Let’s be honest–it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we’re big fans of Machu Picchu. That said, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail certainly aren’t the only parts of Peru that we’re in love with. In our humble opinion, Peru is one of the world’s most magical countries for reasons that span much further than one (albeit truly incredible) archaeological site. But if you’ve just been browsing our site, you might not have noticed this yet. We’ve kept quiet about all the other wonderful things to see and do in Peru, mostly because we’ve had so much to say about Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas/activities.
That is, until now! In honor of all the other wonderful destinations and activities that Peru has to offer, we’ve decided to craft a new list: the top 20 things to do in Peru that aren’t Machu Picchu. Due to the nature of the article, we won’t be going into too much detail about each site–but maybe, in the future, we’ll have some more time and space to expand on a few of them.
1. Bird Watch at the Colca Canyon
Southern Peru is home to the Colca Canyon, one of the country’s more popular tourism spots that nonetheless you’ve probably never heard of! Many people are surprised to learn that the Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the world-famous Grand Canyon in the United States, though its walls are not as steep and as such it’s not quite as visually striking. The Colca Canyon is also home to the Andean Condor, one of the largest birds in the world with a wingspan reaching up to 3.2 meters. This is one of the few spots on the planet where it’s relatively easy to see the birds at close range–a truly magical experience.
2. Fly Over the Nazca Lines
If you’ve never heard of the Nazca Lines before, there’s a good chance that you’re quite confused by the image above, which is fine! The Nazca Lines, to put it succinctly, are a series of hundreds of massive designs dug into the ground by the Nazca culture well over a millennium ago. They range from simple geometric shapes to highly-stylized images primarily depicting plants and animals from the natural world. Because some of the figures are over 200 meters across, the best way (well… the only way, really) to see the Nazca Lines is from above. There are a variety of tour operators offering flights above the lines if you are so inclined.
3. Surf or Just Relax in Máncora
If you’re planning a trip to Peru, spending some time relaxing on the beach probably isn’t on your to-do list. If you’re on a tight schedule, we totally understand this, but if you’ve got the time, then why not? If a few days of sand, surf, and sun sounds right up your alley, then the laid-back surfing town of Máncora is perhaps your best option in Peru. Though the town is small, there are lodging and dining options galore for most any budget. To enjoy the beach the way that Peruvians do, this is your place.
4. Sandboard or Take a Buggy Ride in Huacachina
As much as this might look like a scene straight out of the Sahara Desert, trust us–Huacachina is very much in Peru. Located in the same southwestern Peruvian province as the Nazca Lines, this tiny oasis village in an otherwise parched dry desert has been attracting tourists for a while. Though nowadays additional water is pumped to the oasis from the nearby city of Ica, it’s still undoubtedly a cool place. Popular activities here in the “oasis of the Americas” include sandboarding and dune buggy riding.
5. Take a Boat Tour of the Islas Ballestas
This small group of equally small islands has recently become one of the world’s most widely-recognized biodiversity hot spots. From birds such as blue-footed boobies and Humboldt penguins to seals and sea lions, many of the world’s most charming and beautiful animals call the Islas Belletas home–or they would if they could, you know, talk. Boat tours leaving from the nearby coastal town of Paracas generally take around two hours and are highly recommended as one of the coolest things to do in Peru.
6. Do Some Shopping at a Peruvian Marketplace
Peru, especially the Andean region, is famous around the world for its colorful marketplaces catering to tourists and locals alike. If you’re looking to buy a keepsake for yourself or some souvenirs for friends and family back home, skip the brick and mortar stores and check out the market stalls first! The Andean highlands are home to a number of major marketplaces (check out a description of Cusco’s largest in an article by a fellow site contributor at this link), but the most famous is without a doubt located in the small town of Písac. Pictured above, Písac’s marketplace is regarded as too touristy by some, but regardless, we remain fans and recommend it at least as a short half-day trip from Cusco.
