OK, visiting Machu Picchu is a given, but there’s a lot more to Peru than the magnificent Inca citadel. Rare wildlife, rainbow mountains, and lost cities await. Discover the best things to do in Peru…
1# Explore the real Amazon
Macaws in the Peruvian Amazon (Shutterstock)
Peru is where the Amazon gets its start in life, in Carhuasanta, before winding its way down the Andes and into the Amazon basin on the other side. So Peru is the only South American country where you can experience each of its different forms.
The Peruvian part of the Amazon jungle is possibly the most diverse and prolific section of all. And Manu National Park is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the whole world, boasting at least 1,000 birds and over 200 mammal species.
Meet caiman and paddle canoes along tranquil waterways, lulled by the all-encompassing ‘symphony of green’. Here you can explore the river by boat or get a deeper understanding of the jungle and its people by helping out on a volunteering project.
2# Find a way to Machu Picchu
Llamas at Machu Picchu (Dreamstime)
You don’t need convincing to drop by the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. A trek along an ancient path between soaring mountains to get to a secret city – the Inca Trail is the stuff of travel legends. But you are probably bewildered by the choice of ways to get there.
You could hike the Inca Trail. This unforgettable four-day walk is one of the world’s greatest, using stone Inca stairways to pass deserted villages and fields terraced onto sheer Andean slopes. But be warned: numbers are limited.
If you’re too late to book a place try the most popular alternative, the Choquequirao Trail. Or walk the Lares Trek, commonly the ‘people’s trail’.
For something completely different, why not ride the Salkantay Trek? Higher and longer, it lacks the Inca ruins that the ‘Classic’ trail is known for, but it has jaw-dropping scenery, crosses 15 ecosystems, and isn’t as busy. Try it on horse-back. Trot to the top of the alternative Inca Trail for a view of Machu Picchu that the crowds don’t see.
3# Eat adventurously
Crocodile head with sausage, Amazon market, Peru (Dreamstime)
From roasted guinea pig to the world’s most pungent potatoes, Peru’s cuisine isn’t for the faint of heart – but fortune favours the brave.
Cuy (guinea pig) is Peru’s most notorious taste experience. It is most easily found in highland towns like Cusco and the Urubamba valley. Get out of the main square and burrow deep into the back streets for a more authentic experience.
Of course, it’s certainly not for everyone. If meat’s your thing but you (understandably) can’t bear to eat guinea pig, then head for Arequipa. Sitting in the shadow of El Misti volcano, the mountain’s sillar stone is ubiquitous in the old quarter.
Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes for 10,000 years and even today, there are 3,800 different types on offer.
Over the last few years, Peru has become something of a foodie destination. From the coast to the capital, from the highlands to the jungle, young chefs are creating some of the most exciting – and tasty – dishes on the planet.
4# Get the most out of Lima
With most travellers drawn irresistibly to the tourist hubs Cusco and Arequipa, the charms of the capital, Lima, are often overlooked. With coastline, mountains and jungle mere hours from the capital, Lima offers respite and exciting alternatives to the stifling crowds and bus travel that await you along the Gringo Trail.
Lunahuana offers white water rafting and vineyards. The adobe buildings of Tarma hark back to pre-Colombian times, with jungle and South America’s deepest cave nearby.
If you get stuck in the capital, don’t despair. There are lots of things to do, many for free. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 12.30 pm you can join a 90-minute tour of the UNESCO-listed colonial town. No booking required, just show up at Plaza Peru by the small fountain.
5# Spend a day with the Condors
Condors soar in the sky at Colca Canyon, Peru (Dreamstime)
The far-south of Peru is a land of ice mummies, misty volcanoes and the Amazon’s source. You’ll also find one of the world’s deepest canyons, Colca, where mighty condors rule the roost.
Head to the Cruz del Condor viewpoint. This is the best spot to watch these majestic birds riding on the morning’s thermals. Watch as they glide, turn, dive and climb, soaring above your head before gradually making their way down the length of the canyon, disappearing out of sight.
