While Machu Picchu certainly is its biggest tourist draw and often completes the itinerary of a cool tour to South America, there are many more things to do in Peru that travelers often ignore. From visiting the beautiful capital Lima to the Amazon Rainforest to hiking in Pastoruri Glacier, this southern American country offers an exciting urban life and breathtaking natural landscapes.
Great things to do in Peru besides Machu Picchu
Peru is a country with a diverse landscape, ranging from the Andean highlands to the Amazon rainforest to the beaches along the coastline. Its land was home to most of the Inca civilization, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, and possibly the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century.
Most people go to Peru and only visit Machu Picchu. The wondrous ruins deserve a visit but there is much more to this country than just the New Wonder of the World. From mysterious ancient drawings to underrated waterfalls, we take a look at the top things to do in Peru besides Machu Picchu.
Lima is divided among tourists: some love it, others hate it. Either way, you’ll probably start your journey here in Lima, one of the best places to visit in Peru.
Peru is known to have the best cuisine in South America, and Lima is the unofficial gastronomical capital of South America. It is home to some world-renowned chefs and a couple of Top-10 Best Restaurants in the world. Make sure to try some ceviche – the national food of Peru!
Besides the food, Lima also has the biggest Chinatown in South America, a happening nightlife at Miraflores and Barranco, large colonial-style buildings at the Plaza de Armas and a gorgeous coastal landscape fit for paragliding and catching the sunset.
Cusco is the city where most travelers base their visits to Machu Picchu. However, the Cusco region has much to offer besides the archaeological site.
As the cultural capital of Peru, there are many cathedrals, markets, and museums to check out. There are even museums about coca leaves, chocolate, and potatoes!
The architecture in Cusco is heavily influenced by the Incas, and these influences can be seen throughout the city at some prominent buildings, the cobbled-stone streets, and ruins that litter the surroundings of the city.
Outside of the city, the Cusco region has some breathtaking views as part of the Andean mountains range. This region offers many day trips, day hikes, and multi-day trekking opportunities such as the Laguna Humantay and Ausangate Trek.
Combine your trip to Cusco with a trip to the Sacred Valley, a beautiful valley range of small towns, lakes, and historical sites.
You can choose to stay in one of the towns in the valley or do a day trip (or several) from Cusco. The popular sites are the markets and fortress of Pisac, weaving workshops of Chinchero, and the Ollantaytambo Terraces.
Another circuit well-worth going is the Maras salt mines and the Moray agriculture terraces. These two sites are some of the most photogenic man-made natural-looking spots in Peru.
Many have compared Choquequirao to Machu Picchu due to their similarities in style and architecture. They both were hidden and escaped the Spanish conquerors.
What sets Choquequirao apart from Machu Picchu is the tourists’ number. Fewer than 50 people visit Choquequirao each day, compared to the 3000 daily tourists at Machu Picchu. The crazy thing is that Choquequirao is bigger than Machu Picchu!
The exclusivity of Choquequirao is due to its remote location. To reach the site, you have to trek two days down and up a steep canyon to reach the ruins and another two days to return. The trek is challenging which is why there are so few tourists to the archaeological site. Choquequirao is the Real Lost City of the Incas.
If you are still wondering what to do in Peru, up in the north, you’ll find another major archaeological site that is referred to as the ‘Machu Picchu of the North’.
However, unlike Machu Picchu or Choquequirao, the Kuelap Ruins in the Chachapoyas region of Peru is a pre-Inca site. It was built by the Chachapoyas people, also known as ‘people of the cloud’.
It’s easy to see why they call themselves that as the site is located atop a mountain and at times, mist-covered. You can easily reach the site with the newly-built cable-car.
The architecture is different from Inca structures. They are circular and decorated with diamond-shaped carvings that are thought to be symbols of fertility. Some of these circular houses have deep fire pits and giant mortars.
The Chachapoyas civilization – and Kuelap site – was conquered by the Incas and later, abandoned after the Spanish arrival.
Nearby, in the Chachapoyas region, is a majestic waterfall hidden from the outside world for a long time.
The Gocta Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world at 771m. Like the name of the region, the top of the waterfall is mystically covered by clouds and the bottom of the fall disperses ethereally before hitting the pool.
Getting to the falls requires a 2-hour hike through a dense rainforest. You’ll break a sweat and pant a little, but you’ll be guided and enticed by the sound and glimpses of Gocta along the way.
Be warned – it’s tough to tear your gaze away from this magical waterfall when it’s time to leave!
The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, covering part of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
Rich biodiversity, tribal cultures and a slow pace of life are some of the reasons people head to the Amazon. Even getting there is an adventure in itself! It usually includes a motorized boat ride or a slow canoe ride through some of the most remote areas in the world.
The gateway to the Peruvian Amazon is Iquitos, but one can also go to the southern Amazon via Puerto Maldonado or Manu National Park.
The Colca Canyon in Southern Peru is a river canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and is widely regarded to be the second deepest in the world. It boasts challenging trails, gorgeous landscapes, circling condors, and remote traditional villages.
You can choose to view the canyon on a day trip or take on a 2 or 3-day trek through the canyon. On the final day, you’ll start your hike at 5 am and climb up over 1000m in a single morning! It’s not for the fainthearted, but there are horses for hire along the way.
Huacachina is the only natural desert oasis in South America and one of the things to do in 2 weeks in Peru. This tiny touristy village adds a touch of green and blue among the dull-brown of the massive sand dunes surrounding it. Rumour has it that the lagoon in the middle of town has therapeutic properties.