7. Visit the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is famous for a number of reasons: it’s the largest lake in South America, the highest navigable lake in the world, and it has an admittedly funny name (for English speakers, at least). It’s also the home of the pre-Incan Uru people, an indigenous group that still lives in the most incredible of ways–on floating islands built and rebuilt out of dried reeds, drifting over the surface of the lake. Originally this was done as a defensive strategy, and though the threat of Inca invasion is long gone, the lifestyle has managed to live on. Today, visitors can take tours of the islands and even participate in homestays with local families. When it comes to these activities, there are a couple of tours that we specifically recommend!
8. See the Otherworldly Maras Salt Ponds
A slightly lesser-known historic and cultural site not far outside of Cusco, the town of Maras makes for a fine day trip. Or, if we’re being more specific, an area just a kilometer or so outside of the town makes for a fine day trip–the town itself, to be frank, is pretty slow. But we digress… The bizarre scene you can see above is just a small section of the massive terraced salt ponds from which many Maras residents derive their livelihood. The indigenous people of the region have used evaporation to harvest salt here for centuries, and it’s one of the most interesting ways to step back in time in Peru today.
9. Explore the Peruvian Amazon
When most people think of the Amazon Rainforest, their minds immediately jump to Brazil–and although South America’s largest country does contain the lion’s share of the Amazon, one could actually make the argument that it’s not the best place to visit the rainforest! In fact, many would contend that that specific honor should go to Peru. Home to Iquitos, the largest city in the world without outside road access, the Peruvian Amazon has been attracting lots of visitors in recent years. The city itself is home to many historic and architectural wonders, but the real draw here has always been the region’s stunning nature and biodiversity.
10. Get Some Perspective in the Belén District
On the outskirts of Iquitos, on the floodplain of a major Amazon River tributary, sits the Belén District, often referred to as the “Venice of the Amazon.” But frankly, the similarities end with the water. The residents of this notoriously impoverished area have built floating homes out of necessity, mostly because no one else wanted to live in an area that experienced such terrible annual flooding. Most of Belén is dreadfully poor, but it’s still an amazing feat of construction. Though some might feel ethical qualms regarding what is sometimes termed “slum tourism,” others view tourism to places like this as an effective source of income for local residents. Decide where you stand, and if you’d like to visit Belén go during the day, and with a trusted local guide.
11. Climb the Misti Volcano
Without a doubt Peru has a wide, and we mean wiiide variety of hiking, trekking, and climbing options. You should know by now that we’re big fans of both the Inca and Lares Trails, but if you’re looking for something different then southern Peru’s Misti Volcano might be more your speed. Let’s be clear: this is by no means an easy climb. Even the shorter of the two main routes to the summit features nearly 2,000 meters of elevation gain, and a good portion of this is through loose volcanic sand. That said, the climb does not require any technical mountaineering skills, and those who arrive at the summit seem to agree that it’s a truly inspiring experience.
12. Wander Túcume, Peru’s Valley of Pyramids
This valley is bone dry, abandoned, and home to the ruins of some 26 major pyramids and mound structures built over the course of some 800 years. It’s also a source of fear and apprehension for local people–many still believe this valley to be cursed and refer to it by the Spanish word for “purgatory.” But you don’t believe in any of that stuff… right? Indigenous groups here built and rebuilt pyramids in an attempt to appease what they perceived as angry gods, but it seems that the system never worked after all. Today the valley is an archaeological site relatively popular with hikers and history buffs, and it even features a small hotel just outside the site boundaries.
13. Discover Chan Chan, the Largest Pre-Columbian City in South America
Though eclipsed in popularity by some other ruins sites including Machu Picchu, this ruins complex near the modern-day city of Trujillo should be a mandatory stop for anyone visiting Peru. Chan Chan was the capital city of the Chimu Empire and was quite large even by today’s standards, the urban center covered approximately six square kilometers while the city continued to stretch less densely much further still. The city thrived until conquering Incas arrived and forced a relocation of its residents in the 1470’s. By the time the Spaniards arrived to explore this area, the once massive Pre-Columbian city was nothing more than a ghost town.
