Peru’s not just Lima and Machu Picchu—epic hikes, mysterious ruins, charming towns and incredible lakes are just some of the places you need to visit in Peru. Oh, and then there’s that little place with the trees and the rain, the Amazon Rainforest!
These are the spots we think you need to see in Peru. Admittedly, there is a lot of them, and since the country is so vast and the distances so big, you’ll likely have to pick and choose which places to see on this trip to Peru and which ones you’ll leave for next time. Because you’ll want there to be a next time.
Peru’s capital, Lima, lies roughly in the middle of Peru’s coastline in a desert area. It’s located in a flat valley and comes to an abrupt stop on the cliffs over the Pacific on the west. But it sprawls out into every nook and cranny of the mountains to the east, making it one of South America’s largest cities.
With 10 million inhabitants, it’s also the world’s third largest desert city, after Karachi in Pakistan and Cairo in Egypt.
Lima has some great museums, easy day trips, funky neighborhoods, and is South America’s food capital. Some of the places on our best restaurants in Peru list are, not surprisingly, in Lima.
UNESCO inscribed the historical center of Lima onto its Heritage List, and part of the reason why are the wooden balconies you’ll see on most of the typically yellow buildings on the Plaza de Armas and in the surrounding streets. They are “box balconies”, or balconies completely boxed in by carved wooden screens. They were a status symbol, as only wealthy families could afford them.
But what are they for? For being nosy and knowing what everyone in the neighborhood is up to! Really, the woman would be able to discretely hang out on the balcony, which would be covered in cushions, and watch what’s happening in the streets. Pre-social media, an ingenious way to stalk your friends and foes!
Tip: I prefer Miraflores for hotels, but if you want to stay in the old town, book a hotel close to Plaza de Armas. Just fyi—if you end up booking a hotel—any hotel at all, anywhere in the world—through any of the hotel links in our articles, we make a small commission on that booking with no extra charge to you.
Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood is where it’s at. It’s lovely and I didn’t feel like I’d get mugged! It sits to the south of central Lima atop the cliffs over the ocean, the rocks covered with nets that are overgrown by plants, turning mundane grey into a lovely and inviting green.
Miraflores looks a little like the nice parts of Miami and feels kind of like San Francisco, with tons of restaurants, shopping, top hotels and great views. You can admire the sunset from the sidewalk that lines miles of the coast, and it really is spectacular, especially on clear nights with just a hint of high clouds.
One of the highlights of Lima is the Larco Museum. I’ll say it: The Larco Museum is epic! It’s in a gorgeous mansion, it’s well organized, the descriptions are clear and informative, and you learn tons while oohing and aahing and understanding the history of ancient Peruvian civilizations.
15. Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is the second-deepest canyon in the world, surpassed only by the massive Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Tibet. It’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and stretches for 100 km, cutting 3,400 m deep into the surrounding mountains. So not lame by any account.
And there are condors.
But even though the Grand Canyon is a baby compared to Colca, it somehow feels more like a canyon. This is because Colca Canyon is quite narrow and the slopes are at an angle, as opposed to going straight down, so it just looks like…mountains. High, majestic mountains, but since this is Peru, those are everywhere.
Colca Canyon is beautiful, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype in our opinion. We might’ve had a more amazing experience had we taken one of the many available overnight treks in Colca Canyon, but we didn’t, instead opting for a day trip out of Arequipa.
Side note: I promise I’m not biased because of the food poisoning that I was dealing with while taking this trip.
Just the tiring drive to Colca Canyon will have your expectations soaring and hard to meet. From Arequipa, it’s 4 hours on bumpy, winding roads, so go in high spirits and mentally prepared for it to be a long day.
We were lucky enough to see one flying condor and one just sitting there chilling while in Colca Canyon. Big, ugly-headed birds with a wingspan of 3 m (10 ft)! Wouldn’t want to be on their dinner menu. You’re almost guaranteed to see them at “Mirador Cruz del Condor“.
Alternatively, get picked up at 3 am if you opt for an organized tour.
Read our guide to Arequipa for more detailed information about visiting Colca Canyon.
Should you worry about altitude sickness? Well, the Cruz del Condor viewpoint is at 3,700 m (12,000 ft) above sea level, so it isn’t completely terrible, but it isn’t the Netherlands either. As a reference point, consider that Machu Picchu is at 2,400 m (8,000 ft), similar to Arequipa, and Cusco is at 3,400 m (11,000 ft).
