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The soft early morning light glinting off the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. A woman in a straw bowler hat and traditional Andean dress guiding her llama down a cobblestone passageway. Spiralling terraces, like Greek amphitheatres, cut into a green hillside. These are the images that the mind conjures up at the mention of the word Peru. Peru is exactly that, but also so much more, from the deep jungles of the Amazon rainforest to the unique way of life of Lake Titicaca’s Uros people. So, if you’re planning your once in a lifetime trip to Peru and want to see Peru’s iconic sights, but also experience authentic Peruvian culture and discover a few hidden gems along the way, then read on and let the adventure begin.
1. Lima: Where historic meets modern
Upon touching down in Jorge Chavez International Airport, you may plan to spend a day or two in Lima, acclimatising to Peruvian altitudes before setting off for the bright lights of the Inca Trail. During the reign of the conquering conquistadors, Lima was hailed as the ‘City of Kings’ and remnants of its former glory can be seen in the historic Plaza de Armas, the ornate Basilica Cathedral – the final resting place of founding conquistador Francisco Pizarro – and the San Francisco Monastery which is full of Spanish-era treasures. However, for those more interested in the here and now, Lima is one of the Americas’ most modern cities. Its affluent Miraflores district has many bars and nightclubs as well as the ‘Parque del Amor’, a landscaped sculpture garden dedicated to the theme of love and romance. Miraflores is also a foodie mecca boasting not only upscale street food markets but also the Michelin-starred ‘Central Restaurante’, recently rated as one of the top ten restaurants in the world – yum!
2. Cusco: the gateway to Machu Picchu
The heartland city of the Inca Empire, the archaeological capital of the Americas and the gateway to Machu Picchu… For all its grandeur and iconic status, Peru’s most famous city still manages to feel homely and higgledy-piggledy. Cusco was the capital of the mighty Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th century where they met defeat at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors; but the spirit of this ancient, intriguing civilisation lives on through the varied Inca sites that can be found in and around the city. The fortress of Sacsayhuaman is a classic example of Incan architecture. Constructed by Inca emperor, Pachacutec, in the mid 15th century, Sacsayhuaman was laid out in the shape of a puma – the symbol of the Incan dynasty. If one thing is for sure, it’s that the Incas knew a thing or two about construction. Oh yes! Despite the conquistadors destroying the Incan Qorikancha Sun Temple and building their own baroque Santo Domingo Convent in its place, the huge interlocking stone blocks of the original temple still stand due to the exceptional masonry skills of the Incas. Along with its trademark terracotta orange rooftops and rapidly growing cafe culture, Cusco’s riddled architecture – old and new, ornate and humble – is one of the most unique calling cards of a city that really needs to be seen to be believed.
3. Sacred Valley: a Peruvian paradise
Nope, this isn’t a mirage. This is the Sacred Valley of the Incas, nestled 15km north of Cusco (as the condor flies)! A Peruvian paradise where the bubbling Urubamba River weaves between terraced slopes and sleepy villages under the watchful gaze of the towering snowcapped Andes. The Sacred Valley is commonly referred to as the ‘Breadbasket of the Incas’ as this is where they farmed, grew and sourced food. In the ruins of Moray, you can see how the Incas used the natural formations of the landscape to build circular and semi-circular agricultural terraces.
This enabled a large and varied number of crops to grow at their optimal temperature and altitude, allowing the empire to sustain its mighty army.
The Sacred Valley is still providing for the Incas today in the ‘living Inca town’ of Ollantaytambo, the best surviving example of Incan town planning, with narrow cobblestone streets that have been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. Ollantaytambo also contains many famous Inca ruins including a fortress on the outskirts of the settlement where the Incas rallied against the conquistadors. The Sacred Valley is also home to the surreal, pink-hued terraced evaporation and extraction ponds of Maras, the salt of which is rumoured to be delicious and do wonders for your health! The tranquil Sacred Valley is ideal for those looking for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Cusco and is the perfect place to see how the Incas influenced and utilised the natural world around them.
4. The iconic Inca trail
The Inca Trail is the most famous hike in South America, and even the world. Over 500 years ago, the Incas built an enormous set of trails that spanned their empire, enabling them to cross great distances rapidly.
