Things to do in Peru

by Kshaunish Jaini

There is no shortage of things to do in Peru. Culture vultures can visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and Saysayhuaman, adventurous types can hike the Amazon, surf and hit the white-water rapids, and foodies can discover some of the best cuisine in Latin America. Here’s a comprehensive list of things to do in Peru, some of which you will have heard of, others are a little more off-the-beaten-track.

Explore the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu

Let’s start with one of the biggest draws for travelers coming to Peru. Machu Picchu is arguably one of the most spectacular Inca ruins in the country. Sitting on a mountain ridge overlooking the Urubamba River, the citadel was built as a royal estate for Incan emperor Pachacuti and serves as one of the best examples of the ancient civilization. The site was discovered and brought to international attention by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as being one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s possible to visit the site on a guided tour from Cuzco by train, or at the end of a four-day hike along the Inca Trail . There is nothing quite like looking at the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the famous Sun Gate.

machu-picchu-peru

Citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Hike the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is one of the world’s greatest treks and a mecca for hikers around the world. Although there is a shorter two-day tour, most opt for the classic four-day trek which takes travelers over three high passes, through cloudforests teeming with orchids and wildlife, and along ancient Incan paved trails flanked by old ruins. Porters carry your things, set up camp and cook meals, while your guide explains the history of the region. The Inca Trail is actually part of a network of trails used by the Incas that stretch 39,000 kilometres from modern day Quito to Santiago in Chile. These trails where used by the Incas for delivering goods, messaging, religious events and by the military. Be sure to book with a reputable tour operator who had a Porter Policy in place. Only 500 people are permitted to hike the route each day and the tickets get booked up months in advance. Note that the Inca Trail is closed during February for maintenance. The best time to hike is during the dry season between April and November, though it’s also the busiest.

Salkantay and Lares Treks

Though most opt for the Inca Trail as it is the most famous, there are other even more spectacular treks in the region to take including the Salkantay and Lares. Though neither takes guests directly to Machu Picchu (Salkantay is pretty close ), they are almost always combined with a trip to the ruins at the end of the hike. There are some marked differences between the two, but both takes hikers over passes, through cloud forests, and overlooking some of the most spectacular Andean scenery including snow-capped mountains. These trails are a lot less touristy that the Inca Trail (particularly the Lares) and there are some hot springs to soak in en route. You don’t require permits for these hikes, but they are not something you should take on without the help of a guide.

hiking-peru

Hiking in the beautiful Andes of Peru.

Hitting the white-water rapids

The mountains of Peru are home to some of the best white-water rafting in the world. It’s particularly good around the surrounding countryside near the tourist hub of Cuzco. The Urubamba river meanders through the valleys and gorges and has a variety of rapids for beginners and experts. There are plenty of tour operators in the city offering day and multi-day trips along the river with well-maintained equipment and experienced guides. There are also some rapids to ride along the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons. 

Be an Inca for a day at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Moras

A tour to the Sacred Valley is a must. Visitors can either stay in the valley or visit it on a day trip from Cuzco. There are four principal things to see. Ollantaytambo is one of the last remaining Inca towns that are still inhabited and have some spectacular ruins to climb up to. Much of the accommodation is based in and around the town. The town of Pisac also has some ruins, but most people visit for the famous Sunday market where locals from around the Sacred Valley descend to sell there colourful wares. Huge piles of textiles and fine handicrafts are available to barter for. Moray is an Incan site made up of circular terraces. Though the origins are unclear, it is thought that the Incas used it for protecting seedlings and cultivating new hybrids. Nearby is the Maras, an area known for its salt terraces. The Incas were the first to produce salt here which was traded around the empire.

moray-terraces-peru

Circular terraces of Moray.

Take a tour of Cuzco

A trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Cuzco, the capital of the ancient Inca Empire. As well as being an interesting fusion of Inca and Spanish colonial, it is best to spend at least a day or two in town to help acclimatize to the heady heights. A day tour with a great guide will take you to the most important parts of the city including the huge cathedral on the main plaza, Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun) and Saysayhuaman, some Inca ruins just outside the city which hosts the famous Inti Raymi festival each year.

Stay in the skylodge

There is no shortage of excellent hotels throughout Peru, but one of the most interesting has got to be the Skylodge in the Sacred Valley. Three Perspex pods hang off the side of a cliff. To reach them, guests must take a guided climb up almost half a kilometre of iron rungs. When you reach the comfortable pod, the evening can be spent enjoying a delicious dinner and wine while looking out over the valley views and up at the stars. The pod has a toilet with the contender for some of the best views in the world. In the morning, breakfast is served on a platform above the pod, before returning back down to the ground on a zipline. The idea is to feel like guests are staying in a condor’s nest.