You will possibly experience shortness of breath, especially if you do one of the hikes, but you probably won’t be wanting to cut your own head off while barfing out your brain like you might on a trip to Rainbow Mountain. Just stock up on coca leaves.
14. Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines are huge geoglyphs “drawn“ on the ground on the plateau to the south of Paracas. They are either long, incredibly straight lines or in shapes such as animals or human figures. Some are simpler designs and some are more complex. They were made by the Paracas culture in 200 to 400 BCE and by the Nazca people in 200 BCE to 500 CE.
The Nazca Lines are located in a roughly 10×4 km (6×2 mile) rectangle between the towns of Nazca and Pulpa. It’s at least a 3-hour drive one way from Paracas town, so plan on booking a hotel in Nazca and stay the night.
The lines in this part of Peru were made by removing the top layer of the reddish-brown pebbles on the ground, which then revealed the greyish soil underneath. Since the area is arid, the lines have been preserved naturally and are only occasionally damaged by weather or earthquakes.
As far as measurements, the lines are commonly about 15 cm (6 inches) deep and 33 cm (13 inches) wide, and the individual figures can measure anywhere between 400 and 1,100 meters (1,300 to 3,200 feet).
Nobody can know for sure what their purpose was, but most scientists agree that they had some sort of religious significance.
Since the designs are so big, it isn’t easy to take a good look at them from the ground, and if you can find the time and money, always get a plane trip so you can fully appreciate the shapes.
There are a few places that you can try on the ground though:
- The Nazca Lines Viewing Tower roughly in the middle between Nazca and Palpa (Mirador de las Lineas de Nazca).
- The nearby Maria Reiche Museum is next to a natural viewpoint where you can also see some of the designs.
For the best views of the full figures and not at skewed angles, you’ll need to board a little single-engine plane at Nazca’s Maria Reiche Airport.
For more details about seeing the Nazca Lines, see our article on what to do in and around Paracas National Reserve. We’re also working on a separate article just about the Nazca Lines. Stay tuned.
13. Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca’s biggest disadvantage is that it’s so far away from everything else in Peru. So many people just give up on it, just like we did. A daytrip from Cusco or Arequipa is out of the question—the drive to Lake Titicaca is 6 hours long from Cusco and just one hour shorter from Arequipa. You’ll need to treat Lake Titicaca as an overnight destination.
Lake Titicaca is the highest-altitude large lake in the world at 3,800 m (12,500 ft). It is 190 km (120 miles) long and 80 km (50 miles) wide and up to 280 m (920 ft) deep. It is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, with the border line running right through the middle of the lake.
By legend, the supreme Inca god, Viracocha, emerged from the lake and created the sun, the moon, the stars, and the first Inca king, Manco Capac, and Mama Ocllo, who then went on to create the Inca Empire. As such, there is a huge amount of Inca ruins around (and in!) Lake Titicaca and it is considered the birthplace of the Inca culture.
Today, Puno is the central port of the lake and is called the folklore capital of Peru, renowned for its music and dance. The Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria is held every February and is one of the largest festivals is all of South America. 18 days of shows and parades showcase the best dancers and musicians in elaborate, colorful costumes.
Lake Titicaca isn’t just a pretty big lake that you can come look at. You can also go and stare at the indigenous tribes that live on the lake. I’m sure they love it when westerners come and take photos of them.
There are natural islands on Lake Titicaca, but the most fascinating are the manmade islands of the Uros people.
Historically, the Uros, who pre-date the Incas, weren’t able to secure land by the lake when they moved there from the mainland, so they thought “whatever, we’ll just build our own land”. The Uros Islands are built out of the reed that grows around Lake Titicaca. Seventeen reed islands, complete with reed houses and reed boats, are located on the lake.
The Uros welcome visitors on tours of the islands and sell handicrafts and reed boat trips as well. Remember that the Uros only keep a small portion of whichever tour you buy in Puno, so buying things from them on the islands can help them a lot.
If you want to stay with the Uros, they will be happy to have you. You can book a stay with the Uros on booking.com. There are some very basic options on their little islands, a few pretty nice places and then there’s this one: your very own bit of reed luxury, the QHAPAQ Lago Titicaca. The room is fantastic, with hot water, huge windows with infinite views of Lake Titicaca, and the friendliest family taking care of you. The food here is excellent!
