Peru has long been a backpacker’s paradise; however, this “Empire of Hidden Treasures” has now entered into the limelight as a must-see travel destination for upscale travelers as well. From riverboat expeditions deep in its exotic rainforest, to journeys along its vast coastal desert – traveling via the breathtaking peaks of the Andes in between – Peru has a staggering variety of places to visit. Indeed, Peru is a country that offers something for everyone. Here we outline our 10 favorite spots in a land that is more complex than its fine tapestries.
1. Machu Picchu: the mecca of South American travel
The thought of Peru typically evokes the image of this country’s emblematic Machu Picchu citadel, the “Lost City of the Inca.” Peru’s most popular tourist attraction and one of the planet’s most perplexing archaeological enigmas, Machu Picchu is located 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, which begs the existential question as to how many of its stone blocks, some weighing more than 50 tons, reached the site and were cut and fitted together in such a precise manner. This UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site is also one of today’s Seven Wonders of the World.
For its breathtaking beauty situated in such rugged geography, amazed and entranced visitors make their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to this site to contemplate its houses, temples, fountains and baths, in addition to its agricultural terraces and evidences of an irrigation system. Most leave with only one word to describe the experience: “incomparable.”
2. “Sacred Valley of the Inca” (Urubamba Valley)
Together with Machu Picchu, Urubamba Valley (also known as the “Sacred Valley of the Inca”) is another must-visit destinations in Peru. Though the valley roughly lies between Machu Picchu and the city of Cusco, its altitude is more than 600 meters lower, thereby providing it with a warmer micro-climate and allowing travelers to better acclimatize to the region’s high altitudes. A visit here allows one to truly appreciate the grandeur and high level of development of the Inca civilization. Once the heartland of the Inca Empire, today this area retains numerous archaeological sites of interest and several typical indigenous villages in which you can get a sense of authentic day-to-day Andean life. These sites include the Inca towns of Písac and Ollantaytambo, with their stone-paved streets, stairways, arches, and atmospheric plazas; the Artisania and Chinchero markets, the Chincero Church… and so much more.
3. Cusco: the historic capital of the Inca Empire
Typically a jumping off point for exploring the nearby Machu Picchu citadel the Sacred Valley, Cusco is a destination that should definitely not be shortchanged in haste. The historic capital of the Inca Empire, the city possesses pre-Columbian buildings that earned it too a UNESCO “World Heritage Site” designation. Inca palaces of supreme beauty will be part of your daily walk through the streets, as will be the fine plazas, splendid churches and denizens who are so welcoming of visitors. The heart of the city is the main square, the “Plaza de Armas,” which is surrounded by restaurants, cafes and churches, while just outside the city limits is an important Inca site known as “Sacsayhuaman,” an enormous walled complex constructed of large limestone boulders. All of this makes Cusco one of most important tourist destinations in Peru.
4. Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands of Uros
In ancient Andean cultures, Lake Titicaca is considered the birthplace of the Sun God, and today its shores and islands remain the home to peoples such as the Aymaras and Quechuas, who are among Peru’s oldest ethnic groups – predating the Incas by a thousand years. This means that traveling to this lake will allow you to explore traditional villages where Spanish is a second language, and where ancient myths and beliefs still hold true. In addition, you will see for yourself that this mystical and fascinating lake is South America’s largest (at 8,372 km2, or 3,232 sq. miles) and is the world’s highest navigable body of water (at 3,856 meters above sea level). To get you past anything touristy here, a good tour operator can introduce you to an authentic cultural experience at this idyllic destination.
5. Lima: a world center of gourmet fusion cuisine
Hungry for Peru? Get a taste of both local life and local cuisine with any visit to Lima. Recognized worldwide, the capital city’s food scene is hot, but it’s not just a flash in the stove-top pan. In recent years it has been widely touted as one of the world’s culinary hotspots, offering an array of exotic tastes that appeal to demanding palates. Lima’s laidback yet vibrant dining scene ranges from backstreet cevicherías to gourmet restaurants. And when you combine these restaurants with local “peñas” (folk music sessions), great casinos, salsa discos, pubs and great nightclubs, you have combinations that can’t be beat. Lima itself is Peru’s largest city.
