Over 100 years since American explorer Hiram Bingham unearthed the lost city of Machu Picchu in 1911, the mysteries of the Inca Empire continue to capture the imaginations of intrepid travellers and exploring Inca culture is still one of the top things to do in Peru.
Shrouded in mystery and mysticism, from 13th-century roots in Peru’s Cusco Valley, the Inca civilisation grew into the largest pre-Columbian empire in the New World. Even today, their legacy has a mesmerising effect on anyone who comes into contact with the remnants of this long lost civilisation.
Beyond Inca culture, history and archaeology fans should take note that the Incas are a relatively new Peruvian civilisation and there are many other attractions in Peru from different eras as well as amazing things to do in Peru, such as enjoying its food, culture and nature.
- 20 Incredible Things To Do In Peru
- 1- Explore Cuzco
- 2- Attend A Peruvian Festival
- 3- Shop in a Peruvian Market
- 4- Visit Ollantaytambo
- 5- Gaze in Awe At Salineras de Maras
- 6- Hike or Train To Machu Picchu
- 7- Cruise Lake Titicaca
- 8- See the Nazca lines
- 9- Hangout in Lima
- 10- Cruise the Amazon River
- 11- See wildlife in Paracas National Reserve
- 12- Discover The Chimu Kingdom of Chan Chan
- 13- Go On A Dig At Chavín de Huántar
- 14- Explore the 5000-year-old Ruins of Caral
- 15- Huachachina Oasis
- 16- Eat Peruvian Food
- 17- Visit Arequipa
- 18- Go Surfing in Mancora
- 19- Trek the Cordillera Blanca
- 20- Hike To Humantay Lagoon
20 Incredible Things To Do In Peru
1- Explore Cuzco
Peru is one of the best countries to visit in South America for bucket-list attractions.
The Incas were the conquerors of a mountain kingdom with a capital in the clouds, Cuzco, which is 3400m above sea level.
Cuzco is higher than Machu Picchu (2430m) while another well-known attraction, Lake Titicaca (3811m), is the world’s highest navigable lake famous for its floating islands crafted from woven totara reeds by the Uros Indians.
These days, Cuzco is where travellers can board the train that travels through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.
The ancient Inca capital is overshadowed by the enigmatic Machu Picchu but Cuzco is much more than a gateway to the country’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cuzco is the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city and its narrow cobblestone streets are a trove of colonial mansions and churches packed with Spanish and Inca treasures.
Look beneath the soaring Spanish cathedrals and grand mansions for Inca ruins, which the Spanish built over the top of.
The old town – with its Inca stonework and Quechua-speaking descendants – survived the 16th-century Spanish invasion and pulses with a strong Inca heartbeat.
The Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, in the main street, is worth visiting for a display of traditional weaving techniques, styles and designs.
Nine communities in the region produce quality wall hangings, ponchos, carpets and other beautifully woven textiles here.
The local religion is a mixture of Catholicism and Incan beliefs.
This walking tour of Cuzco will help you get your bearings.
2- Attend A Peruvian Festival
Peruvians love a celebration and in Cuzco, there’s a local festival almost every month.
Many of the festivals are based on concepts tied to the Roman Catholic religion tempered with a good dose of Incan mysticism.
At night, the buildings around Plaza de Armas, the city square, twinkles like a fairyland and if you visit during a local festival, such as the Fiesta of the Virgin of the Door, the mood is an ethereal melding of music, prayers and swirling dancers in front of the Cuzco Cathedral.
Fiesta of the Virgin of the Door is celebrated in November and is centred on a 16th-century tale of burglars whose attempts to enter the city were thwarted by an image of the Virgin Mary placed at the city’s entrance by the people.
3- Shop in a Peruvian Market
If you’re wondering what to buy in Peru, head to a local market.
Local markets are a focal point of Peruvian culture and it’s worth making an effort to visit at least one, such as the Pisac market or the Chinchero Market, 30km from Cuzco.
The sights are an eye-popping slideshow of culture and colour.
At Chinchero Market, men in sombrero hats sit crossed-legged with fruit, vegetables, clothes and crafts spread out on blankets on the ground.
Wrinkly faced women smile shyly beneath wide-brimmed hats.
They carry rosy-cheeked infants slung in gaily coloured pouches around their backs.
The gentle strain of panpipe music seeps through the din of voices, as locals haggle over the price of bananas, oranges, garlic, lime, apples and freshly baked bread.
Tourism has also been a boon to the communities and market sellers do a roaring trade in multi-coloured shawls, beanies and socks.
In the town of Chinchero, a demonstration of traditional weaving and dyeing techniques never fails to gather a crowd.
Casa Orihuela, near Pisac, is a lovely place to stop for lunch but you need to book in advance.
The hacienda is a private home of a local family who has owned vast holdings of land for 400 years and is chock-a-block with figurines, paintings, pottery and other antiques.
4- Visit Ollantaytambo
The lush green Urubamba Valley is popularly known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is one of the famous places in Peru.
Within the valley, the town of Ollantaytambo, 65km northwest of Cuzco, is a former Inca military post surrounded by mountains.
