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When I sat down to take notes for this blog post, I couldn’t stop. Within a few minutes, I had what looked like an endless list – and I kept getting more ideas. Peru has it all, from Lake Titicaca to the oldest ruins in the Americas and tropical beaches. Whatever you want to see or do, you’ll find it in this country. From hiking to sightseeing and relaxing with good food, everything is possible.
But with so many sights and attractions to choose from, where do you even start? What is there beyond Machu Picchu?
After a lot of thinking and editing my list, I have finally come up with these 18 highlights. I have spent more than a month in Peru and have seen the far south all the way up to the far north – and these were the things I enjoyed the most. Unless you have a lot of time, you won’t get a chance to do and see all of them. But this post should give you an overview and will help you figure out an itinerary.
#1 Visit Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is Peru’s most famous sight so it should not come as a surprise that it ends up as number one on my list. Abandoned and undiscovered for centuries, this Inca city has sparked many myths and legends before Hiram Bingham came across it in 1911.
There are several ways of getting to Machu Picchu. You can either go by train via Aguas Calientes or you can hike the Inca Trail. Both have their advantage and disadvantage. While the Inca Trail is definitely more spectacular, we had to get up very early and were so exhausted after four days of hiking that we were sleepwalking through the ruins.
Despite me just wanting to shower and sleep, I do have good memories of Machu Picchu. It is a beautiful archaeological site and well preserved since the Spanish conquistadores never managed to find and destroy it. I loved walking around the ruins and exploring them. And if you’re feeling a bit more energetic than me, you could even climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain behind the city. I haven’t been to the top, but you’re supposed to have a brilliant view from up there. You just need to reserve your ticket in advance.
#2 Visit the reed islands on Lake Titicaca
I had a hard time deciding what to put as Peru’s number two. There were so many things that I enjoyed, how could I ever choose?
In the end, I went with Lake Titicaca. I came here twice because I loved it so much, once to visit the Peruvian and once to visit the Bolivian side of the lake. If you have time, I highly recommend you do both as both areas are unique.
In Peru, you will most likely be staying in Puno. From here, you can do day tours to the lake and visit the Uros, who are known for their reed islands. I read somewhere that about 120 islands remain on the lake. We went to see one of them. The floating island is completely made of reed and people live on there, work on there and go about their daily lives on the lake. And when they can’t resolve a fight, they just cut the island in two and everyone floats in a different direction.
Besides visiting the floating islands, there’s more to do. We went to see a family who lives on the shore of the lake and had lunch with them. Some even offer homestays, so you can get a glimpse into a unique culture. And on the Bolivian side, Isla del Sol awaits, with its Inca temple and its Inca terraces.
#3 Go on a Jungle Tour
While my two favourite spots in Peru were in the Andes, I also loved the jungle. I went on a four day trip to the Amazon region near Iquitos. It was brilliant! Life there is so different from what I’ve experienced in the rest of the country. We saw all kind of animals, from monkeys to sloths, caymans and snakes. The food was different, we got to try exotic fruits and, since our lodge was located in a community that could only be reached by boat, got a chance to interact with the locals.
Everyone was extremely friendly and it was fascinating to see how they could survive in the middle of the Amazon. Plus, our guide was very knowledgeable and we got the chance to relax in hammocks in the middle of the day, reading and listening to jungle sounds. And on the way back, we even got to see manatees in a rescue centre near Iquitos.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, here are five reasons why you need to visit the Amazon.
#4 Fly over the Nazca lines
I have mentioned the Andes and the jungle, so I am just missing the coast. The most famous spot along Peru’s coastline is, without doubt, Nazca. About two thousand years ago, the Nazca culture left lines in the desert that form geometrical figures. Scientists are still guessing their meaning. Most likely, they are linked to water rituals. Out here in the desert, where it rains about five hours per year, water is scarce and a requirement for survival.
The Nazca people have not just left those lines, which you can best see from a plane. They have also dug out spiral wells and built palaces and cities. A taxi can take you to those places. We visited one spiral well and the ruins of what must once have been a city and it was fascinating to see the remains of a culture I knew little about until I came here.
