Some of these places are easy to get to while others require an intrepid spirit, a little bit of adventure, and the willingness to have some tough days on cramped buses. The seven destinations highlighted can be fairly easily connected by road and are laid out in an easy-to-follow geographic order. That said, many people choose to fly to Máncora and the Amazon to avoid long overnight buses or driving yourself.
If you have the funds — and speak passable Spanish — having your own wheels is a great way to really go beyond the tourist trail. As always, make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes and rain gear for the Peruvian Highlands, good boots for trekking, and tropical wear for beach days and your time in the Amazon. Bugs are a bother in lowlands, so bring DEET and light-long sleeve shirts. It's always smart to bring a flashlight along.
Trujillo will enchant you with its gorgeous colonial center, towering yellow churches, broad plazas and nearby ruins. Most people take anywhere from one to three days to explore the town and its surrounding areas. Start with a walking tour of downtown, trying to make it out to the well-preserved Chan Chan ruins close to sunset. The next day, you can go further afield with trips to the less-frequented ruins like Huaca Arco Iris, Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, and Hauca Cao Viejo.
Finish your time with a beach day just 10 minutes up the coast in the playful resort village of Huanchaco, where fisherman still ply the waters aboard surf-board like reed rafts (caballitos de totora), surf is good, and the food and nightlife last well into the night.
#2 Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca
If you love the mountains, trekking, and adventure, then the Cordillera Blanca is the place for you. Easily accessed from Lima, most excursions here start and end in the friendly, slightly bohemian and youth-friendly mountain village of Huaraz. From this nexus, take day trips or longer multi-day treks to Parque Nacional Huascarán, Laguna 69, the Cordillera Huayhuash and Cañon del Pato.
Don’t miss a day exploring the underground passageways and temples of the Chavín de Huántar ruins that were built by the pre-Inca Chavín culture between 1200 and 500 BC.
Visits to the North Coast of Peru are interesting studies in the connection between modernity, urban chaos, historic preservation and colonial splendor. The bustling colonial city of Chiclayo merits a little exploration for the culturally curious.
Start with a tour of the Witch’s Market in the central area, where you can pick up everything from snake skins, amulets, and charms to aphrodisiacs and hallucinogenic cacti. It’s found in the bustling Mercado Modelo, a fascinating exploration of modern commerce.
Arguably the best museum in all of Northern Peru, the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán has great exhibits on local archaeological finds and can keep you engaged for hours. Once you tire of the din of Chiclayo, turn to the coast to explore the rarely visited beach towns of Puerto Etén, Santa Rosa, and Pimentel. At these places you'll find locals on the beach, getting ready to launch their reed rafts.
Peru’s best coastal resort destination just doesn’t make it onto many travel itineraries. It’s too hard to get to, and too far from the biggest attractions. But if you can fit it into a tour of the North Coast, you will be rewarded with amazing sunsets, a gorgeous honey-kissed beach that seems to stretch forever, some of the best cuisine on the North Coast and excellent surfing.
Surfers will want to spend a few extra days up here, exploring the breaks at Los Organos, Cabo Blanco, Puerto Chicama, and Playa Lobitos. Add in a day for biking and tours of the nearby dry forest to round out your journey in the romance capital of the far north.
Situated in a little green valley in the Northern Highlands, Cajamarca gets you closer to Peru’s indigenous roots, fascinating history, and wonderful patchwork countryside. Highlights of your visit here will include time cruising the museums and historic churches of downtown, and checking out the hot springs at the historically significant Baños del Inca (where Inca King Atahualpa first met the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro).
You can also go on excursions further afield to the remote pre-Inca ruins at Kuntur Wasi and the Ventanillas de Otuzco necropolis. Splurging on a stay at a colonial-era hotel adds to the throwback charms of this Highlands village.
#6 Chachapoyas and Kuélap
You’ll need to take a harrowing bus ride to get to Chachapoyas and the enchanting ruins at nearby Kuélap. With amazing views all around, the ride alone could be a top point. Most people choose to base themselves in the laid-back market town of Chachapoyas. Surrounded by high altitude cloud forest, it’s a great kick-off point for hiking and trekking adventures.
The de rigueur experience here is a day exploring the grand fortressed ruins at Kuélap. Matched only by Macchu Picchu, this mystic place sees a fraction of the visitation. You’ll want to stay a few extra days if you can to take on a trek and visit off-the-beaten-path wonders like the funerary remains at Revash and Karajía, and excursions through the verdant Valle de Belén.
#7 The Amazon
The Amazon is a big place. You could easily dedicate an entire vacation to exploring here. The top trip is generally a flight out to Iquitos with two or three days in a jungle lodge. As you ply the riverways, you will spot wildlife (from Tapirs to Toucans), visit with indigenous peoples and explore large national parks. To go beyond the tourist trail, consider excursions in Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria in the North.