Peru is a country that is waiting for you, arms wide open, inviting you to experience this beautiful place. We spent several weeks in Peru, exploring as much as we could. We followed a pretty classic route, from Lima to Cusco, which over the years has developed into a well-worn tourist trail. Like most travelers, our main point of interest when planning our trip to Peru was Machu Picchu and booked a 5-day trek to get there. Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see with your own eyes.
Machu Picchu is impressive, and it’s easy to see why most people would want to see this attraction. It is a literal city in the clouds, but on top of a mountain high above the Urubamba valley bellow. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. There are many other incredible places that you should add to your list.
When you start planning your trip to Peru, allow for as much time as possible; Peru is an easy country to fall in love with. There is so much more to see than just the ruins at Machu Picchu, and if you’re traveling the Lima to Cusco path that we did, there are many great places to stop for a few days and explore a different side of Peru.
You will wish that you had more time and money to stay and do everything. We didn’t have time to see the Nazca lines or take any trips into the Amazon Rainforest (via Puerto Maldonado), and we didn’t even venture into the north of the country, which remains off the beaten track for most visitors and has many other great ruins and experiences.
This isn’t a list of the things we didn’t do, however, and what we did see was quite impressive. We hiked into massive canyons, visited the edge of a desert where it met the Pacific Ocean and saw penguins and thousands of birds at the Ballestas Island. We traveled from the Pacific coast into the Andes mountains and had a lot of really cool experiences we want to share.
There is a lot more to a trip to Peru than just visiting Machu Picchu, and when you leave you will wish you had time to do more. You will fall in love with everything that the country has to offer; the people, the places and the culture. This country will find new ways to dazzle you at every turn.
While we’re not going to change the tourist map with our choices here, we still wanted to share our input in case there are travelers out there are still wondering if they should visit Peru. The answer is, you should! We found Peru to be one of the most welcoming countries in the world and even after spending several weeks in Peru, it’s still on the top of our bucket list. There are many things we didn’t do that we would love to go back and see.
This list is subjective. We only spent a few weeks in Peru, and we’re not claiming to have seen everything; these are our personal favourites from our recent trip.
We look forward to hearing what you think; maybe there was something that we missed? We’re always looking for new places to explore, so if you have something you want to share, leave a comment below. Without further delay, these are the 9 most incredible things that we did in Peru.
9 Incredible things we did in Peru:
1 The Salkantay Trek
There are many easier ways to get to Machu Picchu, but hiking for 5 days will always be the most rewarding. Re-tracing some of the ancient routes used by the Inca, we traveled past one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world and the 6200-meter tall Salkantay Mountain.
This 5-day/4-night trek included 4 days of hiking in the wilderness and a day at Machu Picchu, so it covers the best things to do in the area bundled up into one.
Trekking to Mach Picchu is quite popular, and there are many treks to choose from. The classic “Inca Trail” is the main route between Sascaywayman (Cusco) and Machu Picchu, but we chose this trek because it offered more nature experiences than the other treks, and was less popular than the other ones, which also means fewer people to share the views with. We wanted to see mountains, jungles, and massive rivers, so the Salkantay option was perfect for us.
Overall the 5-day trek is fairly challenging, but not impossible for the amateur hiker.The first two days are spent mostly in the alpine, and you get an amazing view of both Salkantay and Humantay Mountains (weather permitting). Day two is especially difficult, as you end up walking over 9 hours on your way up to the Salkantay Summit and back down the other side into the jungle. It was obviously worth it. The views were unlike anything we have ever seen before.
Once you make it to the Salkantay Summit (4600-meters above sea level), its pretty much all downhill. You spend the next two days walking in the jungles, surrounded by massive rivers than slowly join together, its sheer force carving into the landscape that you walk alongside. There are so many amazing views along the way to fill a lifetime of memories. On the 4th evening, you finally make it to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. This was one of the most unique things we did in Peru.
2 Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu lives up to the hype! This an amazing city dates back to the height of the Inca Empire before the Spanish arrived. It remained hidden until it was “re-discovered” in 1911. It is the number one attraction in Peru for good reason; this amazing place will knock your socks off!
There are many reasons to fall in love with Peru, but there is something special about the city in the clouds that will grab your attention. There is a reason why it is a UNESCO Word Heritage Site and was voted one of the Wew 7 Wonders of the World. Maybe it’s the altitude, but it will take your breath away.
Hiram Bingham was the first westerner to visit the ruins in 1911 – it was still covered in the overgrown jungle – and the photographs he took were shared around the world, first appearing in National Geographic the next year, and inspired thousands of visitors to see this place for themselves.
The day that we visited was cloudy and sprinkled with rain, which left the ruins covered in clouds at times. It made the place feel mystical. We spent a few hours walking around what remains of the city; which is very well preserved considering it was left to the elements for hundreds of years. While you have to share this experience with a few hundred other tourists, nothing can take away the beauty of Machu Picchu.
