Peru is probably one of South America’s most well-known destinations, and the mysterious settlement of Machu Picchu has adorned many a tourist postcard. But while the country is certainly celebrated for the Inca Trail and its ancient archeological site, Peru has so much more to offer than crumbling ruins.
Take your time discovering these Peruvian delights, from pre-Columbian settlements to the modern and traditional cities of the Southern Peru Tourist Corridor. Explore the museums of Lima, soak in the hot springs of high-altitude Cusco, and fly over the astonishing Nazca lines. Here’s a look at the best places to visit in Peru:
17. Chachapoyas[SEE MAP]
Set in a scenic yet secluded spot far from the Peruvian coast, Chachapoyas lies high amid the mountains and is the capital of Amazonas. While the city doesn’t have all that much going for it, it acts as a gateway to the stunning natural landscapes and archaeological sites that surround it.
Founded by the Spanish in 1538, the small city is home to a couple of interesting monuments and colonial buildings, with plenty of restaurants, hotels, and tour operators found around its main plaza. From here, you can arrange to visit incredible sights such as the distinctive sarcophagi of Karajia or the ancient stone city of Kuelap – the largest pre-Inca ruins in South America.
There’s no shortage of natural beauty nearby, with mountains, valleys and forests home to a diverse range of fauna and flora, including countless species of brightly colored birds. Sparkling waterfalls also abound: Gocta Cataracts is the pick of the bunch at over 700 meter in height. With so many superb landscapes to explore, hiking and trekking are popular and can be arranged in Chachapoyas.
16. Paracas National Reserve[SEE MAP]
Famed for its dramatic scenery, wealth of archaeological sites, and beautiful beaches and wildlife, Paracas National Reserve lies along Peru’s southern coastline, some 250 kilometers south of Lima. Encompassed within its confines are marine and coastal desert ecosystems as well as a couple of arid, rocky islands.
While fierce ocean waves pulverize its jagged, crumbling cliffs and deserted isles, its small coves and bays are home to shallow, warm waters perfect for swimming. Its sheltered beaches are also lovely for relaxing on, while sailing and windsurfing are popular pastimes. In addition, many people take boat trips out to the Ballestas Islands to gaze in awe at its spectacular rock formations and the multitude of seabirds, seals, and sea lions living there.
When visiting Paracas National Reserve, most visitors stay in the small town of the same name that lies on the Paracas Peninsula. Here you can find lots of restaurants, bars and hotels as well as tour operators who can take you to see some of the ancient archaeological sites that dot the reserve.
15. Chan Chan[SEE MAP]
Lying just outside the city of Trujillo in northwest Peru, Chan Chan is one of the most impressive and extensive archaeological sites in the country. The largest pre-Columbian city discovered so far, it is set at the mouth of the Moche Valley in a desolate and arid spot, not far from the Pacific Ocean.
Once the capital of the Chimu Empire, Chan Chan rose to prominence around AD 850 when palaces, plazas, and temples sprung up. While many of these are now severely eroded as the city was entirely made out of adobe, many fine features, carvings, and friezes remain.
Among the endless sprawl, you can find ten royal compounds, home to ceremonial halls, burial chambers, and palaces. These were the residences of the kings of Chimu, who were buried in their complex when they died. The only one open to visitors and partially restored is the Palacio Nik An, which boasts lovely geometric designs, marine motifs, and awe-inspiring architecture.
14. Huascaran National Park[SEE MAP]
Set high in the Andes in the Central Sierra region of Peru, the enormous Huascaran National Park encompasses almost the entire Cordillera Blanca. The world’s highest tropical mountain range is home to lofty peaks and arresting scenery, while countless species of fauna and flora can be found within its confines.
Established in 1975, the park sprawls over a vast area and includes a number of mighty mountains. Huascaran– after which the park is named – is Peru’s highest peak at 6,768 meters. Remarkably, more than 600 glistening glaciers are dotted about the upper reaches of the range, and countless alpine lakes and roaring rivers can be found down below.
The Cordillera Blanca‘s sweeping valleys, high plateaus, and steep slopes are home to all kinds of fauna and flora, while ancient archaeological sites are also scattered about. Due to the wonderful scenery and diverse landscapes, the park is a marvelous place to go trekking, mountain climbing and skiing. Wildlife watching is also popular; catching a glimpse of the elusive puma or endangered spectacled bear is an unforgettable experience.
