Peru is easily most famous for being home to the Inca Trail, the ancient trek which has now become a Mecca for adventure-loving travellers, but often precious little is known about the rest of the mysterious South American country. Here Jonathan Bell a journalism graduate who has lived in Peru on and off for three years chooses 10 of the most beautiful places to visit in Peru…
South America has long been a backpacker’s paradise and Peru has seen a rise from hidden gem to a must-see travel destination over recent years. With an eclectic mix of history and nature, it is a country that offers something for everyone, here are some of my favourite places.
It might be a cliché, but there is a reason why clichés exist. Yes, thinking about Peru is synonymous with Machu Picchu but that’s because it’s incredible. Whether you take the train from Cusco or push yourself with the Inca Trail, the view when you get there is breathtaking. Arrive early morning and, on a good day, you can see the sunrise from the sun gate while you should try to take the opportunity to climb Huanya Picchu as well.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
While the city is mainly used as the gateway to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it has plenty to offer. Cusco is actually at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu and is used to get acclimatised to the thinner air. The cobbled streets pave the way towards a place rich in history. You should hike or bus your way up to the Cristo Blanco for a stunning view of the city, explore the interesting markets and chill out in the beautiful Plaza de Armas. All this before you take a tour for a look at some awesome Inca ruins like Sacsayhuaman, Choquequirao and Pisac. Cusco is not to be underestimated or overlooked.
The train journey that you can take from Cusco to Puno is a 10-hour trip through rural Peru to the banks of Lake Titicaca that is considered one of the world’s great train journeys. Undoubtedly a beautiful journey, but back at Lake Titicaca and this is your chance to see a fascinating and mystical lake, the largest in South America. Recent discoveries on the Bolivian side show that there is plenty of mystery left here yet.
All the way up the Northern Coastline you find beautiful beaches for relaxation. The adventurous nature of a trip around Peru makes the beaches at Mancora, Punta Sal or Tumbes well worth a visit for a wind-down. Not convinced? Well, Ernest Hemingway stayed at the fishing village of Cabo Blanco for over a month whilst filming for ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and if it was good enough for him then you can bet it is worth a visit.
Located in Peru’s misty selva alta, the high jungle, the Chachapoyas landscape combines the harsh, jagged edges of the mountains with the lush, verdant jungle. This isolated region receives few visitors, probably due to the fact that it takes two full days of overland travel to get there. But if you do go, you’ll be able to see world-class sites like the Pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap, perched on top of a jungle-covered mountain, or take a hike to Gocta Cataracts, one of the tallest free-standing waterfalls in the world.
Known as the White City thanks to its unique architecture, Arequipa is the second biggest city in Peru. Characterised by a skyline dominated by imposing volcanoes, the eternal spring means that any time of the year is perfect for visiting the city. The charming destination boasts buildings mainly made from the volcanic rock and the Historic Centre has been a World Heritage Site for more than a decade. Arequipa’s Basilica Cathedral is an iconic sight and it is a great start before heading out to the Colca Canyon.
Generally speaking, like Cusco, many people go to Arequipa for the surrounding area and the Colca Canyon is a joy to behold. One of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions, it is 4,160 metres deep making it much deeper than the Grand Canyon and one of the deepest in the world. From vibrant culture to extreme sports there is something for everyone and, of course, the Cruz del Condor viewpoint is the pinnacle where you can get a great appreciation for the grandeur of this astounding place alongside the chance to witness the majestic Andean Condors.
Going to the jungle is one of the most memorable experiences you could ever wish to have. From peaceful evenings looking at stars, listening to bullfrogs and searching for alligators to eventful days trekking through the rainforest, meeting tribes and listening to howler monkeys the usual three or four-day trips are filled with excitement. It is worth classing the Amazon as a whole for this because while most people head to Iquitos before going, Puerto Maldonado is widely believed to be more aesthetically pleasing from a city perspective. Travellers also sometimes opt to volunteer in the programs are organized in this extraordinary country and Maximo Nivel offers projects both in and outside of the city centre. This gives volunteers the opportunity to serve in both urban and rural communities.
A German village in the middle of the Selva Alta in Peru is bound to be an interesting destination. It was the middle of the 1800s when poor living conditions in Central Europe when 10,000 colonists came to virgin lands. Many people travel there for the festival Selvamonos but while being just seven hours away on Google Maps, the bus ride from Lima is a 15-hour slog. However, when you get there, the food is great, the people welcoming and the surrounding areas with waterfalls and beautiful green countryside is perfect for camping and hiking.
Ever been sandboarding? If not, then make your first time in Peru. Huacachina can probably be best described as a novelty, the blue-green laguna and a backdrop of huge sand dunes is a beautiful site. It is the definition of a tourist town and is worth a visit. Take a dune buggy ride up and down the dunes before getting out to sandboard from top to bottom. It’s an awful lot of fun but getting back up is an effort! It is an easy trip from Lima to the closest big city of Ica and from here you can get to Nazca and Paracas which are other popular destinations.
For a great guide on how to volunteer abroad (including places like Peru) click here.
All words by Jonathan Bell a travel writer who has spent a few years living in Peru. Jonathan has travelled through much of Peru and he, along with other expats, share stories and experiences of their time in the South American country at Peru Insider. Photos of Lake Titicaca and the Amazon were taken by Sophia Guida, for credits on the rest click on the image.