Top Things to do and Best Places to Visit in Peru
The five weeks that I backpacked in Peru flew by me. I didn’t have to go out of my way to look for the top things to do in Peru.
While one moment I was hiking down the Colca Canyon, another moment I was tasting the indigenous Peruvian food cooked in earthen pots in Arequipa. One day I was walking in the rain-sodden streets of Puno in my pink rain jacket, the next day I found myself playing with a cute little girl on one of the faraway islands of the Lake Titicaca.
If the sunny plaza del armas of Cusco was the hangout for the afternoon, the evenings were spent cooking quinoa in the hostel kitchen with French and Mexican friends. Machu Picchu was a two-day trip, but the Manu National park in the Amazon rainforest was a four-day journey.
Taking a bus to the Sacred Valley near Cusco was as much on the plan as finding my way to the isolated Temple of the Moon on the outskirts of Cusco. Eating huge meals in chifa restaurants was as tempting as gorging upon roadside cheese empanadas.
Rainbows dancing over countryside skies filled the days and trains whistling while they rushed past the scenic high Andes filled my memories. I remember the colorful potatoes I dug on the Amantani island but I also cannot forget the pink-purple-red-black chips I made in the Puno hostel with the rainbow of potatoes I bought from the local market.
There are so many places to visit in Peru that a first-timer to Peru can feel a bit overwhelmed with the choices. As I realized that the internet is filled with Peru must see places, I decided to make my guide a unique one.
So my What to see in Peru list is divided into two —
- A standard list of the best things to do in Peru that will give you an idea of the cities, towns, and islands to see and the activities you can do.
- A list of things to do and unique places in Peru that I personally found the most special — you wouldn’t want to miss these on your trip to Peru.
Let’s get it rolling my good friends.
Best things to do in Peru – List 1
1. Visit the historical town of Cusco, Peru
Cusco is the fairytale land of Peru that is situated high above in the Andes mountains. At a height of 4000 meters, Cusco was once the headquarters of the Incas, the impressive rulers of South America before the Spanish, who left intriguing historical sites spread around the city.
You need about two weeks to see the major attractions of Cusco, go to Machu Picchu, visit the Sacred Valley near Cusco, and spend some time in Cusco markets. If you want to do a long hike to Machu Picchu, then see the next bullet (and then two weeks ain’t enough.)
What is my favorite part of the city? The vibrant streets, unplanned carnivals, the plaza del armas (or the main square), chaotic markets, small stalls selling chicha murada (a local purple drink made with corn), and the Andes surrounding the city that makes for a perfect afternoon walk.
The best tip to survive Cusco – As Cusco is at a high altitude, give yourself a few days to acclimatize before doing any strenuous physical activity.
For more detailed information on the things to do in Cusco and the logistics of traveling Cusco, refer to the linked guide.
2. See Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world (one of the most famous places in Peru but for good reasons)
I am sure you have heard about this wonder of the world settled in the south of Peru. Machu Picchu is the royal citadel that the Incas, the same people we were gossiping about before, built at a height of 2500 meters in the Andes range outside of Cusco.
While more than a million people visit Machu Picchu every year, you can get to this palace in many ways.
Either take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes(the town where you spent the night to visit Machu Picchu in the morning), walk from Ollantaytambo(ruins near Cusco), or hike the popular Inca, Salkantay or Lares trails with a tour or on your own to arrive at Machu Picchu.
I walked from Ollantaytambo and then hiked up from Aguas Calientes to reach Machu Picchu. You can read my guide to visiting Machu Picchu by yourself to plan a trip to this historical site. And if you are too worried about planning all by yourself, consider this full-day Machu Picchu tour that will take you from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back with all train, taxi, bus, and the site tickets included.
My favorite part about Machu Picchu? The journey to Machu Picchu itself. The citadel sitting gloriously in the Andes was majestic, especially when you visualize how it would be to live there in your royal attire. But the bus journey from Cusco, then the walk alongside the railway tracks, climbing the 3000 stairs to the top early morning, and throw a one-way train to the mix along with some new friends, it had to be special.
The best tip to survive Machu Picchu – Arrive at the ruins early(6 is the earliest) to make the most of your trip and to avoid crowds.