The pull of the Incas is so strong that visiting the heart of the once-mighty Inca Empire is high on the wish-lists for people from around the globe.
At the height of power, the Incas ruled a realm extending beyond present-day Peru to parts of Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
These days, Ollantaytambo is a gathering point for hikers on the four-night Inca Trail walk.
The Ollantaytambo fortress is a terraced stone structure that rises to a lofty peak and is a sight to behold.
The size of the rocks used to build the Wall of the Six Monoliths is a testimony to the advanced engineering capabilities of the Incas.
In town, the women parade around in a colourful blend of Spanish colonial and Incan clothing: layered skirts of hand-woven wool and small rectangular hand-woven shoulder clothes fastened at the front with a decorated pin.
5- Gaze in Awe At Salineras de Maras
Also in the Sacred Valley of the Incas is the Salinas de Maras salt flats, which is an ethereal mosaic of salt pans terraced on the side of a mountain.
These historic salt pans in the Urubamba Province of Cusco have been used for salt extraction since the Inca era.
It’s one of the beautiful and famous places in Peru.
At the top of the valley, saltwater streams from a hot spring into the salt pans and are evaporated to produce salt for cattle licks.
6- Hike or Train To Machu Picchu
A pre-dawn trek at Machu Picchu is a highlight that offers breathtaking views of the great Incan city in the Andes and the company of a few brazen llamas to share the moment of serenity.
If you’re not keen on hiking, taking the train from Cuzco is one of the things to do in Machu Picchu.
It passes through Ollantaytambo and is a fabulous trip even kids can do.
The bad news is the two-hour train ride is followed by a nerve-racking road trip around narrow roads with hairpin bends and steep mountain drops to a spot below Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu’s highest peak.
If you’re travelling with the family, it’s not as difficult as you might think to explore Machu Picchu with kids.
Visiting Machu Picchu, your children will have an amazing experience they will always remember.
Unravelling the mysteries of the Incas is most definitely an attraction and Machu Picchu is the highlight.
7- Cruise Lake Titicaca
The Andeans believed that Lake Titicaca was where the sun was born.
South America’s largest and highest lake straddles Peru and Bolivia and is an attraction in both countries.
On the Peruvian side, the main base to visit Lake Titicaca is Puno where you can take a boat tour on the lake.
Islands to visit are Taquile, Amantani and the Uros Islands, which is a showcase of how the people of the region built and lived on floating islands made from Totora reeds.
They built their homes on the lake over 500 years ago to escape Inca colonisation and have kept traditions like weaving.
8- See the Nazca lines
The Nazca Lines are a series of mysterious geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, which is a high arid plateau that stretches more than 80km between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana.
Hundreds of geoglyphs ranging from simple lines to complex etchings of hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, llamas and lizards are believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 200 BC and AD 700.
The largest figure stretches for 200 m and the longest glyph is 9 miles. The hummingbird alone is 25-feet (7.62m) wide
What’s even more incredible is that these etchings were created between the1st and 8th centuries by removing the reddish iron oxide pebbles on the surface of the desert.
When you fly over the Nazca Lines, it’s easy to believe that they were created by the gods.
Some say that Inca god Viracocha was responsible others say that they were markers to be seen by the sky gods or indicators of water.
Others believe that they are landing sites for aliens.
According to archaeologist Johan Reinhard, they were created as part of a religious ritual to worship the god of water.
9- Hangout in Lima
Lima, the country’s capital, is packed with museums and archaeological sites that offer glimpses of Peru’s ancient civilisations.
Among the many things to do in Lima is a visit to the Larco Herrera Museum houses 5,000 years of archaeological wonders in a private mansion built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple.
On display are ceramics, textiles, precious metal artefacts and mummies.
The basement has exhibits of unique erotic archaeological treasures such as a collection of ceramic pots portraying a Karma Sutra in clay.
Even older than Peru’s pantheon of archaeological wonders are its natural attractions.
An inexpensive way to explore Lima is on an open-top bus tour.
10- Cruise the Amazon River
The Amazon River and rainforest, which is accessible by boat from Iquitos, is a dream destination for nature lovers.
60% of Peru is covered by the Peruvian Amazon, which originates from the foothills of the Andes and flows through a biologically diverse natural wonderland of wildlife.
One-third of the world’s animal species lives in the Amazon Rainforest, including 400+ amphibians, 427 mammals and 378 reptiles.
Along the way, you’ll spot sloths, monkeys and anacondas as well as visit villages and meet the locals as well as learn about their traditional way of life.
11- See wildlife in Paracas National Reserve
Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands, the Ballestas Islands, is located in the Paracas National Reserve.
Near the town of Paracas, the 340,000-hectare wildlife reserve (established in 1975) is a haven for bird and marine life.
Candelabra Mountain has a 595-ft (181m) high geoglyph of a candle holder with a triangle at its midpoint.
Created about 200 B.C., some theorise that is a guide to landfall for sailors or that the triangle is a Masonic symbol.
A cruise to the Ballestas Islands is an opportunity to get close to sea lions, Humboldt penguins, grey-footed boobies and Peruvian boobies.
