If you’re planning a gap year in South America, Peru is most likely on your itinerary! The Republic of Peru, once the home of the ancient and powerful Inca Empire, is bordered by both the Pacific Ocean and other South American countries. Conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, this land today is packed full of Inca ruins and archaeological sites, colonial leftovers and natural beauty so magnificent it is frequently off the scale. Exotic jungle, coastal desert and sky-scraping mountain tops are all here as are vibrant culture, incredible and accessible wildlife, wonderful cuisine and a menu of fun and exciting activities so diverse it could keep you occupied forever if you had the time.
We have purposely omitted an entry for the Inca city of Machu Picchu. This ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ inclusion is so obvious and so well-known we’re sure you’ll already have that on your must-do list. Here, instead, we have concentrated on some of the other essentials – some well tourist-trodden and some otherwise. There’s plenty more but our top 10 things to do in Peru will give you a taste of what’s possible in this amazing and magnetic country.
1.The Amazon Rainforest – A Dip in or Total Immersion
Most people think Brazil when the Amazon jungle is in question but Peru has a big slice all to itself – 13% of the entire rainforest in fact. Whether or not you know anything specific about the Amazon before you arrive here most of us have an image of wilderness, beauty, incredible wildlife and maybe even some Indiana Jones type adventuring. The good news is all of that is possible.
There are two main entry points for rainforest fun and escapades when you come at it from the Peruvian side – Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. Iquitos is an adventure in itself – the largest city anywhere on earth which is not accessible by road. Quite what you do from there is really your call – take a day tour in or set out for a hard core hike and multi-day camp with guides, take a safari boat tour, go swimming with the rare pink river dolphin (yes they’re pink and yes they are one of only 5 river dolphin species on the planet) or stroll 35 metres above the ground along the Amazon’s longest tree-top walkway.
2.Huacachina – A Village, A Sacred Healing Lagoon and Sand Everywhere
The beauty of a desert village located at a sacred Peruvian oasis ringed by swaying palm trees and totally surrounded by soaring dunes in every direction might be enough to draw the curious and lovers of the astonishing. People do indeed come here simply to gaze but most of the visitors venture here to sandboard the sky-scraping dunes or to scare themselves silly on a high speed dune buggy ride. Located 4 ½ hours south of Lima, Huacachina is actually so iconic – and not just among the sandboard sets – it actually features on the back of the 50 Nuevo Sol note.
If you are balance-challenged and standing up while moving at high speeds creates problems for you, no worries, you still get to play – lying down on a boogie board. One word of warning however – sand might well be soft to fall on but high speed tumbles on dunes leads to sand in places you didn’t know you had places.
3.The Nazca Lines – Thousand Year Old Monkeys, Sharks and Humming Birds from the Air
As with so many ancient things on earth no-one knows quite what the Nazca Lines are or what purpose they served but not everything about them is open to debate; almost unanimously folk agree the sight of these ages-old geoglyphs in the Nazca desert is beautiful, fascinating and not-to-be-missed.
Perhaps dating from around 400 AD, these UNESCO World Heritage listed series of designs were created by removing lines of pebbles from the top layer of ground to expose the white ground beneath. From hummingbirds to human figures, flowers to fish and sharks to spiders, the hundreds of figures cover almost 500 km² and just to give you an idea of size – the monkey alone is 93m x 58m.
Although exploration from the ground is possible the only way to truly take in the scale and beauty of this complex is from the air and there are many tour companies ready to take you aloft in tiny Cessna aircraft. This is one of those things which will sink a chunk of the travel budget but it definitely registers as worth it.
4.The Ballestas Islands – Playtime for Sea-lions and a Dolphin or Two
If you’re into your wildlife this is one not-to-be-missed experience. Dubbed the Peruvian Galapagos, the Ballestas Islands can be visited on a short boat tour from Paracas near Pisco in southern Peru. The Ballestas are simply bursting at the seams with bird and marine life, some of it of the rare variety. Feathered residents include Peruvian boobies, Inca terns, pelicans and penguins while the waters are home to sea-lions, turtles, dolphins and whales, all of which can be spotted on your trip. Sea-lions in particular tend to steal the show here – approaching tourist boats and for all the world looking as if their playful antics are intended for the sole purpose of delighting the tourists.