Machu Pichu is worth the price of admission. It’s worth fighting through the crowds of people. It was worth planning an entire trip to South America around.
3 Ballestas Islands
Located just off the coast from Paracas (about 3-hours south of Lima) is the small island chain known as the Ballestas Islands. These rocky islands are only accessible by boat from Paracas, and it is easy to take a short tour of the islands for some amazing wildlife viewing experiences. The islands are a refuge for wildlife and home to Humbolt Penguins, blue-footed booby, sea-lions and Pelicans, as well as thousands of other sea birds.
This turned out being one of our most memorable adventures during our 6-weeks traveling around South America, up there with the likes of Machu Picchu and Iguazu Falls.
The fact that we got to see Penguins up close and personal was a real highlight for us, as seeing Penguins in the wild is an extremely rare and rewarding experience. There were literally thousands of birds flying around and resting on the islands. We saw many sea lions lounging on the rocks and enjoying the sunshine.
These islands are sometimes known as the “Poor mans Galapagos” if only because they are a bit more reasonable to visit when it comes to the pocketbook. A tour of the islands can be done in a few hours – a day trip from Paracas – which is all we had time for. Due to the fact that the Islands are protected, it’s not possible to step foot on the islands or swim in the waters, but a short circuit around the islands still allows for some amazing wildlife viewing, as you will see below.
4 Historic Center of Lima
The first stop on our South America adventure was Peru. The city is a big sprawling mess, a hectic mix of modern and historic, a loud and in your face attack on the senses. It’s awesome! We gave ourselves 3 days / 2 nights in Lima, which is obviously not long enough to even scratch the surface of a city as big and diverse as Lima. But we made the best of it, sampling some of the best Lima has to offer.
Lima is a pretty interesting mix. One of the biggest cities in the Americas – 9.7 million people live inside the city limits – it has many distinct neighborhoods and regions of the city. We chose to stay in Lima’s upscale coastal neighborhood – Miraflores – and used it as our base to explore the city.
Miraflores is situated directly on the coast, with tall apartments overlooking the Atlantic Oceans. With malls and modern buildings, it felt like a different city, but fortunately for us, it is also home to some of the best restaurants and bars in the city and we ate a lot of really amazing food, including several very good Ceviche.
The most historical part of the city is the historic center, surrounding the Plaza de Armas. Using the Metro-Bus, we easily traveled into the center of Lima, spending an entire day exploring the colonial buildings in the Plaza de Armas, visiting crazy markets and wandering around the old city. Most of the historic buildings have been converted into the modern day Government buildings.
5 The Colca Canyon
After leaving the coast, our first taste of the mountains was Arequipa. The city is a perfect mix of Colonial and Modern that Peru has mastered, was clean and surrounded by beautiful mountains and volcanoes. Arequipa is Peru’s second city – around 900,000 people live here – and as a result is much less hectic than Lima.
Arequipa sits at 2300-meters above sea level. We needed to begin our acclimatization to the altitude and prepare for our upcoming 5-day trek to Machu Picchu. Our main purpose for our short stop-over in Arequipa was as a base for doing the Colca Canyon Trek, 160-km away.
The Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest – almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – with a depth of over 3200-meters. A spectacular sight to see, we decided to take it one step further – hike down to the bottom and back again on a 2-day, 18-kilometer hike. We spent one day in Arequipa – the nearest major city – adjusting to the altitude before undertaking the hike.
The Canyon is about 160 km North-West of Arequipa. The drive between Arequipa and Chivay takes you to a stunning 5000-meters above sea-level, with views of the many surrounding volcanoes.
The canyon itself is spectacular. The views from the top of the ridge before you descend are some of the best; It’s hard to put into words or even capture in photos just how big the canyon actually is. It is also one of the few places where you can see the massive Andean Condor in its natural habitat. Inside the valley, are several small local villages, who still live a fairly traditional lifestyle.
The only way in and out of the canyon is by foot or by donkey. Our guide told us a story about how he once won a race against other guides, making the climb from the bottom of the valley to the top in a mere 45 minutes. For a point of reference, this same journey took us over 3-hours. The locals go up and downhill the way we would walk on flat ground.
6 Paracas National Reserve
The small town of Paracas is a stopover for most overlanders who are traveling south from Lima. While the town itself is nice, what draws people here are the natural surroundings. The nearby Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands are the two main draws.
For wildlife viewing, the Islands are amazing, home to sea-lions and penguins. Not to be missed is the National Reserve, part of a coastal desert, with stunning landscapes where the ocean meets the land. It is also an adventure enthusiasts dream, as it is one of the best places in South America for windsurfing, paragliding and kite surfing.
