Know that Peru offers a variety of things to see and do
Although mainly known for Machu Picchu to the outside world, Peru boasts many different attractions and things to do.
Cusco was the hub of the Inca Empire that dominated Peru until its fall at the hands of the Spanish in the 1500s. Because of this, there are some fantastic Incan and pre-Incan structures nearby.
The most famous attraction is the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu since Hiram Bingham’s expedition in 1911. However, there are many different attractions in the famed Sacred Valley of the Incas, which we will mention a little further down.
Also, don’t forget the cities themselves, such as Lima and Cusco, as even the cities offer some fantastic things to do.
Peru was home to many different cultures and civilizations spanning the last 5,000 years. The oldest is Caral, which is the oldest archaeological site in the Americas. This is found a few hours north of Lima.
The archaeological sites that rival Machu Picchu outside of the Sacred Valley include Kuelap in Peru’s north, belonging to the Chachapoyas culture, and Chan Chan near Trujillo of the Chimu culture.
Peru is also famous for the Andes mountains and there are different climbs and hikes to enjoy, which offer some incredible Andean scenery, beautiful lakes, and even chance encounters with wild camelids and Andean condors.
The other famous attractions include Lake Titicaca in the country’s south and the incredible Colca Canyon, which is one of the world’s deepest canyons.
Peru also offers experiences of the Amazon River & Rainforest, fantastic food, unique shopping experiences, and even surfing and sand boarding.
Peru also offers the 2nd highest amount of Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical forest and container of wildlife. On guided Amazon tours, enjoy spotting iconic macaw parrots, toucans, several different monkeys, caiman crocodilians, colorful birds, and even chance sightings of jaguar.
A sometimes overlooked fact is that Peru contains the 2nd highest amount of Amazon Rainforest after Brazil.
Not only that, but this side of the Amazon Rainforest contains the highest amount of animals and plants. Peru is also fortunate to have one of the most developed and thought out tourism industries in the Amazon Rainforest.
The protected rainforest near Puerto Maldonado represents one of the world’s largest tracts of protected tropical forest. This is also where you find the most claylicks of anywhere in Amazonia.
Claylicks are areas of exposed clay where different animals come to feed from the medicinal and salt-rich clays. The most famous visitors are the large and colorful macaw parrots, which draw wildlife lovers, birders, and travel magazines the world over.
Fantastic lodges to observe the claylicks include the Tambopata Research Center, which also boasts a 20% chance of spotting wild jaguar, and the Refugio Amazonas Lodge in Tambopata’s buffer zone. The Refugio Amazonas offers a canopy tower and is a common place for harpy eagle nests.
To experience the northern Amazon Rainforest near the Amazon River itself, you will visit the Amazon gateway city of Iquitos. The Amazon River feeds a forest that covers 40% of the South American continent. From Iquitos, you can enjoy some fantastic cruises on the river itself or enjoy tours from deep jungle lodges, such as the highly rated Tahuayo Lodge & Amazon Research Center.
Cruises on the Amazon River can offer a little more comfort, as with air-conditioning, excellent food, and very comfortable suites, cruises allow more of a hotel-like environment to return to after your guided excursions. We recommend some different cruise options in the next section.
For more connection to this incredible forest, we recommend a rainforest lodge. From the Tahuayo Lodge, you will enjoy privately guided tours in the highly diverse Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve, which is about 150 km from Iquitos city. Enjoy exploring the waterways and rainforest to find pink river dolphins, caiman crocodilians, several different monkeys, and many colorful birds on a custom itinerary.
Know the recommended time to spend in each area
Although Peru offers many different attractions and there is lots to see and do, we recommend making sure you have enough time in each of the areas you want to visit to not rush the experience.
If Peru has an impact on you, remember that you can always come back to focus on other areas. If there’s something you really wanted to do in Peru but didn’t have time, you can always add it to a future trip to Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, or other nearby countries.
To offer a rough guide, we would recommend 5-days to a week exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley. This would give you enough time to enjoy the city itself, visit Machu Picchu, and enjoy the many other attractions nearby Cusco without having to rush. For many visitors to Peru, Cusco is a favorite destination. Not only because of the incredible archaeological areas, but because Cusco itself offers some great restaurants, bars, cafes, and shopping experiences.
If exploring the northern kingdoms, we recommend three or four days for Trujillo, Chan Chan, and the Tomb of Sipan. You may then want to spend a week farther north if you’re interested in Kuelap and the Chachapoyas culture.
