There are many interesting and wonderous places, rich in history and natural splendor, in the Americas, and Peru is a special one.
When looking for a vacation spot that has it all, Peru is one of the first places that should pop into your mind. There are so many things to do in Peru that one trip isn’t likely long enough to even scratch the surface. There are natural, tropical paradises not far from ancient historical sites dating back millennia. You can enjoy arid, sandy deserts and gorgeous sprawling beaches. From the peaks of the Andes Mountains to the concrete jungle of Lima, Peru is a place that offers its visitors many options to choose from. There are no shortage of luxury resorts, but you can visit those anywhere in the world. No, the things that make Peru so unique and vibrant are outside the resorts, spread across this amazing South American country.
A Bit About Peru
Before we get into the best things to do in Peru, we should discuss a little more about the place. We’ll look into its history and incredible biodiversity. We’ll also talk about what awaits the lucky traveler who gets to grace its shores.
History of Peru
When it comes to history, Peru has more of it than many other places in the world. This area hosted one of the earliest known civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. Dating back to the fourth millennia before the common era, this empire featured dozens of cities and built great structures. Some of their remains still stand today, including two pyramids. This was also the center of the largest empire in the Americas, at least before the United States came around, the great Inca Empire. Eventually, this area was colonized by explorers on behalf of the Spanish Empire. In 1821, Peru declared its independence from Spain. Their revolutionary war, led by José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, ended in 1824 with Peru a free state. The nation struggled, including fighting a war with neighboring Chile, until the late 20th century.
The controversial leader Alberto Fujimori assumed power in 1990. As the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union stood poised to fall, their communist allies in South America grew desperate. Called “The Shining Path,” these communists were the main enemies of the Fujimori regime. They did successfully stabilize the country’s economy, but he was sent to jail for human rights violations and faced accusations of quelling his people’s liberty. Today, Peru still struggles with political scandals, but it is a 21st century nation. Current President Martin Vizcarra proposed reforms, three of which passed by voter referendum. Peru’s best days are today, and it’s only getting better.
Home of the Incas and the Rainforest
When anyone thinks of Peru, two things probably spring immediately to mind. The first is the Amazon Rainforest, a tropical forest that spans from one end of the continent to the other. The second thing is the Incan Empire or, more specifically, the spectacular ruins found in Peru. Any list of things to do in Peru that doesn’t include these two things at the tops of their lists are not to be taken seriously. Either one of these things feel like they should be on some list of the “Wonders of the World.”
Sure, you can find pictures and videos online showing these things to you in great detail. Yet, you can only truly experience their marvels firsthand. There are enough things to do in Peru to occupy you for a lifetime, but nothing tops either of these things. One a testament to the stunning ingenuity and artistry of our earliest ancestors. The other a testament to the marvels and splendor of the natural world the human species is just borrowing. Either experience could change your life. You can have both of them on just a single trip to this country.
What Else Makes Peru a Great Destination?
Of course, Peru is about much more than just the rainforest and millennia-old archeological wonders. It’s a place great for travelers who like a lot of diversity in their vacation experiences. If you want to just lounge on the beach for a week, Peru’s beaches on the Pacific Ocean are great places to do it. Yet, that seems almost like going to the Mall of America just to get a burger from the food court.
Peru has everything a traveler could want to experience from urban sprawl to broad, barren deserts to snow mountain peaks. You could spend one day clomping around the rain forest and spend the next cross-country skiing in the Andes. Finish off the week with a nice dinner in downtown Lima or visit the remains of a huge city from thousands of years ago. There are plenty of things to do in Peru, and all of them are better than a week of sunbathing.
The Top Ten Things to Do in Peru for Amazing Memories
Every vacation is about relaxing and recharging, yet they can be about more than that. On this list of things to do in Peru, there is something here that could be the kind of experience you remember forever. Memories are the best souvenirs from any trip, and Peru offers plenty of the once-in-a-lifetime kind.
