s the only town in Peru that retains its original Inca walls and street grid system. And as a living and working town, it’s probably the only place where you could actually feel that you’re living in the time of the Inca (providing you ignore the souvenir shops, hostels, rickshaws and combis, of course).

Ollantaytambo one of best inca sites in Peru: Flickr image by Ivan Mlinaric

Machu Picchu

Yes, here it is. How could I possibly leave it out? The Peruvian tourist board would never forgive me. In truth you cannot possibly avoid it, the reason being that Machu Picchu, the ‘Citadel in the Sky’, is amazing in the truest sense of the word.

As well as being unfathomably beautiful, it’s also one of the best places to really understand the Incan people and their way of life, despite them having lived here for less than a century.

As one of the more intact Inca sites in Peru, it’s possible at Machu Picchu to comprehend how they lived and what they lived for.

 Machu Picchu one of best inca sites in Peru: Flickr image by Güldem Üstün

For many people, a visit to Peru means one thing: the Chillca to Machu Picchu trek, more commonly known as the Inca Trail. If you’re going to do it (and let’s face it, you are going to), do it with Explore! – one of the most reputable agencies around.

Isla del Sol & Isla de la Luna

OK we are cheating slightly with these islands as they are in Bolivia. However they are located in lake Titicaca a short hop across the border. According to Incan legend, these stunning islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca are the birthplaces of Inti, the all-powerful sun god, and Mama Quilla, goddess of the moon (hence the names).

After emerging from the waters that once covered the entire earth, they got down to it and created Manco Caipac and Mama Ocllo, the earthly founders of the Inca empire. A visit to either island provides something close to a spiritual experience, particularly Isla de la Luna, which remains largely uninhabited.

Meanwhile, a hiking trail across the spine of Isla del Sol connects dozens of Inca and pre-Inca ruins – saying it’s well worth the exercise would be something of an understatement.

Isla del Sol one of the best Inca sites in Peru Flickr image by Adam Jones

The Islands would have almost certainly made it to the top of my list of the ‘five best Inca sites in Peru’ had they actually been in Peru. Both Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna are in fact Bolivian territory, but Copacabana, from which you can charter a boat to either, is right on the border.

Juanita, Arequipa

Ok, so she’s not technically a ruin or a site (though some might debate on the former), but if you really want to connect with the Incas, if you really want to understand them, how about looking into the eyes of one?

Juanita is a 500-year-old mummy with personality (this isn’t a lonely hearts ad), and just one look at her sets your spine a-tingling (this definitely isn’t a lonely hearts ad). Rescued from her icy grave atop Mount Ampato by anthropologist Johan Reinhard in 1995, she now spends her days in a climate-controlled cabinet in Arequipa’s Museo Santuarios Andinos.

Juanita Arequipa one of the best Inca sites in Peru

The remarkable thing about Juanita is how extremely well preserved she is. Her skin, hair, teeth, organs and even stomach contents have all survived for scientific research and public presentation.

Felled with a blunt blow to the head, Juanita was a teenage sacrifice to the Inca gods – through this act she achieved divinity. Coming face-to-face with Juanita arguably brings you closer to Mama Quilla than any Incan ruin.

And there we have it, my comprehensive guide to the best Inca sites in Peru (and Bolivia’s). All opinions, descriptions, comparisons (especially the one about Oldham) are completely my own.

Arequipa, Bolivia, Cusco, Isla De La Luna, Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Peru, Sacsayhuaman, South America
Hiking, Multi Activity, Overlanding, Trekking
Cultural, Inca, Inca Trail
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