Lake Titicaca can be experienced over one or two days and is a great place to combine with the incredible Colca Canyon. Both of these major attractions are found in southern Peru where you can base yourself in the fascinating city of Arequipa.
For the Amazon Rainforest, there are some different points to consider. If you only have two or three days available, we recommend the Amazon Rainforest of the Tambopata region from Puerto Maldonado. These include the community-owned Posada Amazonas Lodge and Refugio Amazonas Lodge.
This is because the areas rich with wildlife are located close to Puerto Maldonado. Because of this, you save on travel time getting to and from the rainforest lodge. This means more time exploring the rainforest to find incredible wildlife. There are also deep rainforest lodge from Puerto Maldonado, such as the Tambopata Research Center mentioned above. However, this requires a tour of 4-days minimum due to travel time.
If you’re planning to head to Iquitos to an Amazon Rainforest lodge, such as the recommended Tahuayo Lodge & Amazon Research Center, the recommended time at the Tahuayo is 8-days.
The minimum time for a tour from the Tahuayo Lodge is 4-days, however, you will be restricted to the main Tahuayo Lodge. To experience both of these fantastic lodges, you will need 6-days as a minimum, which will allow time to get there and back, travel between lodges and allow you sufficient time to see wildlife and explore the rainforest.
If you’re interested in a cruise on the Amazon River, Amazon Cruises often range from 4-day cruises through to 7-night itineraries.
Some recommended options include:
Know other sights to see with Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is often the main attraction visitors to Peru want to experience. Machu Picchu certainly deserves the attention and seeing the incredible structure is sure to provide a long lasting memory.
However, there are fascinating archaeological sites near Machu Picchu as well that belong to both to Incan and pre-Incan civilizations.
The main attractions to visit in the Sacred Valley in addition to Machu Picchu include:
- The Ollantaytambo Ruins
Here is a little information about each one of these fascinating sites.
The Ollantaytambo Ruins
Ollantaytambo offers a visually impressive spectacle of giant stone terraces and is both a Peruvian town and Incan site. This is thought to have been the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, which also housed high ranking members of the Incan Empire.
Although an attraction in its own right, Ollantaytambo is often the starting point for the Inca Trail, which is a popular hike to Manu Picchu where you walk in the footsteps of the Incas to their sacred site.
Adding to its historical significance, this is where Manco Inca Yupanqui made a heroic defence against the invading Spanish in 1537.
To provide a summary, during a Spanish advance, the Inca commanded a barrage of arrows, spears and boulders from the high terraces onto the Spanish below. Using their knowledge of irrigation, the area below was also flooded causing the Spanish to commit a hasty retreat. Although the Spanish returned to defeat the Inca, this represents one of the few times where the Inca actually won a battled against the technologically advanced and better equipped conquistadors.
One of the most thought provoking structures of the Incan civilization, Moray consists of a series of concentric circular terraces. These terraces can be 100 ft (30 m) deep in some places, which puzzled archaeologists.
The entire structure resembles a type of amphitheater. However, evidence suggests the structure’s use was something far more important than entertainment. Linked to different soil being found on each of the terraces from all over the Incan Empire, it’s now thought that Moray was an agricultural laboratory. There is even a temperature difference of 27°F (15 °C) between the highest and the lowest terrace.
We know that Andean communities were responsible for producing thousands of different potatoes and other tubers, as well as hundreds of different maize varieties. Moray, and structures like it, may help explain how they were able to do this.
A citadel of the Incan Empire, Sacsayhuaman is now a major archaeological attraction. This is also one of the closest major Incan structures to Cusco city, which makes it easier to visit and a simple add-on to your experience.
Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Sacsayhuaman pre-dates the Inca and is thought to have been built by the Killke culture. The heavily fortified structure overlooks Cusco and offers some fantastic views of the city.
Overall, there are 200 different Incan ruins found in this area, which spans 3,000 hectares.
Perched on the hill, the main structure of Sacsayhuaman was where the Inca could watch over Cusco, as the city was the hub and political capital of the entire Incan Empire.
Now, the area of Sacsayhuaman is where the famous Inti Raymi celebration is held every 24th of June in honor of the Sun god and to keep Incan tradition alive. Around this time, you can expect a few days of festivities before and after the main event.