14. Enter the Walled Fortress of Kuelap
If you’re getting bored with the archaeological sites, this is the last one–we promise. But seriously, look at this place! Located in northern Peru, Kuelap was a massive walled city home to over 400 buildings constructed by the Chachapoya culture, sometimes referred to as “the Warriors of the Clouds.” Though the ruins within the fortress are certainly very impressive, nothing matches the sheer size and scope of its walls, which reach up to some 19 meters in height. Though often neglected in favor of other pre-Columbian ruins structures, a visit to Kuelap is certainly one of the most interesting things to do in Peru.
15. Indulge Your Appetite in Lima’s Culinary Scene
Any savvy readers who have already done a bit of research on Peru may be wondering about the total lack of Lima on our list so far. How could it be that the country’s capital and largest city hasn’t yet been mentioned? Well, we’ve basically decided to save all of our Lima entries for the end of our list. It’s no longer any secret that Lima is home to one of the most innovative, exciting, and simply delicious culinary scenes in all of Latin America. From new-school classics like Central Restaurante to upscale takes on uniquely Peruvian cuisines to just some darn good sandwiches, you can truly find anything here. It should go without saying that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
16. Examine Pre-Columbian Erotic Pottery at the Larco Museum
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. This private Lima museum is one of the country’s finest, despite the fact that its numerous galleries showcasing works from over 4,000 years of Peruvian history are generally overshadowed by its one gallery showcasing nothing more than erotic pre-Columbian ceramics. It just goes to show you that at the end of the day, we really haven’t changed all that much. Without a doubt, this is one of the wackiest yet most interesting things to do in Peru.
17. Take a Stroll on the Malecón in Miraflores
Of all of Lima’s upscale neighborhoods, Miraflores is probably the most well known. Perhaps this is due to its striking coastal location that makes for some truly stunning photographs? If you’re looking for a place to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of the city without really leaving it at all, Miraflores is the place. Its seaside walkway, called the Malecón, is especially popular with locals and tourists alike, it’s a beautiful public space with gardens, parks, and plenty of public art. If you’re looking for a slice of what life is like for Lima’s richest residents, this is it.
18. Experience the Magic Water Tour at the Park of the Reserve
Your gut reaction to our having included a fountain tour through a public park on our list might simply be a bewildered, “what?” But please trust us–this place really is something special. Inaugurated in 2007, the newly remodeled Parque de la Reserva is home to El Circuito Mágico del Agua, now officially the largest fountain complex found anywhere in the world. For the meager price of four soles (currently less than $1.50 US), visitors can experience thirteen colorful and interactive fountains, including one that reaches over 80 meters into the sky.
19. Get Bohemian in the Barranco District
Head south from Miraflores and you’ll arrive in Barranco, undoubtedly Lima’s “hippest” neighborhood home to artists, squatters, and increasingly the nouveau rich. The district has a back story similar to those of many up-and-coming neighborhoods around the world. To put it shortly, the rich people fled as the expanding city encroached, poor artists and creative types moved in and made it cool, and now they’re slowly being pushed out again as a different kind of rich people buy up the property once more. But for the time being at least, Barranco is still home to galleries, cafes, bars, nightclubs, and everything else you’ll require to pass the time in bohemian bliss.
20. Buy All the Clothing You’ll Ever Need in Gamarra
By far the most “off the beaten path” of our Lima suggestions, the city’s Gamarra district certainly isn’t for everyone–it’s noisy, incredibly crowded, and home to the largest clothing and textile market in Latin America. It’s been estimated that there are over 20,000 shops here, selling everything from t-shirts and jeans to tuxedos and bridal gowns to designer knockoffs to traditional Peruvian garments. If you can’t stand crowds, stay away, but if you’re into clothing or simply enjoy shopping like a local, hold on and get ready for a wild ride.
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