What to Do in Peru

Beyond heavy hitters like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, Peru offers endless opportunities for exploration. From museums and national parks to markets, salt flats, and lesser-known towns, there’s much to discover in this fascinating country.

Highlights
Peru
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.
Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes), Aguas Calientes, Peru
Set on 12 lush, cloud-forested acres next to the Urumbamba River, this eco-resort (a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World) is practically a destination in and of itself. Here, 83 rustic-but-chic, whitewashed adobe casitas are tucked among a sanctuary of terraced hills, stone paths, and waterfalls that are home to 214 bird species and, at 372 cataloged varieties, the largest collection of native orchids in the world. Guests are encouraged to hike around the grounds (the hotel can also arrange for excursions farther afield), visit the resort’s Ecocenter, or relax in a naturally heated spring-water pool while listening to birdsong.

The superior casitas are the simplest accommodations, but still come with plush robes, hand-crafted Andean slippers, and a separate dining area. Superior deluxe rooms feature fireplaces, while suites offer terraces with garden views. The most lavish option, the Villa Inkaterra includes an open-air shower, plunge pool, and 24-hour butler service. When not luxuriating in your room, visit the glass-walled restaurant, which has stunning views of the river, or head into Agua Calientes, which is just a few minutes away and offers several other dining options.
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.
Calle 26A, Bellavista 07011, Peru
For those of us used to seeing chicken cut into parts, wrapped in plastic, and cooling in supermarket refrigerators, a trip to a local Peruvian market is fascinating and a bit daunting. At the biggest market, San Pedro, just up the street from the Plaza de Armas, you’ll find fruits, vegetables, alpaca charqui (the Quechua source of our word jerky), pig’s heads, herbs, fruit juices, weavings, and much, much more. You’ll see a fair number of foreigners wandering here as well, so for an experience that feels more authentic, try San Blas Market or Rosaspata, both off the tourist track.
Though civilizations have occupied the Lima area even before the Incas, the city reflects its time under Spanish rule the most. Nicknamed the “City of Kings,” it was the capital of the colonial viceroyalty of Peru. To get a feel for that era of Peruvian history, head downtown to the Plaza de Armas. From there, visit Lima Cathedral, the Casa de Aliaga (the residence of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro; visits by appointment only), and—a major must-do on most visitors’ lists—the catacombs at the Convento de San Francisco. (While you’re at the monastery touring the catacombs, don’t miss seeing its library, one of the oldest in the Americas). Numerous palaces and other colonial piles lie nearby, and several are open to the public.
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.
Parque de la Exposición, Paseo Colon 125, Cercado de Lima 15046, Peru
The museum everyone calls MALI occupies Italian architect Antonio Leonardi’s neo-classical pile and since the 1960s has showcased some 1200 exemplary objects from a collection of more than seventeen thousand Peruvian treasures. Galleries cover all periods, from Inca days to the present, on an aesthetic journey that calls up lots of national history, especially in ceramics, textile, and furnishings. The landmark downtown location makes it a prime jumping-off-point to further urban explorations.
Av. Pedro de Osma 409, Barranco 15063, Peru
Famed Vanity Fair fashion photographer MarioTestino—originally from Peru—has founded the non-profit MTM in an enchanting 1898 residence in Barranco, the south Lima neighborhood that’s currently riding a cultural wave. You’ll see impressive work by the namesake artist (as part of the permanent collection), and just as notably, by a dazzling range of international and Peruvian creators; the museum also sponsors curated tours, educational activities, workshops, and artists’ residencies. At the ticket counter upgrade to the triple admission that includes everything at the nearby Pedro de Osma and Contemporary Art museums.
Avenida Berriozabal, Urubamba, Peru
When you’re considering Peruvian souvenirs, things like coffee, pisco, and alpaca scarves come to mind. But Peru is also known for ceramics, and you can find marvelous examples at Seminario’s. Its founders have taken motifs from Peru’s past and made them their own, offering ceramics that blend ancient and modern graphic designs. Buying a practical souvenir like a coffee mug ensures that your presents will be put to good use, while other more unique and purely artistic pieces can make you look at ceramics in a whole new way. Visits include a short video presentation on the studio’s history, a tour of the workshop and, sometimes, meeting the founders themselves. Warning: the on-site store will likely have you buying as much for yourself as others, but don’t worry—the workshop ships everywhere.
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.
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.
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