When thinking of great holiday destinations, few countries can provide such a wide range of activities, sights and culture as Peru can. The country is made up out of large and extreme geographical regions such as the desert, the Andean Highland and the Amazon Rainforest, this together with a large and rich cultural history makes Peru a destination that offers you almost all different types of holidays all in one country.
When it comes to ancient cultures, Peru is a more than unique destination in South America. Most known are the Inca culture and the impressive number of sites and constructions they have left behind. The city of Cusco, Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Choquequirao are all part of the impressive legacy left behind by this mighty civilization. But it were not only the Incas who have roamed Peru in ancient times; Peru was one of the earliest inhabited parts of the Americas as can be deducted from the site of Caral, the oldest city found in the Americas and dating from about 2000BC. The Norte Chico, the Moche, the Chachapoyas, the Nazca, all these cultures form part of Peru’s lively history and all have left behind impressive works and constructions.
Travelling to Peru does not only mean history & archaeology, Peru provides you with some of the most challenging geographies for a whole range of activities. Hiking; as the country is literally cut in half by the might Andes Mountains, it is obvious that it provides some amazing hiking and mountaineering possibilities. Besides the very popular Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and the alternatives such as the Lares and Salkantay Trek, there is hiking to be done all over the country. Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, Puno and Lake Titicaca and of course Huaraz in the north provide some of the best mountain hiking possibilities in the world.
Having almost 60% of its territory covered with the Amazon Rainforest, Peru also is home to some of the most pristine parts of rainforest in South America. An added value to the great diversity of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest is the fact that the Peru rainforest is relatively good accessible, even for a visit of 3 days. The most pristine parts of the Peruvian Amazon are probably Manu and the Tambopata National Reserve. Both parks are located at about 1.5 hour flying from Cusco and ideal for a 3 or 4 day jungle trip.
Finally there is the coast; the Peruvian Coast is more than 2500Km long and is the most populated region of the country. This part of the country is easier to travel as it is flat and the Pan American Highway runs from the border with Ecuador to the border with Chile. It is also here that most large cities are located. Ica, Lima, Chiclayo, Trujillo, Piura, these are some of the larger cities in the country. Cities like Trujillo and Chiclayo provide you with great ancient ruins such as Chan Chan, meanwhile further north around Piura you can find the best beaches in Peru, Mancora being the best known.
The Peru coastline stretches over 2500Km all the way from the South of Ecuador to the North of Chile. The coast is mainly made up out of dry desert or semi desert land but this did not stand in the way of the country’s largest cities to develop here. The region has been inhabited for thousands of years and proof has been found of some of the oldest South American civilizations that once roamed these lands. The main sites on the Peru coast for many people will be of course Lima and other large cities that can be found here. Lima is a large and chaotic city but is the true economic and commercial heart of Peru. Almost 30% of Peruvians live in Lima making it a large metropolitan city with over 10 million inhabitants. This also means that Lima is a city that is essential to Peru and worthwhile a visit. The city is home to great colonial architecture, some of the best museums in the country and close by some interesting archeological sites such as Caral, and Pachacamac can be found. In recent years Lima has more and more profiled itself as the new culinary capital of South America. Peruvian cuisine is gaining more and more international recognition and Lima is definitely the catalyst of this movement. Having great hotels, amazing restaurants, and endless shopping possibilities, Lima is a city that cannot be missed during a Peru vacation.
To the south of Lima one can find several other interesting cities and sites to visit. At about 4 hours’ drive from Lima one can find the city of Pisco. Besides being home to the famous Peruvian liquor Pisco, the city is also known as a starting point to visit the Ballestas Islands. These islands are located just in front of the coast and provide a home to countless marine animals such as birds, sea lions, dolphins and even whales. From here it is only a short ride to Ica. The city of Ica is also known for its wineries and Pisco bodegas. Nevertheless the most interesting site to visit close to Ica would be Huacachina. Huacachina is a true natural oasis in the middle of the desert. Surrounded by large sand dunes, Huacachina looks like the oasis one would dream of when hearing the word oasis. At about 2 hours south of Ica one can find the city of Nazca. The city itself is not that interesting but the sites close by all the more; the famous Nazca Lines. These drawings in the desert, some over 1000 meters large make for some of the most mysterious discoveries ever in Peru. They have been studied for years and several hypothesis have been elaborated but none can claim to have found the true reason and methodology used to makes these elaborated drawings of Monkeys, Condors, Alien like figures and other animals and geometric figures.
