10 Best Places to Visit in Peru
Peru is a magical land of stunning contrasts. It’s a country with bustling cities (such as Cusco, Trujillo and Lima) and remote natural wonders (including Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon and the Amazon).
It’s a country with thriving culture, ranging from the Quechua of the Andes Mountains to the innovative chefs who led to Peru being named the World’s Leading Culinary Destination for the fourth straight year at the World Travel Awards.
It’s a country where you can be spotting wildlife in the tropical rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon one day, and ascending 8,000-foot peaks to see the archaeological wonder that is Machu Picchu the next.
Peru has a special significance to all of us here at International Expeditions. It was here that we launched our first ecotour 36 years ago, and we remained deeply involved with community-focused initiatives such as the Clean Water Project, Adopt-a-School Program, Iquitos Education Project, Amazon Medical Project, the Amazon Center for Environmental Education & Research, and the ACEER Canopy Walkway.
What follows are just a few of our favorite places to visit in Peru:
Founded in 1540, Peru’s second most populous city is a must-see for history lovers and colonial architecture aficionados. Its 332-hectare historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with beautiful building designs, including Arequipa Cathedral, La Compania Church, and the gorgeous main square (a.k.a. Plaza de Armas). Other can’t-miss sights include the Monastery de Santa Catalina, which was built in the 16th century and was closed to outside visitors for 400 years, and the Santuario Andino Museum, where you’ll find mummies of four young girls archaeologists believe were sacrificed to appease the Inca gods.
Divided by Southern Peru’s Colca River, this is one of the world’s deepest canyons at 10,725 feet (more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). Its valley is rich with indigenous cultures: The Spanish colonial towns are inhabited by the Collagua and Cabana peoples, who maintain their rich ancestral traditions and cultivate stepped terraces dating back to before the rise of the Incan Empire. The area is also full of wildlife, including herds of Llamas, Alpacas, and the rare (and very shy) Vicuñas. Keep an eye to the skies to watch for the 10-foot wingspan of the massive Andean Condor.
Cusco is an excellent place to familiarize yourself with the cultural traditions of the Quechua people, whose ancient approach to agriculture, architecture, and textiles has been the heart and soul of the Andes region for 600 years now. The Quechua are known as master weavers, turning the remarkably soft fleece of the alpacas and vicuñas they raise into vividly colorful clothing, rugs, and tapestries. Soft alpaca fleece is one of the world's most prized, durable fabrics, and the Quechua products you’ll find in Cusco are available in 22 earth tones and myriad dyed colors.
Considered South America’s largest lake in terms of volume, Lake Titicaca is located in the Andes at an elevation of 12,507 feet on the border between Bolivia and Peru. There are five major river systems that feed into the lake, and its 41 islands include some that are densely populated. The area’s most famous residents are the Uros people, whose villages are floating artificial islands made from reeds so that they could be moved if under threat. Make sure to visit the island of Taquile, whose gorgeous textile art was proclaimed a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.
Lima is both the capital and largest city in Peru, and its Historic Centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The city features myriad exceptional examples of colonial architecture, many of which can be seen during a guided walking tour, including the Cathedral of Lima, the Convent of Santo Domingo, the Monastery of San Francisco, the Palace of Torre Tagle, and the Plaza Mayor. Dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, these landmarks showcase a range of Spanish influences, including Baroque, Colonial and Neoclassicism.
An archaeological wonder built in the mid-15th century at the height of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu is an iconic landmark that inevitably winds up on practically every world traveler’s bucket list. And with good reason: The 8,000-foot mountain-top location is stunning, and the estate (which archaeologists believe was built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti) is impressively expansive. The famed Inca Trail to get there is actually three overlapping trails varying in length and difficulty, and provides numerous different breathtaking views along the way. Fair warning: Permits are limited to 200 hikers per day, and you’ll want to give yourself time to acclimatize to avoid getting altitude sickness.
Manu National Park
This biosphere reserve, which was named a a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, contains over 1000 different species of birds (more than the United States and Canada combined). From Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and Hoatzin (a.k.a. the Punk-Rock Bird) to Macaws and Spix’s Guan, the 11,800-square mile park is a burgeoning hotspot for birdwatchers. But its stunning biodiversity doesn’t end there: With ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to montane grasslands at elevations of nearly 14,000 feet, it’s also home to diverse wildlife such as Jaguars, Pumas, Giant Otters, Brazilian Tapir, Capybaras, Spectacled Bears, two species of sloths and 14 species of monkeys.
Trujillo, which was founded in 1534, is widely considered Peru’s cultural capital. It’s also a great starting point for exploring northern Peru’s pre-Columbian ruins. The adobe brick pyramid known as Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) was the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru, with a base measuring 500,000 square feet. Though Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) is considerably smaller, it’s beautifully decorated and riddled with rooms in which archaeologists found ceramics, jewelry and polychrome paintings (many of which can be seen in the Huacas de Moche Museum). Don’t miss the nine-square mile complex of Chan Chán, the largest adobe city in the Old World and the capital of the Chimu Kingdom.
The Peruvian Amazon
The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, with its basin covering nearly 40% of the South American continent (2,720,000 square miles). Although the Brazilian section is plagued by pollution and deforestation, the more pristine Peruvian Amazon is home to an extremely diverse range of wildlife, including 262 species of amphibians, 293 mammal species, 806 types of birds, and around 2,500 different butterflies. International Expeditions offers numerous different ways of exploring the Peruvian Amazon, including land-based exploration and small-ship Amazon River cruises.
Located near Cusco in Peru’s Andean Highlands, the Urubamba Valley was held as sacred by the Incas for its plentiful natural wealth, which includes lots of fresh water and rich, fertile land for growing various food crops. These days the “Sacred Valley” is a major tourist attraction that features a number of important archaeological sites, including the terraced mountains of Pisac, the underrated Winay Wayna, and the remarkable stone masonry of Ollantaytambo (which is also the launching point for trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu).
Find Your Favorite Part of Peru
Travel to Peru with International Expeditions to discover the very best of this diverse country. Drawing on decades of experience, IE offers small-group tours and custom private travel options for wildlife enthusiasts, families and foodies alike.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.