Yes, Peru is home to Machu Picchu. Bucket list topper, profile picture backdrop, Wonder of the World. We get it, it’s a dream, and there’s no shame in admitting you know Peru as “the place where Machu Picchu is”. But Machu Picchu is only one of about a hundred incredible destinations in this Andean country, and we’re here to show you just a handful of them that warrant as much (if not more) attention. So yes, your bucket list just got longer. Here is our guide on where to go in Peru, and the best places you won’t want to miss.
Where to Go in Peru
Of course, the first place that comes to mind, and easily the most popular destination in all of Peru: Cusco! Cusco is the region where you’ll find bucket list wonder Machu Picchu, but that’s actually a few hours outside the city itself– and there’s with a ton to see in between. The cobblestoned city of Cusco is nestled high in the Andes, and it’s tiny streets are bursting with a mix of colonial architecture, Inca ruins and ancient Andean culture. Open air markets sell handmade alpaca sweaters and comfort food, and right amongst the tourists walk locals in traditional clothing with llamas in tow. The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a beautiful region with, you guessed it, a ton of Inca history (and even more ruins). Treks pass through here on the way to Machu Picchu (Salkantay, Lares, Inca Trail, etc.), plus there are a ton of spots worthy of their own day trips (Maras salt flats, Moray ruins, the ancient town of Ollantaytambo, the Pisac town market), and additional trekking areas (make sure to check out the Ausangate trek- you’ll climb over Peru’s unbelievable rainbow mountains).
Magnificent as Cusco is, you have to go out of your way to escape the crowds. The secret is out and the numbers of tourists only increase. For those truly passionate about the sights and not concerned with getting “that typical Machu Picchu picture”, consider visiting somewhere less typical and equally impressive. South of Machu Picchu lies Choquequirao, a “sister” site to Machu Picchu. It has very similar architecture and history, however arriving at Choquequirao feels like being the first one to discover it. There are no trains, no buses, no flights, just a weeklong walk with a guide and a donkey carrying your things until you arrive at the site.
2. The Amazon
Easily the second most popular spot in Peru (and a personal favorite of ours), the Amazon rainforest needs no introduction. When I first came to South America I had no idea how easy it was to travel to the Amazon, despite being such an exotic destination worthy of every superlative thrown its way. A two-hour flight from Lima and you too can walk amongst anacondas and sloths, trek under the dense rainforest canopy, and meet local tribes in a world where the flora and fauna is one of a kind. There are three main cities in Peru that function as entry points to the rainforest, with each providing access to various national parks and lodges deeper within the Amazon.
Iquitos is the largest, and a world away from anywhere else you’ll go in Peru. Of the Amazonian cities this arguably has the most to offer within the city itself (a wild market selling everything to grilled bugs on a stick to alligator meat, a manatee rescue center where, yes, you can pet them, and streets that seamlessly turn into untamed jungle, for starters). From Iquitos, you can do multiple-day stays in nearby jungle lodges like we did, or travel further to the very remote and virtually untouched Pacaya Samiria Natural Reserve.
Puerto Maldonado is the Amazonian city nearest Cusco, and most convenient for those hoping to visit these two spots in a shorter time frame. It provides access to Madre de Dios, as well as the official titleholder of the most diverse region of the entire world: Manu. Because the tourism industry here is a bit less developed than Iquitos (and Iquitos is quite untamed itself), these spots are generally a bit harder to access and those with less time may want to contact a tour guide in advance for help planning. Of course, if you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll certainly be rewarded.
Pucallpa is the third Amazonian entrance point in Peru, and perhaps the least ideal for travelers. The city essentially runs as a logging and transportation hub, and doesn’t warrant much exploration itself. However, it will soon offer access to the new Sierra del Divisor National Park. Plus, it sits right on the river like Puerto Maldonaldo and Iquitos, making it a convenient spot to hop on the cargo/transportation ships traveling along the Amazon. These ships are a very affordable way to get between destinations in the Amazon, are loved by most backpackers, and are generally unappealing to most other travelers. You’ll get a hammock to yourself on a deck covered in about a hundred of them, and pass your days reading and watching the jungle around you until you reach your next stop.
The capital city of Lima, Peru has long been used as a stopover on the way to Cusco and nothing more, but as Henry’s hometown (and one of Megan’s favorite cities in the world) we know there is so much more to it than meets the eye– and we’re excited for/dreading when everyone else realizes it. Sitting on the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, the city of Lima is the best seafood destination in the entire country, and has been named the best culinary destination in the world for several years in a row now. Think lots of art (everything from Mario Testino’s house to gorgeous street murals), surfing, ceviche, salsa clubs set in old victorian houses and even a cat park. And that’s just inside the city itself. Popular neighborhoods to visit in include modern Miraflores, artsy Barranco, and neighboring Callao. (For more on where to go in Lima, read our Lima Guide.)
South of Lima in the Sur Chico area, you’ll find even better beaches than the city’s own, and popular summer getaway destinations with the country’s best surf. Check out Punta Hermosa, San Bartolo and Pico Alto during summer months (December-February).
Go inland and you’ll find Lima has some incredible highland regions, with impressive natural landscapes, sprawling empty spaces, great treks, and tiny little towns a world away from the big city below. Unlike the tourist center of Cusco here, you’ll find highland culture that isn’t for show– in fact, you’ll likely be the only foreigner in some of these places. Bring your Spanish phrasebook and prepare to see a side of Peru that few tourists do. Marcahuasi is hands down the most impressive and overwhelming place to experience, ideal for backpackers and seasoned travelers: trek to an ancient ritual site where you can camp amongst unbelievable views. Viñak is a comfortable getaway great for couples or families, in one of the most remote areas of Lima (the only place to stay is Refugio Viñak, they include transportation). Huancaya is a gorgeous natural reserve with series of waterfalls. Rupac, often called the Machu Picchu of Lima, is an astounishing set of pre-Inca ruins that you can trek to and camp at, and is actually perched above the clouds (aka, expect to see the sunrise/sunset of a lifetime). Lunahuana is a popular local spot for adventure sports such as white water rafting and bungee jumping.