Known as “The City of Kings”, this sprawling metropolis possesses an architectural blend of pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern infrastructure. Its historic district features fascinating attractions that consist of colonial-era churches, monasteries, Spanish palaces and one of the oldest universities in the Americas. Perched on scenic bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you will find upscale residential districts such as Miraflores, San Isidro and Barranco (“the Cliff”), which each offer an abundance of plush hotels and trendy restaurants.
6. Arequipa: the White City
The second biggest city in Peru, Arequipa is known as the “White City” thanks to its unique architecture – which is why the city’s historic district has been a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site for more than a decade. This district embodies a rich mix of the indigenous and Spanish colonial cultures. Examples of Spanish colonial architecture can be found throughout this city center, characterized by charming streets, and colorful buildings and flowers. The entire city of Arequipa is surrounded by three picturesque volcanoes, the most imposing being the “Misti” Volcano, a snowcapped figure that will accompany you throughout the city, while the beautiful countryside is bathed in the picturesque Chilli River. Arequipa’s eternal spring means that any time of the year is perfect for visiting the city. All of this explains why Arequipa has long been popular with tourists. A charming destination and well worthwhile destination, Arequipa is also a great start before heading out to the Colca Canyon.
7. Colca Canyon: scoot over Grand Canyon!
Much deeper than the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon reaches a depth of 4,160 meters, making it one of the deepest in the world, and therefore one of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions. From the canyon’s “Cruz del Condor” viewpoint, you can develop an equally deep appreciation for the immensity of this astounding place, as well as a chance to witness majestic Andean condors in flight. Possessing more that amazing sightseeing, however, there is something for everyone here, ranging from vibrant culture to extreme sports.
8. The Peruvian Amazon on board a floating boutique hotel
The Peruvian Amazon is not naturally hospitable. The dense tangle of impenetrable jungle, poisonous plants, flesh-eating fish, insufferable heat and high humidity aren’t easy to contend with. At the same time, though, this river and region are characterized by extraordinary levels of biodiversity, indigenous cultures and exotic jungle life untouched by civilization as we know it. To open this area up to the more demanding traveler, Peruvian Amazon riverboat cruises allow you to visit these remote ecosystems while enjoying the comforts, commodities and services of a 5-star floating boutique hotel. On board a luxury riverboat on the Peruvian Amazon, you can enjoy your expansive observation deck, outdoor Jacuzzis and an al fresco lounge after previously trekking into the jungle to meet with remote indigenous communities, listen to howler monkeys, and view parrot clay licks. A Peruvian Amazon riverboat cruise is one of the most memorable journeys you could ever wish to experience.
9. Ballestas Islands: “the other Galapagos”
A must-see for all wildlife lovers, the Ballestas Islands are a group of rocky islands located off the Pacific coast near the town of Paracas. Home to thousands of birds and mammals — including penguins, sea lions, Inca terns and pelicans — this abundant wildlife has earned these islands the nickname of “The Everyday Man´s Galapagos,” as they constitute a unique experience for those who unable to travel to the Galapagos. Don’t be put off though, some of the most upscale and elegant accommodations can be found here.
10. Nazca Lines
Sitting quietly on a high arid plateau off Peru’s northern Pacific coast, you can find one of the earth’s greatest mysteries. Here, you can discover the Nazca Desert, world famous for its more than 70 ancient geoglyph drawings of animals and other shapes. So large that almost all of them can only be seen from the air, these drawings – the “Nazca Lines” – are found between the towns of Nazca and Palpa. Created between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D., these range from simple lines to stylized figures of spiders, lizards, monkeys and even people. Thanks to the dry, windless and stable climate of the Nazca Desert, these lines have remained uncovered through today. For an incredible out-of-body experience, travelers can witness these enigmatic patterns by taking an early morning flight in a light aircraft, or by viewing three of the figures from an observation tower along the Pan-American Highway.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator.