From colonial cities such as Cusco and Lima to the ancient ruins of the Sacred Valley, from the rainforest wilderness of the Amazon to the majestic Andean peaks along the Inca Trail, there are a million things to do in Peru.
In addition to history (see: Machu Picchu) and nature (see: Manú National Park), Peru is also home to some amazing indigenous cultures, from the Quechua of the Andes and the Uros of Lake Titicaca to the Ribereños who live in villages along the Amazon River.
It’s virtually impossible to experience it all in one trip. But here’s our brief guide to a few of our favorite things to do in Peru…
BIRDWATCHING IN MANÚ NATIONAL PARK
This biosphere reserve, the largest National Park in Peru at nearly 19,000 square kilometers, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Its numerous ecological zones– ranging from Amazonian rainforests to montane grasslands at elevations of nearly 14,000 feet– make it one of the world’s most biodiverse national parks. It’s a Mecca for diehard birdwatchers, boasting more than 1000 different avian species, including Cock-of-the-Rock, Hoatzin, Macaws, and Spix’s Guan.
EXPLORE THE SACRED VALLEY
Located in Peru’s Andean Highlands near the Inca capital of Cusco, the Urubamba Valley was beloved by the Incas for its natural wealth, such as abundant water and fertile farmland for growing maize. The “Sacred Valley” is home to numerous ancient archaeological sites, including the mountain terraces of Pisac, the amphitheater-shaped ruins at Moray, the impressive stone work at Ollantaytambo, which is the starting point for hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
GET TO KNOW THE QUECHUA PEOPLE
The Incas were not a people, but the ruling class of an iconic dynasty. The inhabitants of the Andes– the longest mountain range in the world– are predominately Quechua people, who speak the Quechua language. Their traditional style of agriculture, architecture, and textiles define the Spirit of the Andes, and they’ve been the heart of the region for around 600 years now. Cusco is an excellent place to familiarize yourself with their ancient, influential cultural traditions.
HIKE THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU
Built at the height of the Inca Empire in the mid-15th century, Machu Picchu is widely considered one of the world’s great archaeological wonders. The Inca Trail– actually three overlapping trails varying in length and difficulty– offers an exceptional opportunity to see the myriad breathtaking views en route to the mountain top, with permits limited to 200 trekkers per day. Altitude sickness is a concern in the Andes, so make sure to acclimatize before hitting the trail.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN ANDEAN CULTURE
Home to one of mankind’s greatest civilizations, the Andes offers a wealth of rich cultural traditions. Music and dance play an important role, and are often used in celebrations and as a method of communicating with various spirits and gods. Food here is more simple than that found on Peru’s coast, but try popular dishes such as Causa (a casserole of potatoes, avocado, egg and tuna or chicken) and Lomo Saltado (a stir-fry with strips of meat and a variety of vegetables).
MEET THE LOCALS ON LAKE TITICACA
Located at 12,507 feet of elevation on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Titicaca is considered the largest lake in South America by volume. It’s also arguably among the most beautiful, with large bird populations and more than 500 aquatic species. Five major river systems feed into the lake, and it has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated. This is the only place in the world you’ll find the Uros people, whose villages are essentially floating islands built from reeds.
SEE THE COLONIAL ARCHITECTURE IN LIMA
The capital of and largest city in Peru, Lima’s Historic Centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. It features some of the most exceptional examples of colonial archictecture in all of South America, much of it dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Attractions such as the Cathedral of Lima, the Convent of Santo Domingo, the Monastery of San Francisco, the Palace of Torre Tagle, and the Plaza Mayor showcase a range of Spanish influences, including Baroque, Colonial and Neoclassicism. Don’t miss the medieval Walls of Lima, which were built by the Spanish to defend the city from attacks by pirates.
SHOP FOR ANDEAN TEXTILES IN CUSCO
The Spanish conquered the Inca Empire in large part because of their gold. But for the Incas, their real treasure was the soft fleece of the alpacas and vicuñas they raised, which they wove into clothing, rugs, and tapestries. Today, soft alpaca fleece remains one of the world’s most prized, durable, thermal fabrics, available in 22 natural earth tones and a vivid array of dyed colors. When shopping, remember that garments knit from 100% alpaca do not have sewn seams. Visit the Center for Traditional Textures of Cusco Museum and Store to find a broad variety of high quality, Fair Trade textile products.
TAKE A BOAT RIDE IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
Covering approximately 40% of South America (2,720,000 square miles), the Amazon Basin is home to the largest rainforest in the world. And while the Brazilian section has fallen prey to more and more pollution and deforestation over the past few decades, the Peruvian Amazon remains relatively pristine. It’s home to a stunning array of wildlife, from myriad Monkeys and Bird species to pink Dolphins and Jaguars. If you have a chance, visit a Ribereños (River people) village and get to know about their traditional way of life.
TREK IN THE RAINBOW MOUNTAINS
Though considered a fairly difficult hike, the Ausangate Mountain trek offers hardy outdoor adventurers a rare opportunity to see one of Peru’s most beautiful natural attractions. The highest mountain in the Cusco region is part of the cordillera Vilcanota, with several passes at over 5,000 meters. You won’t see many other hikers along the way, but you will see soaring condors and pumas, soak in remote hot springs, camp alongside mountain lakes, and see the colorful sandstone mountains that make this one of the hardest, but coolest things to do in Peru! –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.