One of the most coveted destinations in all of South America comes complete with breathtaking fortresses built by the Incas, soaring cloud forests, the snow-topped Andes, the dusty Atacama and the misty Amazon rainforest alike. No wonder there’s a veritable wealth of must-see spots between its borders. Let’s explore the best places to visit in Peru:
1. Machu Picchu
The great fortress in the clouds, the masterpiece of the Incas, the Andean citadel to rival all others, Machu Picchu rarely fails to draw a gasp. It sits perched a whopping 2,400 meters up on the spikey ridges above the winding Urubamba River; the jewel of the iconic Sacred Valley and reachable only by foot. Various treks weave their way up to the UNESCO heritage wonder from below, passing rustic Peruvian mountain towns and offering up breathtaking vistas of the Andes as they go.
Then the prize itself emerges: a glorious conglomeration of terraced houses and temples, crumbling altarpieces and animist sculpture, draped dramatically between the cloud forests and oozing pre-Columbian history from every one of its cracked and weathered pores.
Not even the conquistadores made it here!
Butting up to the Pacific rollers in lines of condominiums and lurching high-rises, Lima sprawls out over the Peruvian coastal plain in a patchwork of the new and the old. It’s a place where the elegant remnants of a colonial past rub shoulders with ancient ruins; where 500-year-old relics pepper the museum rooms close to bustling food courts bursting with South American ceviche and Pisco sours to knock your socks off. Of course, there’s a throbbing nightlife scene worthy of its 10 million people; erupting between the streets of Miraflores and Barranco every night of the week.
And that’s not even mentioning the beaches that line the coast to the north and south of the city, awash with surfers at Cabo Blanco, sunbathers at Vichayito and cocktail sippers at Los Pocitas. Nice.
3. Chan Chan
The ancient gateway to the arid desert lands of the Moche Valley is now one of the most fascinating pre-Columbian dig sites in all of Peru (and that’s saying something!). It’s thought that the sprawling ruins of the city that can now be seen here, popping up like a cardboard cut-out almost organically from the beige dunes and ridges of the desert, were raised in the middle of the 9th century AD. Chan Chan was once the epicentre of the powerful Chimor Empire until the conquistadores established nearby power bases in Trujillo in the 1500s, and today the remains of monolith defence walls, countless temples and court rooms, and elaborate irrigation systems can all be seen.
Just a short dune ride (preferably by 4X4) from the city of Ica, little Huacachina rises like a tropical gem from amidst the shifting sands. An oasis town par excellence, this tiny settlement hugs its own small pop-up lake and comes dotted with lanky date palms which sway and wobble in the dry, dry breezes.
Given its fantastic location on the rolling ochre-beige ridges of the Ica wilds, the town has become a regular favourite on the Peruvian travel trail, and now boasts a clutch of top-quality backpacker guesthouses, boutique hotels and even a surprising nightlife scene that’s fuelled by Pisco sours.
By day, be sure to try your hand at sandboarding!
Everyone from intrepid mountaineers to casual hikers to view seekers flock to the high-perched town of Huaraz, which comes shrouded on all sides by the chiselled and precipitous peaks of the great Cordillera Blanca (many of which rise to a whopping 6,000 meters above sea level!). Earthquakes have long been the nemesis in this metamorphic corner of Peru, which means the town here has been built and rebuilt countless times.
Still, it’s not really about the urban side of things. Not with the mint-white massifs of the Huascaran National Park beckoning to the east, complete with curious blooms of titanka plants, prehistoric cave art, dinosaur footprints and the craggy tops of Tawllirahu alike.
Trujillo is the largest city in Peru’s Moche Valley. Once trodden by the Spanish conquistadores, it still oozes a colonial charm from each of its marble plazas and technicolour churches. The clip clop of paso horses and the mellifluous sounds of Spanish chatter twist and turn around the palm-spattered Plaza de Armas at the metro’s heart, while Rococo elegance abounds on the Cathedral’s faces and the desert peaks of Moche rise to a bulwark on the horizon.
It’s a truly beautiful place to while away some time in the north, and offers unrivalled access to the bucket-list attractions of Chan Chan and the Huaca del Sol just to the south.
7. Tingo Maria
Tingo Maria sits nestled deep in the Andean ridges, blooming in a thousand shades of green thanks to the wet and fertile climate of the Amazonia side of the mountains. Once considered virtually inaccessible, the spot soon became one of Peru’s prime commercial coffee growing centers, and the streets still enjoy the aromas of freshly-brewed beans and the energy of weekly farmer’s markets to boot. However, Tingo Maria is perhaps better known – at least to the gringo tourists who now flock here out of Lima – as the gateway to the jungle.
The Tingo Maria National Park beckons just on the peripheries, home to the tunnels of the Owl Cave and the soaring summit of Pumarinri alike.