To the north of Lima you would enter the lesser known Peru but more than worthwhile the visit. Here one can find some of the oldest civilzations in Peru and their inheritance. Large historic sites such as Chan Chan, Caral and the Temples of the Sun and the Moon all are found in the north of Peru. The region also has some amazing colonial cities such as Trujillo, Chiclayo and of course Cajamarca, also an important Inca based city. Finally the north coast provides you with some of the best beaches in Peru; the most famous being Mancora. This region has great weather almost all year round and the waves provide for some amazing surfing.
The city of Cusco (also known as Cuzco) is situated in a large valley with views on the over 6500 meter high, snowcapped Ausangate Mountain in the distance. In Quechua (the local language originating from the Incas and still spoken today) Cusco means “Navel of the World” and was built as the Inca capital from where the empire started growing to the South as to the North. The original structure of the city was laid out in the form of a Puma with the fortress of Sacsayhuaman being the head of the puma. Sacsayhuaman was the fort and military camp from where Cusco was protected. It is made up out of massive walls lined in a zig-zag patron and used to have two large watchtowers on top of the structure. It took the Spanish several fierce battles to take Sacsayhuaman and hence conquer Cusco. The city center of Cusco stretches out underneath Sacsayhuaman and has undergone several changes after the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish destroyed many of the Inca constructions only to find that many of the Inca buildings were too massive to completely destroy. This is the reason why many of the colonial buildings in Cusco are built on top of Inca Foundations. Nowadays this gives the city a very unique characteristic and architectural style combining the Inca foundations with Spanish Colonial buildings, balconies and squares. The city center is spread out around the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) and is filled with small cobblestone streets and alleys. On one side of the Plaza you can find the Cathedral that was built on the remnants of the old Inca Palace. Behind the cathedral the city start rising up against the mountain side and here is where you can find one of the most beautiful barrios; San Blas. San Blas is the bohemian and artistic neighborhood in Cusco and definitely worth walking through. Another main site to visit in Cusco is Qoricancha or the Temple of the Sun. This used to be the most important religious temple for the Inca and home to many important rituals such as the worshiping of the sun. It was this temple that made the Spanish go wild about Cusco as it was supposedly covered in gold and had large quantities of gold art inside. Nowadays the building is partially torn down and a monastery has been built on top of it. This makes the building one of the strangest examples of how the Spanish tried to incorporated the Inca structures and by this tried to eliminate the Inca culture. Just outside Cusco there are also several interesting Inca sites to be visited. Qenqo, a strange rock formation with amazing carvings, Puka Pukara, a fortress that was used to protect Cusco from this angle and Tambomachay a site dedicated to the rite of water. Apart from all these archeological and architectonic wonders, Cusco is also a nice city for travellers as it has a large selection of hotels for all budgets, great restaurants, booming nightlife and one of the best shopping in Peru (especially artisanal souvenirs).
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is located at about one hour drive from Cusco. The drive takes you over beautiful highlands surrounded by snowcapped mountains until you start heading down into the Sacred Valley. As the Sacred Valley is located approximately 800 meters lower than Cusco, this is also an interesting place to acclimatize to the altitude. The lower altitude also provides you with a milder climate than Cusco. The Sacred Valley runs from the city of Pisac to the city of Ollantaytambo at about 50Km apart. Both of these cities are seen as entrances to the Sacred Valley and hence are protected with impressive defensive fortresses from both sides. The site of Pisac is quite extensive and besides a religious part also boosts large Inca terracing and great views of the Sacred Valley. In Pisac you can see the Urubamba River (some parts are called the Vilcanote River) snaking its way through the Sacred Valley. It is this river that provided the Inca with a large part of their crops. The river floods parts of the valley yearly, leaving behind very fertile soil. The Valley is relatively wide and flat, providing a lot agricultural valuable land. From Pisac the main road in the Sacred Valley takes you through small villages, many constructed during the Inca era, to the North West to the small beautiful village of Olllantaytambo. Besides the amazing site of Ollantaytambo and the original Inca lay out of the village, Ollantaytambo is also known for having the last train station to take a train to Machu Picchu. This gives people the chance to get to know the Sacred Valley, spend the night here and continue to Machu Picchu the next day from here.
