Where to go in Peru
While trekking through the magnificent Andes to the world-renowned ancient ruins of Machu Picchu is the main attraction for many who travel to Peru, that’s only a tiny fraction of what this country has to offer. It’s a treasure trove for visitors of all types, with an astounding array of landscapes, from lush Amazon jungle to the arid plains of Nazca with its mysterious geoglyphs, two of the world’s deepest canyons, towering sand dunes to board down, and beautiful sun-soaked beaches with warm water and waves for surfing. The Amazon covers more than half the country and is teeming with exotic wildlife, from colorful birds, monkeys, and anteaters to sloths, monkeys, caimans, and jaguars. It can be explored by a boat trip along the river, or one can stay in an indigenous village to get to know the unique culture of the “river people,” known as the Riberenos.
Peru’s capital is also the unofficial gastronomic capital of South America, home to many highly acclaimed chefs. There’s so much mouthwatering food here you’ll want to sample it on a tour with a local guide to try some of the best versions, from ceviche, the national dish, to Lomo Saltado, a beef stir fry with classic Peruvian ingredients. Lima also has a rich history and impressive mix of Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, and rococo architecture, with ornate churches, palaces, and monasteries in its historic district along with modern infrastructure. Much of its colonial architecture like the Cathedral of Lima and Plaza Mayor can be found in the UNESCO-listed city center. Visitors can also discover, in-depth, the vibrancy of lost civilizations in fascinating museums. It’s a standout when it comes to buzzing nightlife too, and at both its north and south ends, there are beaches to enjoy.
The crown jewel of the Sacred Valley and one of the world’s most captivating “lost cities,” Machu Picchu is on most travelers’ bucket lists. Rediscovered in 1911, accessing it by a hike on the Inca Trail is a life-affirming journey that takes four days, with the reward the chance to pass through the Sun Gate at sunrise after tracing the footsteps of the Incas. Or, if you’re not up for such a challenging adventure, you can also visit by riding a train the follows the Urubamba River in which squeezes through dramatic canyon walls. Once there you’ll be surrounded by majestic mountain peaks that sit at nearly 8,000 feet above sea leave. To witness the marvel of the great Inca Ruins is an amazing experience that can’t really be put into words. The Sacred Valley was a sacred region for Incan Emperors, and there are countless ruins throughout.
Located on an arid, isolated plateau in southern Peru, the over 70 Nazca lines include detailed artwork of animals like llamas, birds, monkeys, and fish – massive drawings carved into the earth measuring up to 660 feet. Most can only be seen from an observation tower or while flying above in a plane, but the reason they exist is unknown. It’s believed that the Nazca culture created the by removing red stones that covered the landscape, leaving the white ground below visible. But the Nazca culture flourished between 100 BC and 800 AD, so how did a primitive civilization with no airplanes to view from above accomplish a feat on such a grand scale? The mystery remains, and it’s one that might be fun to try and resolve with a visit. It lies under 200 miles from Lima and by taking a 20-minute flight, with lots of sharp turns, you can get a bird’s-eye view.
Lost City of Choquequirao
A much more remote alternative to Machu Picchu located northwest of Cusco in the Vilcabamba Valley, Choquequirao was built over 600 years ago as the last stronghold of the Inca Empire following the Spanish conquest. Just 30 to 40 percent of the 1,800-hectare complex has been excavated, but it’s absolutely extraordinary if you’re up for the difficult trek to get there. It can only be accessed on foot by following the ancient Inca trails along paths high in the Andes, crossing rivers and steep passes, which is what keeps it free of mass tourism. While Choquequirao is larger than its more famous counterpart and believed to have been established about the same time in 1445 AD, very little has been written about it. For those who make the strenuous four- to five-day journey, the reward is the chance to explore remarkable ancient ruins with almost no one else around.
South America’s largest lake straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru in the Andes. It’s one of the highest navigable bodies of freshwater in the world and said to be the birthplace of the Incas, with numerous ruins to explore in the area. Titicaca National Reserve surrounds it, protecting rare aquatic life like giant frogs. Around its shoreline the water appears murky but the farther out you go, the more it becomes a clear, brilliant blue. The town of Puno, the country’s “folklore capital” is located on its banks and hosts many colorful festivals and parades throughout the year. It boasts beautiful Andean baroque-style architecture and makes a great base for a boat ride to the floating islands of the Uros people. The 40-minute trip will bring you to this cluster of 60 islands to spend time with local families, learning how they live, cook, share food, and educate their children.
Cusco is the historical capital of the Inca Empire, serving as a popular base for exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas, including Machu Picchu. Located at nearly 11,155 feet above sea level, if you plan on making the trek to the ancient ruins it’s worth spending a few days in just to get acclimated to the high elevation, but you’ll find numerous well-preserved colonial-style buildings standing as a testament to the remarkable craftsmanship of Inca stonemasons. There are lovely local churches, art galleries, and bustling markets like San Pedro, one of the best. You can sample everything from alpaca steak and guinea pig to Lomo Saltado alongside beverages like chica, a refreshing corn beer. The beating heart of town is its central square, Plaza de Armas, bordering the imposing sandstone Cusco Cathedral, where there is never a dull moment, providing the perfect spot to watch the world go by.
The Amazon Rainforest is spread over eight countries, including Peru. In fact, it covers nearly two-thirds of the country yet it’s home it just five percent of the population. It boasts remarkable diversity, home to over 7,300 different flowering plant species, more than 800 types of birds and nearly 300 mammals. One can watch colorful parrots soar through the skies, monkeys swinging through the trees, and pink dolphins in the river. It also offers the chance to delve into rich indigenous culture, getting to know the Riberenos, or “river people,” who inhabit villages along the banks of the Amazon and even be welcomed into a family’s home to learn more about their traditional way of life. Spending time with an Amazon shaman to learn about the plants in the region and their medicinal uses is just one of the many other once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunities.
The Ballestas Islands aren’t well known but this collection of rocky islets is located only a couple of miles off Peru’s west coast just outside the perimeter of Paracas National Reserve, a salt desert that dramatically meets the South Pacific Ocean. They’re renowned for providing an ideal habitat for many different bird species, such as Peruvian boobies, red-legged cormorants, Inca terns, Peruvian pelicans, and Humboldt penguins. The spectacle of countless birds that dive bomb the water for their dinner is often the highlight for visitors, as is the ear-piercing fracas created by the bickering sea lions and birds, and the dolphins that often accompany the boat that bring them to the islands. Most stay in the small town of Paracas on the Paracas Peninsula which is where you’ll find tour operators who can bring you to the Ballestas as well as some of the ancient archaeological sites in the reserve.
Nestled in the rolling sand dunes in the southwest region of Peru, Huacachina is a little settlement that’s centered around an oasis with soaring palm trees. It emerges out of the desert like a mirage providing spectacular scenery, but it’s best known as a base for enjoying activities like sandboarding, dune buggy rides, and quad biking. Hiking is popular too, with plenty of tall dunes to conquer and enjoy a particularly memorable sunset for the effort. It’s almost a rite of passage for any visitor here, with many clustered on the dunes to take in the breathtaking view with a drink in hand. Simply relaxing and enjoying the oasis and taking an occasional refreshing dip is also a great way to pass the time. You’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants, and hotels to choose from, while the nearby city of Ica offers wineries for tasting and touring too.
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