Laid-back and relaxed as it runs along the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno is a real treat. With its cascading barrios of breeze-block buildings and dust-caked streets, it may not look the part. But Puno’s draws are on the water, not on the land.
Boat trips are hugely popular, taking travelers out to see the likes of Amantani, with its earthy Quechua farmers and crumbling pre-Columbian temples, or Uros, and its iconic reed villages. Trips across to Bolivia and the Isla del Sol are also possible (this is the world’s highest navigable body of water after all!), while Puno itself offers up a great range of budget guesthouses and hotels to choose from.
Fringed by swathes of montane jungle and blooming with its own resident population of palm trees, the so-called ‘City of Palms’ is a great place to sample real, raw Peruvian life right on the edge of the Andes. Eateries tout platters of local highland foods, spice-doused chicken and rice dishes, and refreshing sugarcane juices all along the central streets, while night time parties erupt in Morales and travel groups depart to swim in the roaring waterfalls at Ahuashiyacu and Huacamaillo.
Outdoors adventures are never too far away, with the tropical reaches of the Amazon and its many rivers and jungle-clad valleys beckoning just to the east.
Cascading its way down the mountain ridges of the Southern Sierra in a dash of pretty Spanish-style bungalows with terracotta roofs, Tarma is one of the lesser known stop-offs in the Junin Region. Despite lurking just a little from the tracks of the Inca Trail, the town only draws a humble crowd of visitors each year.
Those who do come can enjoy chacta-packed teas in the cafes, wonder at the colours during the Festival of Flowers in September and unravel more than 500 years of history to boot (Tarma was one of the first hill stations in this section of the Andes to be established by the conquistadores). Hiking is also popular, with treks around the foothills and mountain lakes here weaving in and out of the Andes and the Amazon alike.
11. Puerto Maldonado
Straddling the waterways of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios Rivers as they join to form one of the tributaries to the mighty Amazon in the east, Puerto Maldonado is Peru’s jungle city par excellence. Once only accessible by boat, the town has recently joined the country’s ever-expanding road network and now booms with hikers and wildlife seekers during its high-season.
They come to spy out the multi-coloured macaws and old -rowth rainforests that the enticing trio of the Tambopata National Reserve, the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park offer to the north-west and south-east alike. If you do head to those wilds, expect everything from cultural encounters with Peruvian tribes to giant otters and spectacled bears!
Peru’s onetime capital and second most populous metropolis, 850,000-strong Arequipa is the buzzing metro hub of the country’s southern reaches. It can be found spread out over the highlands of the Huayco Uchumayo, set in the shadow of three mighty volcanos: brooding Misti, the snow-mantled massifs of Pikchu Pikchu, soaring, 6,000-meter-high Chachani.
The town bears one glorious UNESCO core of old-style mansions and Spanish colonial churches, all fused with the traditions of Peruvian building to create the unique architectural look now hailed as Escuela Arequipena. To see this first hand, check out the 16th-century Santa Catalina Monastery, the neoclassical Basilica Cathedral, or the almost Petra-esque Church of the Jesuits.
Situated between the green slopes and cloud forests of the much-visited Sacred Valley of the Incas, Urubamba is the gateway to some of Peru’s most bucket-list sights. In the town, the streets are thronged with everything from classy hotels to earthy guesthouses, gringos and walkers fresh from the Incan Trail flitting between the bars and Plaza de Armas on rumbling auto rickshaws.
It’s one of the top bases for exploring the various ancient sites that adorn the ridges here, whether that means scaling to the heights of Machu Picchu, hitting the agricultural terraces of Tipon, seeking the mysterious ruins of Choquequirao, or enjoying ecotourism in the cultural attraction of Chichubamba.
The onetime epicentre of Incan power in the Americas is now a thriving tourist hub, touting everything from glorious Spanish churches to the crumbling remnants of the city’s former pre-Columbian masters. With century upon century of Peruvian past concealed beneath the town’s throbbing streets, it’s easy to see why so many travelers make their way here.
Just check out the whitewashed cottages of Barrio de San Blas, awash with Incan treasures below their floors, or the glowing Plaza de Armas, where Andalusian arcades rise and fall beneath the baroque majesty of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin.
And when it’s time to leave the city, Peru’s most iconic backcountry awaits: the cloud forests and Incan treasures of the Sacred Valley!
Nazca is best known as the jumping off point for seeing the famous Nazca Lines: centuries-old petroglyphs and markings carved out of the rolling pampas on the edge of the Chilean Atacama. The air is dry and dusty in the town, and most of the city is pleasant and walkable.
Tour operators here will clamber over one another to offer travelers flights out over the mysterious UNESCO site in the desert, while trips to Cahuachi and Paredones, and the prehistoric cave systems and walking trails of the Palpa Valley, are also fine options for any looking to combine adventure and history in one.