#5 Hike the Colca Canyon
We are back to the Andes (I just love the mountains in Peru), to the region near Arequipa, to be precise. Next to this beautiful city, you can find the Colca Canyon. While it is possible to visit the canyon as a day trip from Arequipa, the best way to experience it is to hike through it.
The Colca Canyon is known for its population of condors and its remote mountain villages. I saw condors high up in the sky while walking past Inca terraces on which locals grew their crops. On our second night, we slept in an oasis which can only be reached on foot or by mule – and it’s a steep two hours uphill to the closest road. The Colca Canyon is a great example of life in the Andes, and I am glad I got a glimpse into their very unique culture.
If you want to hike this canyon, ask around tour agencies in Arequipa. They all offer the same two- or three-day tours. This is one of the rare occasions where it’s actually cheaper to go on an organised tour than to do it by yourself.
#6 Visit Lima
Can you believe that there are tourists who either skip Lima or spend just one or two days here? I came to Peru’s capital multiple times and never ran out of things to do. It helped that I found a hostel I loved with friendly staff who I got to know quite well. But it also helped that there are lots and lots of things to do in Lima.
First of all, Lima has a historical centre. Then, there are the eerie catacombs which form a sharp contrast to artsy and bohemian Barranco. The city is also a culinary hotspot and perfect if you want to try some typical Peruvian dishes. Oh, and have I mentioned the chocolate museum and the waterpark yet?
Lima has it all. If you need more inspiration, here are twelve things to do in the city.
#7 Visit Arequipa
Arequipa is another Peruvian city that you should not miss. While Cusco gets all the attention, Arequipa is just as pretty and less touristy. It has a giant, beautiful monastery with colourful walls, a central square where you can spend hours people-watching, a market which offers great Peruvian food and lots of beautiful churches. Inside the cathedral, you can see pieces of gold worth so much that they did not want to tell us the price.
Oh, and did I mention the Alpaca World where you can go and see those cute and fluffy animals and learn about the production of llama and alpaca wools? Or the Inca girl, a human sacrifice found on a mountaintop nearby, well preserved over the centuries? It might sound a bit morbid (and it is), but it is an amazing museum to visit and learn about Inca cultures.
Plus, Arequipa is the perfect base for visiting the Colca Canyon or for day trips to see nearby volcanos erupt. You can find more things to do in what is also called the white city here.
#8 Wildlife watching at the Islas Ballestas
The Islas Ballestas are often called “the poor man’s Galapagos”. Located just off the coast in Paracas, they are home to sea lions, penguins and lots and lots of birds. We went on a boat ride to see the animals. At first, I spotted the penguins, jumping off a cliff one after another. Then, I found the sea lions. And above us, we had hundreds of birds circling in the sky. The rocks out here are white with bird droppings. In fact, there’s so much of it and that bird poo is so fertile that there was once a war fought about those islands.
Besides visiting the Islas Ballestas, there’s lots more to do in Paracas. You could go for a tour into the Paracas peninsula, hang out at a beach or see the mummy bundles that the Paracas civilisation left behind more than 2000 years ago. As I said, there is lots to see and do.
#9 Visit the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley in Peru is a magical place. Full of archaeological sites, this is one of the most popular tourist destinations besides Machu Picchu. And you know what’s best about it? It’s located very close to Cusco so you can visit that city, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu without having to travel great distances.
In theory, Machu Picchu belongs to the Sacred Valley. But since it’s such an important sight on its own, I listed it separately. This one refers to the other Inca sites in the valley, like the ruins of Pisac with its round terraces, or the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
But the area is not just good for visiting Inca ruins. Close by, you can also find Rainbow Mountain. I’m sure you’ve heard of this colourful mountain that you can hike to. And if you’re looking for something different, go to the Maras Salt Mines. The pools are harvested by local families and look almost surreal with their brown and white colours.
#10 Eat chocolate
After all that sightseeing, you will want a break. And what better way to enjoy it than by trying Peruvian chocolate?
On a global scale, South America does not produce much cocoa anymore. Most of our chocolate comes from Africa or Asia. But South America is the continent where cocoa trees are native and where indigenous people have been drinking chocolate and using the beans as money for centuries before the Spaniards arrived.
