Peru's biodiversity is truly incredible: 84 out of 104 of the world's known ecosystems exist within its borders. Thanks to varied elevations and climates throughout the country, Peru is a dazzling showcase of natural beauty, from wildlife-rich rainforests to snow-capped mountain peaks. Here are five highlights you won't want to miss on your trip.
Spot Condors Flying in Colca Canyon
The verdant Colca Canyon on the Colca River is Peru's third most visited tourist destination with good reason: it's incredibly beautiful. Located in southern Peru, near Arequipa, it's one of the world's deepest canyons. It's famous for being the home of the Andean condor, so it's an ideal destination for bird-watchers. To spot the famed condor flying from a privileged vantage point, hike to the Cruz del Condor lookout point.
The canyon also features dozens of hiking trails and breathtaking vistas. After a long day of outdoor activity, head to the nearby town of Chivay for a soak in one of the area's natural hot springs.
It's best to schedule your trip during the dry season between May and October. Outside that window, many of the best hiking trails may be washed out by the rain. If condor-spotting is your top priority, visit between June and September.
Encounter Pink River Dolphins in the Amazon Rainforest
More than half of Peru is covered by jungle and rainforest. The largest rainforest in the world is the Amazon River Basin, located in the northeastern part of the country. It's here that more than 20% of Earth's oxygen is produced, and it's also home to five million species of unique flora and fauna (and many yet to be discovered).
To say that this natural wonder is a must-visit would be an understatement. Yet the rainforest is so vast that figuring out where to go can be tricky. If you're looking for a trip down the Amazon River, start off in the Amazon Jungle region near Iquitos. The trip to this remote area is worth it: you'll see pink river dolphins and three-toed sloths, you can visit indigenous villages (which aren't easy to find in other parts of the rainforest), and you have the option of spending the night in some of the country's best luxury lodges.
If you're a bird-watcher, consider a trip to Manú National Park — the biosphere reserve is home to hundreds of bird species, including colorful macaws, as well as jaguars and spider monkeys. You can drive there from Cusco, and the scenery along the drive is magnificent.
Another destination to consider in the rainforest is Tambopata National Reserve, a beautiful area with several ecosystems on display. Highlights include 1300 species of butterflies and lovely Sandoval Lake, offering world-class canoeing.
Check out this article for more Amazon Rainforest highlights.
Hike Through Sacred Valley Landscapes
Just outside of Cusco, the Sacred Valley is a lush green region with a river snaking through it. This strategically positioned area — located in the Andean highlands between Cusco and Machu Picchu — was once the center of the Incan empire.
There's so much natural beauty to explore in this region, whether you're interested in watching llamas roam free in the fields or in embarking on a paragliding adventure over the Andes. There are several Incan ruins you can explore on the way to Machu Picchu, too, including the stone terraces at Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Moray.
If you have a few extra days to spare, the now insta-famous Rainbow Mountain (also known as Vinicunca) is near the Sacred Valley. You can hike and/or ride on horseback to this ultimate photo op as part of a challenging two- or three-day guided hike. Longer treks are also available, like this 11-day adventure that combines a visit to Vinicunca with Ausangate Mountain and other highlights. Just check the weather forecast first: the rainbow hues are at their most vibrant on a sunny day.
Pro tip: give yourself time to adjust to the altitude in Cusco before venturing into the Sacred Valley and its surroundings. Rainbow Mountain is 14,000 feet above sea level.
For more info on the Sacred Valley, read this article.
See Penguins in the Wild on Islas Ballestas
The Islas Balletas (Ballestas Islands), off the south coast of Peru, are a worthwhile destination for those interested in marine life. The islands are only accessible by boat from Paracas, near the town of Pisco, about an hour south of Lima.
Local tour operators offer boat excursions that last about two hours. From the helm of the boat, you'll see stone arches covered with sea lions and birds. You'll spot the blue-footed booby, penguins, and other rare seabirds. If you're lucky, friendly sea lions will swim right up to the boat.
On the way to and from the islands, you'll float by the famous Candelabra Geoglyph, a mysterious prehistoric etching found on the Paracas Peninsula. Be sure to bring your camera — and sunscreen.
Discover Lakes Around the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash
The Andes mountain range doesn't just offer some of the best alpine trekking and cycling in South America: they also feature some of the most breathtaking natural scenery on the continent.
Cordillera Huayhuash, for instance, is a place of unparalleled beauty. Located in central Peru, this range within the Andes has snow-capped peaks and emerald lakes. Tour options abound: if you're up for the challenge, you could spend between four and ten days hiking through the highest tropical mountain range in the world, stopping at beautiful lakes and icefalls along the way. Day hikes are possible, too.
Note that the best times for hiking here are May through September. Even then, you need to be well-prepared: the days can be quite warm, but high up in the Andes, temperatures dip below freezing at night. Check out this article for more info on hiking the Cordillera.
If high-altitude trekking is on your travel to-do list, you're in the right place. Find out where to go with this round-up of the best treks in Peru.