Machu Picchu; the enigmatic site of Machu Picchu is one of the biggest tourist attractions in South America and a marvel to see. The site, nicknamed the Lost City of the Incas is located at 100Km north east of Cusco and for many years unknown to mankind. It was American adventurer Hiram Bingham who had the honor to expose Machu Picchu to the world in 1911. There are several accounts of people, even foreigners, having stumbled across this amazing site in earlier years, but it was Hiram Bingham who first saw the true magnitude of the site and who started with clearing and mapping the site.
The site was probably built under the rule of Pachacutec, one of the great Inca Rulers responsible for many buildings and expansion of the Inca Empire. The reason for the site to have been built is still under discussion and as there are a large number of hypothesis, it may as well be that we will never know the true reason. Hypothesis goes from being a summer palace for the Inca Royalty to a luxury prison for preferential Inca prisoners and every possibility in between. The site was probably abandoned when the Spanish arrived together with the retreat of the Inca further into the jungle. But just as the reasons for the construction of the site, the abandoning of the site is also a mystery. One thing is sure; the Spanish never reached the amazing site of Machu Picchu, making it an even more important found in understanding the Inca.
The site is constructed in the saddle of 2 mountains that border Machu Picchu from both sides. The mountain on the South side is called Machu Picchu Mountain (Old Peak) and the mountain on the North side is called Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain). The site itself is made up out of different sectors. The main sectors are the Agricultural sector and the Urban sector. The agricultural sector has been divided into the Upper and Lower Sectors meanwhile the Urban Sector has been divided into different parts; The Popular District, the Sacred District and the district for the Priests and Nobility. It is in the Urban Sector where you can find the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows.
When visiting Machu Picchu, make sure that you had the chance to see the site from one of the higher points as this will give you a good impression of the sheer size of this site and provide you with great photo opportunities. As the number of people allowed climbing Huayna Picchu has been limited to 400 people daily in two early morning groups, it may be possible that you do not get the chance to climb Huayna Picchu. Nevertheless there is a great alternative with less people and even higher viewing points on the other side of the site; Machu Picchu Mountain. This mountain can be climbed when heading for the south side of Machu Picchu and takes about 2 hours. The climb is less steep than the Huayna Picchu one and the views from here on Machu Picchu at least as rewarding. In any case spending time on Machu Picchu is an unforgettable experience and few sites in the world will provoke more awe than this amazing construction on an impossible place.
Lake Titicaca, this strange name is the name of another of the many amazing and extreme travel destinations one can find in Peru. This lake located on the border between Peru and Bolivia is not only the biggest lake in South America; located on 3811 meters above sea level, it is also the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is about 70 on 190Km and has its deepest point at about 300 meters under the surface. The lake has a special dark blue color and the contrast of the color of the water with the blue sky and snowcapped mountains is a true spectacle. There are 42 islands located in the lake, the larger ones inhabited. The most famous islands on the Peruvian side of the lake are Uros, Taquile and Amantani. The Uros Islands are artificial floating islands made out of flattened parches of reed in the lake built by the people living there. The history of the islands goes back to the time of the Inca when a neighboring tribe has to find refuge from the Inca and ended up “exiled” on these islands. Housing and boats are also made out of the same reed giving the island a very exotic look for such a high altitude location. Even till the day of today there are families living on these islands. The island of Taquile may as well be the most authentic island on Peruvian side. The island has several Inca constructions and has quite some agriculture. The methods used here still date back centuries and people live on a different rhythm on these islands. Also the islanders are famous for their colorful clothing, dating back to the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Puno is the largest city on Peruvian side located on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The city is located perched in between on one side the mountains and on the other the lake. Being located close to the Bolivian border, Puno as most South American border cities has a bit of a Wild West feeling to it. The city itself has some nice plazas connected with a pedestrian shopping street, but apart from this the city center has not much to show for. Nevertheless with the altitude you may want to take it easy when travelling around Lake Titicaca. The one time of year when tourists actually go to Puno for Puno is in February. Puno is proclaimed as the Peruvian Folkloric Capital and the main festival exposing this is the incredible yearly Carnival. Hundreds of local and international dancing groups come to the city to participate in a week-long festival of dances, parades, shows and competitions in and around Puno. The festival of course goes accompanied with sufficient beer and parties making this a crazy week in this highland city.