If you want to stay on a proper bit of land that doesn’t float, book a hotel in Puno and start your adventure there.
Our top tips for best places in Peru: 🎟️ Machu Picchu is worth the hype and you have to go. Just make sure to get your tickets far enough in advance! Our guide will help you with the timing and logistics of all that. 🏔️ Beware of altitude sickness: Many top places to see in Peru are up way higher than you’re used to. Use the cities of Cusco, Arequipa and Huaraz as a base for a few days to acclimatize before going on any of the (amazing!) hikes. ✈️ The distances in Peru are vast. Plan on taking internal flights in Peru instead of driving between destinations. The only exception would be Arequipa to Cusco, which would’ve helped us heaps with acclimatization. Drive that bit. 🤩 The most underrated place we visited was Paracas National Reserve. Go there! 😞 The most overhyped place we saw were the Ballestas Islands. Go only if you really like speedboat trips, birds and seals.
One of the top things to do in Peru is certainly sandboarding on the mighty dunes, and the best spot for that is close to Paracas in a literal desert oasis—Huacachina.
A small town has popped up around the oasis with several eating and sleeping options, and of course various sand adventure outfits.
Besides sandboarding, you can get a dune buggy and swish around the sand in that, but that looked like a whole lotta sand in your face and not a lot of anything else to me. Unless of course you like being thrown out of your seat, jumping up and down over the sand “waves”.
You can also ski or get a sand sled.
Tip: Dito Sand Xsports, founded by four-time sandboarding world champion Dito Victor Chavez, is one of the best options. They have friendly, professional guides and know what they’re doing.
Swimming in the oasis isn’t safe, so don’t do it. Even the locals say so, and they are some tough cookies, so you better trust them. You can rent a paddle boat instead.
If you aren’t into sand sports, even just sitting on top of the dunes with the oasis town down below is pretty special. If you plan your stop to coincide with the sunset, you’ll get a view you won’t forget for a very long time.
The hotel options in Huacachina are geared more towards the sandboarding crowd (think surfer dudes and college kids), but Ica is right there and offers a much wider selection of hotels. If you also plan on trying out some pisco, you might as well stay at La Caravedo. The hotel and restaurant there are amazing, and you get to tour the oldest distillery in South America—established in 1684.
More on what to do in Huacachina and around in our guide to Paracas National Reserve.
11. Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
When you look at the majority of this list of places to visit in Peru, you’d think that Peru starts in Lima and then just continues down south. But zoom out a little and you see a whole northern section that’s just sitting there, visitor-less, right?
Well not exactly. A vast piece of northern Peru is taken over by the Amazon Rainforest. One of the reserves protecting the unique habitat there is Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
It’s huge, covering an area of 20,800 km2 (8,000 square miles), but when you look at the map, it looks small, since it only covers a small part of the absolutely massive jungle. Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is the triangular bit between the Marañón River and the Ucayali River, both of which become the Amazon River at their confluence.
About 40,000 people and a large variety of animals call the reserve home. In the midst of it all are 30 rangers that try to juggle meeting the needs of the humans and the protection of the fauna and flora, like pink river dolphins, piranhas, sloths, caiman, manatees, pumas, jaguars, monkeys and all sorts of plants, including medicinal kinds.
Where does tourism come in? It’s the actual Amazon Jungle! Who wouldn’t want to experience that?!
The most popular way to see Pacaya Samiria is to fly into Iquitos from Lima. The flight takes about 1.5 hrs and then you’ll find yourself in the largest city in the world that isn’t serviced by a road. It’s also known as the capital city of the jungle. More on Iquitos below.
Ignore all the moto-madness of Iquitos for now, and continue into the jungle. You’ll have several options. Either you book a stay with a jungle lodge and choose one of the multi-day programs on offer, or pick a river cruise, in which case you’ll be sleeping on the boat.
There are less comfortable options, such as camping in one of the 15 camp sites within the reserve, or a combination of lodge or bungalows and tents.
If you aren’t too sure about overnighting with nothing more than a tent over your head, choose one of the lodges, like the Pacaya Samiria Amazon Lodge, which is located as deep in the jungle as a lodge can get. That way, you still experience raw nature, but then sleep in comfort without creepy crawlies visiting your face at night. Their bungalows are as fancy as you’ll get in the Amazon. The programs they offer range from simple explorations to wellness- or sustainability-focused affairs.
