The Best Things to Do in Peru

Beyond heavy hitters like Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail, and Lake Titicaca, Peru offers endless opportunities for exploration. From museums that showcase pre-Columbian art and national parks in the Andes Mountains, to Indian markets, salt flats, and lesser-known towns, there’s much to discover in this fascinating country.

The reason most come to Aguas Calientes, or maybe even Peru at all, is Machu Picchu. The world-renowned Incan site, perched high above town amid dramatic mountains, is one of the best ways to appreciate the Quechua people’s greatness, since the Spanish never found or plundered it. The site’s purpose is essentially a mystery, though there are many theories. We may never know if it was an educational center, a military outpost, a religious compound, a preparation ground for youths to be sacrificed, a villa for the ruling Incas, or some combination of them all. Regardless, its magnificence is undeniable, both for its evocative structures and the stunning peaks that form its dramatic 360-degree backdrop.
Huayna Picchu, 08680, Peru
Huayna Picchu is the landmark peak at Machu Picchu from which the classic, shot-from-above postcard photos are typically taken. While the views are spectacular, of course, the trail is not easy, studded with precarious, sometimes uneven stone steps, and often directly flanked by sheer drop-offs (thus probably out of the question for anyone with a fear of heights). While most hike to the top and back, you can also go up and around to the other side, with a visit to the Temple of the Moon/Great Cavern along the way. Admittance to Huayna Picchu is limited and sells out two or three months in advance; pay for your entrance as part of your Machu Picchu admission.
Plazoleta Nazarenas 231, Cusco 08000, Peru
A sister institution to the Larco Museum in Lima, MAP is one of the best museums in Cuzco. The museum uses objects of Peru’s many pre-Columbian civilizations to explain their differing cultures. Exhibits—representing cultures from as early as 1250 B.C.E. up until 1532 C.E., when Spanish conquistadors arrived—include artifacts produced in ceramic, wood, stone, silver, and gold. Some pieces are utilitarian, others purely ceremonial or decorative, but all help you picture what life might have been like in the time of the artisans who created them.
Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
This Cuzco corner presents a notable juxtaposition between ancient Incan and Spanish colonial architecture. Since the Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti, above all others, this temple in their imperial capital was the most important of the entire realm. It was here that they brought the idols of all peoples they assimilated, to offer them representation as they demanded allegiance in Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived, they tore down much of the temple and built a monastery on top of it. However, the walls that do remain provide stunning examples of pre-Hispanic engineering, particularly the rounded outer wall that can be seen from Avenida del Sol.
1515 Avenida Simón Bolivar
The Larco Museum is the starting point of your visit to Peru. It has the largest collection of pre-Columbian pieces in the Americas and tells the history of Peru without being tiresome. That’s a feat in itself, because we’re talking about 10.000 years of history! Everything you’ll see in Lima and around the country will make sense after this visit. The quality and beauty of the pieces are amazing, showing all the complexity of the local cultures. It’s a beautiful museum, very well curated, the exhibits are simple and to the point and everything is explained in displays and videos. The museum offers also a super interesting guided visit for families with children. Other famous part of this museum is two private rooms dedicated to erotic pieces, showing the connection between erotic and fertility.
Barranco District, Peru
Barranco, one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods, awash in character, is known for an artsy vibe and gorgeous colonial buildings. Cross the Puente de los Suspiros (Spanish for “Bridge of Sighs”) and follow the Bajada de los Baños to the seaside. Explore the side streets and duck into cute cafés and art venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC). The gallery-shop Dédalo, in particular, is ideal for combining coffee, snacking, shopping, and art viewing. Visiting another Barranco landmark, the belle epoque Hotel B, provides a quick trip back to a time of elegant architecture. Splurge for a smart cocktail on the rooftop bar to linger a little longer.
Miraflores, Peru
Many visitors to Peru stay in Miraflores, and for good reason: The neighborhood is where you’ll find most of the better hotels, as well as the top restaurants. Get off main streets to stroll the pretty side streets. Down by the ocean, walk the Malecón seawall and visit the Parque del Amor, or Love Park, to watch paragliders soar and bank overhead. The oceanfront is also home to Larcomar, an open-air shopping mall where you can grab a bite or shop for any items you may have forgotten.