Like Olympic relay runners, messengers would run a leg of 10km before passing on the message to the next messenger. It’s believed that a fish from the port of Puerto Inca, south of Nazca, could traverse over 250km and many mountain passes and reach Cusco in under 24 hours in this manner. Although it’s unusual to sprint the Inca Trail these days, hiking along it is still a breathless experience in more ways than one.
The classic four day Inca trail trek begins in the serene Sacred Valley and takes you on a twisting, undulating journey through a panorama of Peru’s beautiful and diverse countryside, crossing Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass) at an altitude of over 4,200m with spectacular views of the snowcapped Andes, before descending into cloud forest where ancient Inca tunnels and mountainside passes await you.
The trail also takes you past the impressive ruins of Sayacmarca and Wiñay Wayna, which are amazing warm-up acts for your first magical sight of the legendary Machu Picchu – an awe-inspiring end destination that makes the long days of trekking all the more worthwhile. In recent years, the Inca Trails popularity has meant that permits are harder and harder to get hold of. But have no fear, if you are planning to go to Peru soon and are yet to sort out your permit, or you are put off by the thought of hordes of fellow tourists and trekkers, there are other routes to Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay Trail is less known and less well-trodden than the Inca Trail but no less beautiful; it is a day longer and a little tougher making it a great alternative for experienced hikers. The next most popular trail is the Lares Trek, it doesn’t include as many Inca ruins but it more than compensates with stunning Andean scenery. For those seeking the experience of a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu more so than the toil, then the 1 Day Short Inca Trail, typically beginning in the Urubamba River Valley, is perfect.
5. Machu Picchu: the crown of the Inca land
Machu Picchu is one of the great wonders of the world and the main event for virtually all Peru-bound travellers…and with good reason!
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of the Inca Land.”
These are the words of Hiram Bingham, the famous explorer who first revealed the lost city of the Incas to the world, and this sentiment is as true today as it was in 1911. Estimated to have been built by the Incas in the fifteenth century using stone hammers and wedges, Machu Picchu is an ancient ceremonial complex whose purpose is still shrouded in mystery. The high quality of the stonework and the large number of important temples and fountains, including the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana – believed to ‘tie’ the sun to the earth at the winter solstice, imply that Machu Picchu must have been very important to the Incas indeed.
The stone ruins take centre stage, against a backdrop of mountain peaks. And the view? Out-of-this-world! Machu Picchu spent hundreds of years lost to the world but most significantly also to the conquistadors who never found and looted the site, which explains its incredible state of preservation. The best time of day to visit Machu Picchu is in the mid-afternoon or early morning. The crowds are at their heaviest from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m and the earliest arrivals are typically the Inca Trail trekkers. Spending a night in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes is one of the best ways of ensuring you get some relatively quiet time in the legendary lost city.
6. Nazca Lines: an ancient mystery
From Machu Picchu to Mulder and Scully, who doesn’t love a good mystery? Stretching back long before the time of the Incas and conquistadors, the Nazca Lines are a series of 2,000 year-old, razor-straight lines and enigmatic figures scored into the sun-baked Pampa plain near the desert town of Nazca. Some of the etchings depict life forms such as animals, birds, plants and insects, while others form geometric shapes and straight or wavy lines up to 40 miles long.
Generally believed to have been made by an unknown pre-Incan civilization (or aliens!) between AD 450 and 600, nobody knows why, or even how, these art attacks of epic proportion were created. The best way to appreciate the unique forms is from above and the readily available 90-minute light aircraft flights across the desert allow you to do just that. Ancient lines aside, the Nazca area has plenty else to see, such as the mysterious Cahuachi pyramids created by a bygone civilisation, the world’s largest sand dune and a vicuña sanctuary in the highlands (which can also be “sandboarded” on!).