If you’re really spoiled, book yourself onto a luxury river boat like the Aria Amazon where you can literally stay in bed, drinking a cocktail gazing out at the jungle through the glass wall that is your room window. Don’t forget to leave your bed in time for a sunset in the jacuzzi and dinner at the fine-dining restaurant. You can, of course, take one of the many excursions that’ll actually take you into the jungle before coming back for a restful night on the boat again.
The activities on offer in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve are almost endless: from swimming with pink dolphins and piranha fishing to survival courses, detox stays, meeting locals and releasing baby turtles into the river.
Iquitos has a population of roughly half a million people, so it’s no village. Interestingly, there is no road leading into it. You can’t drive to Iquitos. You can just fly in from Lima or take a grueling 3–5-day boat from Yurimaguas like the locals do.
You’ll probably use Iquitos as a gateway to the jungle and exploring the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, but if you have an extra night, take a day to check out the city, too.
Now Iquitos isn’t exactly charming, or not on first glance at least. The craziness and noise of the motorbikes on the main roads as well as the visible instances of poverty can be a little off-putting, and the many stories of pickpockets you’ll read about may deter you from a casual stroll through the busy market.
But give it a chance. Iquitos is a city where magnificent mansions in the city center (though often a little run down) meet the simple huts of the shanty town by the river. The Plaza de Armas if filled with palm trees and it’s where you can enjoy the hustle and bustle if you decide you don’t want to be annoyed by it.
Tip: The Plaza de Armas is also where the DoubleTree by Hilton is located. They’ll win you over with the poolside service and the comfiest beds ever. (But it can’t ever replace our epic stay at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton in Paracas. That place was incredible.)
You can decide to go on a stroll on the Tarapaca Malecon, a fairly manicured promenade on the riverbank not far from the main city square. You’ll find cafes and restaurants here, as well as views of the river and the houses that are built on and around it.
The Belen market starts at the crack of dawn and is notorious for pickpockets—that’s including monkeys that are trained to take your wallet and camera—so really think about if you need to go. It was a big no for us given the animal trafficking that happens here. Not trying to moralize here but you gotta draw the line somewhere.
If you want to be on the right side of the matter, hop on a short boat ride and visit the Pilpintuwasi Animal Rescue Center. These people try to counteract the doings of the market people (and many others) and through education, rescue and rehabilitation are trying to end animal trafficking in the region.
There are guided tours at Pilpintuwasi daily except Mondays where you can see some of the luckier animals that got taken form the jungle. Plus, there’s a butterfly village.
There are some other rescue places around, but do your research online before deciding to go. A few of these places are basically just circuses where they aren’t really saving the animals as much as exploiting them.
9. Chan Chan
Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Empire roughly from 900–1470. In its time, it was the largest city in the Americas. The Chimu then fell under Inca rule, apparently believing that the Incas were invincible. The Incas barely had to lift a finger to persuade the Chimu to submit to them.
UNESCO listed Chan Chan on its Heritage List in 1986.
Chan Chan is located a few kilometers west of Trujillo city on the coast of Peru 480 km (300 miles) north of Lima. It covers an area of 20 km2, making it the largest adobe city in the Americas and second in the world.
You can drive to Chan Chan from Lima, but that means 8 hours in the car and even more if you take the bus (yuck). There is also an airport in Trujillo that has direct flights from Lima. There isn’t a huge selection of good hotels in Trujillo, but the Costa del Sol Wyndham does the trick (pool, good breakfast, staff speaks English).
Chan Chan literally means Sun Sun, so I’m going to take a wild guess and say the place was sunny, hot and dry when they built the city. These arid conditions were the reason why the adobe structures of the Chimu were preserved so well over time. Unfortunately, since it’s basically made of dirt, it is very vulnerable to extreme weather events. Extensive restoration efforts have been and still are working to get Chan Chan back in shape.
The central city of Chan Chan was split into ten walled palaces, each containing temples, residences, ceremonial halls etc. You can see the reliefs and carved decorations on the walls. There are currently conservation efforts going on, with a roof erected over a part of the site protecting the precious historical city from the rain.
