Peru Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

The Peruvian Incas, Llamas and deep dark jungles are enough to conjure up a magical image of Peru. But there is so much more for you to discover in this fascinating and diverse country that’s blessed with culture, attractions and activities to rival any other South American destination. Whether you seek a solo backpacking trip or a family vacation spot, numerous reasons abound for visiting Peru.
Peru Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Peru is home to numerous ancient ruins and archaeological sites. The jewel of Peru’s ancient sites, Machu Picchu is one of the most famous archeological wonders of the world. Situated in the Andes Mountains, the magnificent Inca site was built around the mid-15th century as a military fortress and later as an estate for Inca royalty.

The enigmatic Nazca Lines are also worth a look. Situated in the Nazca Desert, the Lines were created between the years 200 BC and 700 AD and the figures found here range from simple lines to stylized lizards, monkeys, spiders and human figures. The dry, stable, windless climate of the Nazca Desert is what has helped the lines remain uncovered to the present day. Take a round flight to view the lines.

The largest city in Peru and the country’s capital, Lima is a sprawling metropolis comprised of an architectural blend of pre-Hispanic, modern and colonial infrastructure. Founded in 1535, Lima boasts a rich history, exceptional food, a vibrant culture and thriving nightlife. Its historic district has the most interesting attractions such as palaces, churches and monasteries.

The former heartland of the Inca, Sacred Valley is situated in the Andes. The valley was appreciated by the Incas for its special climatic and geographical qualities. The region is today home to many archaeological remains and villages, including the Inca city of Pisac which has a very attractive market worth visiting.

The impressive Sacsayhuaman Inca ruins near Cusco are another site worth visiting. Sacsayhuaman is an enormous ancient walled complex that’s constructed out of large limestone boulders.

A trekker’s paradise, Peru offers distinct environmental regions that provide great trekking options with plenty of trails to choose from. One of the most popular treks is the descent into Canon del Colca near Arequipa. You may also go on multi-day treks into the Peruvian Amazon Basin or go on a high altitude trek into the Andes Mountains from Huaraz.

With multiple national parks, reserves and sanctuaries, nature lovers have no excuse not to visit Peru. Any visit here will not be complete without a tour of Peru’s share of the Amazon rainforest. Expect to encounter many bird species, jaguars, cougars and of course an abundance of marine life courtesy of the Amazon River.

Each year, tourists flock Peru to explore the incredible attractions and discover its ancient heritage. Once home to the expansive Inca Empire, Peru today boasts a rich heritage and is packed with archaeological remnants and historic architecture. Add to this the country’s spectacular natural beauty and what you have is an outstanding travel destination.

1. Machu Picchu

Set within a mystical landscape of high mountains and forests, Machu Picchu is a beautiful lost city once inhabited by an ancient civilization that previously ruled the continent.

Situated in the Cusco region, Peru’s most famous attraction, Machu Picchu is believed to date from the period of two great Incas spanning from 1438 to 1493. The site’s hilltop location suggests that it played a defensive role like a fortress, although it is also thought to have been a type of royal estate or retreat.

Machu Picchu features 2 distinct areas: the urban or residential zone and the agricultural zone. The site is sometimes broken down into 4 distinct quarters: a royal quarter, a religious quarter, an industrial quarter and a farmers’ quarter near the terraces. The hundreds of agricultural terraces helped feed Machu Picchu’s population.

The residential area has more than 170 buildings of varying sizes and functions. Over 100 stone stairways connect the upper and lower levels of the site. It is estimated that only about a thousand people lived in and around Machu Picchu at any one time.

The first important site you will see when you enter the ruins is the Temple of the Sun, a tower-like wall that displays the finest stonework of the Incas. Many of the stones used in construction of Machu Picchu weigh more than 50 tons. Highly skilled stonemasons, the Incas cut each stone to precisely fit with the next rather than using cement to bind the stones used in Machu Picchu’s walls.

The visible areas of Machu Picchu account for less than half the construction achievements. It is believed that about 60% of the construction lays underground, providing drainage and foundation for the walls and buildings. A long water canal channels water from springs on the Mountain into the agricultural and residential areas.

