Peru is South America’s third largest country and home to an endless variety of archeological sites, geographical landscapes and ancient and modern cultures. This results in besides the obvious; visiting Machu Picchu, there is so much to do that for many people it may feel impossible to prioritize between the hundreds of sites and destination in this massive country. In order to provide a helping hand, following we will summarize the 10 most important sites or regions one should try to visit when in Peru. Of course this list is based on our knowledge of Peru and our own preferences but we do feel that this list is a good starting point for people thinking about discovering Peru.
1. Machu Picchu
Obviously the number one of this list should be the world famous site that is Machu Picchu. “The Lost City of the Incas” is located at about 100Km North of Cusco and for most people the climax of their Peru vacation package. This amazing site leaves most visitors breathless –not only due to the altitude- but mainly because of the beauty and location of this awe inspiring construction in this remote region. The site is very extensive and takes easily a two day excursion in order to grasp the complexity of the site and the architectonic challenges the Incas were faced with.
2. Amazon Rainforest
Covering almost 60% of the country’s territory, the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest is not only one of the largest and most diverse in the world, it is also one of the more accessible rainforests. The area is mostly discovered in boats due to the lack of roads but this only adds to the experience of being in this massive forest. The chances for wildlife spotting in the Peruvian rainforest is one of the best in the world and a multi-day excursion in the Amazon Rainforest will provide you with a large range of activities such as canopy walkways, bird watching, fishing trips, day and night hikes and maybe above all experience the night time in your lodge. Laying under your mosquito net, listening to the cacophony of jungle sounds; birds, frogs, toads and other animals will provide you with a unforgettable private concert to fall asleep to.
The ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco, makes for another flabbergasting destination. One of the oldest currently inhabited cities on the continent, this city has a history surpassing anywhere else in the Americas. Once the capital of the largest empire, this continent has ever known, this city has been built and rebuild over centuries. After the Inca the Spanish took over and constructed a colonial city on the remains of the Inca city creating a unique architectural style not seen anywhere else. Besides the obvious architectonic beauty of the city, the city also makes for a great base camp to visit Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and the dozens of amazing highland hikes that can be done from Cusco. On top of this Cusco also provides great tourist services, amazing restaurants and nonstop nightlife – talk about an entertaining city!!!
4. Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley, located at about one hours’ drive from Cusco used to be the agricultural center of the Incas with an incredible amount of products to be harvested every season. Being so important to the Inca, it is obvious that they needed to protect the area as well. This is done with two Inca fortresses at the beginning and the end of this Sacred Valley. The two forts are better known as the Pisac Ruins and the Ollantaytambo Ruins. Apart from these two impressive sites to visit, in between the Scared Valley contains some of Peru most impressive landscapes. This beautiful and tranquil valley will give first time visitors some idea about the importance of agriculture for the region and the importance of this valley for the Incas as well as for Peruvians nowadays. Finally the Scared Valley is also considered as the gateway to Machu Picchu as it holds the final train station to Machu Picchu.
5. Arequipa and the Colca Canyon
Arequipa is Peru’s second most important city and located in the south of Peru on the frontier of the coast and the beginning of the Andes Mountains. The city is recognized by the three towering volcanoes in the region, the white capped Misti Volcano being the most famous. The volcanic underground of the region is also recognized in the city’s architecture. Most of the city center is made up out a white volcanic stone called sillar, hence the city’s nickname ‘the white city’. The colonial center is one of the most beautiful in the country and the city’s location only adds to the beauty. About 3 hours from the city one can find another site of interest in this region; the Colca Canyon. This huge canyon is known for its agricultural terracing made in Inca times and is one of the deepest canyons in the world almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Apart from the obvious beauty of this canyon and it’s authentically dressed inhabitants there is another creature living here that attracts many visitors; the famous Condor birds. This is one of the few places in the world where one can awe at this amazing creature soaring meters over your head and revealing the size of its wingspan.