The central area is where the highest class lived, and it’s also the most interesting. Poor people had other things to worry about than carving fish and bird pictures into the walls of their houses. Their flimsy walls didn’t withstand the test of time, so most of what you can see at Chan Chan today is the leftovers of the rich class.
For more details about Chan Chan and tips for more awesome old places, head over to our article about the top ruins to visit in Peru.
Hey hiker! I see you over there, looking for your next mountain to climb. If you’re traveling to Peru, you need to put the country’s hiking capital, Huaraz, on your itinerary.
The Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain range, to the north of Huaraz, makes for a stunning backdrop to the city of 118,000. The jagged, snow-covered peaks are inviting and intimidating at the same time.
There are 25 hiking trails in Huascarán National Park within the Cordillera Blanca, so you’ll need to figure out which one is the one for you, but I’ll mention the most popular: the hike to Lake 69.
Since Huaraz itself is at an altitude of 3,000 m (9,800 ft) and everything else is even higher, you’ll want to acclimatize for a few days before attempting anything more than people-watching in town and perhaps one of the gentler walks, like Rajucolta Valley and Llaca Valley. I really mean it when I stress the importance of getting used to the altitude—we stayed put in Cusco for a couple of days and still got our butts kicked by Rainbow Mountain.
We didn’t get a chance to do this iconic hike on our last trip, but it’s on our list for next time. Lake 69 is one hike that you have to do when you go to Huaraz and from what I’ve read, it lives up to the hype and then some.
The alpine lake is at an altitude of 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and the hike takes about 5 hours to complete. It is a moderately hard 14 km (8.6 miles) out and back route.
When you see photos of the turquoise lake surrounded by the grey rock of the mountain and the white snow of the peaks, you might feel the urge to climb all the way to the top of the glacier. And you can! Some people actually use Lake 69 as an acclimatization trip for the more challenging ice climbing that is to be done in the area. Nevada Mateo is one of the easier summits to reach even for those with no experience.
Huaraz city doesn’t have a ton of tourist sites to visit, so it’s more a place where you can see what life in a Peruvian town is like. The Plaza de Armas (central square) is a great base for that, or, if you’re in town on a Sunday, make your way to the neighborhood fiesta that takes place on Jiron Jose Olaya. This street is apparently the only one that survived the catastrophic 1970 earthquake.
To get to Huaraz, you’ll want to fly there on a 1-hour flight from Lima unless you think driving for 7 hours is a fun way to spend the day.
7. Arequipa and the Santa Catalina Monastery
You’ll be struck by the whiteness and cleanliness (possibly a side-effect of the whiteness) of Arequipa from the moment you get there. It’s just pretty. Add a huge, symmetrical volcano in the background and you’ve got yourself a winner.
The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is the nicest I’ve seen in all of Latin America. The main square in Arequipa is big, full of palm trees and manicured bushes in the center, lined by the impressive Arequipa Basilica Cathedral and tons of shops and cafes on all sides. All white, naturally, thanks to the white volcanic stone called sillar that was used to build the city.
Add some great museums and the shopping we did for alpaca wool clothing, and you could say that Arequipa was a success. Overall, Arequipa is really inviting and has a pleasant energy. It reminded me of Puebla in Mexico, which is one of my favorites in the world.
Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery is a city within a city, with streets, squares and passages, it even has four distinct neighborhoods! Just like everything else in Arequipa, the monastery buildings are made of sillar. Unlike everything else though, the monastery is colorfully painted! Some areas are all red, some all blue, and so on.
You might think of nuns as humble women with no worldly possessions and need nothing but love and basic food to happily live until they are called to the heavens by God himself. Well, the Santa Catalina Monastery was like the Monaco of monasteries! Founded in 1579 by Doña María de Guzmán, a beautiful rich widow of a previously rich but now dead Spaniard, she really set the tone for the next 300 years.
The monastery was pimped out! They only accepted upper-class Spanish ladies who had to pay a hefty dowry to get in (an equivalent of USD 150k), as well as bring along a nice list of things with them, like paintings, lamps and statues.
Arequipa is a great place to base yourself for the trips to the surrounding area. You can hike up the mighty El Misti volcano or go whitewater rafting on Rio Chili. It’s also where you’ll head to if you’re going to Colca Canyon.
The Laguna de Salinas is part of Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve, and it’s one of the most beautiful nature reserves I’ve ever seen! It’s epic and absolutely awe-inspiring. The mix of wetlands with tons of lamas, alpacas and flamingos and the snow-covered peaks of the mountains above, with multiple volcanos towering above you, makes for a landscape like no other.