However, construction of Machu Picchu was never fully completed as the site was abandoned during the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, leaving numerous unfinished buildings.

Machu Picchu covers an area of about 32,500 hectares of tropical mountain forest. The Huayna Picchu Mountain rises above Machu Picchu and offers an adventure opportunity for hikers brave enough to hike up the narrow trails up to its peak.

The area surrounding Machu Picchu is home to several fascinating animals including the Andean condor, the pampas cat, the long-tailed weasel, the spectacled bear and the Andean cock-of-the-rock.

Entrance into Machu Picchu is limited to 2,500 visitors a day to help reduce the negative impact of tourism on the site and its surrounding areas.

2. Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are among the most marvelous archaeological features on Peru’s southern coast. The Nazca Lines comprise hundreds of lines, shapes and figures laid out across Peru’s Nazca Desert. The complex system of lines covers some 500 square kilometers of arid flats in the southern region of Peru.

About 800 lines make up 300 geometric figures known as geoglyphs, as well as roughly 70 animal and plant depictions known as biomorphs. The biomorphs range from monkeys, lizards, hummingbirds and human figures, a killer whale and a condor.

It is believed that the Nazca Lines were built by the Paraca people between 900 BC and 600 AD, with some recent additions by the Wari settlers being built around 700 AD. While the actual origin and purpose of the Nazca Lines remain a mystery, archaeologists and mathematicians have come up with various theories.

Some believe the Nazca Lines were built to link ceremonial sites or were used as a type of calendar for mapping out the best times of the year for planting and harvesting crops. Others still believed the lines were created for the purpose of water worship.

A good way to view the Nazca Lines is by taking a flight over the Nazca Desert which offers stunning aerial views of the geoglyphs. Your pilot will try their best to provide you with a good view of each major geometric shape or zoomorphic design. While the best way of viewing the Nazca Lines is from the air, ground tours can also be informative and educational.

One of the most notable geoglyphs is the Whale, which is often the first geoglyph you will see after you take off from the airport. This is one of the simpler designs that are easy to make out from the air. You will see several spiral-shaped designs while flying above the Desert, both as standalone patterns and incorporated into zoomorphic geoglyphs, such as the Whale’s eye.

The whale was a central god within the Nazca civilization’s religious belief system, as were the other animals that appear in as the Nazca geoglyphs. Look out for a second whale known as the Killer Whale.

The Astronaut is one of the most famous Nazca geoglyph. Set in a hillside location, the anthropomorphic figure is a Paracas-era geoglyph that predates many of the other famous designs. The figure measures approximately 32 meters tall.

The spiral tailed Monkey is roughly 100m long and 58m tall. Similar representations of monkeys appear on Nazca ceramics. Like many of the Nazca geoglyphs, the Monkey is a single-line drawing, which means that if you for instance step onto the hand of the Monkey, you could walk all the way to the center of its tail without stepping off the line.

The Dog measures 51m long and is believed to represent an ancestor of the modern-day Peruvian Hairless dog, a breed that was kept by both pre-Inca and Inca cultures living along the coast of Peru.

At 134m long, the Condor is one of the largest zoomorphic geoglyphs of the Nazca Desert. This geoglyph is also called El Chaucato, which is the local name for the long-tailed mockingbird that inhabits Peru’s southern coastal regions.

The Spider measures 45m and is believed by some to be an anamorphic representation of the Orion constellation. The Hummingbird is one of the most famous geoglyphs of the Nazca Desert which measures 97m and has a wingspan of 66m.

The Alcatraz measures 285m and is one of the largest zoomorphic figures of the Nazca Desert. Its winged body, trailing legs and tail feathers rest at the end of an impressively long, zigzagging neck. Also known as the Pelican, the Phoenix, the Cormorant or the Flamingo, the Alcatraz derives its name from the archaic Spanish word for “pelican”.

The Parrot is one of the less obvious of the Nazca geoglyphs. Look out for the beak and wattle which are the easiest details to spot. The end sections of the Parrot appear to be hidden beneath later lines.