6# Hike and climb every mountain
The snow-clad peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash present some of the most challenging – and remote – mountaineering experiences in the world. The trek to a base camp is quite enough for most, but the views even from here are unforgettable.
Or walk the classic trek of the Cordillera Blanca: Llanganuco to Santa Cruz. It is unbelievably beautiful, with trail that follows a tumbling river, winding its way ever upward through a variety of scenery.
An uninterrupted view of the white craggy pyramid of Taulliraju is your ultimate reward. Unless you decide to sip Chilean wine on from a hotel balcony in Huaraz, watching the changing light on Mounts Huascarán and Huandoy, of course.
Last but not least, marvel at the swirling red, brown, pink, white, and green swirls of Vinicunca, also known as Montaña de Siete Colores or Rainbow Mountain. It’s located in the south-east of Cusco in the Cordillera Vilcanota range and is often done as a day trip from the city.
7# Discover another side of Cusco
Plaza de Armas and Church of the Society of Jesus, Cusco, Peru (Dreamstime)
With Macchu Picchu and the Inca Trail just over the hills, most travellers are tempted to get out of Cusco as soon as possible. But for the patient visitor prepared to extend their stay by a day or two, this stunning colonial city reveals even more of its charms.
A Boleto Turistico del Cusco pass gives access to 15 key historic sites. Then head out to Sacsayhuamán, overlooking the city, and walk back down to Cusco through the San Blas neighbourhood, the artisan quarter, with its galleries and boutiques.
Next head out to the Sacred Valley, the valley of the Urubamba River, where you can visit the historic Inca sites at Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. If it’s a Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday, visit Chinchero market (which isn’t as touristy as the more famous Pisac market), and the adjacent textile cooperative for a spot of shopping. The pre-Incan salt pans – or salineras – at Maras are worth a visit too.
8# Get your head in the clouds
It was the Incas who first called the Chachapoyan the ‘people of the clouds’ and their mountaintop lair, shrouded in mist and covered in thick jungle, is straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
The Chachapoyan have left an awe-inspiring collection of sophisticated hilltop fortifications and roundhouse remains, but it is the way they carefully preserved their dead that has intrigued archeologists and travellers alike.
Several caches of mummies have been found in extraordinarily inaccessible spots, high up in the cliffs and in underground vaults. Just make sure to pack your Wellies and a machete.
9# Read between the (Nazca) lines
Aerial view of the Hummingbird Geoglyph (Shutterstock)
The Nazca Lines are huge, intricate drawings etched on to the barren landscape of Peru’s coastal desert around 400km south of Lima. Enigmatic and mysterious, the figures of people and animals etched into the desert dust have long mystified the experts.
It’s believed that the Nazca people created the lines. They predate the Incas by as much as 2,000 years but Nazca’s extreme environment has minimised erosion and helped to keep the lines intact.
Karl Sagan reckoned they were written by spacemen: take an aerial tour over the site and make up your own mind.
10# White water raft on the mighty Rio Apurimac
White water rafting in Peru is both exhilarating and spectacular. Rivers that start as streams, high in the Andes, gather in power and size as they make their way towards the Amazon, carving through jagged mountains and through awesome canyons.
One of the most exciting rafting trips available takes you along breathtaking Rio Apurimac, as it carves through a deep canyon, only a short distance from Cusco. Starting at an altitude of 3,400m, the rafting starts at a gentle pace as you meander through the calmer stretches of the river. After enjoying lunch on a sandy beach alongside the river, the fun really begins, with a series of challenging rapids in the shadow of towering cliffs.
11# Celebrate the spectacular Inti Raymi Festival
Festival of Inti Raymi being celebrated at the Sacsayhuaman (Shutterstock)
Celebrated for over 500 years, the nine day festival of Inti Raymi is the most colourful and spectacular celebration in Peru. Dating from the Inca period, it is a kaleidoscope of rituals and processions dedicated to Inti Raymi, the Sun King, beseeching him to deliver a good harvest.