6. Lake Titicaca
This lake with its mythical name is not only the highest navigable lake in the world but also one of the largest lakes on the continent. The lake is shared by Peru and Bolivia, Peru claiming the larger part. The lake is located at 3811 meters above sea level and known for its deep blue color and importance for the Inca culture. According to a popular myth, it was here that Mother Earth and Father Time created the first Inca, supposedly on the Island of the Sun on the Bolivian side of the Lake. The lake itself is a sight not easily forgotten; the deep blue color of the water with reflections of the surrounding snowcapped mountains reaching up to 6000 meters. Finally the region is also one of Peru’s most important folkloric regions and the proud owner of one of the best Carnivals on the continent; the Virgen de la Candelaria, celebrated every year in February.
7. Nazca and Ica
This region located south of Lima is also known as el Sur Chico and is made up out of the cities of Pisco, Ica, Chincha and Nazca. This desert area of Peru has much to offer to visitors. The region has an incredible wealth when it comes to ancient cultures as the region has constantly been inhabited by some of the oldest cultures in the Americas. The region has ancient ruins and sites scattered all over the area and the most important remnants are probably the Nazca Lines, the Chauchillas Cemetery and the Aquaductos de Nazca. The Nazca Lines are the main attraction for people coming to visit the region and provide the average visitor with more questions than answers. These lines, some well over hundreds of meters long hold some amazing visualizations of animals and other sacred items to the ancient cultures living here. Apart from the archeological importance of the region, the region also provides you with some of the best deserts in South America with some of the highest sand dunes. Finally there are two national parks here that are more than worth the visit; the Ballestas Islands and the Paracas National Park. Both parks are located next to each other and can be visited with one tour. Here one can see marine wildlife in quantities found in very few places; penguins, marine birds, dolphins, whales and even a condor now and then can be spotted here.
The proud capitals of Peru, home to over 10 million Limeños (1/3rd of the total population) live in this large and metropolitan city. The city is the economic, political and the cultural heart of the country and has something to offer for every visitor. In Lima one can find a beautiful colonial center, hip business and tourist centers such as Miraflores and San Isidro and bohemian neighborhoods such as Barranco. The city also holds some of the best museums in the country and has recently started to consolidate its name as the culinary capital of South America. The Lima food scene is rising rapidly and nowadays one does not have to walk more than 2 blocks to find an amazing restaurant in this amazing city.
9. Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca
Up north, at about 8 hours from Lima one can find the city of Huaraz. Huaraz is a relatively small city that if it would not be for its surroundings would have remained unknown. The surroundings are known as the Cordillera Blanca, one of the world’s highest and most challenging cordilleras and a Mecca for mountaineers. The cordillera provides great multi day hiking possibilities and is a true wonderland for outdoor activities. Most hikes are for at least 4-5 days but pass by some of the true spectacles of the Andes, for instance the Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain and the Alpamayo Mountain, which has been several times elected to be the world’s most beautiful mountain.
10. Trujillo and Chiclayo
The north coast of Peru, even though very little known, could also be known as the Egypt of the Americas. This area is packed with remnants of ancient cultures, among them the oldest in the Americas; the city of Caral. Further north one can find the city of Trujillo, another precious example of colonial Peru. The city apart from its colonial charm and beautiful square is also known for the nearby ancient city of Chan Chan. Chan Chan is the biggest mud-brick city in the world and stretches out over a huge piece of land. Some parts of the site are still in good conditions or have been restored and give a great impression of how massive this site used to be. Close to Chan Chan one can also find the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. Both are ancient mud-brick pyramids and the largest pyramid constructions in the Americas. Further north one can find the city of Chiclayo and several interesting sites in the neighborhood. The most important archeological find of the last 50 years on the continent can also be found around Chiclayo; the ancient tombs of the “El Señor de Sipan”. The tombs have been incorporated in a museum, probably one of the better ones in Peru.
Even though this list holds for us the best of the best, the list is far from complete and new and interesting sites are almost discovered daily in Peru. To continue the list, have a look at for instance the amazing fortress of Kuelap, the third largest waterfalls in the world the Gocta Falls or other colonial Andean towns such as Ayacucho and Cajamarca.
One thing is for sure; travelling to Peru is accepting that it is almost impossible to see everything in one vacation and therefore accepting that one day you will return…
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