3. Get into the Amazon rainforest from Cusco or Iquitos (Go here if you aren’t sure where to go in Peru next)
If I repeat one more time that I had dreamt of going to the Amazon and even volunteering there since I was a little girl who watched way too much Discovery channel with her parents, you would kill me.
So let me say that if you are in Peru, or anywhere in South America, go to the Amazon rainforest.
You don’t have to necessarily go until Iquitos to see the Amazon jungle. You can visit the Manu National Park, part of the Amazon Rainforest Peru, from Cusco. There are options of three to seven-eight day trips and this is the time to go all-in I think.
I have written all about the Manu National Park in Peru so start planning your trip now.
My favorite part about Manu National Park? The feeling of being inside a fifty-five million years old thick rainforest where tribes that have never seen civilization still live unseen and untouched.
The best tip to survive the Amazon jungle — Remember that you are in the jungle and the insects and bugs are not the intruders, we are.
4. Don’t skip Puno, a town on the shores of Lago Titicaca (One of the Peru must see)
If I had skipped Puno, as many travelers suggested, I would have missed the best part of my Peru trip.
Puno is a small town located in the South of Peru on the bank of the Lake Titicaca, the largest, highest, and deepest lake in South America. Lake Titicaca is shared between Bolivia and Peru. Legends say that the God Viracocha made the sun and the moon (and possibly the Incas) in the Lake Titicaca, and hence the lake is quite an important site for both Peruvians and Bolivians.
I spent about fourteen days in Puno and the islands on Lake Titicaca and loved every minute because the places were nothing like I had ever seen and the people were friendly.
Though I have written about all the amazing things to do in Puno and Lake Titicaca, I can add that this cultural town has delicious fried trout, forgiving countryside, empty beaches, and unlimited access to about 42 Titicaca islands each of which has its own unique culture, sights, and potatoes.
If you are fretting about planning a visit to the islands, try this two-day tour to the Uros, Amantani, and Taquile island. You stay with a Quechua island family that feeds you, clothes you, and dances with you. I loved the tour and hope that my skirt doesn’t come off the next time I go dancing with the family.
Puno is also the border town to Bolivia.
Thank me later, alligator.
My favorite part about Puno and Titicaca? Getting soaked in rain and then rushing back to the hostel to get some coca tea. Or maybe hiking in the countryside and chatting with the friendly locals. Oh maybe walking along the beach with nothing on my mind. I don’t know.
The best tip to survive Puno — Get a good place to stay if you want to slow down here. Cozy hostel was pretty great.
5. Wander in the white city Arequipa
Arequipa is a city in the South of Peru that is known as a white city as its houses and its buildings are made of sillar, a white volcanic stone.
While El Misti volcano looms above Arequipa, the center of the city is filled with neoclassical cathedrals, ancient nun monasteries, museums and mummies, colorful markets, and even one amazing Indian restaurant called India along with many great Peruvian ones. Either take a free city tour(no countryside visit) or get this GetYourGuide four-hour tour that takes you through the city and the countryside with a local guide.
You can spend a few days in the city but make sure you also plan a trip to the Colca Canyon nearby. And the mention of this canyon brings me to my next point.
My favorite part about Arequipa? Sitting on the first and second floor of the plaza and watching the people from there.
The best tip to survive Arequipa— Tonnes of tour agents will buzz on you like bees insisting you to book a Colca Canyon tour with them. Tell them you went there already.
6. Make sure you experience the Colca Canyon near Arequipa
Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon is located about 200 km from Arequipa and almost tops the list of the places to see in Peru. If you hike, there is no doubt that you should hike down the Canyon with a tour or on your own.
Whilst in the canyon, take time to talk to the villagers who farm and live on the slopes of the canyon. Oh, doing this hike on your own gives you ample time to do this.
Read my honest guide to the Colca Canyon hike to plan your journey. If you are not into hiking or just not in the mood, think about this guided tour with a local that will take you to wildlife and Condor viewpoints, to the El Misti volcano viewpoints, and drive you to the Colca Canyon.
My favorite part about the Colca Canyon? Watching the panoramic views and letting the surreality of the canyon take over.
The best tip to survive Colca Canyon Hike — Take the climb slowly and don’t let the guide push you into hurrying or feeling guilty.