Around Puno there are other cities and sites to be visited as well. At one hour drive from Puno, on the way to Juliaca where the only airport in the region is located, you can find the funerary towers of Sillustani. These are funerary towers built by a pre Inca civilization, some of their building techniques being copied by the Inca later on. From Puno it is also quite easy to travel to Bolivia. The biggest town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is Copacabana. From here you can visit some of the Bolivian Islands on the Lake and continue to La Paz about 2 hours from Copacabana.
Arequipa, also known as the” White City” is Peru’s second biggest city in terms of population but also in terms of economy. The city’s nickname stems from the extensive use of sillar, a white volcanic rock that is quite typical for the region, in the construction of the houses in the city center. The city center is laid out in a dam pattern with the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) as central point. It is the main square that forms one of the most famous attractions of Arequipa as this is recognized as being one of the most beautiful squares in Peru. On one side you can see the proud cathedral with its two towers and on the other three sides colonial arches typical for the time the square was built. From the terraces on the second floor of the plaza one can see the Misti Volcano towering behind the city. Another main attraction of the city is the Monastery de Santa Catalina. This monastery taking up several blocks in the city center is one of the older in Peru and largest in South America. The monastery is partially still in use but can be visited. When it comes to museums, Arequipa does not have the quantity as Lima, but does have one museum that stands out; Museu Santuarios Andinos. This museum has a single exhibition that is the Ice Princess of Ampato. Ampato is a snowcapped extinct volcano where a mummy was found of a young girl. The young girl was nicknamed Juanita and the original mummy can be seen in this museum.
Besides all these places of interest, Arequipa is also a city with a very mild climate, amazing hospitable people and amazing food. Located at about 200Km from Arequipa there is another record breaking destination; The Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA. The canyon can be reached from Arequipa by 3 hour drive taking you through some amazing landscapes. Passing besides the Misti Volcano and travelling through the Salineras National Park, known for its population of wild Vicuñas, a small member of the llama family. After the park you will come to what may as well be the highest point on your trip; at 4900 meters above sea level you will pass by the Mirador de los Vulcanos, or the Volcano Viewing point. From this high point (you are now higher than the highest point in Europe) you can see several active and inactive volcanoes in the distance. From here you will start going down until you reach the town of Chivay. Chivay is the biggest village in the canyon and most hotels are located around here. There is also a very nice hot spring just 5Km out of Chivay. The sides of the canyon are made up out of old Inca terracing. Furthermore as the canyon is surrounded by snowcapped mountains, waterfalls and amazing views, there will be more than one moment when you will be surprised by the beauty of this region. If this would not be enough, the Colca Canyon is also home to the Condor. This majestic bird, the largest flying bird on the planet, lives in the Colca Canyon and the Cruz del Condor may as well be one of the best viewing points for these birds in the world. The Colca Canyon with is amazing landscapes, colorful inhabitants, choice of fauna and flora and proximity to Arequipa make this definitely one of the top destinations in Peru.
Having more than 60% of the countries territory covered by Amazon Rainforest, obviously this makes for another great destination in Peru. The Amazon Rainforest is only bigger in Brazil and even though Peru has its own share of problems, in general it can be said that the rainforest in Peru is under less pressure than in Brazil. The two main cities in Peru to visit the Amazon Rainforest are Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. Iquitos is located in the far north of the country and is recognized as the worlds’ largest city not reachable by land. The only two modes of transport reaching Iquitos are by boat or by plane. Iquitos is located on the Amazon River itself and an excursion into the jungle will start with a boat trip over this massive river. From here you will go onto a side river taking you to one of the lodges around. As the transport to the lodges may be quite long, jungle trips around Iquitos are best done for 5 days. The other destination for people wanting to experience the Amazon Rainforest is in the South of Peru. At about one hour flying from Cusco one can find the city of Puerto Maldonado. This city is the main starting point for trips to some of the most pristine parts of the Amazon Rainforest; the Manu and Tambopata National parks. Both parks are known for their abundant wildlife and the fact that the jungle from here is relatively easy to reach. Great lodges are located a couple of hours upstream on the Madre de Dios River and the region is full of great lagoons, clay clicks and jungle trails.