Love ruins? Perfect. Between the highlands and the coast are several spots that history buffs will actually drool over. Caral is the oldest city in all of the Americas (literally…the first city), and Pachacamac is an enormous archaeological site shrouded in mystery.
Often tying with the Amazon as the second most popular destination in Peru, Arequipa is time and time again a traveler favorite. UNESCO thought the city of Arequipa was so special that they named a World Heritage Site. Nestled between three volcanos, this Andean city is known for streets lined with white sillar buildings, comforting regional specialties (make sure to try rocoto relleno), and access to impressive natural sites and trekking destinations such as the Colca Canyon (home of the Andean condor and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon).
5. North Shore
Surf, sun, seafood, party, repeat: Welcome to Peru’s North Shore. During the summer this is a popular place to go for locals and foreigners who want to party on the beach, or do a surf trip along the coast. It’s closer to the Equator so the waters are usually much warmer than those in Lima, and it also makes a great stop on the way to Ecuador.
Mancora is the most popular spot on the North Shore, where backpackers tend to stay way longer than planned in party hostels on the beach (the hub of it all being Loki del Mar). The seafood is cheap and delicious, and you can surf, ride banana boats, or drink cheap cold beer all day long with a view. Trujillo is Peru’s second biggest city, with colorful colonial buildings, ancient ruins, traditional fishermen sailing on reed boats, and some good waves.
Lobitos is a great surf spot without the crowds of Mancora, and Punta Sal is a favorite beach for surfing amongst local Peruvians. Chicama is perhaps the most famous surf spot of them all, a legend amongst surfers for boasting the longest left in the world.
Rich in folkloric culture and an ancient history entirely its own, Puno is home to the famous Lake Titicaca. Straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water and one of South America’s biggest lakes. Handmade boats are made of the golden reeds surrounding the deep blue of the water, and various indigenous peoples live on the natural islands, man-made floating islands, and shores. It’s perfect for travelers who appreciate the history and living culture of destinations like Cusco, though that’s not to say they are interchangeable at all. Lake Titicaca is said to be the birthplace of the Incas, and remains a serene natural escape despite its tourist draw. Spend a night on Isla del Sol, and make sure to visit the Uros floating islands. While Puno is more of a gateway to the lake, it is famous for cultural parades and festivals throughout the year.
Just next to Lima is the state of Ica, a gem that often flies under the international tourist radar but holds a beloved position on the bucket lists of those in the know. Dry and arid, this desert region has a landscape quite different from the highlands and rainforest.
Huacachina, for example, is a small oasis in the midst of the world’s largest sand dunes, stretching infinitely in every direction. Sand-boarding, dune-buggying, and watching sunset from the top of the dunes make it a backpacker must (and one of our favorite places in Peru). Nearby is Pisco, the eponymous city from which Peru’s national spirit hails. Tour the region and try some of the country’s best brandies.
In the neighboring Paracas Natural Reserve, the beautiful coast is home to penguins, sea lions, and dramatic rock formations jetting out of the sea. Several of the Nazca Lines are visible from the sea in Paracas, though a proper visit will allow you to see the massive unexplained drawings of animals stretching for miles. Furthest off the tourist track is the Cañon de los Perdidos, a dramatic canyon you can trek through.
Trekkers: don’t stop after Cusco and Machu Picchu, because that’s just the start of what the Peruvian Andes have to offer you. Breathtaking Huaraz is home to single and multiple-day trekking trails, set before a backdrop of snowy peaks, aquamarine lagoons, and glaciers. With a variety of routes and destinations, the impressive landscape here is reminiscent of many a desktop screensaver. Make sure to explore Huarascan National Park.
Some of the best places to go in Peru are “off the beaten path”– and some are essentially no-names on the travel scene, failing to even elicit a, “I think I’ve heard of that…?”. Enter: Chachapoyas. What? We’ll tell you. Chachapoyas is yet another region with mind-boggling ancient history, and is home to two soon-to-be-notorious destinations. One is Kuelap, a pre-Inca fortress that is the largest set of stone ruins in the entire world, and pre-dates Machu PIcchu by over 1,000 years. Yea. So some people think it’s just a matter of time before this becomes “the next Machu Picchu”, and we think the impending construction of a cable car and direct flights from Lima will certainly have something to do with that. On the positive side, Machu Picchu is such a bucket list draw that it’ll be a very long time before Kuelap is ever as expensive or crowded, so you should rush to visit before it changes, but you’ve got some time.
On the other end of the Chachapoyas spectrum we have Gocta Falls: South America’s third-tallest free leaping waterfall. The international community only got wind of this jaw-dropping spot in 2005 when a German trekker visited. While locals have known about it forever, there has long been a folktale about a mermaid who protected the waterfall and would curse anyone who shared its location. No update on what became of the German guy, but we’re glad he squeaked because it’s a truly incredible sight.
The question of where to go in Peru is not one we take lightly: this country is full of unbelievable destinations steeped in history, culture, gastronomy, and beautiful people. Here’s to the rest of the world realizing that it isn’t just ‘where Machu Picchu is’. (We’ll be posting some sample itineraries next for those of you who want to know how to visit these spots).
Where is your favorite place to go in Peru?
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