Cocoa trees grow in the Peruvian jungle and that’s also where the beans are fermented and dried. Fortunately, you can try good chocolate all over the country. The Choco Museo has branches in Lima and in Cusco. After one of their employees has given you lots of free samples and explained to you the process of making chocolate, make sure to order a brownie and a cup of chocolate.
#11 Visit Cusco
Of course, Cusco had to appear in this list. It is Peru’s most popular city and receives visitors from all over the world. Most come to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but the city itself has lots to offer as well.
Cusco was founded by the Inca. After the Spanish conquistadores arrived and destroyed the Inca capital, they erected a city on top of the ruins. Many of the foundations you see while walking through the streets date back to pre-Columbian times.
In Cusco, make sure not to miss the temple of the sun and the cathedral. Both are stunning, the temple because it was built on Inca foundations and the cathedral for its size and decorations. Plus, they have a pretty cool self-guided tour for which they will give you a tablet. It was the first place in the world in which I’ve ever seen such a modern audioguide.
#12 Visit the ruins at Trujillo
If you like pre-Columbian cultures, you are going to love Trujillo. In the area, you can not only find the remains of one but of two ancient civilisations.
The most impressive archaeological site is Chan Chan. This city was founded by the Chimu (don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of them before; I hadn’t either). At its most glorious times, Chan Chan had 60.000 inhabitants which supposedly makes it the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas.
The downfall of Chan Chan was not caused by the Spanish, by the way. The Incas were the ones who eventually conquered the city.
After visiting the ruins, make sure not to miss the museum, located on the main road on your way back. It houses many artefacts, explanations and drawings which will allow you to understand what Chan Chan once looked like.
Besides this giant city, I also recommend visiting the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. These ones belong to the Moche culture and are at least 700 years older than Chan Chan. Your entrance includes a guide and while this complex is nowhere near as large as the remains of the Chimu culture, it is very impressive. Inside the temple, you will see beautiful paintings.
These huacas are one of the few places in Latin America where the original paint that had once decorated many buildings is still visible.
#13 Hike the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is perhaps the most famous hike in all of Peru. It takes four days and three nights to walk from km82 to Machu Picchu and permits are only given out to those who book an organised trek. The Inca Trail takes you past stunning landscapes, over mountain passes and from high altitude pastures full of llamas into the high altitude jungle.
The highest point is above 4000m so expect to be exhausted every evening you reach the camp. I remember falling asleep very quickly after dinner – and that wasn’t just because there was nothing else to do.
Hiking the Inca Trail requires a lot of planning. Permits book out sometimes more than half a year in advance. If you want to hike the Inca Trail, book it directly after you booked your plane ticket to Peru.
If the Inca Trail is booked out, don’t worry. There are many more beautiful hikes in the area. The Lares trek, for example, is supposed to be stunning as well. Yes, you will not get to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate. But on the other hand, you will arrive at Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu, the evening before, meaning that you had time to shower and sleep in a proper bed before seeing the Inca Ruins.
When I stood at the Sun Gate, all I could think about was sleeping. And showering. I forced myself to walk through the city because I knew I wouldn’t come back anytime soon, but I know that I would have enjoyed Machu Picchu a lot more if I hadn’t hiked the Inca Trail. So think about what you want to do. And despite everything, the Inca Trail is amazing and totally worth it!
#14 Visit Chavin de Huantar
I already mentioned that Peru was home to lots of ancient civilizations, many of whom I had never heard about before. The Chavin were one of them and they had built their capital at Chavin de Huantar.
In terms of historical significance, Chavin de Huantar is one of the most important sites in the country. Founded in 1200BC, this city has influenced almost all Peruvian civilizations that followed. When visiting archaeological sites all over the country, you can see similarities to Chavin de Huantar – pretty impressive for a city built in the Andes more than 3000 years ago. The Chavin civilisation eventually declined but people kept using the city as a ceremonial centre.
To visit this site, it is best to base yourself in Huaraz. From here, you can book a day trip to Chavin de Huantar that also includes a photo stop in the Huascaran National Park.