Playa Pescadores, Distrito de Chorrillos 15063, Peru
If you go south along the shore, past Miraflores and Barranco, you will reach Chorrillos. While not part of many tourist itineraries, it’s a quaint, off-the-beaten-path seaside area offering marvelous ocean views and sandy strolls. It’s also great for real-deal ceviche, sold right on the beach at cute, family-owned stalls. You can’t taste fresher seafood, but since these kitchens are not the gleaming steel labs found in upscale eateries, be sure to patronize places where you see lots of locals lining up. Bird-watchers love Pantanos de Villa, a wildlife refuge in Chorrillos that’s home to more than 170 avian species.
Ruta Santisimo Downhill 2, Chinchero, Peru
One of the first stops outside of Cusco was on the Anta plain at 12,375 ft. The 16th century ruin of Chinchero is rumored to be the birthplace of the rainbow. I would be hard pressed to argue those refractions of light could have a more beautiful beginning. A wonderful outdoor market overlooks the ruins and there are many weaving cooperatives to explore in the village. Locals work hard to preserve cultural customs speaking Quechua and wearing colorful traditional dress. By supporting the talented women and buying local you assist in making their lives more self sufficient through their craft. If you’re looking for colorful blankets, I thought this market had one of the best selections.
Maras 08655, Peru
Tours of the Sacred Valley, and the entire Cuzco area, often feature side trips through gorgeous landscapes like Moray, an archaeological site with remarkable concentric agricultural terraces. It’s believed the Incas used these terraces—on which temperatures vary 59 degrees Fahrenheit from the top tier to the bottom—as a way to acclimatize non-regional crops for highland cultivation. Even if you don’t find that fascinating, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of the spot, and given that this part of Peru is not so heavily visited, it’s a nice escape from the beaten path. The Boleto Turístico covers this admission.
The stunning landscape of Salineras de Maras features salt pans that are still used exactly as they were at the time of the Incas. As you make your way through the region, you’ll see people doing the backbreaking work of harvesting salt on small family plots. The reward? The salt gathered here is some of the best in the world. Water, naturally salt-infused, flows down from the mountains and settles in the pans. As the water evaporates, salt remains, to be extracted with simple tools. Stop at a store or one of the many small-scale vendors selling the “fruit” of this labor in its pure form or mixed with herbs for use in cooking, bathing, or chocolate bars.
Pisac, Peru
One of the best things to do while in Cuzco is to visit the Sunday farmer’s market in the nearby Andean town of Pisac, taking either a taxi or a more economical bus to get there. The villagers surrounding Pisac come from miles around to sell their products - vegetables, fruits, cheeses, handmade alpaca products, colorful dyes - or barter with other villagers for the things they need. I was struck by the beautiful colors of the clothing that the villagers wore, like these bright “mantas” worn around the shoulders and ornate “monteras” decorated with intricate embroidery patterns. Interestingly, the style and colors of an Andean woman’s montera indicate the specific village from which she comes. No trip to Cuzco is complete without taking time to visit the fascinating Sunday farmer’s market in picturesque Pisac!
Urubamba, Peru
Anyone can go to one of the markets selling woven alpaca goods to tourists—Urubamba is the farmers’ market where locals buy their groceries, the biggest of its kind in the Sacred Valley. On any given day, stalls sell fresh fruits and vegetables, meats of all kinds, fresh cheeses, nuts, spices, coffee, and more. But on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, the market is even larger and spills out onto side streets with vendors hawking products like medicinal herbs, and, more recently, organic produce from private gardens. The Urubamba Market is located just off the main plaza in town.
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Ollantaytambo’s namesake archaeological site is one of the best examples of Incan architecture in the region. It’s easy to spend a half day exploring the temples and other structures there, especially if you factor in time to hike up beyond the ruins. Meanwhile, the quaint town itself remains much as it was in Incan times, with original houses, streets, and waterways. Some buildings are open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse into a centuries-old way of life. Most Machu Picchu–bound trains leave from the station here.
