Other South American countries may have their attractions, but only Peru was the capital of an empire–twice. From the time of the Incas in the 15th century to that of the Spanish viceroyalty in the 16th, 17th, and 18th, Peru was a place of imperial riches and splendor. With its Andean fortresses and colonial cathedrals, Inca stonework and Sevillian azulejo tiles, no wonder choosing the best places to visit in Peru is so difficult. The country is an embarrassment of marvels.
Those marvels start with Machu Picchu, the world-famous Inca citadel. But they by no means end there. From the adobe city of Chan Chan in the north to the otherworldly Nazca lines in the south, the country boasts an archaeological legacy stretching back 5,000 years. On blustery Lake Titicaca, a local tribe preserves its millennial custom of weaving whole islands out of lake-grown reeds. In Caral, just north of Lima, winds whip through the pyramids where civilization in the Americas first arose.
Peru is more than just ancient history. In cities like Lima and Arequipa, a gastronomic explosion has made it the hemisphere’s top foodie hotspot, with a horde of culinary tours and festivals. For nature lovers, the vast Amazon jungle teems with flora and fauna; further south, rafters can navigate a gorge twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
Peru’s trove of treasures is near inexhaustible. Here is our pick of the best places to visit in Peru, the imperial land of the Incas.
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The Andes’ most famous ruin, rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, needs no introduction. No matter how many Instagram snapshots you’ve seen, they can’t come close to the mystic stonework and sublime geometry of the real thing. For those staying overnight, an abundance of secondary marvels—from sugarloaf promontories to Inca sun gates—awaits.
The Incas’ legendary capital is a place of enchantment. Solar temples and colossal native palaces fuse with baroque Spanish cathedrals in a city where two worlds collide. Highlights include Sacsayhuaman, the most imposing Inca fortress ever built, and quirky San Blas, a neighborhood of local artisans and quaint cafés.
The Urubamba Valley was the Incas’ heartland, and when you travel through by bus or luxury train, you’ll see why. The ceremonial complexes here, including those at Choquequirao and Pisac, are among the most awe-inspiring the Americas have ever produced. Don’t miss the fortress town of Ollantaytambo, the only remaining Andean village that’s exactly as the Incas left it.
Peru’s kinetic capital positively hums with energy. From the colonial monuments of its plaza de armas to the posh eateries of Miraflores and Barranco, the city electrifies via its architecture, food, and nightlife. Don’t miss the nightly danzas folklóricas, with their whirling, colorfully clad performers, or the raucous peñas, showplaces of Afro-Peruvian música criolla.
The world’s highest navigable lake is also a living repository of indigenous cultures. Its people, inhabiting postcard-perfect islands like the Uros, Taquile, and Antamani, are the guardians of a heritage that dates back to before the Incas. Interested in experiencing the residents’ lifestyles? Homestays with local families are available.
If you’re looking to go off the grid, Peru’s southern rainforest is the place to do it. Remote and largely untouched by civilization, it’s the site of two of the continent’s most pristine parks for wildlife watching, as well as countless exotic flora and fauna. One Tambopata clay lick is so crowded with macaws, it’s one of the top birding sites in the world.
For those wanting to stay at a jungle lodge or take an Amazon cruise, Iquitos, one of Peru’s oddest cities, is your point of departure. Floating markets, stilt-raised huts, and iron architecture by Gustav Eiffel give this frontier town a personality unlike any other. Don’t miss the pink river dolphins: legend has it they spirit visitors away to an underwater hideout.
Peru’s “white city” is considered by many to be its most beautiful—and to have its best food. A short early-morning jaunt takes you to see Colca Canyon, with its Inca terraces and famous “Condor Crossing,” while inside the city itself, colonial convents and Inca mummies whisper secrets of a remote past.
Archaeologists and pilots continue to discover new geoglyphs at Nazca, ground zero for one of Peru’s most mysterious civilizations. Meanwhile, further up the coast, Ica’s bodegas allow wine lovers to sample Peruvian vintages and piscos at bargain prices. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, dune-buggies and sandboarding at Huacachina, a nearby oasis, will give you your fix.
Located just 100 miles south of Lima, this coastal resort offers luxury hotels and outings in high-speed launches. Sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and dolphins serve as the welcome committee. If you’re archaeologically minded, don’t skip the vast Paracas necropolis, with its bottle-shaped tombs and stunning textiles.
Peru’s north coast was home to two great pre-Inca civilizations, the Moche and Chimú. When you visit, you’ll find a legacy of adobe pyramids, silverwork, and grisly human sacrifice. High points include Chan Chan, a strange geometric city full of echoing royal vaults, and the tomb of El Señor de Sipán, the most fabulous gravesite ever excavated in the Americas.
Visit the Best Places in Peru
Travel to Peru with South American Vacations to experience the best places to visit in this fascinating country. South American Vacations offers personalized small group or private tours to all parts of Peru.
See Also: The Peru Export and Tourism Promotion Board website.
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.