UPDATED 14 OCTOBER 2019
The mere mention of Peru conjures up images of ancient lost worlds, incredible ruins set atop vertiginous mountains, colourful braided folks, sunburnt faces and curious looking camelids. Llamas, the Incas, pan flutes and remote lands…Peru is all these things, no doubt, but is also so much more. Peru is amazing gastronomic discoveries, adrenalin-pumping activities, breath-taking nature and mind-boggling mysteries. The country boasting the fastest-growing tourism industry in all of South America is an absolute kaleidoscope of fascinating, unduplicated wonders.
Think Machu Picchu is all there is to Peru? Think again…
Here are 10 of the most magical Peruvian experiences you could have on your next South America adventure trip. So pack your bags, double up on the woolly socks and get ready to have them blown right off!
1. Visit Machu Picchu (do it YOUR way)
Yes, there’s a hell of a lot more to Peru than Machu Picchu, yet that still doesn’t mean you won’t find this incredible man-made wonder on the top of every ‘Best of Peru’ list. Whether you choose to reach Sun Gate by taking on a challenging Classic Inca Trail, an express version, a sensational alternative trail, splurging on a bit of extra comforts on a superior Inca trail adventure, or skipping the hard yakka altogether and reaching the ancient Inca site via a cushy luxury train ride, see it you must. Declared one of the Seven New Wonders of the World by UNESCO, Machu Picchu is a bucket-list attraction bar none. The fact that reaching it is hard work, in one way or another, simply adds to the appeal.
We offer a host of other Machu Picchu experiences that include even more alternatives: with superb trails connected by luxury lodges and multi-destination itineraries that showcase the sheer convenience of the site to explore all of South America.
2. See Majestic Andean Condors at Colca Canyon
Depending on which source you quote, Peru’s Colca Canyon is either the deepest or second-deepest canyon in the world. Either way, suffice it to say it’s a long way down: twice the way down as at the Grand Canyon, in fact! Home of the elusive Andean Condor (the bird with the largest wingspan in the world), Colca Canyon gives Machu Picchu a run for its llamas on awe-inspiring scenery alone. Standing atop the rim at sunrise, admiring soaring condors above lofty Andean peaks, is one of the most magical experiences you could ever dream of having. The base-town for trips to the canyon is wonderfully colourful Arequipa, one of central Peru’s most delightful cities.
The Colca Canyon is one of the true unsung heroes of all Classic Peru tour itineraries.
3. Sail on Lake Titicaca and meet the Fascinating Uros People
To Peruvians, the world’s highest navigable lake is arguably the most revered place on earth. Legend has it that it was from its deep blue waters that the first Inca Emperor arose, and the mystical birthplace of their ancestors holds a very special place in their hearts. To first-time visitors, the appeal of Lake Titicaca is an incredible surprise. Discovering such a stunning lake at an altitude of more than 3,800m is wonderful enough, yet exploring inhabited reed islands and ancient pre-Inca ruins, as well as authentic lakeside villages seemingly forgotten by time, is utterly hypnotic. The lake is shared by Peru and Bolivia and straddles the spectacular mountainous border: visiting on both sides offers a multitude of highlights.
Discover all the Things to do on Lake Titicaca before choosing your preferred way of visiting.
4. Food Binge in Lima…and everywhere else!
Speaking of food! Peru boasts some of South America’s most delectable epicurean highlights, with drool-worthy specialities like ceviche, rocoto relleno, cuy, dulce de leche and empanadas found in every corner of the country. If that’s not enough, Lima, the capital, is home to no less than three of the top 10 restaurants in South America and world-class dining here is one of the Best Things You Didn’t Know You Could do in South America. Michelin stars and all! Add to this an indecent amount of seriously wicked Chinese eateries along with a healthy dose of Western delights in popular hubs like Cusco, Puno and Arequipa, and you could seriously plan an entire visit around feasting alone.
And who would dare complain about that?
