Peru offers world-class tourist attractions, with mysterious archaeological sites, awe-inspiring landscapes and diverse wildlife. Topping everyone's list of must-see places is Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. That's really just the beginning, however, as you'll still need to make time for the fascinating ruins of the Sacred Valley and then a tour of Cusco, one of the most beautiful cities in South America.
With a few more days you can visit the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable waterway, and go wildlife spotting in the Amazon jungle or Colca Canyon. The mind-boggling Nazca Lines are something straight out of a science fiction novel, best viewed from above. Finally, there's Lima and its range of excellent restaurants, which make it one of the world's top cites for gastronomy.
The trick is figuring out which places to visit when creating your itinerary: this guide will provide an overview of the best destinations in the country. For more details, see our guides on the Best of Northern Peru and the Best of Southern Peru.
Cusco is the heart of Inca culture, or the belly to be precise. This is where legend holds that founder of the Inca race Manco Capac plunged his staff into the fertile earth and proclaimed it ‘Q’osqo’, meaning ‘the navel of the world’ in Quechua.
The split personality of this beautiful city is evident everywhere – the statue of Inca leader Pachacutec overlooking the colonial Cathedral, murals inside depicting Jesus’ Last Supper serving the indigenous delicacy roasted guinea pig, and the walls of sun temple Coricancha built into a Spanish convent. The hilltop fortress Sacsayhuamán was the scene of the final Inca defeat by the Spanish in 1536, and the largest stones still stand over eight meters tall.
Top tip: If you’re arriving by plane, leave the 3,300-meter heights of Cusco until later and explore the lower elevations of Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu first. This will help you acclimatize and avoid uncomfortable altitude sickness.
The Sacred Valley
Between Cusco and Machu Picchu is a valley so fertile that the Inca deemed it sacred. As well as bursting with crops, it is a treasure trove of historic sites. The nearest ruins to Cusco are the wide terraces of Pisac, one of the few sites where you can see religious, residential, agricultural and military Inca architecture in one place. Further down the valley are the concentric circular terraces of Moray, usually combined on a day trip to the spellbinding salt mines of Salineras nearby.
The most impressive ruins in the valley are found at Ollantaytambo, the site of the last great Inca victory over the Spanish. The ceremonial baths, trapezoidal doorways, and sun temple make these ruins second only to Machu Picchu. It’s worth lingering here and staying overnight, such is the beauty of the surroundings.
Top tip: Instead of taking day trips from Cusco, make your way down the valley over several days, staying in Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo, allowing yourself more time to explore the ruins.
The Lost City of the Incas emerging from the mist at dawn is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights. Perfect Inca stonework and rows of terraces surrounded by cloud forest, tumble down to the River Urubamba far below. Uncovered in 1911 by archaeologist Hiram Bingham, the inspiration for Indiana Jones, it’s unforgettable to make the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, and even better if you arrive after trekking on the Inca Trail. Gaze upon the entire site from the Sun Gate, marvel at the stonework of the Temple of the Sun and the sacred Intihuatana pyramid, then climb the towering forested peak of Huayna Picchu.
Top tip: Stay overnight nearby in either Ollantaytambo or Aguas Calientes to avoid the midday crowds and a long journey from Cusco.
The Inca believed that the Children of the Sun and Moon emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca to found their empire, and the magical atmosphere of this place makes that easy to believe. At 3,800 meters it’s the world’s highest navigable lake and South America’s largest, so big that it looks more like an ocean. The thin air and strong sun make the deep blue colors radiate more brightly, creating an almost unworldly quality.
Its name translates as ‘Rock of the Puma’, as local communities thought the shape of the lake depicted that animal. Over 40 floating islands made from reeds have been home to the Uru people for centuries and it’s fascinating to visit these islands. For a more authentic experience, take a day trip or stay the night with a family on Isla Taquile or Amantaní. The best base is the city of Puno, which has an attractive colonial center, and hosts an incredible 300 festivals annually, the most famous being the dance of La Diablada in February.
Top tip: Escape the tourist crowds by hiring a kayak and explore the lake with a guide. Take a hat and a bottle of sunblock because the sun is particularly fierce at this altitude.
Arequipa and the Colca Canyon
The best base for exploring this area is Arequipa, Peru’s second biggest city and arguably second most attractive after Cusco. Highlights of its historic center include the neoclassical Cathedral, Jesuit church La Compaňia and 16th century Santa Catalina Monastery. Arequipa is also surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Valley of the Volcanoes, in particular, the 6000-meter peak of Chachani.
The biggest draw for most tourists though is the Colca Canyon. At a depth of 4,160 meters, it is one of the world’s deepest canyons, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The three-hour road trip from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon takes in volcanoes and the high plains of the Salinas and Aguada Blanco Reserve, reaching a giddy 4,900 meters at the Patopampa Pass. The canyon’s agricultural terraces stacked up the steep slopes date back to Inca times.
Another highlight is the population of Andean condors, the largest flying land birds in the Americas. Cruz del Cóndor is the best vantage point to watch for them but it can get crowded so your guide may seek out quieter spots.