Km. 70.5 Carretera Urubamba-Ollantaytambo, Sector Huincho, Urubamba, Peru
Llama Pack, a social project, allows you to experience the breathtaking scenery of the Sacred Valley while hiking alongside llamas. These beasts have been used to carry goods since Incan times, before horses and mules existed in Peru. Today’s llamas are the result of crossbreeding with alpacas, which produces a smaller and weaker animal whose wool and meat are lesser in quality. Enter Llama Pack, an organization whose mission is to help develop culturally and economically sustainable high Andean communities through the reintroduction and breeding of the more valuable, original species. The group offers half-day, full-day, and multi-day treks with llamas, during which you can learn more about the project, visit archaeological sites, see local villages, and, of course, bask in the beautiful countryside.
Lake Titicaca
Legend has it that the first Incas, children of the sun, set down on earth at Lake Titicaca, making this a sacred place, the cradle of life itself. Travelers with more than a week to spend in Peru should plan to visit the beautiful and enormous Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Part of the serene lake lies within Peruvian territory, while the other half is Bolivian. (An ideal trip would include at least one overnight at the spectacular Titilaka Hotel on Suasi Island.)
When thinking about the Amazon Jungle, Brazil may first come to mind—and rightly so, as the largest portion of the rain forest is indeed in that country. However, the Amazon also makes up 60 percent of Peru’s land. Experience this fantastic landscape at Manu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Try to spend a minimum of five days in the park, keeping in mind that the farther into the jungle you go, the more likely you are to see a wide variety of wildlife. Given that the park encompasses microclimates that range from more than 13,000 feet above sea level down to 984 feet, you will find a great diversity of vegetation, birds (800 species), and mammals (200 species) here. Not to mention butterflies—an incredible 1,300 butterfly species live in the jungle.
Unnamed Road
Colca Canyon, a three-hour drive north of Arequipa, is one of Peru’s most popular and extraordinary tourist attractions. The chasm is over 13,600 feet deep, making it one of the deepest in the world, and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. From the Cruz del Condor viewpoint, it is possible to get a panoramic view of this special place along with the chance to witness the flight of majestic Andean condors. This is a great place for partaking in adventure sports with a surreal view.
Let the Urubamba River set your course during a thrilling rafting adventure along the Ollantaytambo rapids, available through the Belmond. The river helped form what is now the Sacred Valley, and along the way you’ll not only sense its power, but also get a feel for some less visited corners of the region it created. You’ll pass towering eucalyptus trees and the ruins of Inca terraces and more as you make your way down river, ending with a picnic lunch before returning to the hotel by car. Photo by Rod Waddington/Flickr.
The Nazca Lines are massive geometric and zoomorphic designs laid out in the middle of the coastal desert of the Ica region. These 2500 year old sand etchings are so big that you can only see them from the air. Their origin is a mystery. Archaeologists have been unable to agree about why the Nazca people built these lines, how they were able to construct recognizable shapes without an aerial viewpoint, and how the lines have survived to this day. Many theories have been put forth, from UFOs to the idea that the local culture used these designs as a celestial calendar. The true story notwithstanding, it is definitely worth hiring a small airplane to see the Nazca Lines from on high.
The 2.5-hour walk to Mandor Waterfalls starts out from the town of Aguas Calientes and follows railroad tracks along a river, past homesteads and orchards to the cloud forest. While the falls are not as dramatically high as some, the hike is easy and full of local sights with marvelous orchids and hummingbirds abound the trail. Another plus? The water is cool and refreshing, particularly in the region’s sticky climate. Pack a picnic lunch (and insect repellant) and make an afternoon of it.
Jr. las Mercedes
At 9800 feet (3000 meters) above sea level, this is one of the Chachapoya culture’s most important archaeological sites, a military fortification protected by stone walls as high as 65 feet (20 meters). The compound includes traces of over 450 circular residences, all but identical, a main temple, a cemetery, and sundry other structures and enclosed spaces. Take the cable car—Peru’s first—to get there, at 20 soles or $6 round-trip.
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