1. Machu Picchu
This stunning site dates back to the mid-15th Century and is sometimes referred to as “the Lost City of the Incas.” It’s not quite a city, but historians dispute what it was used for. The most common belief is that it was a retreat for Incan royalty and was used an estate for some time. However, it also could have been primarily an agricultural site. Archaeologists found llama and alpaca remains, which meant the animals were kept there. The Incans also used the terraced area of the property for farming. When the Spanish conquerors came to the region, they destroyed and defaced many Incan cities. However, they never found Machu Picchu which is why it is one of the most complete set of discovered ruins.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that American explorers, most specifically Hiram Bingham III, alerted the larger world to the presence of these ruins. Locals who knew the jungles knew where the ruins were and guided them there. By 1983, the restored site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, it’s limited to just 2,500 visitors per day and the government is taking further measures to protect it. A new museum, featuring many artifacts from Bingham’s expeditions and a study area for students researching the history of the Incan empire. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind place in the world and something you should see in person.
2. Explore the Amazon River Basin
The Amazon River is one of the largest such water systems in the world. While there are some arguments about whether it is the longest river in the world, it’s definitely the one that has the highest volume of water discharge. Around sixty percent of the country is covered by rainforest, second only in size to Brazil. This is serious jungle, so you should not go into it without the assistance of local, professional guides. Still, you can take the waterways deep into the wilderness, spending your nights under thatch roofs while all manner of jungle creatures cry into the darkness. Because the roads are unreliable, it’s best to travel mainly by boat in the area. Still, there are plenty of places where you can get just the right amount of lost.
3. Visit the Otherworldly Nazca Lines
Despite being home to a vast swath of Amazonian rainforest, Peru also hosts a large tropical desert. On a plateau in the Nazca Desert in the south, a culture lost to time created amazing works of art that they likely never saw like we have. Called the Nazca Lines, they remain one of Peru’s greatest mysteries. They were first mentioned in early colonial writings but mistaken for the remains of roads. The indigenous people who created them scraped off the top layer of soil, a reddish-brown substance, to reveal the pale yellow sub-soil.
It wasn’t until human beings took to the sky that what they were was truly revealed. Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe lectured about them after spotting them while traveling. Paul Kosok, an American, was the first to study the lines. While flying over them, he noticed that some were in the shapes of animals. It was only by chance that he noticed the designs coincided on certain days with the sunrise, including on the winter solstice.
Access to these lines is strictly regulated, especially after Greenpeace activists damaged the hummingbird site during a protest. However the best way to appreciate these amazing and mysterious works of early human art is as the gods would have seen them: from the sky. Most of the glyphs, as they are called, are naturally preserved because of the climate and lack of wind. Those that have been damaged were harmed at the hands of reckless people, such as truck drivers for a local rally held nearby. To this day, scholars disagree about how they were made and what they were used for. Whatever it was, the hard work of the artists who made these giant, impossible drawings is still being appreciated today.
4. Ascend the Rainbow Mountains
While the Andes Mountain range is partly located in Peru, they are not the only peaks the country has to offer. If you want to experience some natural splendor unlike any you’ve seen before, make the trip to Vinicunca. Even though this multi-colored mountain range is technically part of the Andes, it is a special place and some of the locals believe it to be a sacred space. Accessible only after a difficult hike, it is worth it to see the amazing striated colors of red, teal, green, and other more Earthen hues. The colors come from a mixture of phenomena, including the oxidization of iron-rich minerals and unique sedimentary deposits due to volcanic activity in the eons past.
5. Wildlife Tours on the Ballestas Islands
While the entire country of Peru is a biodiverse region, some areas are better than others for wildlife tourism. One of the best places for it are a group of small islands, less than one-tenth of a square kilometer in size, just off the coast of the Paracas District in the Ica region in the south. Called the Ballestas Islands, you can tour them via guided excursions by boat. These islands are home to many birds, like the blue-footed booby and Humboldt penguin. Yet, the stars of the island are the seals and sea lions who are often found sunning themselves on the coast. Fearless creatures, they often approach the tourists, looking for snacks and putting on spectacles for them. Visitors can also see a geo-glyph of the Nazca variety, likely used as a signal to pre-historic sailors. It’s shape is such that it is called the Candelabra of the Andes.
6. Sand Adventures in Huacachina
If you do want your Peruvian experience to include luxury resort accommodations, you might think to head somewhere along the Pacific coast. Yet, what if you could head out to the middle of the the tropical desert? If you did, you’d find Huacachina, a small town built around an oasis in the desert. Surrounded by sand dunes and a small, natural lake, this area is home to about 100 permanent residents, but it hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year. Along with foreign tourists, Peruvians will also come to spend their vacations here. The main attractions are sandboarding and driving dune buggies over the towering sand dunes. There are also legends that the water and mud of the area has healing or restorative properties. People come to “treat” ailments like arthritis, asthma, and other ailments by covering themselves in the mud.