While most visitors are content with hiking, the canyon is also a hub for adventure sports, offering very difficult Class V river rafting, although it’s better to tackle the class IV rapids in nearby Cotahuasi Canyon. Requiring less ability but plenty of daring is zip-lining across the canyon. After a hard day’s trekking, it’s ideal to relax in the thermal baths of La Calera in Chivay.
Top tip: Take a two-day trip to the Colca Canyon, staying overnight rather than the day trip. It will give you more time to enjoy the area, otherwise, you will spend as much time traveling as visiting the canyon.
The Amazon jungle
Nearly 60% of Peru’s landmass is rainforest so there are great opportunities to experience the breathtaking Amazon basin. On canopy walks, river cruises and jungle hikes, the wildlife extravaganza is incredible – from one of the world’s smallest monkeys, the pygmy marmoset, to the world’s largest rodent, the capybara. Giant otters, pink river dolphins, macaws, and parakeets will delight you, while fiercer creatures such as alligators, anaconda, and jaguars will likely (and thankfully) remain elusive.
The best entry point in the north, right on the Amazon River itself, is laidback Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Further south, Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to lodges in Tambopata Reserve. The best experiences of the primary jungle are found in Manu National Park.
Top tip: To minimize mosquito bites, wear light-colored clothing, long sleeve shirts, and long pants, and apply repellent several times daily. Peru is mainly free of malaria but make sure you have a yellow fever vaccination.
The Nazca Lines
Ever since they were spotted by pilots in the 1920s, these lines have fascinated mankind. Who drew them and the reasons why have never been definitively answered. Whether you believe the UFO theories, the mystery only adds to the allure of the Nazca Lines. When viewed from above, more than 70 giant plants, animals, and geometric shapes are visible, etched forever into the desert over a distance of 1,000 kilometers. The longest drawings are more than 300 meters long, with highlights such as the monkey, spider, condor and the hummingbird.
Top tip: Don’t eat much or skip breakfast completely before the flight because sharp turns and turbulence lead to a bumpy ride. Morning flights tend to be less bumpy with better visibility.
Trujillo, Chan Chan and Huaca de la Luna
While Northern Peru has long been the road less traveled, the region is attracting more tourists now as sites such as Machu Picchu become crowded. The colonial coastal city of Trujillo rivals Cusco as an archaeological center and has a proud history. It grew into an important colonial trading post before becoming the first Peruvian city to declare independence from Spain in 1820.
The tour of the Old City is recommended, taking in a cluster of well-preserved colonial houses and churches. However, the real attractions lie outside town; just 5 miles south are massive adobe mounds Huaca de la Luna and the lesser excavated Huaca del Sol (Temples of the Moon and Sun). These structures were built by the Moche culture across six centuries beginning around 100 AD. The murals inside depicting the Moche gods are a particular highlight and you can climb ten stories to the top for sweeping views over the surrounding desert.
A few miles west of Trujillo, the site of Chan Chan is the biggest adobe city in the world and the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, built by the Chimor people in the 9th century. The Tschudi Complex is well-restored with a massive ceremonial courtyard and outside walls decorated with friezes of waves of fish. The Pacific Ocean is just a mile from the complex, providing a stunning backdrop.
Top tip: Take licensed taxis to Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan or take guided tours from Trujillo. If you travel independently, it's both safer and more informative to tour the complexes with a guide hired at the entrances.
Also known as the Fortress of the Cloud Warriors, Kuélap is the most impressive Chachapoya site and one of the largest ancient stone citadels in the Americas. It rivals Machu Picchu in size, dramatic location, and archaeological importance. A new two-mile cable car ride has made the site far more accessible. Dating from the 6th century AD, Kuélap is perched on a limestone ridge at 3000 meters overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. The highlights are the walls, which reach between 10 and 20 meters in height, and more than 400 circular thatched houses inside.
Top tip: Stay longer in this region to see the other sites: the six clay sarcophagi of Karajía, the cliff-edge tombs of Revash and the Leymebamba Museum, which displays more than 200 Chachapoya mummies.
Few people come to Peru specifically to see Lima, and while it may be a big, congested city of eight million people, it also has a fine historic center and some of the best food in Latin America. The Plaza de Armas is a beautiful square graced by the elegant government palace, the spectacular 16th century Catedral and adjacent Archbishop’s Palace with an impressive museum of religious art. Other historic buildings and museums nearby include churches of Santo Domingo and San Francisco, the Museo Metropolitan de Lima, which tells the story of the city, and the Museo de la Inquisición, which documents the awful punishments imposed here by the Inquisition.
Lima really comes to life after dark and there are great bars and dancing to be found in Barranco and Miraflores. The real highlight is the food: Lima has developed into a gastronomic center with an astonishing range of budget and top-class restaurants. The seafood fusions of Peruvian and Asian food are a particular highlight, so be sure to try cebiche and tiradito.
Top tip: Stay in the area of the city that suits your preference. For colonial surroundings and historic sites, stay in the Old Town. For the widest selection of restaurants and entertainment, head for Miraflores, while Barranco has a more chilled out artistic vibe.