Beyond the Lost City of the Incas
You've ascended the mountain to Machu Picchu, toured the Temple of the Sun, hiked up Huayna Picchu, and snapped plenty of photos. All in all a pretty good day. But how do you want to fill the rest of the itinerary on your grand Peruvian adventure? The ideas below, organized by number of days, include sights and activities found in the vicinity of Cusco, Aguas Calientes, and Lima—points where you'll be traveling en route to and from Machu Picchu.
With 1 Extra Day
If you’re based in Cusco or Aguas Calientes, consider a quick trek to Laguna Humantay, a glacial lake at the base of the snow-capped mountain of the same name. A day tour from Cusco includes the drive there and back, as well as a day of hiking within view of Salkantay Mountain. The all-natural wonders here make the perfect complement to the Incan ingenuity of Machu Picchu.
A day hike to Laguna Humantay is also included in the beautiful and remote 5-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. You'll check out the lake on your first day, before trekking over a mountain pass at the foot of Mt. Salkantay, stopping at a local organic coffee plantation, and visiting the Llactapata ruins. Finally, you'll catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu.
If you’re heading back to Lima before your flight home, but have an extra day to fill, consider heading south of the capital to Huacachina. This tiny village near the port city of Pisco is surreal, looking as it does like a desert oasis. It's comprised of a palm-fringed lake surrounded by a few squat, tile-roofed houses and nothing more. With its high dunes and sand as far as the eye can see, Huacachina is a prime spot for dune-buggy riding and sandboarding.
Interested in making Huacachina part of a longer itinerary? Try the Cusco & Southern Coast itinerary featured in this list of great 2-week itineraries. After marveling at Machu Picchu, head to Ayacucho, a quiet town with an interesting historical center. Then make your way to the wildlife-filled Paracas National Reserve and Ballestas Islands, the vineyards of Ica, and finally Huacachina for dune-buggy and sandboarding adventures.
With 2-3 Extra Days
If you think you’ll never encounter anything as spectacular as Machu Picchu, think again. The Sacred Valley is full of Incan ruins as striking as anything you'll see in that citadel in the sky. These include mystical circular terraces and hilltop fortress ruins. Residents of local villages still practice age-old cooking and crafting techniques, and their music is of the traditional Peruvian highland variety.
The closest of these villages to Cusco (only a third of a mile from its main plaza) is Sacsayhuamán, a zigzagging fortification used by the Inca but actually built by an even earlier people, the Killke. The steep terraces of Ollantaytambo and Pisac are particularly striking when shrouded in mist, while the circular archeological sites of Maras and Moray look like an alien landing ground. Most of these sites can be visited on day tours from Cusco, and require little pre-planning.
The Sacred Valley is also an excellent place for mountain biking. Travelers interesting in cycling should consider this week-long mountain bike tour of the Sacred Valley. Of course, there's always the possibility to add even more adreneline—the options for outdoor adventures in the Sacred Valley are many. For more area highlights, see this article.
Got a few extra days to fill in Lima before your flight home? You’re in luck—the Peruvian capital is full of museums, shops, and art galleries. If you’d like a few carefree hours strolling through a museum, add Museo Larco to your list for an astonishing collection of Pre-Columbian art, or the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI) for a view into the city’s contemporary art scene.
Peru also has a rich culinary tradition, with a particularly thriving food scene in Lima. Perhaps take a cooking class, where you’ll learn how to turn the day's catch into a zesty ceviche. Maybe book a table at Astrid y Gastón or Centrale, both innovative restaurants.
Extra time in Lima is easy to incorporate into any trip to Peru—like this luxurious 10-day tour. It's all about fine dining, food markets, sampling local fare and learning culinary techniques from leading chefs. Taste ingredients from the coast to the jungle, and enjoy the country’s impressive scenery (including Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, of course).
Only have 24 hours to spend here? Here's how to have the perfect day in Peru's capital.
If you’re idling in Cusco or Lima and are interested in a mini-adventure, then look no further than Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. This vast body of water, situated half in Peru and half in Bolivia, can be accessed from several towns, but you’ll probably be flying into Puno (one hour from Cusco; 1.5 hours from Lima) on its northwest edge.
From here, it’s easy to take a boat to the real attraction: the floating “reed islands," which are home to a group of Uros indigenous people who stand apart from the rest of the 21st century. The larger Isla Taquile has a main square, church, and marketplace, while Amantaní features terraced fields.
Check out this 10-day Southern Peru tour. Start by getting to know Lima before heading to Cusco, journeying through the Sacred Valley. Then trek Huchuy Qosqo before visiting the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu and, finally, venturing south to Lake Titicaca.
