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14 highlights of travel in Peru, from the Andes to the Amazon

From slick city restaurants pioneering modern cuisine to remote rainforest treks, we bring you the best of this South American country.

Published 1 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST, Updated 4 Feb 2022, 14:44 GMT
Farming in the Andes near Urubamba

Farming in the Andes near Urubamba.

Photograph by Robert Harding

The heartland of the great Inca Empire, there’s more to Peru than Machu Picchu. This South American country is home to peak-studded landscapes, where exotic birds chatter among the mountainside burial chambers of ancient ‘cloud warriors’, and soul-stirring archaeological wonders can be found everywhere from hilltops and coastlines to just beyond the city limits. This is a place of dramatic landscapes, from rainbow-hued peaks to cascading — yet little-known — waterfalls. Meanwhile, in the lush Amazon rainforest, you'll find yourself trekking — or sleeping — amid a vast array of wildlife. Yet, for all its ancient attractions and unique natural assets, Peru is also a land of modernity and progress, with cities such as Lima, Arequipa and Cusco increasingly playing host to world-beating dining and creative artistic communities. In short, this is a country that has it all.

1. The Lares Trek

The Inca Trail may get all the glory — and with it, the crowds — but the Lares Trek is a blissfully quiet alternative. Usually starting in the town of Lares, around 40 miles north of Cusco, and ending at Machu Picchu, this network of routes will have you hiking at altitude with little company other than grazing llamas. Climbing the steep slopes of the southern Peruvian Andes, the trek reaches mountain pastures and passes at 13,000ft, from which you can take in the peaks and lakes of the Sacred Valley in all their glory. The trek usually takes around three days, punctuated by stops at traditional villages and archaeological sites such as Pisac and Ankasmarka, before arriving at the headliner: Machu Picchu. As for the nights, choose between homestays, luxury lodges or camping out under the star-filled sky.

Read more: Hiked the Inca trail? Try Peru's Lares Trek

Sands in shades of red and yellow, pastel pink and mint green drape themselves over Rainbow Mountain.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Rainbow Mountain

Vinicunca has an undeserved reputation for looking better in pictures than it does in real life; absurdly edited photos hang in practically every travel agent’s window in Cusco. Yet, when the sun’s shining, the peak also known as Rainbow Mountain more than lives up to its nickname. A three-hour drive from Cusco and a challenging hike up to an altitude of more than 16,400ft brings you to the perfect point from which to view the multicoloured mountain. Sands in shades of red and yellow, pastel pink and mint green — caused by oxidised iron sediment — drape themselves over the peak. And while you’re unlikely to be alone, it’s worth climbing the final few metres for better views over the heads of the other hikers. Afterwards, those who still have energy — and their breath — can walk a short distance further to another descriptively named natural wonder: the Red Valley.

3. Cusco

It may be the gateway to the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley, but Cusco is so much more than a jumping-off point. Take the time to get to know it and you'll find a city that manages to combine Inca heritage, colonial history and a contemporary creative sensibility. The historic centre is where the Inca once held religious ceremonies, but most architectural traces of that civilisation were wiped out by the Spanish, who rebuilt in their own style. And that's what can be seen today: colonnades, squares and a huge number of churches. Some of the most striking (including the cathedral) are to be found on Plaza de Armas, but further towards the edge of town are Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, as well as the 'White Christ' (Cusco's answer to Rio's Christ the Redeemer), which dates to the mid-20th century. Beyond that, the city has first-rate food, spanning everything from Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine to vegan fine dining, and an arts and crafts scene centred around the hip San Blas neighbourhood.

4. Revash and Leymebamba Museum

Until recently, the Amazonas region, in Peru's far north, was little visited by foreign travellers — but new domestic flights from Cusco to Jaen's tiny airport have made it more accessible than ever. Here, you can hike through Peru's northern Andes to reach attractions including Gocta Falls, a huge waterfall unknown to outsiders until 2002, and Revash, a cluster of decorated chullpas (mausoleums) built into the cliffside. Standing more than 9,000ft above sea level, the 14th-century chullpas offer a fascinating insight into how the Chachapoya ('cloud warrior') people built houses for the mummies they’d carefully wrapped and transported. Those once contained within these tombs are long gone; at the region's Leymebamba Museum is a collection of mummies and other artefacts gathered from the Llaqtacocha chullpas at nearby Condor Lake, offering a fascinating — if a little grim — insight into the Chachapoya's reverence for their dead.

More than half of Peru's map is smothered by the sprawling Amazon Rainforest.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Manú National Park

Peru might be synonymous with ancient ruins and Andean peaks, but more than half the national map is smothered by the sprawling Amazon Rainforest. Few parts of this wilderness feel more pristine than the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Manú National Park, which is easy to reach from Cusco, but is atmospherically a world away. Capuchin monkeys swing through cloud forests, waterfalls tumble into streams and some 850 bird species flit through the canopies. Scientists and researchers have projects here by the dozen and boat trips are the easiest way to get into the belly of the jungle.

6. Iquitos and its rivers

Iquitos is generally regarded as the most atmospheric settlement in the northern Peruvian Amazon, but there’s more beyond its faded mansions and lively bars. The city is also surrounded by a large network of rivers — not least the mighty Amazon — making it well placed for everything from short fishing trips to multi-day cruises that take in jungle lodges and tribal villages dotted around the region. The tributaries snaking off from the main river open up an exotic realm of flora and fauna, and for sheer pinch-yourself escapism, little measures up to watching the planet’s largest tropical rainforest slide by.  