Ps. We have a thing for food here at Chimu Adventures (we even organised themed lunches in the office based on South American specialities) so it’s no wonder we plan bespoke foodie tours all over the place – our Taste of Peru is a delicious, 10-day feastathon that offers the country’s most incredible culinary delights in between the best historical and cultural attractions
5. Soar Above the Nazca Lines
As mysterious as the Egyptian Pyramids – and equally mesmerising – the UNESCO heritage-listed Nazca Lines of Peru have been captivating the world for decades, ever since local archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe took a stroll hillside near Nazca in 1927, spotted some exceptionally precise lines drawn on the desert ground and thought ‘What the….?’
Believed to date from between 500BC to 500AD, the Nasca Lines are a collection of geoglyphs found in the heart of Peru’s Nazca Desert. The Nazca people were primarily renowned for their ahead-of-their-time techniques of drawing water from the ground and many archaeologists believe the drawing of these amazing lines is somehow connected to that. Whatever the reason for their creation may have been, fact remains that these lines were a superb accomplishment, are still a head-scratching mystery, have survived millennia, and are simply spellbinding to admire.
Got some spare time in Lima? Take a quick trip south and combine a sightseeing flight over the Nazca lines with a trip to the marine-life brimming Ballestas Islands on our 3-day Nazca Line return trip from Lima
6. Get Lost in the Amazon
It’s quite funny to know that the one South American country that’s mostly renowned for its high mountainous exploits be the one home to the second-largest swath of Amazonian jungle. Peru is arguably the best Amazon destination of all the countries that share this incredible rainforest, simply because it offers an array of different jungle experiences: from lodge-based stays to luxury river cruising. Plus, it boasts remote regions only accessible by plane, yet with flights from all the most touristed cities (lima & Cusco) so it’s superbly easy to include a trip to the Amazon whilst you’re up in the Andes visiting Machu Picchu.
If you aren’t sure which Amazon experience may suit you best, read our Amazon Lodge VS River Cruise blog which details the main differences and should help you identify the right type of trip for you. We’ve also compiled this Guide to the Peruvian Amazon, specifically, to learn what makes this portion of the jungle so very special. And then…simply trust that whichever way you choose to experience the Amazon in Peru, rest assured that it’ll be one of the most extraordinary experiences you’ll ever have. This is a unique ecosystem everyone needs to experience, at least once in life.
See all our Amazon Tours on offer
7. Sandboard in Huacachina
Just a few hours out of Lima, in the heart of the stupendous Peruvian desert, is where you’ll find Huacachina, a stunning desert oasis that’s framed by some of the most impressively high sand dunes in the world. Just say the word and we can take you there, strap on some waxed sand boards to your feet and hurl you down some vertiginous sand dune at breakneck speed. Because that’s just the kind of enthusiastic travel operator we are! And don’t worry, we’ll have a cold glass of pisco sour waiting for you just as soon as you manage to remove all those fine grains out of all bodily orifices you never even knew you had. Want something a little demurer? Yes, Huacachina has that too. Enjoy thrilling dune-buggy rides (which are a little less death-defying than sandboarding) or simply hike atop a dune at sunset to watch the breathtaking spectacle of the Huacachina oasis from above.
Want to include an adrenalin-pumping afternoon in Huacachina on your bespoke Peru tour? Oh yes….we can do that too!
8. Head to Chan Chan in Northern Peru
So, as you will have noticed by now, central Peru gets all the fame and glory. Fair enough too, with the region being home to so many household-name attractions. This makes the expansive north of the country something of a hidden treasure. Among dedicated travel circles, be it for surfing, mountaineering or archaeology, northern Peru is certainly no mystery yet among mainstream tourists, it’s like half the country barely exist. But it does and, at the ancient mud-city of Chan Chan, we’ll show you why you need to know about it.
Chan Chan is the largest mud-brick city ever built and it’s over 1200 years old. At the height of its prominence, the fully-fledged city covered an area of a mind-boggling 20 square kilometres. This was a bonafide and quite sophisticated city, built entirely out of sand by the Chimu people in the arid desert coast of northern Peru. The carved detailing and construction are absolutely amazing and, more amazing still, is the fact that new discoveries are made here on an almost yearly basis. The fact that it’s been UNESCO-protected for more than two decades tells you how incredibly important Chan Chan is, and may also make you wonder how on earth this site is still so unknown.