The festival culminates with an extraordinary ceremony on 24 June, held at Sacsayhuaman, the ancient ruins just north of Cusco. Locals dress up in elaborate costumes, dignitaries are paraded through the streets of Cusco in the ornate carriage,s and there is much feasting and drinking in honour of Pachamama (Mother Earth).
12# Meet the mummies of Arequipa
Remains of an Inca mummy (Shutterstock)
Framed by three volcanoes, with a Baroque town centre, built primarily from white volcanic stone, Arequipa is one of Peru’s most charming colonial cities and a popular base for visitors to this part of the country.
The magnificent Santa Catalina convent is arguably the city’s most beautiful attraction, a labyrinth of cobbled alleys, lined by buildings painted in shades of blue and terracotta, dotted with hanging baskets of geraniums.
It is here you also find Santuarios Andinos, a small museum with a grisly secret. It houses the mummified remains of the young victims offered as human sacrifices in the peaks overlooking the city. 550-year-old ‘Ice Maiden’ Juanita is the best-preserved and most poignant of the mummies found nearby.
13# Trek to the Lost City of Choquequirao
The Lost City of Choquequirao (Shutterstock)
More extensive than its more famous cousin, Machu Picchu, and more remote and difficult to reach to boot, the Lost City of Choquequirao is one of the most breathtaking sites in Peru. It sits high on a hilltop, looking imperiously across vast swathes of thick jungle to imposing peaks beyond.
Built in a similar style to Machu Picchu, on terraces and ringed by stone, it is located at the junction of three rivers and requires a challenging two-day hike to reach. Often wreathed in cloud, with thick jungle pressing in on each side, it is mysterious and magical and refreshingly tourist-free. Archaeologists are constantly discovering new corners of the site.
Keep your eyes peeled, as you may uncover a hidden Incan treasure, too.
14# Explore the Ballestas Islands
Sea lions relaxing on the rocks of Ballestas Island (Shutterstock)
Known as Peru’s Galápagos, the Paracas National Reserves near Pisco spans desert, ocean and islands.
Its sandy beaches at La Mina and Mendieta are legendary and the origins of the Paracas Candelabra geoglyph, a huge hillside etching, still baffles archaeologists. Wildlife lovers, however, should head to the Ballestas Islands, just off the coast.
Rugged and jagged, the islands are teeming with colonies of sea lions, penguins and seabirds including albatrosses, boobies and pelicans. The natural arches and caves provide shelter for thousands of animals and birds, the seas are a bountiful source of food. The islands were once the centre of a lucrative guano trade, but today form part of a protected reserve, a must-visit destination using one of the local wildlife boat tours.
15# Take the train to Lake Titicaca
Uros Island on Lake Titicaca (Shutterstock)
Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. The Inca people believed it was the birthplace of the sun. Travellers to Peru often rate it as the highlight of their visit.
The lake is most famous for it man-made islands, constructed from totora reeds and providing floating homes for the local Uros Indians. The reeds are also fashioned into homes and boats and even rudimentary toys to entertain the kids. Puno makes the best base to explore the islands, where you can walk on the unnervingly spongy surface and witness the age-old traditions of the people here first hand.
For a real treat, consider catching the Titicaca train over the Andean altiplano between Cusco and Lake Titicaca. Expect wide-screen landscapes, llama-dotted plains and valleys dotted with Adobe villages.
16# Mingle with spectacled bears in Chaparri Area
A spectacled bear in Peru (Shutterstock)
The spectacled bear is the only species of bear in South America and one of the best-known creatures of the tropical Andes. Paddington, arguably the most famous bear in the world, is a spectacled bear, famously coming from darkest Peru. Those keen to meet his cousins should head to the Chaparri Conservation Area.
A community-owned and managed reserve, Chaparri Conservation Area covers a pristine area of grassy hills and vertical rock walls and studded with trees and cacti. A 90-min drive from Chiclayo, it boasts a wild population of threatened species including the spectacled bear, as well as a rescue centre for bears and other animals confiscated from illegal captivity.
Visitors are encouraged to spend a couple of days at Chaparri Eco-Lodge and explore the park’s network of trails, offering excellent wildlife and bird-watching opportunities.