13. Huacachina[SEE MAP]
Lying just outside the city of Ica in the southwest of Peru, Huacachina is a popular place to visit thanks to its surreal location surrounded by dunes. Emerging out of the desert like a mirage, the small settlement is clustered around a secluded oasis, with gently waving palm trees and nothing but sand stretching as far as the eye can see.
Huacachina’s sandy surroundings lend themselves perfectly to all kinds of fun outdoor activities, with sandboarding, quad biking, and dune buggy rides popular pastimes. Clambering to the top of the sifting dunes is also a must for the spectacular views, and sunsets are particularly memorable.
Relaxing around the oasis and taking in the stunning scenery is a lovely way to pass the time, and swimming offers a welcome respite from the searing heat. As it is geared towards tourists, Huacachina has plenty of restaurants, bars, and hotels to choose from, with a few kiosks and shops dotted here and there. Besides its ample adventure opportunities, you can also visit the bodegas and wineries in Ica if you want to sample some delicious local produce.
12. Mancora[SEE MAP]
As one of the most hip and happening summer beach destinations on the Costanera Norte along the northern Peruvian coast, you simply have to add Mancora to your bucket list. This slice of glorious sandy coastline stretches for kilometers along one of the sunniest parts of Peru – something that hasn’t been missed by the tourism industry. You’ll find everything from backpackers to swanky beach resorts dotting the sands here.
Apart from the beaches that are worth more than their fair share of relaxation, Mancora has a bustling main street filled with vibrant beach bars, seafood restaurants, and an excellent nightlife scene that livens up after the sun goes down.
That being said, most of the activity here revolves around inactivity; lazy beach days are the order of the day. Those looking for something more active can go surfing in the warm waters, take a seaside stroll from South Beach to Organos or spot seasonal dolphins and whales frolicking in the waves at the main beach. If you somehow grow tired of Mancora’s beach activities, explore further afield – swim with turtles in El Nuro or soak in the hot springs of Poza de Barro.
11. Trujillo[SEE MAP]
Nestled within a lush valley eight hours north of Lima, Trujillo is celebrated for its photogenic colonial center filled with colorful Spanish mansions, quaint churches, and friendly locals.
Not far from the Pacific Coast, this relatively large city was founded in the 1500s close to the abandoned Chan Chan ruins, one of the largest pre-Incan empires of ancient Peru. Within its impressive once-walled ruins, this Chimor mud city is the largest adobe city in the Americas and boasts a series of religious temples, burial grounds, and royal residences.
But that’s not the only history worth exploring in Trujillo. Visit the 19th-century National University of Trujillo – one of the largest of its kind in South America – that features the world’s longest mosaic, and appreciate the incredible murals of Huaca de la Luna (the Temple of the Moon) that unfortunately showcases human sacrifice. If you’re looking to relax after your days of exploring, you can’t go wrong with the beaches of resort town Huanchaco – don’t forget your sun cream!
10. Nazca Desert[SEE MAP]
The puzzling Nazca lines that crisscross the valleys of Palpa and Nazca have put this part of Peru’s otherwise uninteresting desert on the map. These enormous inscriptions of lines, animals, and other geometric patterns were carved into the sandy terrain by the Nazca people and are believed to have been part of a thousand-year-old holy road. The dry, windless, stable climate of the Nazca Desert has helped keep the lines uncovered to the present day.
The best way to appreciate the magnitude of these geometric lines and shapes is from the air with a flight over the Nazca lines. If you’re hesitant about flying (the costs aren’t cheap!) or you’d just prefer to see them up close, there’s an observation tower along the Panamerican highway where you can view three of the main figures.
Other Nazca sites worth viewing within the desert are the ancient aqueducts known as the Nazca channels. These underground channels are what allow the cotton, potatoes, and fruit plantations in the desert to thrive in this otherwise inhabitable location.
9. Iquitos[SEE MAP]
Iquitos is the capital of the Loreto region, which encompasses most of the northern reaches of the Peruvian Amazon. Interestingly, a town that was formed initially by a tribe of hunter-gatherers, Iquitos is now the largest city on earth without road access.
While Iquitos is a little tricky to get to – you have to fly or boat in – the rewards are totally worth it. Despite its remote location, there’s a mix of traditional and modern architecture: wooden huts built on riverside stilts contrast with the historic architecture of the central plaza.