The Tree geoglyph comprises a central trunk with radiating branches and a series of roots. The Hands geoglyph features a human hand with 4 fingers and a thumb, connected to a 4-fingered hand that appears to have 3 fingers and a thumb. This mysterious sight has left the design of the Hands open to interpretation.

3. Lima

Dubbed the “City of Kings”, the Peruvian capital of Lima offers enough things to do to warrant an extended stay.

Your first stop in Lima should be the charming historic center. Stop by Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor, which rests at the heart of the historic center in Lima. This is the spot at which Lima was founded in 1535. Visitors can admire the colonial fountain which is centerpiece of the square, as well as some of the most important buildings in Lima which surround this historic plaza.

Plan your visit around noon to watch the changing of the palace guard at Palacio de Gobierno, which is the official home of the president of Peru. Other photo opportunities include Catedral de Lima, the palace of the Archbishop and City Hall, both of which are adorned with ornately carved wooden balconies.

Another fine religious building worth visiting is the San Francisco Monastery whose interiors offer an oasis of calm in the midst of the city’s hustle and bustle. Its rooms are a showcase of beautifully preserved Baroque architecture, gilded altars and religious artworks.

Don’t miss the Monastery library with its massive books and magical ambience. Also tour the catacombs where the bones of approximately 75,000 bodies lie stacked.

Lima is home to many fine museums full of treasures from the country’s pre- and post-colonial periods that offer some historical bearings for travelers heading off to the numerous archaeological sites.

Museo Larco features mummies and ancient erotic artworks, while Museo de la Nacion has a vast collection of thousands of artifacts. Museo de Historia Natural offers great insights into Peru’s flora and fauna. Also visit the Museo Nacional Del Arqueología, Antropologia, e Historia Del Peru. There are also some great art museums worth visiting while in Lima.

Visitors can also take a peek at Huaca Pucllana, built around 300 to 700 AD by the Lima Culture and which comprises a large adobe-brick pyramid situated in Miraflores.

Miraflores is one of the trendiest districts in Lima that’s full of stylish restaurants, fancy bars and upscale discos. Take a stroll down from central park to the coastal cliffs where you will find the picturesque seafront strip of El Malecon, with is modern sculptures, pristine parks, and spectacular sea views.

Peru is world-famous for its ceviche, a mix of raw fish, onion and chili pepper marinated in lime. Seafood lovers visiting the country must visit one of Lima’s top cevicherias. There are also plenty of cooked seafood alternatives available.

Visit Parque de la Reserva and its Magic Water Circuit that comprises 13 fountains. Some of the fountains are interactive and great to photograph during nighttime shows when they are illuminated.

Then head over to Barranco, the bohemian quarter of Lima which is home to poets, artists and an exceptional nightlife. Go on a daytime stroll in this small district past colorful restaurants, stylish cafes and some fine examples of 18th century architecture. Walk across the El Puente de Los Suspiros, a quaint wooden bridge situated at the top of stone steps that wind down to the beaches.

Tour some of the grand-colonial mansions that have been lovingly preserved, complete with the furnishings and personal effects of their original owners. Casa de Pilatos is one such notable mansion with its wooden balconies and grand stairway. Casa de Oquendo is a 19th century mansion complete with watchtower.

Cerro San Cristobal is one of the most prominent landmarks in Lima which offers panoramic views of the city. On a clear day, standing at the top you will be able to see right across Lima all the way out to the sea.

4. Sacred Valley

For thousands of years, the Sacred Valley with its fertile land and great climate has been a key agricultural region of the Inca and their descendants. The Sacred Valley was the center of the vast Incan Empire. Some of the stonework precision found in the Sacred Valley is even more dazzling than what you will see at the Machu Picchu ruins.

Flanked by two rivers, the Sacred Valley boasts a beautiful landscape that is home to the villages of Quechan descendants who still maintain the rites and customs of their ancestors.

Most villages within the Sacred Valley have Incan ruins, which is proof of the growth and prosperity of the ancient empire. The agricultural terraces and intricate fortresses still in use are wonderful examples of the masterful craftsmanship of ancient architecture.

