Visiting Machu Picchu is a given on any trip to Peru, and you'll probably also snap photos of llamas and sip pisco sours. But what about the moments in between? Planning ahead to include a few local experiences will add depth and character to your trip, not to mention a broader understanding of the country and its people. From food and drink to artisan traditions and unforgettable train rides, try these recommended activities to get more out of your travels in Peru.
Uncover the History of Peru's Coffee Culture
These days, you see Peruvian coffee everywhere from your corner coffee shop to the Starbucks at the airport. But where does it come from, exactly, and who's behind the process? Delve into Peru's fascinating coffee-growing culture by heading away from the cities and into the country's agricultural heart.
There are several key coffee-growing regions in Peru. One is Chanchamayo, located amid the jungles and the mountains of the Junín region, in central Peru. Coffee is also grown in the Southern Highlands, and in the region around Amazonas and San Martin. The highest concentration of coffee plantations in northern Peru is around San Ignacio, close to the border of Ecuador.
So how do you access the coffee scene? Take a private or small group tour of a coffee farm to see the harvest up close—it's worth your time, even if you have just an extra day or two to spare from Lima or Cusco. Of course, it goes without saying that locally produced coffee also makes an excellent souvenir or gift.
Have extra time to explore Peru's countryside? Check out these recommended destinations.
Visit Artisans in Their Workshops
Practically everyone comes home from Peru with a woven blanket, bag, or sweater. It's almost impossible to resist buying something. Because textiles — as well as artwork, painting, jewelry, and other handicrafts — aren't just an old tradition in Peru. They're essential to the national identity.
Most travelers pick up their purchases in artisan markets, like the famous Mercado de Artesanía in Pisac. And those shopping experiences are well worth your time. But if you're interested in learning about the traditions behind the colorful objects for sale in the market, consider going behind closed doors to visit artisans in the workshops. If you're interested in a day trip, you can arrange for a private tour into artisan communities—or, if you happen to be near one of the country's handicraft capitals, you can simply drop in. In Huancayo, for instance, high up in the Central Andes, handloom weaving is as old as the hills — no pun intended — and a wander around town will provide insightful glimpses into workshops and studios.
Customize your trip with help from a local travel specialist.
Master the Art of Ceviche in a Cooking Class
Feasting on fresh ceviche in Lima is par for the course. But what if you could really understand how such classic Peruvian dishes are made — and take those skills home with you? It's possible. Sign up for a cooking class and you'll eat and drink well, learn something, and arm yourself with culinary skills to last a lifetime.
In Lima, several venues in the neighborhood of Miraflores offer classes specializing in Peruvian classics or in specialized cuisines like Andean cooking or seafood. Some of the best experiences take you into a local marketplace first to choose the ingredients. But you'll find cooking classes almost anywhere in the country that sees a steady stream of tourists, including Cusco and Arequipa. Many classes include a cocktail lesson, too. Ideal for beginners, as the pisco sour (Peru's national cocktail) is both delicious and foolproof.
Learn About the Landscape at an Ecolodge
Peru has one of the most diverse landscapes on the continent. If you're on a tour of the whole country that takes you from the mountains to the rainforest to the jungle to the beach, you'll enjoy an overview. But if you want to really understand the flora and fauna of a specific environment, you'll find that checking into an ecolodge is a lovely way to do it.
Tahuayo Lodge is one example. Located on a tributary of the Amazon, it's about as remote as you can get. The surrounding area is incredibly biodiverse: you won't have to try hard or wait long to spot pygmy marmosets and red uakari monkeys. In southern Peru, Sandoval Lake Lodge — only accessible by canoe — offers a rainforest experience with sightings of giant river otters and black caimans.
These are just two of Peru's countless ecolodges (you can read more about the best ecolodges in Peru here). Whether you book independently or visit as part of a tour, checking into one of these peaceful and eco-friendly hotels is a wonderful way to get up close and personal with Peru's awe-inspiring landscapes.
Take a Local Train
In Peru, there are trains designed for tourists, like the Vistadome between Cusco and Aguas Calientes (near the entrance of Machu Picchu) and there's no shame in taking them. The luxuries onboard are fun, to be sure, but they have little to do with the way that real Peruvians travel from point A to point B. Luckily, your travel itinerary can include both: with a little planning, you can enjoy experiences on luxury trains and local trains on the same trip.
One to try is the six-hour journey between Huancayo and Huancavelica. The so-called "El Tren Macho" ("The Macho Train") offers spectacular Andean scenery from the train windows, plus an opportunity to interact with locals and try traditional foods sold by onboard vendors. And you'll end up in a beautiful mountain city, Huancavelica, where you're unlikely to bump into crowds of international tourists — an added perk. Note that the service was temporarily suspended for track repairs at the time of writing: check on the railway's status online before planning your trip.
For more on Peru's best train rides, check out this article.