Lake Titicaca is a great location for a family vacation as well—read more about the best places in Peru for every traveler.
Paracas and the Ballestas Islands
About three hours south of Lima on the coast is Paracas, a laid-back seaside village in close proximity to some of Peru’s best sights. Travelers flock here for a glimpse of the Ballestas Islands via boat tours—sometimes referred to as a smaller version of the Galapagos, these islands are known for their penguin colonies, seals, and sea lions.
Paracas is only a few hours away from the Nazca Lines, the pre-Columbian geoglyphs etched in the desert for which there is still no real explanation to this day. If you don’t want to go that far, however, Paracas has its own version just across the bay: a mysterious prehistoric geoglyph in the shape of a candelabra, which you’ll spot on your way to Ballestas.
Consider making Paracas the beginning of a week-long adventure in Southern Peru, continuing from the namesake reserve to Colca Canyon and beyond. And Paracas is particularly lovely for honeymooners, given its seaside location and beautiful resorts. Learn more (and check out a few more romantic spots in Peru) in this list.
With 4-8 Extra days
The “Next Machu Picchu"
If you’ve already seen Peru's most famous ruins, consider comparing them to some others in remote Chachapoyas. Located in northern Peru, at the juncture between the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains and the Pacific coast, this is a mystical place deep in the cloud forest—and the ruins there are being hailed as the “new Machu Picchu.”
One of them, Choquequirao, looks eerily similar to Machu Picchu but has none of its crowds. That’s because there are no roads leading to it—although the Peruvian government is working hard to build them. Another, the fortress of Kuélap, built by the Chachapoya people, originated nearly a millennium earlier than Machu Picchu, is also comparatively empty. Both offer mystical ruins hidden amid cloud forests, myriad grazing llamas, and unforgettable views.
If you plan on trekking to Kuélap, make sure to visit the Gocta Waterfall, a series of thundering cataracts plunging over cliffs—you'll see both in this 7-day itinerary to Chachapoyas.
Read more about archeological sites that rival Machu Picchu in this great roundup of Peru's (other) ancient ruins.
Huaraz and Laguna 69
If you’re itching to get out of the capital, consider taking a long weekend from Lima to Huaraz, a high-altitude town that has become something of a trekking mecca. In addition to offering epic hikes, Huaraz is also the gateway to Huascarán National Park, home of Laguna 69, a rich blue lake with a snow-covered mountain in the background. The three-hour hike to this “lagoon” can be challenging, but it’s highlighted by Peru's much-heralded scenery, including several waterfalls, craggy cliffs, and another lake, Llanganuco, that gives you a taste of what’s to come.
One trek starting from Huaraz is this awesome excursion to the heart of the Cordillera Huayhuash, one of the most stunning mountain areas in Peru. You'll cross four passes over 14,700 feet and get rewarded by lakes, glaciers, wildlife, and Peruvian mountain culture.
Read on for more highlights of the Cordillera Blanca, including treks, lakes, and unique lodging.
Manú and the Amazon Basin
Upon first seeing Manú, you’ll likely ask yourself how one of the most biodiverse places on earth stayed secret for so long. The truth is that Manú has been keeping a deliberately low profile. Located in the Amazon Basin, about a 10-hour drive from Cusco and only accessible by boat through licensed tour operators, Manu is the perfect destination for adventure travelers averse to Machu Picchu's crowds.
Wildlife you can spot here includes caimans, capybaras, sloths, tapirs, and jaguars. Birders can see herons, vultures, and Peru’s national bird, the gallito de las rocas. This is a remote destination, so expect to overnight in tents and go without internet and cell service for a few days. If that sounds right up your alley, start planning your adventure—here's a 5-day Manu wildlife tour to get you started.
Few travelers to Peru visit its northern end. That’s both a blessing and a shame because, while little touched by tourism, the region does offer a glimpse into a Peru unknown to most outsiders. If you’re into archaeological ruins and history, there’s Chan Chan, a centuries-old city made of thousands of adobe structures by the advanced Chimu civilization. There's also the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, a museum in Chiclayo full of gold, silver, and other goodies from the ancient tomb of the Lord of Sipán, a Moche ruler.
Máncora is a coastal town popular with the surf crowd, with a beach full of laid-back hotels and seafood restaurants. If it’s culinary adventure you’re after, don’t pass up the chance to visit Piura, the self-proclaimed ceviche capital of Peru, and Cajamarca, know for its cheese and chocolate.
For more on Northern Peru, this guide has all you need to know about the region. Have 2 weeks to spend? Consider this 14-day journey that includes archaeological highlights like Chan Chan, plus a visit to Gocta Waterfall and cultural offerings like a cooking class and visiting an indigenous community.