Offering an unforgettable escape in the Amazon jungle that feels authentic, visitors can browse the Belen floating market for everything from bananas to crocodile meat. If it’s souvenirs you’re after, the San Juan crafts market is a better bet.
The isolation of Iquitos is in its favor; the surrounding jungle offers some of the best wildlife watching opportunities in the country. It’s the main base for boat trips along the Amazon River to spot monkeys, alligators, and the notorious anacondas. Visiting the nearby Pacaya Samiria National Reserve near Lagunas is one of the best places for spotting some unusual Amazonian wildlife.
8. Puno[SEE MAP]
Puno is a picturesque hillside port city that forms the natural gateway to Lake Titicaca and the 85-plus Uros Floating Islands – boats depart from the dock every 40 minutes. Set at an elevation of 3,800 meters, high-altitude Puno has a glorious view over the lakes and the island chain.
Because of its easy access to and from neighboring Bolivia and Chile, Puno is a popular tourist trap, yet it provides a more laidback alternative to the upmarket lake islands it overlooks. For one, souvenirs at the lakeside market are far cheaper than you’ll find in Cusco or Lima!
Its biggest attraction is as a departure point for the famous floating Uros islands with boats leaving every 40 min from the dock. It is also a great place to get a feel for the Aymara and Quechua cultures. Some of the most popular things to do include a visit to a llama farm and an overnight stay with a local family. Most of the people who live in Puno are Andean, so there’s an interesting mix of modern and Andean traditions, and you’ll still find many women in colorful traditional dress.
7. Lima[SEE MAP]
As Peru’s capital and largest city, Lima is a sprawling metropolis of almost 9 million people. The city was founded in 1535 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and offers a rich history as well as exceptional food, a great sense of culture.
You’ll find modern buildings contrasting with traditional and colonial architecture and orderly slums alongside raving nightclubs and bars. Ruled by the Spanish for three centuries, Lima boasts intriguing Spanish-colonial churches, cloisters, and monasteries – a real treat for history buffs.
Because of its location close to the coast, Lima is a great foodie destination for seafood lovers. A Lima food tour is a great way to taste your way through the city’s authentic Peruvian delights like Ceviche, with a visit to some of the most authentic markets and restaurants in the city.
Whether you’re taking a stroll through the historic heart of Lima Centro and its craft markets or exploring the more tourist-friendly green suburb of Miraflores, which overflows with antique shops and bars, you’re in for something special in Lima.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lima
See also: Top Tourist Attractions in Lima
6. Colca Canyon[SEE MAP]
Located in the mountainous Southern Sierra region, Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s most popular tourist destinations. Spanning over 70 kilometers, the world’s second-deepest canyon boasts some spectacular scenery with fascinating Andean culture and nature to discover.
While the sheer size and scale of the canyon are staggering, it is the diversity of the many landscapes that is Colca’s most impressive feature; it encompasses everything from barren steppe and stepped terraces to steep-sided cliffs and rearing mountain peaks. Wherever you go, the scenery is phenomenal, with breathtaking views of Andean condors swirling above the 3,140-metre deep canyon.
Archaeological sites and ruins are dotted about the canyon, while locals maintain their ancestral traditions in their small villages and towns. Many people who visit Colca Canyon start in Chivay before trekking along the scenic rim, past precipitous ravines and death-defying drops, basking in the astonishing scenery and landscapes as they go.
5. Sacred Valley[SEE MAP]
Once the heartland of the Inca Empire, The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a valley in the Andes, close to Cusco and the ancient city of Machu Picchu. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities.
Located in Peru’s Southern Sierra, some of the most popular activities here are adventure-based – from trekking and rafting to rock climbing. In contrast, the towns of Yucay and Urubamba are fast becoming a hub for spiritual relaxation and meditation.
Whichever route you take, there’s plenty to discover along the way. There are gorgeous colonial towns, remote villages, colorful markets, and fascinating Incan sites such as the citadels of Pisac, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo tucked along this mysterious route.
Take your time exploring the terraced hills above Pisac, making it down in time to browse the village’s famous artisanal market. Check out Choquequirao, some blissfully uncrowded ruins that are deemed to be giving Machu Picchu a run for its money.
4. Inca Trail[SEE MAP]
Winding through the mountains, over passes, and above valleys with stunning views all the way, Peru’s Inca Trail is one of the most famous treks in the world. The hike takes around four days to complete and starts just outside of Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, with the end-goal being the mythical Machu Picchu – the Lost City of the Incas.