Read all about the best things to see in and around Arequipa in this article.
6. Islas Ballestas
If you’re picturing palm tree-fringed islands and dreamy beaches, you’re not thinking of the right type of island. The Islas Ballestas are a small group of rock formations jutting out from the sea with tons of seals, sea lions, Humboldt Penguins, and I’ve never seen so many birds in one spot in my life. But no white sand, no foliage, and no possibility to lay foot on land (unless you’re a seal or a bird).
To visit the Islas Ballestas, you’ll need to take an organized boat trip from Paracas town. The rocks come in some fun shapes and have arches that the tourist boats will go under in order for everyone to get a good look (since you can’t get off the boats).
The Ballestas Islands aren’t part of the Paracas National Reserve, instead belonging to another reserve with an incredibly long name: La Reserva Nacional Sistema de Islas, Islotes, y Puntas Guaneras, basically a reserve for guano mining.
The Islas Ballestas are shitty—literally. What do you get when you have a big rock with thousands of birds hanging out on it year-round? Lots of shit. Guano. Poop. Once every few years, the guano layer of a meter or so (3 feet) is harvested by hand and used to make fertilizer. It takes months to finish the job. Where the birds shit during this time I don’t know, but wow. That’s impressive pooping.
The trip to the Islas Ballestas takes about 40 minutes on a speedboat. Then you have maybe half an hour “there”, but you aren’t allowed to get off the boat, since the islands are protected. You take lots of pictures and then spend 40 minutes on the boat trip back. The end.
The Islas Ballestas are certainly nice and worth seeing if you have time and love marine animals. If you hate animals and get seasick just splashing around in your bathtub, I’d say look at the photos online and consider it seen.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice—the water is clear, the animals are fun, we even saw dolphins on the trip there. But it isn’t the Galapagos like I read somewhere on the interwebs.
We’ve written a separate article about the Islas Ballestas, so check it out before you visit.
5. Paracas National Reserve
Paracas National Reserve is a marine and desert reserve on and around a peninsula about 250 km (150 miles) south of Lima in the Ica region. The reserve is a UNESCO Heritage Site. A lot of people come to the Paracas area mainly to visit the Islas Ballestas, which are fine as well, but we are here to tell you that the actual Paracas National Reserve is the top highlight in the area.
We have a whole guide with everything you can see in and around Paracas National Reserve, so check it out.
The desert is vast and beautiful (photos don’t do it justice) and coupled with the blue and turquoise shades of the ocean, it’s truly a memorable sight. It reminded me of the desert in Namibia, just a tiny bit cooler (I mean temperature-wise, not how on fleek it is).
The Paracas National Reserve is full of fauna, there are all kinds of birds, seals, penguins, whales and other critters, like snakes. We, fortunately, didn’t run into those anywhere.
The route through the reserve is about 23 km (14 miles) and will take you about 4 hours to get through. You’ll start at the interpretation center and museum, and then follow the map you’ll get with your ticket to the 6 main highlights of Paracas National Reserve.
Most of the places that you’ll be stopping at are just beaches and dramatic coastal viewpoints. I say “just”, but they never get old even after the 4-hour drive.
Playa Roja is the standout famous beach because it has sand that is a deep red color. This is caused by the ocean waves picking away at the surrounding cliffs and taking traces of the pink granodiorite, which they are made of, back to the beach.
Despite it sounding very beachy, the Humboldt Current makes swimming a very chilly experience that mostly only locals undertake. It’s too bad, because Paracas’ La Mina Beach has to be one of the most beautiful in Peru. You’ll just need to be content with staring at it.
If you’re like us and you like your food, you’ll be happy to know that Paracas National Reserve won’t leave you hungry! We ate at Cevichería La Tia Fela and were very happy, even putting the beach restaurant on our list of the top restaurants in Peru. The sea bass fish and chips were fantastic and fresh out of the ocean (the fish, not the potatoes).
Paracas town is where you’ll base yourself for day trips, of which there are many. Read our guide to Paracas for all the best spots to see.