The islands are white from guano (bird poo) and every few months, they are harvested for fertiliser.
12- Discover The Chimu Kingdom of Chan Chan
Before the Incas, the Chimu civilisation flourished on Peru’s north coast between the 12th and 15th centuries.
One of the things to do in Peru is to visit its capital, Chan Chan, which is a World Heritage-listed wonder and a precious archaeological site that is now fragile.
600 years ago, Chan Chan was a vibrant city with tens of thousands of structures including palaces and temples, soaring walls and a maze of streets.
As many as 60,000 people lived in Chan Chan during the 15th century and the city’s social structure was hierarchical and based on a myth that the world was populated by the sun through the creation of gold, silver and copper eggs.
The Chimu civilisation in Peru was a sophisticated engineering society who built an impressive network of canals to water crops.
Chan Chan is near Trujillo, which is a colonial city with beautiful architecture.
13- Go On A Dig At Chavín de Huántar
The Chavin culture thrived between 1500 and 300 BC in the Huari province in the Peruvian Andes.
The Chavín de Huántar archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best places to visit in Peru for pre-Columbian history.
It has plazas, canals, temples and a labyrinth of underground passageways.
This was the stronghold of a deity called Lanzón, part human and part animal with fangs and talons of a jaguar and caiman.
14- Explore the 5000-year-old Ruins of Caral
Caral is one of the best places to visit in Peru for ancient culture.
The Norte Chico civilisation in Caral flourished from the 30th and 18th centuries BC, making it the oldest civilisation in the Americas.
The city once had pyramids, plazas, temples, amphitheatres and an intricate irrigation system that points to an advanced civilisation.
Musical instruments found in Caral had intricate carvings of monkeys found far away in the Amazon basin and the used ancient mathematical instruments.
Caral is 200 km from Lima and can be visited on a full-day excursion from the Peruvian capital.
15- Huachachina Oasis
Huachachina is a desert oasis that looks like it’s straight out of a fantasy movie and the lagoon’s waters were believed to have healing powers.
A leaking underground spring grew into the lagoon but there’s a more romantic legend about an Inca princess bathing naked in a hidden oasis spotted a hunter ogling at her.
She fled and dropped the mirror in the small pool and it grew into a massive lagoon with sand dunes.
It’s one of the places to visit in Peru for desert adventures, which include dune buggy adventures over the sand dunes, sandboarding and camping under the stars.
There’s an archaeological museum with displays of mummies and tribal ceramics, and the lagoon is fringed by palm trees, bars, restaurants and clubs. Fancy sipping on a pisco sour by the pool?
Huachachina Oasis is five hours by road from Lima and the Nazca Lines are a 10-minute flight away. The closest city is Ica and you can do a day tour to the Ballestas Islands from here.
16- Eat Peruvian Food
Peru is South America’s culinary capital and Peruvian cuisine ranges from traditional Inca fare to modern fusion cuisine.
Dishes to try are:
- Ceviche (the national dish) – Cold sea bass marinated in salt, lime juice, onions and hot chillies.
- Lomo Saltado – Chinese style stir-fried beef marinated in soy sauce with tomatoes, chillies, onions and spices.
Aji De Gallina – Chicken in a cream, walnut and cheese sauce.
17- Visit Arequipa
Arequipa is a charming colonial city and the capital of Peru’s Arequipa region.
Packed with Baroque architecture with a backdrop of volcanoes, the city sits on a tectonic fracture called the Ring of Fire where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can occur.
Wander through picturesque cobblestone streets, discover the 17th-century neoclassical Basilica in the main square, Plaza de Armas, and delight in Queso helado (a creamy local ice cream).
Made from eggs, coconut and condensed milk, this popular Arequipa dessert is a delicious calorie bomb!
18- Go Surfing in Mancora
Looking for Peru beaches?
Head to Máncora in the Piura Region in northwestern Peru for sun, sand, smoothie shacks and surf.
Learn how to surf on Main Beach, try kite surfing or just chill out on the beach waiting for the vibrant nightlife in Peru’s biggest party town.
19- Trek the Cordillera Blanca
Peru has 37 peaks over 6000 m high but if you want the ultimate hiking experience, the highest mountain is Huascaran (6,768 m), which is part of the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes.
The Cordillera Blanca is a stunning snowcapped landscape of glaciers and lagoons.
It’s a trekker’s paradise with a range of treks that can be tackled independently or with a local guide.
The closest town is Huaraz, which has a vibrant vibe in its markets and lovely views.
20- Hike To Humantay Lagoon
From Cusco, a trip to Soraypampa offers views of the snow-capped mountains.
Mount Salkantay (6230 m) is a challenge for experienced hikers but if you just want to stretch your legs, go on a short hike to Humantay Lagoon and gaze at the lovely views.
For more things to do in South America see:
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Brazil
- 20 Incredible Things To Do In Argentina
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Buenos Aires
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Ushuaia
- 15 Things To Do In Quito
- 15 Things To Do in Patagonia
- 15 Things To Do In Santiago