Most tourists visit Huacachina for the dune buggy ride across the high rolling dunes and to have a shot at sand-boarding down the dunes. They end the day by enjoying the stunning skyline as the sun dips down behind the dunes.
There are also artisanal and industrial vineyards near Huacachina where you get to see how Pisco – the national beverage of Peru – is made.
The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range in the Andean region of Peru. It is a renowned destination for trekking, hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and mountain biking.
A popular multi-day trek is the 4-day Santa Cruz trek, which takes you along some incredible landscape and passes by Alpamayo – once named the World’s Most Beautiful Mountain – and Artesonraju – the inspiration behind the logo of Paramount Pictures. The highest point of this trek is the Punta Union Pass at 4750m.
Located not too far away, the Huayhuash Circuit is an 8 to 12-day trek that is for the most hardcore adventurers. It’s like the Santa Cruz trek, but with more high altitude passes, more turquoise lakes and more glistening snow-capped peaks.
Most treks in the region are based in Huaraz. If you’re short of time, you can do a day hike to the stunning glacier lake, Laguna 69, or try your hands at mountaineering by scaling the peak of Nevado Mateo.
If you are still wondering what to do in Peru, the Pastoruri Glacier is also in the Cordillera Blanca but it deserves its own mention. This cirque glacier is one of the only few remaining in the tropical areas of South America, and global warming has caused it to shrink even more. Despite that, the Pastoruri Glacier has not lost its awe-inspiring presence. Standing in front of the glacier makes you feel tiny.
At 5000m above sea level, the climate is unpredictable. Getting to Pastoruri Glacier means battling the relentless sun one moment and pelting snow the next. But getting up close to the magnificent glacier, seeing the jagged angles of the wall and the clear white and blue tinge of the ice is all worth it.
Experts suggest that the glacier will disappear in 10 years, so, better to see it before it’s gone!
The Nazca Lines in Peru is a series of large ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, covering over 1000 square kilometers, the biggest of which stretches over 9 kilometers.
These enigmatic drawings can be fully appreciated by taking an aerial flight over the desert and they include geometric shapes, animals and one where some say is an alien. Nearby, the often neglected Palpa lines show a sundial, a family, and even a star-shaped ancient Mandala.
Scientists have discovered how these lines were created, although they couldn’t explain how it was done during a period without modern technology. Even more mysterious to researchers is why did the Nazca people draw these lines? What’s the purpose?
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable body of water at 3812m and is shared between Peru and Bolivia. In Andean belief, Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun as well as the birthplace of the Incas. You can find Inca ruins in the area.
There are numerous islands on the lake where you can visit to get a glimpse of how local indigenous people live, hike the rolling hills with terraced fields, try out traditional costumes, and even homestay with a local.
With hammocks hanging around green spaces and llamas roaming freely, there’s just something about the slow pace of life in the town that pulls you in and makes you want to relax longer than intended.
After Machu Picchu, the Rainbow Mountain is probably the most Instagrammed spot in Peru – and it’s easy to see why. This seven-colored mountain simply looks out of this world!
This surreal-looking mountain has only started receiving tourists in 2016 and its popularity has exploded exponentially. It is hard to take a photo without someone in the background.
Getting to the top of the mountain isn’t an easy task. The 2 to 3-hour hike starts at 4600m and rises to 5200m. The altitude makes it extremely tough on the lungs and is only recommended after you’ve acclimatized in Cusco. Fret not, there are horses for hire if it gets too tough.
The Lamas Castle is an oddity in Peru. This medieval-style castle is right smack in the Amazonas region of Peru, surrounded by trees, waterfalls, and villages.
Only a 30min ride from Tarapoto city, visitors can enter and explore this 5-level photogenic castle that is adorned with sculptures and emblems from the religious and renaissance period. The paintings on the ceiling tell a story and the crests of different houses exemplify the attention to detail in the castle.
Interestingly, the castle has no historical significance. It was built by an Italian businessman who simply wanted something that has great sentimental value to him.
Tips for Visiting Peru
Most of the attractions in Southern Peru are in the Andean highlands and it is advisable to get acclimatized before attempting any strenuous activity. Physical fitness, gender, and age do not determine if you will get altitude sickness. Avoid alcohol and pack along with some altitude sickness relief or Diamox. If all fails, you can always try the local remedy: have some coca tea!
The north of Peru, except the Amazon, is not frequented by tourists. This means that English is not widely spoken, so knowing some Spanish will be tremendously helpful.
The long-distance buses in Peru are comfortable and reliable. The different operators have placed a huge emphasis on safety, installing GPS, and showing safety videos at the start of a trip. Having said that, it is still advisable to keep your valuables with you and not in the upper storage compartment. Cruz del Sur is the most reliable bus company in terms of safety measures. Alternatively, you can check out PeruHop, a foreign-owned bus company with buses that run across the major tourist attractions and allow you to hop on and hop off at your own timing.
Best Time to Visit
If you like trekking, the winter season (June-August) is the best time as it is also the dry season. However, temperatures can get very low at night especially in high-altitude regions. The dry season is also ideal if you like wildlife and intend to visit the Amazon rainforest.
The dry season is also the most popular time of the year so sites can get very crowded. If you prefer culture, history, and the amazing cuisine in Peru, then it is best to avoid the peak season. Do note that out of the peak season, it can be harder to find English-speaking tour guides in the less-visited places.
Author Bio: Owen Ter is a travel blogger from Singapore. After graduating from university, he bought a one-way ticket to South America, backpacked for one year and visited all the countries on the continent. His favorite country is Peru where he spent over 3 months. He writes at My Turn to Travel. You can also follow him on Facebook or Instagram.
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