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As I huff up the last stretch of sloping farmland, nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, the craggy outline of the Pumamarca’s pre-Incan stonework finally appears amid a tangle of greenery. The air is so still I’m tempted to hold my breath; the only sounds poking through the silence are the trickle of a stream, and the dull clang of a far-off cowbell. My partner and I have seen three people in the past 20 minutes, each of whom offered directions in Quechua to the taxi driver who brought us to the trailhead.
The archaeological site we have come to see dates back to roughly 900 AD, and is said to be one of the few places the Incas defeated the Spanish. A maze of still-intact structures await visitors, ranging from towering fortress walls to ceremonial spaces, and there are sweeping views of the valley below—yet, today, we are the only ones here. Beside the flung-open entrance gate reads a hand painted sign, “Please close the door so the alpacas don’t get out.” (Uh oh.)
This is our second day exploring the pre-Hispanic ruins clustered around the ancient yet bustling little village of Ollantaytambo. The town of some 10,000 people is a crucial gateway to Machu Picchu. Here, travelers coming from the city of Cusco spill out of taxis and tour vans on the hour, dragging their suitcases and backpacks just a few feet to the train cars that whisk them 30 miles to the base of the Wonder of the World. As they grab onto the rails and hoist themselves aboard, too few realize just how much they are missing in its surroundings.
It’s not just Ollantaytambo. The whole of Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, which sits between Cusco city and Machu Picchu, is home to countless pre-Hispanic sites, dozens of which are known and excavated and many more that are not. Some have been around since well before the Incas, with roots in the Killke, Qotacalla, Wari, Tiwanaku, and Chanapata civilizations. Machu Picchu continues to reign as the crown jewel in any Peru itinerary though—and these other attractions, like the Incan salt mines of Maras or hilltop citadel of Pisac, are often seen by international travelers as nice-to-have add-ons for those with a few days to spare after crossing the big one off their bucket list.