I also have one massive hotel recommendation for Paracas: the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel. It was epic. Our room was beautiful, the breakfast was marvelous, and the resort grounds were gorgeous with multiple pools right on the ocean. You can just picture yourself lounging by the ocean, drink in hand… or here, picture Karin:
4. Sacred Valley
Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire, is the roughly 60 km (37 mile) section around the Urubamba River between Pisac and Ollantaytambo towns, cut deep into the majestic Andes Mountains. Conveniently on Cusco’s doorstep, you come here for the Inca ruins and some majorly stunning scenery.
It’s a great place to spend a few days if you need to acclimatize before going on any of the treks in the area. Read our guide to day trips from Cusco to learn about some top hiking opportunities. Altitude sickness is a big deal and you don’t want to underestimate it.
Check out our Sacred Valley guide for all of the highlights, plus pricing information on the different Cusco Tourist Ticket options. But to give you an idea of what you can see:
Moray used to be the Incas’ experimental agricultural laboratory. The Incas were researching which plants grow best in which microclimate by creating a round, terraced depression, taking into account the direction of the sun and wind, and growing different crops on the individual terraces which varied in temperature.
Maras is a whole side of a mountain filled with thousands of salt evaporation pools. The Incas are to thank for the construction of the site, though it is actively being used to mine salt by local families to this day.
Pisac is a former Inca fortification that sits at about 3,000 m (9,800 ft), so it’s like you’re getting views of the views of Sacred Valley, and they’re phenomenal. Honestly it’s the ruins that you’re supposed to come to Pisac for, but it’s the views that you’ll remember. They’re second only to Machu Picchu itself.
To experience the traditional vibe of Sacred Valley, visit cute little Chinchero town—people here still where traditional dress as they go about their business. Visit on a Sunday and visit the vibrant Sunday market. Of course, as is the norm in these parts, Chinchero also has its own Inca ruins, plus a colonial church built on the foundations of an Inca temple.
The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo are some of the best preserved in all of Peru. They’re huge, probably more expansive than the ones at Machu Picchu. Since Ollantaytambo was a full-on Inca city, you can also find storehouses, quarries and defense walls, letting you wonder how the Incas worked with such huge slabs of stone. The stones for the Wall of the Six Monoliths had to be moved 6 km (3.7 miles) from a quarry on a mountain on the opposite side of the river. Say what?!
Most people base themselves in Cusco, which warrants a 2-day visit in itself, but there are fabulous resorts within Sacred Valley that are definitely worth checking out. Or, tackle Sacred Valley from the other side—besides some nice places to stay in Ollantaytambo directly, this cool glampsite near Ollantaytambo could be just right if you’re so inclined. It’s like camping for people who hate camping.
3. Rainbow Mountain
We loved this trip so much despite it almost killing us. Ok I’m exaggerating but we felt like crap thanks to altitude sickness, so the fact that Karin still thought it was the best place in Peru says a lot.
Rainbow Mountain (and a bunch of other mountains in the surrounding area) has colorful stripes based on the mineral that prevails in whichever stripe, though they aren’t as bright as Instagram wants you to believe. Is #nofilter still a thing? It should be, at least for natural sites.
That’s ok, because yes, it is wonderful seeing a colorful mountain, but the challenge of even getting there and the incredible scenery is what it’s all about. One look at snow-capped, 6,300 m (21,000 ft) sacred mountain Ausangate in the distance and you’ll be happy you took the trip.
It may look all cute and stripey, but the main hike starts at an altitude of 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and continues for 3 km (1.8 miles) with a total elevation gain of about 400 m (1,300 ft). Read up on mountain sickness (AMS) beforehand and don’t underestimate it! We had a hard time with the altitude and ate and drank enough coca for a whole Inca village and still had terrible headaches and nausea.
The official Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, is not the only rainbow-colored mountain around. In fact, there are many of them in the area, like Palccoyo, which is much easier to hike. There are two basic routes to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca), and the Palccoyo alternative.
The drive from Cusco to all of the starting points takes 3–4 hours.
The most popular Cusipata trek to Rainbow Mountain will have you sharing the trail with dozens of other tourists, most fighting their own personal fight with altitude sickness, chewing coca leaves, drinking coca tea, and smiling through the pain while taking millions of photos. It’ll take about 2 hours one way.
The hike itself would be an easy to medium-level hike, but that factor of not enough oxygen turns it into a hard one. By not enough I mean 50% not enough, because that’s really the deficit you’re dealing with at these altitudes.