Paracas isn’t much more than an expanded fishing village, with a small strip in the center of town with hotels, restaurants and tourist agencies. It has a very chill backpacker vibe and is the perfect place to rest for a few days, especially after leaving the chaos of Lima. There is so much natural beauty here that you could spend more than a few days exploring the surroundings, and enjoy the peaceful town.
7 Lake Titicaca & the Uros Islands
The Uros “floating” islands in Peru is another one of the unique and interesting places we visited during our 2-month trip. Located on Lake Titicaca, this group of man-made islands is built out of reeds that grow in the coastal waters near Puno.
Lake Titicaca is impressive by itself; it is the largest lake by surface area in South America. It is known as the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at an elevation of 3,812-metres (12,507 feet). It is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia.
It collects water from the nearby Andes mountains, and is a part of the Altiplano, a high plains that cover parts of Peru, Bolivia and as far south as Chile and Argentina. It is the second largest high plains in the world, behind those of Tibet.
From Puno – the land-based city closest to the Uros Islands – it is easy to organize a tour of the islands. The Uru people use bundles of dried reeds to built their islands, boats, and homes. They are constantly adding to the islands, placing bundles of new reeds to the surface to maintain stability. There are about 60 islands, and the Uro people (numbering around 1000) still live on the islands today, although technology – solar panels and motorboats are common now – have changed the islands over time.
Once you arrive on the islands the locals put on a bit of a show for you, showing off their villages while dressed in traditional outfits. As we were preparing to leave the islands, we were sent off with a song, as the local girls sang “row row row your boat” in several different languages, followed by their version of the popular Spanish song “Vamos a la Playa” (let’s go to the beach). The girls got a few laughs for that one.
If you are traveling onwards, this might be where you say goodbye to Peru; it is easy to arrange transport to Bolivia (La Paz or Cochabamba) or back into Peru (Arequipa or Cusco).
8 Huacachina Oasis
The Oasis of Huacachina stands out as a striking contrast to the towering sand dunes that surround the town. The coast of Southern Peru is dominated by the Sechura desert, and Huacachina is small a refuge from the harshness of the arid landscape.
For many years this has been a popular stopping point for travelers and locals alike for anyone visiting this part of Peru.
The water and mud of the Oasis are said to have healing powers, and people have been known to cover themselves in hopes of curing themselves of arthritis, rheumatism, asthma, and bronchitis.
Located nearby the larger, more modern town of Ica, Huacachina is home to no more than 100 permanent residents. Once you’ve had a chance to walk around the lake, you realized there isn’t too much to do in town. Many restaurants and hotels occupy what little space there is in the small footprint of the town. What should do you do next?
Head out into the sand dunes. Firstly, the view of the Oasis from above is an amazing photo opportunity. And second, there are several crazy dune buggy drivers that will take you for an exhilarating rollercoaster ride up and down the massive sand dunes. If your looking for adventure, you’ve come to the right place. Paired with some sandboarding, this is the perfect way to spend the evening in Huacachina. The ride back towards town as the sunset in the distance was something unforgettable.
9 Cusco / Sascaywaman
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu; most visitors to Peru will end up in Cusco at some point during their trip. It is a worthwhile stopover, there are so many things to do here while you get used to being 3000-meters above sea level. We enjoyed the city itself, finding many great things to occupy our time.
The city is built into the valley, so on multiple occasions, we were rewarded with views of the city below. It’s a walkable city despite the constant feeling that you’re always somehow going uphill. The central core of the Colonial city is made up of small walking streets, and parts of the city are built up the rising hills of the valley. It is important training if you’re planning to spend a day walking around (or in our case, several days walking to) Machu Picchu. We eventually acclimatized to the altitude, and the hills no longer became a burden, and we started to really enjoy the views.
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu and the birthplace of the Incas. The city was once the capital city of the Inca Empire, and their capital city of Sacsayhuaman – located just above the city – still remains as a testament to their power. There are several other smaller ruins located close to the city (known as the sacred valley) and many of them are easy to visit on a day trip from the Cusco. We enjoyed learning a little bit about the Inca before we departed for Machu Picchu. Cusco is a cultural center and a unique blend of Inca and Spanish culture set in the mountains of the Andes.
We spent nearly a week here, split between before and after our 5-day trek to Salkantay and Machu Picchu., simply because we liked the city so much. Cusco felt like a second home; we spent more time here than any other during our 6-week trip.
Because of its popularity as a tourist destination, there is an abundance of great restaurants, hotels, and bars to spend some time. We treated ourselves to many of these nicer establishments, enjoying some the best meals we had in Peru. We fell in love with Cusco.
Cusco has an international airport (and many flights connecting to Lima) as well as many bus connections going in all directions. Whether you head to the Peruvian Amazon or stay in the highlands and travel overland into Bolivia, it is easy to connect to your next destination.
The combination of Inca and Spanish history, with the modern-day twist that Peru does so well, leaves you wanting more. We would definitely go back.