Explore the wildlife of the Amazon

Peru is home to the source of the Amazon River which starts in the mountains. These glacial waters melt and run down past cloud forests and into the Amazon rainforest. The two most accessible gateways to the Amazon is Iquitos in the north east of the country and Puerto Maldonado in the south east. From here it is possible to visit the many lodges dotted throughout the jungle as well as both budget and luxury cruises. There is much wildlife to see in both regions. Head out on canoes to spot caimans, monkeys, giant otters and even jaguars and tapirs. Hike the trails, and snakes and capybaras can be seen nonchalantly crossing the path. Take an early morning visit to a clay lick where hundreds of colourful parrots and macaws chaotically peck at clay which helps to neutralize toxins from their diet. Some lodges have canopy towers and walkways to get up close to sloths and exotic birdlife. The best time to visit is during the dry season (although there will most likely be some rain) when the trails can be hiked and the mosquitos are less prevalent.

rainforest-reflection-peru

Rainforest reflection in Peru. Photo by Ivan Mlinaric

Gorge on amazing food

Peru’s food is currently enjoying limelight on the international culinary stage. With such varied cuisine, it’s not surprise that the country offers such diverse dishes. There are plenty of small food tours in the major cities taking guests to visit both the superb street food, as well as finer establishments. The national dish is ceviche, raw white fish marinated in lime and citrus juices, best eaten near the coast. Lomo saltado is a stir fry of sliced beef, onions, chilies and soy sauce – a fusion dish created by Chinese immigrants. Look out for cuy, fried and roasted guinea pig, a specialty from the Andes. Aji de Gallina may not look that appealing, but is a delicious concoction of chicken, eggs and potatoes covered in a sauce made from cheese and milk. Roasted whole marinated chickens are popular and antichuchos, grilled beef hearts, are excellent street food. 

See the condors glide over Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon sits in the south of the country between the cities of Arequipa and Puno. It’s best visited on an overnight tour which takes guests over the high altiplano. Though it might not be as well-known as the Grand Canyon in the USA, it’s considerably deeper. During a tour, guests are taken down to the Canyon early in the morning, when the skies are lovely and clear. Form the Cruz del Condor viewpoint, huge Andean condors can be seen gliding in the canyon below and circling overhead riding the thermals. Another canyon called Cotahuasi has more recently opened up to tourists and offers views with very few other tourists. Other activities in the area which can be combined with a visit to the Colca Canyon including soaking in natural hot springs, hiking, horse riding and white-water rafting.

Fly over the Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are enormous geoglyphs etched into the desert in southern Peru. Some of geoglyphs reach almost half a kilometre in length and represent animals including birds, llamas, jaguars, monkeys and humans. Though no one knows the origins of the lines, most agree that that they were created by an ancient culture circa to 500 BC. The dry desert is the reason they are so well-preserved. There is a viewing platform, but nothing compares to seeing the lines from the air. There are several airlines offering hour-long flights over the lines where they can properly be appreciated.

Wander through Chan Chan

Just outside the northern city of Trujillo lies the impressive ruins of Chan Chan. This was the capital of the ancient pre-Columbian Chimu civilization. The city made from mud is well preserved due to the dry temperatures. The citadel is made up of huge walls as well as imposing statues. At its peak, the city was over 20 square kilometres big and had an estimated population of 60,000 people. The site is over a thousand years old, and fell into decline when the Incas conquered the city in the 15th century.

Go sand-boarding in Huacachina

The little desert oasis town of Huacachina is surrounded by sand dunes, making it the perfect place for trying sandboarding. Many of the hostels and hotels have equipment for hire and can take you on tours of the area. The challenging climb up the high dunes is worth it for the fun descent back down. The town’s oasis is a lovely place to relax after the day’s activities.

Visit the reed islands of Uros and Taquile Island

Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and straddles both Peru and Bolivia. The most interesting daily tour takes visitors to the Uros Reed Islands and Taquile Island. The Uros community has been living on floating reed islands for hundreds of years. They were originally created to defend themselves from the invading Incas. Though most don’t live permenantly on the islands anymore, it’s still an interesting site to visit, with the islands, homes and even the boats made from the lake’s reeds. Taquile Island is home to a community of 2,000 and is known for their fine textiles and weaving which are now protected by UNESCO. The villagers are more than happy to show you their island before you return back to the mainland.

Titicaca

Beautiful Lake Titicaca.

Board the Andean Explorer

Train travel has always been the best mode of transport and makes for a much better way to connect with the landscape that travelling by car or bus ever would. The Andean Explorer (formerly Orient Express) is a luxury train service running from Cuzco to Puno near Lake Titicaca and back again. The interior and exterior is based on the trains of the past, harking back to a bygone era of travel. The journey takes most of the day and passes spectacular Andean scenery teeming with llamas, guanacos and alpacas. There is a dining cart where a delicious three course meal is served, an observatory car with windows on the roof, and a saloon car.

Tour the old convent of Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina is a 15th century monastery in the southern city of Arequipa. It’s large, stretching for 20,000 square metres. At its peak, there were over 450 nuns living at the complex, but there are now 20 nuns that live at the monastery which is painted in bold blue and red colours.

Go surfing in Huanchaco

Surfers should head straight to the desert town of Huanchaco near to Trujillo in the north of Peru. The town was once a little fishing village, but the excellent beaches and impressive surf have drawn in travelers and grown the population of the town. Seven years ago, the town was given World Surfing Reserve status, the first in Latin America. Some people believe this to be one of the original homes of surfing. Small reed boards have been using the surf along this coastline for more than 3,000 years. Along the beach there are plenty of surf schools and rental companies meaning you don’t have to bring your own equipment.

cliffs-beach-peru-paracas

Stunning view of sheer cliffs and beach in Peru. Photo by Patty Ho

You may also like to read more about:

- Weather in Peru

- Lake Titicaca

- How to get to Machu Picchu

- Flights to Peru

- Training for Salkantay Trek

- Routes to reach Machu Picchu

- Food in Peru

- Is Peru Safe?

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