Using ancient stone paths and trails that the Incas themselves laid down all those centuries ago, the route meanders through diverse ecosystems and landscapes. While some parts run next to stepped terraces, others pass by alpine tundra and cloud forest, with plunging valleys and towering mountains lying in the distance. As the Inca civilization was centered around the highlands, you’ll also come across ancient ruins on the way.
Due to the Inca Trail’s incredible popularity, visitors now need to book with a tour operator and can choose between several different routes, which vary in distance and elevation. Hiking the historic trail in the footsteps of the Incas is an unforgettable experience and makes arriving at the majestic Machu Picchu all the more special.
3. Arequipa[SEE MAP]
Located 2,380 meters above sea level, Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city. Surrounded by volcanoes, including the El Misti, it’s known as the ‘White City’ because its buildings were crafted out of white volcanic rock called sillar from the neighboring mountains.
Unlike many of Peru’s other cities, Arequipa doesn’t have any Incan claims to fame – at least, not in the form of ancient settlements. Its most famous Inca sight is the Mummy Juanita, also known as the Lady of Ampato – an astonishingly well-preserved frozen body of a young teenaged Incan girl who was sacrificed to the gods during the 1400s. She can now be found in the Catholic University of Santa María’s Museum of Andean Sanctuaries.
Examples of Spanish colonial architecture can be found throughout the center of the city. Among the most significant of these is the Santa Catalina Convent, which is often described as a city within a city because of its charming streets, colorful buildings and flowers. Beautiful bridges like the Puente Bolognesi also offer historic value as well as scenic views. The city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, is a common starting point for many tourists with its shops, restaurants and old churches.
Arequipa is the natural jumping-off point for visiting the multicolored Colca Canyon, one of the top tourist attractions in Peru. Dropping to a depth of 3,270 meters, the canyon is one of the deepest of its kind in the world.
See also: Top Tourist Attractions in Arequipa
2. Cusco[SEE MAP]
Located in the Southern Sierras, colorful Cusco was once the capital of the Incan Empire. Today, it holds the title of the archaeological capital of the Americas. It’s one of Peru’s most-visited destinations, and for good reason: it offers easy access to Machu Picchu and the incredible Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Built by the Spanish on the ruins of age-old Incan temples and palaces, The heart of the city is the main square, the Plaza de Armas, which is surrounded by restaurants, cafes and churches. The colorful San Pedro Market is nearby with vendors selling Quechua handicrafts like alpaca textiles, painted pottery, ceramics and Peruvian dolls as well as fresh produce and drinks.
Just outside the city limits is an important Inca site known as Sacsayhuaman, an enormous walled complex constructed of large limestone boulders. The site is an ancient engineering marvel because of its accurate alignment with annual solstices and its ability to withstand earthquakes.
The city is brimming with culture – it’s the center of Quechua culture in the Andes – and its mountains are etched with trekking routes and hot springs. Strolling the city streets with its colonial architecture, craft markets, museums, and art galleries has a timeless feel to it.
Because of its high-altitude location 3,400 meters above sea level, altitude sickness is a risk in Cusco, so make sure you allow time to acclimatize before making your way here.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cusco
See also: Top Tourist Attractions in Cusco
1. Machu Picchu[SEE MAP]
Machu Picchu is anyone’s Peruvian highlight, no matter what you’re visiting this South American country for. Tucked 2,430 meters high in the Andes, this abandoned ancient Incan city seems to be eternally enshrouded in mist. In fact, it’s so well hidden that it remained undiscovered for centuries – earning it the nickname ‘the Lost City of the Incas.’
The site was eventually discovered by an explorer, but even then, only by accident. In the years since its discovery, it’s become one of the most yearned-after bucket list spots in the world. This means it doesn’t come without the crowds, so be sure to plan your trip well in advance. Some of the most popular ways to reach these crumbling Incan ruins are by trekking the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trail. For those who prefer not to ascend on foot, there is an easier route by train.
However you reach the site, you’ve got plenty to do when you arrive. Explore well-preserved buildings that include houses, temples, fountains and baths in addition to agricultural terraces and evidence of an irrigation system. You can also admire the surrounding views from the Sun Gate, the gateway to Machu Picchu from the famous Inca Trail, and climb either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain for a bird’s eye view over the enchanting valleys.