The extensive ruins of the Sacred Valley extend from the villages of Pisac to Ollantaytambo, and in the northern end of the narrow valley to the Machu Picchu citadel.

The village of Pisac makes for a great base to explore the Sacred Valley. Situated on the banks of the Urubamba River, Pisac is a lovely village with ancient ceremonial baths fed by aqueducts, in addition to one of the largest known Incan cemeteries.

The Pisac ruins can be accessed by climbing up the hill to the mountaintop where you can look over the Sacred Valley. These ruins are famous for having small, intricately positioned stones that perfectly fit together in an ancient craftsmanship that rivals even that of the magnificent Machu Picchu.

The Pisac ruins are also famous for the intricate agricultural terraces, which wrap around the mountain and are joined by footpaths and stairs at the edges of the mountain cliffs. Once at the top, you will find a huge stone doorway leading to stone stairs and eventually a tunnel carved from rock.

You will then enter the ceremonial center which features a number of working water channels and temples with incredible stonework. Walk further along the path and you will come across Inca tombs and the ritual baths.

Pisac also has a lovely, colorful market worth visiting. The Pisac Market offers a great spot to experience the flavor of a picturesque Andean town market. The biggest market of the week is held on Sunday, with smaller markets taking place on Tuesday and Thursday.

On Sunday you will see men in traditional clothing blowing horns in a colorful procession leading to the main square where the market is held. Here you will find locals bargaining over fresh produce in the main market. You can also shop for some locally made quality handicrafts, ceramics and hand-painted beads.

The market also has a beer tent in which locals gather to unwind to the songs of a brass band. The beautiful scenery and friendly atmosphere of Pisac is so inviting that you may be tempted to stay overnight.

5. Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman is an archaeological site situated north of the city of Cusco, whose name translates to “the ceremonial place where the hawk is satisfied”.

Sacsayhuaman is comprised of multiple layers, with multiple walls located one behind the next. The construction consists of 3 overlapping platforms connected via doors and stairs made out of stone. Each platform represents the 3 levels of the Inca belief system. The first represents death, the second life and the third the divine.

Construction of Sacsayhuaman dates from the reign of the Pachacutec and Tupac Yupanqui. The site is believed by some to be a fortress, while others hold that it was a ceremonial center used for religious purposes. Not everyone had access to the Sacsayhuaman site, as it was intended for the privileged.

It is further believed that construction was carried out by about 20,000 men over the course of decades. You can therefore appreciate the impeccable architectural and engineering feats in the giant rocks that incredibly fit with exact precision. This is really amazing because the rocks are of different shapes and sizes.

The building itself is unique and special with some stones so massive that you will wonder how they were carried. It remains a mystery how the Incas could cut stone with such ingenuity and skill that not even a sheet could enter between two stones.

There are also figures designed on rocks and stones, at the entrances to underground tunnels, the amphitheater and ritual sites, which are believed to be related to the civilization’s worship of water. Many of the walls feature images carved by the Incas and many rocks feature singular forms such as the famous claw cougar and have designs on them.

6. Lake Titicaca

A stunning and inspiring spot, Lake Titicaca consists of a high altitude body of water surrounded by the impressive landscapes of the Peruvian Altiplano. The largest freshwater lake in South America and the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca is one of about 20 ancient lakes on Earth which is believed to be roughly 3 million years old.

A boat trip to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca is a must for travelers seeking a unique destination. The islands are made from totora reeds that provide a home, sustenance and transportation for the Uros. The resident Uros create their homes from these reeds.

The totora is a type of reed that grows native in the lake. Its dense roots support the top layers which rot and must be regularly replaced by stacking more reeds on top of the layer underneath. The size of the islands change with more being created as need arises. The island surface is thin, uneven and likened to walking on a waterbed.

Part of the Titicaca national Reserve that protects more than 60 native bird species, fish and amphibians, the lake has three islands: Santa Maria, Toranipata and Huaca Huacani.

Santa Maria is the largest of the 40+ islands and the main destination for visitors to the floating islands. Situated about a 2 hour boat ride from the city of Puno, the floating islands are home to the Uros, an ethnic group that pre-dates the Incan civilization.