For a much easier way to see some rainbow-colored mountains, check out the Palcoyyo alternative route. It doesn’t take you to the Rainbow Mountain, but you still see not one but three similarly striped mountains just a little ways away. And the hike only takes 40 minutes.
We have a whole article with details on all of the options to see Rainbow Mountain, along with route information, prices and tips on extra add-ons to each hike.
Cusco is one of the very few cities in the world that I think are worth more than a day of exploring. Washington DC is one of them and Puebla in Mexico is another. Cusco is set in the most gorgeous scenery and it offers so many things to do. Plus, it is touristy enough for there to be a great selection of restaurants, like Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse and Organika.
I’d recommend spending one day in the city center and then one more day going through the Inca sites on the outskirts of town. Here’s our guide to things to do in Cusco for the full overview.
Cucso’s Plaza de Armas is super pretty, one of the nicest central squares I’ve seen in South America. The grand Cusco Cathedral took 100 years to build and had it not been prohibited, I’d have taken dozens of photos of the interior decorated with gold, silver and cedar wood. This cathedral is massive, almost like the one in Sevilla, Spain.
Qorikancha, the ruins of the most important religious complex in the Inca Empire, including the Temple of the Sun that was once covered in pure gold, is also located within Cusco’s city center. As was the Spaniards’ habit, they built their churches on the bases of the Inca temples that stood there previously, and it’s the same thing at Qorikancha.
One Inca site that sits outside the city is Sacsayhuaman—a large, fortified Inca complex located on the north side of Cusco. It sits on the top of a steep hill. It was the most important military base of the Inca Empire. You can go there and try to figure out how they managed to get those huge stones to the site from a quarry 20 km away.
Cusco also has some fantastic museums. We visited the Inka Museum, a large museum where you’ll learn all about the Inca culture, so I recommend going there as soon as you can. That way, you’ll look at all the Inca sites that await you with educated eyes.
On our second day in Cusco, we wandered into the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art of Cusco of Peru and it blew us away! This modern museum presents the art and cultures of central Peru from the Mochica civilization to the Incas.
A great thing about Cusco is that there are many day trips that you can take using it as a base. Head out to Sacred Valley and visit Moray and Maras or Pisac for more Inca ruins, or strap on your boots and head to Rainbow Mountain or Humantay Lake. And of course, you’ll probably come to Cusco with the intention of making your way up to the ultimate Inca location: Machu Picchu.
1. Machu Picchu
The Inca city of Machu Picchu doesn’t need much introduction, you’ve all seen the photos. Machu Picchu are the ruins of a massive Inca city that was built atop a mountain with phenomenal views. And it’s not easy to get to, either, adding suspense, adventure, and a whole lot of spending on transportation to actually be able to witness Machu Picchu with your own eyes.
You will want to overnight in either Ollantaytambo or in Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town under the mountain with the Inca city on top. If you read our article on when to visit Machu Picchu, you can take a look at our recommendations for the best places to stay at Machu Picchu, too.
Is it a day trip from Cusco? No. There’s just too much logistics involved to get to Machu Picchu for you to be able to go there and back in one day comfortably. If you’re hoping to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu, then it’s a double no. There’s just no way. See our Machu Picchu guide to read what getting there entails.
Tip: Not sure when the best time to visit Machu Picchu is? We have an article just about that, too. See if you should avoid wet season and why we think trying to get to Machu Picchu for sunrise is a waste of beauty sleep. This article also includes a bonus section with the best accommodation options in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu Pueblo.
You’ll also need to purchase your tickets to Machu Picchu up to 6 months in advance—that is if you’re visiting in high season—June to August—, and you can choose from several ticket combinations of the Inca city visit + one of three hikes to surrounding mountains.
The hike we took, Huayna Picchu, was steep, narrow, and a little hair-raising, but how else do you want to get those views of Machu Picchu?! Again, see our full Machu Picchu guide for details on the individual hike options.
Machu Picchu is deservedly the top place to visit in Peru. It’s not a tourist trap, in case you were wondering. That was my hesitation, too, but nope, all good. You have to go to Machu Picchu!
Besides the places on this list, you can also check out our list of top ruins to visit in Peru, which include Inca and non-Inca sites. Some of these, like the real lost Inca city, Vilcabamba, are still buried deep in the jungle, and just getting there is an adventure in its own right.
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