5.The Sacred Valley – Archaeological Discovery and Market Meanderings
The Andean situated Sacred Valley was once empire central for the Incas so it stands to reason that all kinds of fascinating ruins and evocative archaeological sites can be explored in and around here – a must for cultural connoisseurs. There are several villages here in the present day too, one of which – Pisac – has a wonderful and thriving morning market. Local markets are always a great way to immerse yourself in the colour, culture, sights and smells of another country and this is no exception. Whether you’re intent on accumulating bargain gifts and souvenirs or simply drinking in the rainbow colours and decorative headgear displayed as part of the local get-up of traditional choice, this is the place to be.
Otherwise, sign up for a guided tour of the region or go river-rafting, hiking, biking or horseback adventuring or just enjoy the high altitude landscapes of this region.
6. Lagunas de Llanganuco – A Tough Hike to Paradise…or a Bumpy Truck Ride
Situated just 26 km north-east from Yungay, in the Cordillera Blanca, the 1½ hour road to the lakes is slow going beside a canyon or alternatively it is a fairly challenging day hike. However you decide to arrive some thought has to be put into your journey but it is worth every ounce of effort it will take; the most valuable gems are always those more difficult to unearth. These jaw-droppingly beautiful, mountain surrounded lakes, situated just under 4000m above sea level, prove the truth of that. The varying blues of the waters here – ranging from vibrant aqua to sapphire – change with the progress of the day and its light and according to the whims of the weather.
You will find waterfalls here…..rowing boats to hire so you can drift aimlessly amid the grandeur of it all……places to picnic in natural splendour…..and you will certainly find yourself gaping open-mouthed on a regular basis.
7. Lima – Capital Exploration and Colonial Throw-backs
Often getting a somewhat black-tainted rap, Peru’s capital city is indeed a sprawling metropolis but it also has a rich history, fascinating culture, to-die-for food, a buzzing modern element and a colourfully vibrant night-life scene. There are wonderful museums, imposing and super-ornate cathedrals, spooky catacombs and all kinds of shopping options. In short it is simply bursting at the seams with all kinds of things to see and do – not always of the kind you’d expect a large urban area to provide – amid an architectural melting-pot backdrop of pre-Hispanic and colonial styles.
The 45 minute walk along the cliff tops from Miraflores to Barranco for spectacular views.
Head to San Isidro – an upscale district of the city – to lose yourself among the Bosque El Olivar olive grove dating from 1560. This little micro-cosmos is a world unto itself inhabited by doves, flycatchers and sparkling hummingbirds.
Free tours – Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 12.30 pm simply turn up at the Plaza Peru and let Lucid Lima take you on an hour and a half tour of the town.
8. Adventure Activities – Adrenalin Junkies Apply Here
Mention Peru and it is unlikely ‘adrenalin activities’ would be the first thing to spring to most minds but they are here by the bucket-load nonetheless. The diversity of options is far too broad to even begin to list here but includes rafting, kayaking, biking, zip lining, horseback riding, surfing, ATV, motocross, paragliding, canoeing and sand-boarding on giant dunes (see 2 Huacachina).
If scaring yourself silly or discovering brand new ways to go fast/get high above the earth/throw yourself off something/battle the forces of nature etc etc floats your boat then you’re going to have plenty to keep you busy in Peru.
9. Lake Titicaca – Floating Fantasy Islands
Lake Titicaca is famous for being the world’s highest commercially navigable lake but it is also home to the Uros tribe – an aboriginal people so ancient they pre-date the Incas. A privileged glimpse into the lives of these people is worth the journey here alone however the Uros have something rather special up their sleeve – their villages are all actually floating ‘islands’ made completely from reeds; this is where they build their beautiful homes.
The sight is so very different to anything else you might ever have seen you would be forgiven for thinking you have ended up on the set of some fantasy movie but this is very definitely for real. Day trips are easy to book from the nearby city of Puno.
10. Arequipa and the Colca Canyon – Condors, Volcanoes and Culture
Arequipa is Peru’s second most populous city which just happens to have a UNESCO World Heritage listed centre and scenic surroundings made up of no less than three volcanoes.
All woven into a beautiful tapestry are religious, colonial, and republican architectural styles along with fascinating heritage, natural scenery and cultural offerings guaranteed to satisfy even the most hard-to-please connoisseur visitor. It also happens to be the gateway to the Colca Canyon.
Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and bursting with scenery of the volcanic and spectacular kind, the Colca Canyon is popular with hikers and lovers of nature. Home to the rare and massive-winged (3.2 m to be precise) condor, the canyon is also the location for several mountain villages and settlements including Chivay with its stunning views and natural hot springs.