7. Visit Lima — but don’t get too comfy there else you will miss something that you really want to see
Like every other capital, the beach town of Lima is a mix of hip bars and pubs, fine restaurants, skyscrapers, and baroque cathedrals and plazas (because it is a colonial city).
Seaside Barranco is the safest and the most beautiful place to stay. You can find a good hostel in the Barranco area here. Relax at the beach, play football, eat delicious ceviche, visit some cathedrals, and practice some Spanish with the locals while enjoying the nightlife.
Or go for a pre-arranged night live magic water show with dinner, take a full-day Lima culinary and cultural tour, eat through a four-hour tour where you taste 16 dishes at 8 restaurants while exploring Barranco with a local (or choose this vegan option), or immerse in a Shanty Town tour run by a local NGO that takes you through the real-life of Lima and helps you interact with the community.
I have covered how can you keep safe in Lima in the last section on staying safe in Peru.
My favorite part about Lima? I haven’t been to Lima but after reading so much about it and talking to my friends I think I would just love to lie on a beach and eat ceviche.
The best tip to survive Lima — Don’t overstay, a lot of my friends told me.
8. Get those surfboards on in Máncora
I am not into surfing but they say that Mancora, a border town next to Ecuador, is your best bet to surf in Peru. Mancora is 17 hours by bus from Lima so you better surf there if you go.
If you are in Mancora between July and October, you can see humpback whales breeding in the Pacific.
My favorite part about Máncora? That I never went there. Hey, I don’t surf. But I miss the whales.
The best tip to survive Máncora — Avoid the expensive beachside and stay in the quiet Playa del Amor.
9. Sandboard in Huacuacina and drink wine in Ica
Huacuacina is a little oasis in the desert in Southwest Peru that is also known as the Everest of the desert for some of the dunes are 300 m high. Ica is the closest town to Huacuacina.
If you want to try sandboarding, Huacachina has a good reputation amongst travelers. Also, buggy riding, in which you sit in a 12-seater buggy while a driver takes you around the desert at steep angles, has given some travelers quite a heart attack. When you get bored of sandboarding, go try some local wine in the wineries of Ica.
My favorite part about Huacuacina? I didn’t go there but I wish I did. Huacuacina had me at the Everest of deserts and I love (almost) freefalling on steep slopes.
The best tip to survive Huacuacina —Book an evening tour to avoid heat and to watch the sunset.
10. Take a flight over the mysterious Nazca lines (one of the most absurd places to see in Peru)
Nazca lines are geoglyphs that are shaped like animals, plants, and other designs and are located about 400 km in the South of Lima. Though there are many theories around their origin and time, no one knows for sure why and how the lines got drawn in the coastal plains. Experts say that the lines are at least 1000 years old.
If you fly above the Nazca desert, you can see these mysterious figures that some contest could be the work of the aliens.
Have a look at this 35-minutes Nazca lines flight (starting from Nazca city) with a local guide.
My favorite part about Nazca lines? That they are mysterious.
The best tip to survive — I think you can manage a half an hour flight without any tips but do read up a little bit about the history of lines so that you can make the best of your trip.
11. Choose Huaraz as your base and hike in the Peruvian mountains, the Cordillera Blanca (One of the top things to do in Peru for the hikers)
Peru is a heaven for hikers as the country is home to the Andes mountains, the second-highest mountain range in the world.
If you love hiking, make sure you keep some time to visit Huaraz in the North-West of Peru. Huaraz is about 3000 meters above sea level and its bordered by the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca in the east.
The Huascarán National Park which encompasses most of the Cordillera Blanca houses the 70 tall (4000 meters and above) peaks, even Peru’s tallest mountain, Huarascán, and about 200 lakes.
Make Huaraz your base and explore the mountains.
My favorite part about Huaraz or the Peruvian mountains? I love the mountains and the challenge they pose. Also, I haven’t visited Huaraz yet as I didn’t even know about it back on my Peru trip. So I have one amazing thing left to do for sure.
The best tip to survive — Get acclimatized first before hiking in the high mountains.
Now the most awaited list.
My list of the coolest and the most unique places to go in Peru – List 2
These are highlights from my Peru journey.
Here I have added only the best places to visit in Peru and things you shouldn’t miss. Things that aren’t highlighted about Peru, but you would regret if you missed them and heard about them from someone later.