This is just one of many highlights around the northern city of Trujillo. Come check out the rest.
Here’s a cool 7-day itinerary suggestion through Peru’s Northern Kingdoms
9. Discover Peru’s lesser-known “lost” Ancient City, Choquequirao
Just as the Incas weren’t the only ancient civilisation to have lived in Peru, Machu Picchu is also not the only ‘lost city’ to have been discovered here. If you want to learn and discover more about this mesmerizing country’s history then your options to get off the Gringo Trail are plentiful. Choquequirao is probably our first choice of alternate sites simply because it was also constructed by the Incas and requires a hearty multi-day hike to reach, so it has that ‘Andean remoteness’ aspect that entices so many visitors to South America. Since it was picked up by guide-books in 2017, Choquequirao – found in the same region as Machu Picchu – has become quite the Instagram star and there’s even talks (shock-horror) of a possible cable-car being constructed here to aid the masses of potential tourists. Peru is replete with ‘Machu Picchu alternatives’ actually, both in terms of trails that actually reach this most famous of cities and others which take you to remoter areas barely known to the outside world. Tell us just how remote you wish to hike and we’ll get you there!
We offer a superb 6-day Choquequirao Trek that’ll blow you away
10. Take a Jaw-dropping Train Ride through the Andean Clouds
The moment Belmond introduced its world-renowned luxury railway to the Central Andes, we knew that our list of ‘magical things to do in Peru’ had its new entry. We’re talking amazing butler service, gourmet cuisine, sublime spa treatments and, the most priceless aspect of all, a startling visual feasting of the Andean peaks that literally mark the route between Arequipa (of Colca Canyon fame) and Cusco (the base-town for Machu Picchu visits).
The first-ever luxury sleeper train in the continent joins its cousins to create a Peruvian train-maze that’ll have railway junkies busting for the door, suitcase in hand. On the 2-day ride from Arequipa to Cusco, you can tag a return-trip to Machu Picchu aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train, about the most comfortable and indulgent way to reach the ancient Inca citadel. Need another train-fix? Oh yes, there’s more! After your visit to Cusco, you can yet again board another sumptuous Belmond train (be careful, these things are addictive) and head east to Puno, the Peruvian town at the shores of Lake Titicaca, on a 2-day luxury train ride. Yep, you can join three magical experiences on our list via luxury trains, for a startling journey you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
11. The Bonus Train Ride!
Guess what? There’s another stunning train ride you need to know about, the one that’ll take you to and through some of the most impressive Peruvian landscapes of all.
The Lima to Huancayo train ride is not run by Belmond so the level of luxury isn’t quite as lush but we bet you’ll hardly notice, given that the 14-hour ride through the lesser-visited Cordillera Occidental mountain range crosses an eye-popping 69 tunnels, 58 bridges, and countless hair-raising switchbacks, across some of the deepest canyons in the continent.
This is the second-highest railway in the world, reaching a heart-stopping 4,800m in altitude and, even today, considered an absolute marvel of engineering. To cap off the stunning experience, you’ll find yourself in Huancayo, one of Peru’s best alternative hiking destinations that are way off the usual tourist trail. The train ride itself is very much a local’s mode of transport and is lesser known to tourists, so you’ll want a basic knowledge of Spanish to tackle it alone.
Take a look at this lovely montage to understand how extraordinary this rail journey really is.
The great thing about Peru is that your trip can be as active or relaxing as you wish, as ‘budget friendly’ or luxurious as you want – with most preferring to mix it up and experience both sides of the fence. And who could blame them? A tour of Peru is, for many, a lifelong trip, so squeezing in as many varied (and magical!) experiences as possible makes total sense.
At Chimu Adventures, we offer a wide range of tailor-made travel options to South America, as well as a ton of Peru Tour itinerary suggestions. Simply contact us to know how you can fit 1, 3 or all 11 magical experiences on your upcoming tour of Peru.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”