Although the Latin American country of Peru is home to endless wonders, many associate it with just one: Machu Picchu. The country’s claim to fame, this mysterious Inca citadel sits perched in the Andes. Bathed in mist, this awe-inspiring ancient city emits powerful energy. So powerful, in fact, that many tourists center their entire visit to Peru around the famed tourist attraction. And of course, any Peru visitor should make sure to see this breathtaking attraction.
But Peru has so much more to offer than its most well-known tourist landmark. While Machu Picchu lives up to its name and is definitely worth a visit, there are plenty of other thrilling things to do in Peru. It’s almost twice the size of Texas, home to one of Latin America’s deepest canyons and many other Incan ruins. And, about 60% of the country is covered by the Peruvian Amazon. Here are some of Peru’s highlights to consider adding to your list. Some are well-known and some are off-the-beaten-path, but all are worth a visit.
Peru Travel Tips & Logistics
You can fly nonstop to Lima, Peru’s capital city (LIM) from US hubs like New York, Houston or Miami on airlines such as LATAM, United and American. The country is vast, so consider short-haul flights to get to different regions within the country from Lima. Destinations such as Arequipa, Iquitos and Cuzco all have airports. Get updates on flight deals as they arise right here. There are also special buses with fancy seats similar to business class on airplanes where you can ride in style to places sans airports.
Peru’s currency is the Sol, and it’s a good idea to have some on hand during your trip. Locals speak Spanish, some English and you’ll probably hear a lot of Quechua and maybe some other indigenous languages spoken too. The country is relatively safe, but it’s a good idea to hang on to your belongings and avoid flashy items, especially in Lima.
Cuzco & the Sacred Valley
Most travelers may already have this spot on their list as it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu, but plan to explore Sacred Valley. Highlights include the Ollantaytambo ruins, which are in excellent condition. Sacsayhuaman is just outside of Cuzco, a mystic Inca wall used for ancient rituals with enormous stones. Other visits include Piscac, a hilltop Inca ruin, the salt pans of Maras and the terraced circular agricultural ruins of Moray. The town of Cuzco is the ideal base for day trips to these sacred spots. The city itself is a joy to explore, especially the San Pedro market. There, you can sip fresh fruit juices and learn about the varied Peruvian produce (yes, they have purple corn). Try to avoid visiting this area during the rainy season (November to April).
Winetraveler Tip: Unique accommodation can be found at places like the Skylodge Adventure Suites in the Sacred Valley, only accessible via zipline or hike.
Foodies should tack on a few extra days to Lima to enjoy some seriously delicious ceviche and tiradito. And if you’ve ever dreamed of dining in style among ancient ruins, head to Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores neighborhood which overlooks Lima’s very own set of Inca ruins. Make sure to pair your meal with pisco, a liquor made from fermented grapes. Spanish settlers attempted to grow grapes to make wine in Peru, but the conditions weren’t quite right, and Pisco emerged as a result. Although it goes down easy, don’t forget, Pisco is much stronger than wine!
For a one-of-a-kind of Peruvian adventure, head to the sand dunes of Huacachina. This small town is surrounded by sand dunes with a small lagoon in the middle. Here, you can sand surf or experience the dunes by buggy. Access the landmark village by taxi from the bus station in Ica. Ica is also the place to go wine and pisco tasting. We recommend a visit to Bodega Tacama, a large hacienda and vineyard. Here, you can sample both Peruvian wines and Pisco.
Peru has an expansive coastline with a number of gorgeous beaches, many of which are ideal for surfing. One of the best is Mancora. With big waves for surfers lined by calm, golden sand for beach bums, it’s the perfect place to recover after hiking the Andes or exploring the Amazon. Slightly further inland, you can enjoy a natural spa experience at the La Poza de Barro hot springs and mud baths. December to March is the best time to visit, with the largest waves for surfers and the brightest conditions for sunbathers.
Known as the sister set of ruins to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is for adventurers wanting to see Inca ruins without tourists. It’s not easy to reach, requiring a two-day grueling trek while camping along the way. Start your trek at Capuliyoc, a short taxi ride away from the town of Cachora. It’s best to hire a guide, especially if you don’t speak Spanish or aren’t an experienced hiker. When you’re wandering through the deserted ruins alone, the trek will have been worth it.
The colonial town of Arequipa is the gateway to one of Latin America’s deepest canyons: Colca. The town’s Plaza de Armas main square makes for the perfect picture. A towering city hall and massive cathedral flanked with palm trees line the square, with fountains and benches in the middle. Volcanoes ominously puff away in the distance. Hikers will definitely want to experience the canyon — if they can brave the high altitude. It’s also one of the best spots in the world to view the Andean condors. The sight of these massive birds circling the canyon’s viewpoints is nothing short of spectacular.
Another epic set of ruins to visit sits in the south of Peru, but it wasn’t built by the Incas. Kuélap was built by the Chachapoyas in the 6th century. The tribe was later wiped out by the Incas, but their walled settlement still stands. You can now take a 20-minute cable car ride to the ruins in lieu of a treacherous four-hour hike. This site will slowly but surely grow in popularity, so visit now to see it without the crowds.
A few hours north of Kuélap you’ll find one of Latin America’s most impressive waterfalls: Gotca. The hike up takes a few hours and is exceptionally beautiful. You may spot wildlife such as monkeys, birds and butterflies along the way. Those who don’t feel like walking should consider riding up on horseback. Once you reach the falls, you can swim in the natural pool at the bottom.
Peru’s Amazon is best explored by first flying into Iquitos. From there, you can arrange to stay at various eco-lodges in the Amazon which are typically reachable by speedboat from Iquitos. Most lodges offer numerous activities for exploring the jungle such as both day and night boat and hiking adventures, bird watching, zip-lining and more. You can also spend time with locals in their villages, learning about their traditional weaving and arts. Note that June – October, (the dry season) is the best time to visit.
Exploring the Peruvian islands located along the world’s highest navigable lake is a truly unique adventure. A memorable way to do so is via a boat trip that arranges a homestay with a Peruvian family. This way, you can learn a bit more about life on these very different islands. During the day, take organized boat trips to some of the other islands on the lake. Use Puno as your base, and set up your island adventure from there.