7. Islas Ballestas: a hidden gem
This hidden gem of an archipelago lies on the southern coast of Peru, not far from the Nazca Lines. The Ballestas Islands are commonly referred to as ‘the little Galapagos” as the archipelago is absolutely teeming with wildlife and home to thousands of seabirds such as Cormorants, Peruvian Boobys, Pelicans, Chilean Flamingos and Humboldt Penguins. The best, and indeed only, way to experience the islands is via a boat tour that takes you on a thrilling expedition around jagged rocks, through hidden caves and past large herds of noisy sea lions sprawled on the rocks. The boat ride will also offer you spectacular views of the 200-metre-long ‘Candelabra’ geoglyph, carved into Pisco Bay. As with the Nazca Lines, when, why and how the Candelabra was created is a mystery.
8. The Amazon jungle
The Amazon rainforest is the most bio-diverse expanse in the world and covers an enormous area of 5.5 million km², spanning across Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. More than 60% of Peruvian territory is covered by the Amazon rainforest, more than in any other country.
However, animals take the forefront here! Whilst the remote rainforest contains less than 5% of the human population of Peru, if you were to pay a visit, you’d come across thousands of species of animals such as sloths, river dolphins, poison dart frogs, parrots and macaws. Wow! With more and more species being discovered every year, for nature lovers, an expedition into the deep jungles of the Amazon rainforest is an unmissable experience.
9. Arequipa and the Colca Canyon
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride… that’s Arequipa! With the capital city of Lima hogging the spotlight (both in size and population), and Cusco and Machu Picchu drawing in the tourist throngs, Arequipa often plays second fiddle. But Arequipa sure knows how to steal the show. Founded during the colonial era as a Spanish city, Arequipa has arguably the most picturesque setting of all Peruvian cities, beautifully framed by serene plains and surrounded by three towering volcanoes.
The city itself is no less beautiful, from the stately historic centre of the Plaza de Armas and the 17th century neoclassical Basilica Cathedral to its various imposing baroque buildings. Many of which are constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone, from hence Arequipa’s nickname of ‘the white city’ was born.
Arequipa is also home to the sprawling Santa Catalina convent which encompasses almost a block of long corridors, cloisters and brightly coloured courtyards, and is one of the most fascinating modern-day religious complexes in Peru. Some of South America’s most classic cuisine also hails from Arequipa, and the city is widely considered the culinary centre of Peru with Rocoto Relleno, Pastel de Papa, Chupe de Camarones, Adobo and Cuy Chactado being just a few well-known dishes to try. As the cherry on top, Arequipa can boast proximity to the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons and a place of great natural beauty, with craggy mountains, grazing llamas, crisscrossing pre-Inca terraces and soaring, majestic condors.
10. Lake Titicaca: a blue abyss
Last, but by no means least, is Lake Titicaca. Located on the Bolivian border, Lake Titicaca holds all the Top Trumps’ cards. Not only is it the largest lake in South America and famously, at over 3,800m above sea level, the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca also has the largest knitted structure in the world in the form of the man-made island homes of the Uros people, hand-crafted from the native Totora reeds. In recent years Lake Titicaca has become one of Peru’s top attractions. Taking a boat ride on this incredible, cobalt blue body of water offers superb views of the snow-capped Cordillera Real. The islands on the lake are equally mesmerising and provide a fascinating insight into the traditional life of the inhabitants with many still living in a similar fashion to how their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago.
The Uros Islands are perhaps the most extraordinary and iconic islands in Lake Titicaca, with their instantly recognisable anthropomorphised, yellow reed boats. The more substantial islands of Taquile and Amantaní are also very beautiful with wonderful views into the ice-blue abyss of the lake. If you consider yourself a bit of an Indiana Jones-type, hold onto your hat, because there are plenty of archaeological sites to explore, such as the ancient funerary towers of Sillustani. The local highland towns, where colonial churches combine with ancient traditions, are also a fascinating insight into a part of Peru that few people experience.
For even more Peru travel tips, head to our travel guide below.
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Bolivia, Lima - Arequipa - Chivay - Colca Canyon - Arequipa - Cusco - Winay Wayna - Machu Picchu - Ollantaytambo - Urubamba - Cusco - Puno - Lake Titicaca - Puno - Copacabana - Isla del Sol - La Paz - Uyuni - Salt Flats - Uyuni - La Paz