The floating islands are situated in the Bay of Puno and are home to about 2,000 or so Uros who live by fishing, weaving and now tourism. Their reed boats typically feature an animal face or shape and make for popular photographic subjects. The residents of Lake Titicaca also offer their handicrafts for sale.

7. Chan Chan

Chan Chan means “Sun Sun” and comprises an enormous mud-brick settlement that is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. Situated on the northern coast of Peru close to Trujillo, Chan Chan was the former capital of the Chimu Kingdom (850-1470 AD). The city reached its peak between 1200 and 1470 AD when it was conquered by the Inca.

Chan Chan comprises an area of 2.5 square miles and features some ten enclosed palace complexes, thirty-five elite residential compounds and thousands of smaller rooms. The population of Chan Chan has been estimated at about 30,000 or more.

The core of Chan Chan features palaces and compounds constructed for and by the Chimu Kings. The surrounding compounds were the smaller residences of the lower nobility, which were in turn surrounded by residential barrios. The barrios housed the artisan families that specialized in stone, metal, wood, textile and shell working.

The belief system of the Chimu is on display for all to see in the city of Chan Chan. The city’s great walls showcase their inhabitant’s devotion to the ocean, while mythological reliefs are prominent all over.

The most impressive thing about Chan Chan is that the enormous ancient city had a water management system to support its agricultural and industrial operations. An 80 kilometer canal was created from the rivers, which enabled the city to grow as large as it did.

The adobe city of Chan Chan was built using mud which would have failed in any other climate, were it not for the desert air that created the solid structures that remains to this day.

This ancient city not only impresses with its material choice, but also for its formal layout that reflects its political and social values. The triangular city comprises 10 citadels, with some of the walls rising 50 feet. The wealthy lived closest to the centre while most of the population lived outside, with some not allowed to enter the city’s core.

8. The Amazon Basin

The Amazon Basin is an empire of water. Coursing through an area measuring 11 square miles, the mighty Amazon is home to more than a quarter of the water currents of the world. The volume of its rivers represents half of all the water movement that occurs on the planet.

Drawing liquid from 8 different countries and sending it far into the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon Basin spans a maximum of 118 miles in width and contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. It is for this good reason that it is dubbed the “river sea”. You could literally spend a lifetime exploring the vast interior of the Amazon Basin, most of which is inaccessible – no human having yet laid eyes on it.

In Peru, the Amazon Basin lies to the east of the Andes Mountains. A transition zone stretches from the eastern foothills of the Andean highlands into the vast reaches of the low jungle. This region of highland jungle and cloud forest is referred to as the “eyebrow of the jungle”.

East of this are dense relatively flat lowland jungles with rivers replacing the roads as the main modes of public transportation. Here you will find boats plying the wide tributaries of the Amazon river, before reaching the grand river itself, stretching past the jungle city of Iquitos and on to the coast of Brazil.

The Peruvian jungle spans 63% of the country’s territory but only contains 11% of the population of Peru. With the exception of large cities such as Iquitos, settlements within the low Amazon are typically small and isolated. Almost all the jungle settlements are situated on a riverbank or on the banks of a lake.

Extractive industries such as mining, logging and oil production continue to threaten the health of the Peruvian jungle and its inhabitants. Despite both national and international concerns, indigenous peoples such as the Ashaninka and Shipibo are still struggling to maintain their tribal rights within the jungle territories of their ancestors.

One good way of experiencing the Amazon Basin is by trekking through its jungle. Many Peruvian wildlife reserves and national parks enable visitors to get up close with the wildlife of the Amazon within their natural habitats.

Many parks offer guided hikes to specific sections of the rainforest which will give you the opportunity of seeing many unique animals including giant river turtles, pink river dolphins, various monkey species, manatees and if you’re lucky, a jaguar. You will also enjoy the great diversity of flora found here.

A trek can last anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks and will typically involve a great deal of canoeing to reach deeper into the forest. Most treks include bird watching, piranha fishing, searching for anacondas and of course, a lot of trekking.