#15 Learn about the Inca skies on an astronomy tour
One of the highlights of my first trip to Peru was visiting the planetarium in Cusco. I don’t know about you, but having grown up in the Northern hemisphere, I barely knew anything about the sky south of the equator. I had heard of the Southern Cross but there was no way I could find it at night. The only thing I could recognise was the milky way – if the night was dark enough to see it.
The astronomy tour at the planetarium in Cusco not only helped me recognise objects in the sky, it also taught me a lot about history. When we look at the sky, we see the stars and the glowing dust that is the milky way. The Incas looked at it the other way around and named the shadows in the milky way. These days, I know that when I look up, I can see a black llama above me. I also know that there’s supposed to be a toad, a serpent and a shepherd, even if I cannot recognise them.
After learning about those dark constellations, we went outside to look through the telescopes that had already been prepared for us. I saw Jupiter with its rings, plus various stars and planets. It was a very interesting night and something I would definitely do again if I came back to Cusco.
#16 Visit the remains of Latin America’s oldest city – Caral
Up to this day, it fascinates me that Caral is not more famous. This archaeological site, which can be visited as a day trip from Lima, is what remains of Latin America’s first and most ancient civilization. Located north of Lima, it can be visited on a day trip and you don’t even have to book an expensive tour to go there (read my guide on how to do it by yourself).
Caral by itself if an interesting sight. The pyramids are fascinating to visit. But it becomes even better once you learn that all of these buildings were constructed between four and five thousand years ago. That means that at the time that the pyramids of Gizeh were constructed, Caral had already become a huge metropolis and a cultural centre.
Talking about culture. One of Caral’s special features is the lack of weapons. No weapons or signs of warriors have been found at this site, which suggests that Caral was a civilization that did not rule by the military but by religious power. They didn’t need to fight with warriors, they used priests and pleasures instead.
As I said, Caral can be visited as a day trip from Lima. Even though it’ll be a long day, it is totally worth it because this is one of the most exceptional archaeological sites you can find in South America.
#17 Hang out at the beach in Mancora
I don’t think I would come to Peru on a beach holiday. But with such a long stretch of coastline, it is no surprise that the country has some very nice beaches. Mancora, located in the North of the country, is a good place if you want to explore some of them.
The beach in town is already pretty nice. But if you want to go to a more remote place, without all those tourists, it pays off to pay a tuk-tuk driver to take you along the coast. Many drivers can recommend their favourite beach. We decided to go to Las Pocitas. Someone told us that it was one of Peru’s most beautiful beaches and we weren’t disappointed.
The beach was beautiful and endless. We definitely didn’t have a problem with it being too crowded since we could just walk a bit farther down if we wanted more privacy. Getting there was easy and for going back, there is always a line of tuk-tuks waiting to take you back to Mancora.
If you’re looking for a great place to have dinner in Mancora, by the way, I can highly recommend Tokuyo. This Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant offers delicious fish and seafood. They have a few non-fishy and vegetarian options as well. We were very satisfied with our food!
#18 Hike the Cordillera Blanca
The Huascaran National Park is the world’s highest tropical mountain range. It is home to an abundance of lagoons, glaciers and beautiful views and offers many trekking routes. Hikes range from day hikes to multi-day hikes, depending on how much time you have. The most popular one I have heard of is Laguna 69. The hike goes up to 4600m and can be fairly challenging in the end, but the view is well worth it. Another popular day hike is Laguna Churup.
If you have more time, consider trekking the four day Santa Cruz hike. It is long but well-marked and not very challenging. Outfitters in Huaraz can help you rent the gear you need and can even provide a guide if you prefer not to go on your own.
No matter which trek you choose, the scenery will be beautiful!
I hope I could help you plan your holidays to Peru. No matter which activities you choose, I am sure you will have a great time. The country is so diverse, it is impossible not to find at least a few activities that you enjoy. And as I wrote before, I spent a month and a half in the country and haven’t seen everything yet.
If you have ever been to Peru, I would love to hear about your favourite experiences. And if you’re planning on going, let me know what you’re going to do by leaving a comment below.
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