- Overeating at chifa restaurants in Puno — Chifa is a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian and I think everyone deserves at least one chifa meal. I found most of the chifas in Puno.
- Getting soaked in rain and rushing back to the hostel to drink coca tea — Peruvian monsoons are from January to March. You can think about avoiding Peru in rain for hiking is tough in that season, but if you love monsoon, try to get in Peru for a few days of the monsoon at least.
- Watching trains go by — You don’t need to be on a train. Just keep an eye out for trains in the countryside of Peru.
- Drinking coca tea — Though South Americans drink coca tea as it is energizing and help with the altitude, you can make a few friends while sipping coca tea on an idyllic afternoon in the hostel.
- Find the farthest islands of Lago Titicaca and visiting them — While keeping my base as Puno, I visited Uros, Amantani, Taquile, and a few more islands on the lake. My travel friend and I would spot the most isolated tiny piece of land on the lake and asked our favorite travel agent to get us there. She always did. And then we stayed with the family for an extended time. If you are looking to slow down or for some solitude or a closer look at the Peruvian island life, I suggest you find yourself a reliable travel agent and get onto that boat to explore another island out of the 42 every few days. I have shared the link to the Titicaca guide above but here it is in case you don’t want to scroll up.
- Soaking in rain on a tiny boat with an Aymara family on the giant Titicaca huddled under a plastic sheet while having to pee — The wind was crazy, the waves were high, and the rain crashed harder every passing minute but that boat ride is still one of my most memorable days from Peru. You can’t recreate the same memory but I hope you find your own.
- Just sitting by the Titicaca shore on the islands
- Visiting the Sillustani ruins from Puno (one of the best places in Peru) — The journey to and fro from Puno was more exciting than the ruins but the ruins are out of this world as well.
- Visiting the Temple of the Moon near Cusco — Walk beyond the temple and find that tiny stream gurgling through the neon grass. Walk beyond and hike through those mountains where farmer families live away from all. Keep walking and you would soon find a way back to Cusco. I have written more about the temple in my Cusco guide.
- Cooking in the hostel with all the fresh vegetables, spices, quinoa, and potatoes —Make the many-colored potato chips with the colorful potatoes.
- Filling my water bottle with chicha murada bought from a roadside vendor who also sold amethyst stones(A must do in Peru )— Who needs water?
- Pubbing in Cusco with hostel friends — I don’t party a lot while traveling but sometimes places and people call for it. Cusco is a great place to hang out at night. But be safe.
- Watching the Cusco carnival — When in Peru, plan your city visits as per the festivals.
- Buying stones and silver — My jewelry trinkets are my souvenirs from around the world. Centro Artesenal Cusco is a great place to shop for some unique stones and abalones studded in silver. I still have mine.
- Obsessing over the Amazon — Don’t miss it.
- Staying put in a city longer than I had planned — While Peru has a lot to do, it is also that one country where you should slow down if you can.
I hope you enjoy both the lists but follow only your heart.
Safety Tips for Peru
- Avoid ATM threats – Never carry more cash than you need. Keep your cards and extra cash at the hotel after you have withdrawn. Think about getting a travel card in which you keep topping up from your main account so that your main account stays off-limits to the robbers.
- Wear a fanny pack for your important stuff.
- Book a safe transfer from Lima airport to the hotel here, especially if you are arriving at night. Not all taxis in Peru are legal and you can read more about it here. Only hire the four-door legal taxis.
- Carry your camera sling style or wear it on your neck.
- Keep your valuables with you on the bus. Make that bag a pillow but don’t leave it on the shelf above the seat.
- Don’t get distracted if someone (even an old lady) throws paints at you or make your clothes dirty on the road. These are just distractions to rob you off your bags.
- Don’t go alone in unknown streets after the sunset. Duh.
- Drink spiking is known in some pubs in the big cities so never leave your drink alone.
- Contact the Policia de Turismo (Tourism Police) if something happens with you. Here are some of the contacts of the government’s tourist protection committee.
- Carry LifeStraw (a water bottle with an inbuilt filter) with you as tap water in Peru is not clean to drink. I have been using this bottle for over a year now and I have avoided buying so many plastic bottles because of it. Saves plastic, saves money, and saves time and energy.
Are you still wondering what to see in Peru? Which of these places in Peru did you love the most? Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.
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