Situated in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, the Manu National Park features great diversity and opportunities for trekking in the Amazon. Another good option is the Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samira of Peru, which boasts more than 100 mammal species, 500 bird species, 250 fish species and 22 orchid species. This nature reserve is the largest and one of the best conserved protected areas of Peru.

Cruising Rio Amazonas is another great way to experience the Amazon Basin. Extending a total length of 6,400km or 4,000 miles, Rio Amazonas or the Amazon River is the world’s second longest river after the Nile.

The river serves as the only highway for numerous isolated towns within the dense forest that have no access to roads. Both locals and tourists have to use the thousands of tributaries of the river to get from one destination to the next. To get up close to the wildlife, your best bet is to take on the river in stages, making stops along the way while exploring the smaller feeders and flooded forests of the Amazon.

Participating in an ayahuasca tea ceremony is perhaps the most mysterious way of experiencing the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca means “vine of the souls” and is regarded by many to be the king of all hallucinogens. This is probably the closest you will ever come to visiting another planet, because when you drink ayahuasca, everything about this planet will change.

Taken as a tea, ayahuasca has for millennia been consumed for healing and divinatory purposes within the South American Amazon region. Whereas most other hallucinogens can be consumed for recreational purposes, ayahuasca is different. When consumed, it generates such an intense experience that it is recommended for use only within an environment in which you feel safe and secure.

That said, there are plenty of locations throughout the Amazon Basin at which you can consume ayahuasca in a safe environment. In Peru, you can find shamanistic lodges in Iquitos that brew the tea and have a shaman on hand to guide you through its consumption.

9. Canon Del Colca

Believed to be the deepest canyon in the world, Canon Del Colca is a deep canyon with inhabitable parts featuring pre-colonial terraced fields that continue to support human life and agriculture. The canyon is home to amazing attractions such as the Andean condors.

The highlight of your canyon tour will be a stop at Cruz Del Condor, the pass at which condors soar gracefully on the rising thermals that occur as the air warms. Go there early to watch the condors in flight, which makes for an unforgettable experience. The floor of the canyon is 1200m below the viewing area and there are no railings so do watch your step.

After a fun day of touring the canyon, head over to the La Calera hot springs at Chivay for a wonderful way of relaxing. You can also tour the Toro Muerto cemetery of the Wari Indians. The Wari buried their dead in the fetal position at this site which is built in a 90 degrees steep cliff face. Seeing this final resting place will leave you wondering how the burial party managed.

While in the neighborhood, you can also go rafting on Rio Colca if you love thrills. This will give you great views from the river up the walls of the canyon.

Canon Del Colca is at its most beautiful and safest during the dry season. Access to Canon del Colca is via Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city which is also known as “white city” due to the white volcanic ash stone used for construction. Arequipa is situated roughly 3 hours drive away.

10. The Andes

The Andes are the longest mountain chain in the world and include many of the highest peaks of the western hemisphere. The Andes are home to thousands of animal species, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, as well as several rare and endangered species.

The Andes are also home to the Atacama Desert, which is the driest desert in the world, as well as the Andean Plateau, which is the second-highest plateau in the world. Situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Andes also feature Ojos Del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world.

Although long, the Andes are also narrow and experience highly variable climate. Temperatures in the Andes range from freezing to temperate, with snow-capped peaks rising out from the fertile valleys.

The Andes comprise a chain of mountains extending 4,300 miles along the western coast of South America, and bisecting 7 countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

The Peruvian Andes are part of the Central Andes which extend through Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. These tend to experience a more seasonal variation than the northern Andes, with habitats in this region fluctuating between the dry and wet seasons.

In Peru, the Andes Mountains stretch out like the ridged back of a giant beast, separating the eastern and western flanks of the country. The Andes’ western side is dryer and less populated than the eastern side which is rugged and cold at high altitudes. The east also plunges down into tropical foothills and cloud forests.

Another key feature of the Andes is the altiplano or high plains region in southern Peru. This windswept region is home to vast expanses of puna grassland, in addition to lakes and active volcanoes.

A paradise for lovers of hiking, the Peruvian Andes feature numerous hiking trails on which adventurous travelers can spend weeks winding along isolated mountain trails.