7. Puerto Maldonado

Indigenous Amazonian groups have been faced with some daunting struggles over the years, so tourism projects that hold a tangible benefit for local communities can only be a good thing. The southern hub of Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to swathes of lowland rainforest and is under an hour by boat from Posada Amazonas, a lodge owned and partly managed by the Ese Eja indigenous group. As a base, it not only offers  the opportunity for plenty of up-close encounters with local wildlife, but it also teaches guests about the traditions and lifestyles of the people who know the region best.

Inca ancient ruins, Pisac Archaeological Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

8. Pisac

In the Sacred Valley, just 50 or so miles east of Machu Picchu, the hilltop Inca ruins of Pisac are said to cover a larger area than their more famous neighbour — but attract a fraction of the visitors. In fact, visit in the afternoon, after the few tour buses have gone, and you may just have the site to yourself. Into the steep slopes are carved agricultural terraces, while atop the mountain sit the remains of plazas and pools, homes and ceremonial spaces, some of their walls still standing more than 8ft tall. The city is thought to have been built in the 15th century, though its Inca inhabitants were soon forced by the Spanish to leave their hilltop homes for the colonial town — also called Pisac — in the valley below.

9. Kuelap

Founded in the sixth century, Kuelap predates Machu Picchu by some 900 years, and for a long time it was a place few outsiders got to see. The site, nearly 10,000ft above sea level in Peru’s northern Andes, was difficult to access, but in 2017, Peru’s first cable-car opened, connecting the site to the nearby town of Nuevo Tingo. Now, after a 20-minute ride through the clouds, up a mountain and over patchwork valleys, you’ll find yourself among ruins of buildings that were once home to a community of around 3,000. Lush with orchids and ishpingo trees, the site encompasses the remains of hundreds of the Chachapoya people’s striking circular dwellings, some decorated with friezes.

10. Chan Chan

Hemmed in by the Pacific, the northern city of Trujillo and its airport, Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, the remains of its adobe buildings covering around 14 square miles. In its 15th-century heyday, this was the capital of the Chimú kingdom, divided into a series of walled citadels — though just one part, the Palacio Nik An complex, has been restored. The main attractions are a ceremonial courtyard with geometric carvings on the walls, and a series of intricate friezes. Chan Chan is so vast no visitor stands a chance of covering it all, but new guided cycle rides with BiciTours are a good way of taking in more of the site than is possible on foot.

The colonial city of Arequipa could hardly have a more dramatic backdrop.

Photograph by Alamy

11. Arequipa

Set against a series of volcanic peaks in the south of the country, its UNESCO-protected centre is lined with courtyards, churches and old mansions, many constructed from the pale volcanic rock that gives the place its distinctive look. 

Despite its population being around a 10th of that of Lima, this is technically Peru’s second city. Sights not to miss include the cathedral, first consecrated almost 500 years ago and the focal point of the grand Plaza de Armes, and the enormous Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a convent which once housed 200 nuns and some 300 servants. 

Read more: Photo story: the historic diners of Arequipa

12. Chavín

One of the oldest archaeological sites in Peru, Chavín dates back as far as 1500 BC, when it was a pilgrimage site for a whole host of communities across the region. Set in a high valley in the central Peruvian Andes, the complex was home to a pre-Inca culture of the same name right up until the fifth century BC, and what’s left of it today is a series of squares, terraces and intriguing stonework. Historians believe the Chavín people worshipped animals, so look out for the carvings of birds, snakes, cats and reptiles, as well as startling stone faces. Getting here usually involves a lengthy bus journey along bumpy roads, or there’s a picturesque three-day hike along old Inca trails instead. 

Lake Titicaca is one of South America’s most fabled sights. 

Photograph by AWL Images

13. Lake Titicaca

The word ‘lake’ can sometimes seem inadequate. Such is the case with the titanic Titicaca, the planet’s highest navigable body of water, covering an area some 15 times larger than Lake Geneva. Sitting at a dizzying altitude of 12,500ft in the extreme southeast of the country — Peru’s border with Bolivia actually bisects the lake — it remains one of South America’s most fabled sights. 

The green profile of the Andes hunkers on the horizon and more than 40 islands scatter the lake’s surface. Puno is the largest settlement on the lake, a good base from which to arrange trips to islands such as Taquile or the floating reed islets of Uros. Further north is Sillustani, a site famous for its pre-Incan stone burial towers.  

14. Nazca

Everyone loves a mystery, but few are this big. The enigmatic Nazca Lines are a series of vast geometric patterns and animal figures etched across an immense spread of desert plateau in southern Peru. The largest measure around 1,200ft in length, with most dating back more than 1,300 years — but why, and how, were they made? Designs range from a spiral-tailed monkey to a colossal stylised hummingbird. Scenic flights are the most obvious way of appreciating their scale, although the region also has a number of viewing towers. To the south of the lines, Nazca itself is a colonial town with ancient ruins nearby and an archaeological museum. 


Getting there: British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Lima twice weekly, with an additional flight during summer. Average flight time: 12h30m. 

Where to stay: Belmond has six hotels around Peru, including Belmond Miraflores Park in Lima, where double rooms start at US$255 (£204). Inkaterra has seven lodges around the country. Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel offers double rooms from US$498 (£396). 

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Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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