Peru as a country has had a lot of trouble with water pollution in the past, and this area is no different. To make matters worse, nearby farmers are digging wells which threatens the lagoon. A group of businessmen paid to have water pumped back into the lagoon in order to keep the area attractive to tourists. Also, Marino Morikawa, the Peruvian scientist who used a “nanobubble system” to decontaminate El Cascajo Lake is working on a project to restore the lagoon. Still, the lagoon is lovely but the real adventures in Huacachina are found out in the desert among the swirling dunes.
7. The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
This lake on the border of Bolivia and Peru is one that comedians in the early-to-mid-20th Century found very humorous because of its name. Of course, despite how it might sound to English-speakers, this lake is actually named after a rock carved into the likeness of a gray puma. Lake Titicaca also boasts that it’s the highest elevated navigable lake. Archaeologists have found millennia-old ruins on the bottom of this lake, including what appeared to be a temple. This lake is also home to more than 530 species of marine animal, but it’s the life that lives on top of the lake’s surface that is most interesting.
The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca are just that, man-made islands that float along the surface of the lake. Populated by the Uros people, this way of life predates even the Inca. As legend has it, these people emigrated from deep in the Amazon but were unable to find land on which to live. So, they built their own land made out of reeds found elsewhere along the lake’s coast. On these reedy islands, a family or extended family builds thatched houses. Other islands have other buildings made of reeds, such as watchtowers. It’s not without danger. In 1986 a storm devastated the floating islands, but the Uros rebuilt, though a little closer to the mainland. Today about 1200 people occupy anywhere from 60 to 80 floating islands. As tourism is their main source of income, they love to welcome visitors.
8. Surf’s Up in Mancora
Mancora Beach in Peru is where you want to go if you desire a more traditional tropical beach getaway. It’s very remote, the closest city is Piura about three hours away by car. Still, more than two dozen luxury resorts operate in this area, which sees many thousands of tourists each year. Thanks to the presence of a cold and warm current, Mancora Beach is one of the premier places for surfing and kitesurfing. You can bring your motorized surfboard if you want to, but this is a place with high waves for experienced surfers. What’s great about its tropical location and climate is that there is no off-season. If you are looking for a great beach any time of year, Mancora is one you should check out.
9. Discover the Sacred Valley of the Incas
While Machu Picchu is the go-to destination for travelers looking for historical adventures, the entire region is an incredible tourist attraction. The Urubamba Valley, formerly known as the Valley of Yucay, is sometimes called the “Sacred Valley of the Incas.” While most of the tourist traffic heads for Machu Picchu, there are plenty of other ruins, scenic vistas, and charming local establishments to tour as well. If you are one of the 2,500 people who get to visit the popular site each day, great. If not, there are plenty other places to visit, including ruins that rival Machu Picchu at Pisac. There are also gorgeous vistas you can visit after short (or long) hikes.
10. Hike Colca Canyon
There are lots of destinations to hike to in Peru, but if hiking is the goal rather than the means to get somewhere, consider the Colca Canyon. Even though the view isn’t as steep or dramatic, this canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Bird watchers can be excited because this area is the home of the bird with the largest wing span of any primarily land-based, the Andean Condor. This is a rare bird and to see it in its natural habitat is a unique treat. You can also see giant hummingbirds, geese, and a wide variety of ungulates. All throughout the area are a number of villages, many of whose residents enjoy greeting and entertaining visitors. You can also find Inca tombs along the canyon walls.
All the things to do in Peru could keep you entertained for an extended vacation or even a lifetime.
From the Amazon rainforest to the streets of Lima, Peru offers its visitors any experience they could possibly want. There is plenty of time for lounging or relaxing by the pool or in your room. However, if you are going to spend time in Peru you are doing yourself a disservice to not experience the unique and amazing opportunities it offers. You can tour ancient ruins and visit vibrant, living villages or even find some solitude among the peaks and valleys of the Andes. Peru is a place unlike any other in the world, and you’ll know why when you visit.
What do you think? Are any of your favorite things to do in Peru not on this list? Share them with us, along with your thoughts, reactions, and experiences in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media if you enjoyed it. That way, your friends can get in on the discussion!
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