The main structure of Sacsayhuaman is thought to have taken 20,000 men decades to build and mystified the Spanish on its discovery. The gigantic blocks can weigh around 100 tons each giving evidence to the engineering feats of early Andean cultures.
Found near the small traditional Andean village of Pisac in the Sacred Valley, Inca Písac is a series of Inca ruins, including a fortress, temples, and agricultural areas.
While visiting the area, enjoy fantastic views of the beautiful Urubamba River, which flows through the village. Perched on the hill, the fortress allowed the Inca to watch over the valley. You will then see the iconic Incan terracing.
The village itself is also worth a visit and there are different markets to purchase traditional Andean products, including clothing and leather goods.
Find the best time to visit
As there are benefits to visiting at different times of year, the most important consideration is when you have available for your trip to Peru.
However, there are some times to make the best of the experiences, such as the best time of year for Machu Picchu for the best views, best times to see colorful macaws gathered at the claylicks of Peru’s Tambopata and Manu rainforest, best times of year to avoid the most visitors, and when to avoid heavy rains.
Because the Andes runs through the middle of Peru, and as Peru crosses many different climate zones and environments, such as deserts, mountains, and jungle, the best time to visit really depends on where you will be going.
For example, the best time to visit Machu Picchu is often determined by the clearest weather while balancing crowds and slippery trails.
The recommended time to visit Machu Picchu and Cusco is between April and September, which is the dry season. For more information, including a month-by-month guide, you can see our guide for when to visit Machu Picchu.
If you’re planning on visiting the Amazon Rainforest from the rainforest gateway of Puerto Maldonado, note that May to July often see less parrots at the claylicks. However, temperature stays around 88°F (31°C) throughout the year and other wildlife is abundant year round.
From around mid-October to mid-March in Puerto Maldonado, you can expect wetter weather. Note that rain often clears by the morning and begins in late afternoon. This usually allows a day of exploration that doesn’t affect activities.
If visiting the rainforest gateway of Iquitos for the Amazon River & Rainforest, note that the most significant factor is the high or low water months. From mid-May to October, you can expect drier weather and low water in the Amazon River. This means more forest walks and less canoeing, but it can be more difficult to navigate the waterways. Wildlife is often abundant throughout the year. River dolphins move into the main Amazon River over the low water months. However, this is when the forest fruits and flowers. For more information, you can see our guide for when to visit Iquitos.
Invest in learning a little Spanish
Although on guided tours the guides speak English and can help you with translation, it’s recommended when visiting another country to make sure you can say some basic phrases in the country’s language.
If you’re short on time, you can buy a Spanish phrase book. However, if you have the time before your visit, you may choose to enroll in some Spanish classes, which may add to the enjoyment of your trip.
Not only helping you if you need to communicate something on your trip, but a simple phrase here and there is often highly appreciated by locals (even if they can speak English). There are also different websites online that can help, such as Duolingo or basic tutorials on Youtube.
Prepare for changes in altitude and temperature
Peru is fortunate to contain different regions. Theses are often categorized into three general types: the coast, the highlands and the jungle. The Andes run through the middle of the country defining the highlands and separate the other two regions.
The three general regions then contain their own environments, such as desert, cloud forest and lowland rainforest.
Because of the different environments, if you’re planning to visit different areas of Peru you will need to prepare for distinct changes in temperature, weather and altitude.
To give an example, here are some averages for Lima (Peru’s capital), Cusco (your base for Machu Picchu & many tourist sights), and Puerto Maldonado (the gateway to Peru’s southern Amazon Rainforest).
- Average Daytime Temperature: 73°F (23°C)
- Average Nighttime Temperature: 63°F (17°C)
- Altitude: 500 feet (152 m) above sea level
- Rainfall per year: 0.3 inches (6.4 mm)
- Average Daytime Temperature: 64°F (18°C)
- Average Nighttime Temperature: 36°F (2°C)
- Altitude: 11,152 feet (3,399 m) above sea level
- Rainfall per year: 28 inches (710 mm)
- Average Daytime Temperature: 87°F (31°C)
- Average Nighttime Temperature: 68°F (20°C)
- Altitude: 600 feet (183 m) above sea level
- Rainfall per year: 85 inches (2,170 mm)
These dramatic differences between the three regions mean you should prepare for both cold and hot weather if visiting Cusco and the rainforest. It also means you need to be aware about acclimatization to the high altitude of Cusco. This is often helped with a hot cup of traditional coca leaf tea, which is the local remedy for altitude sickness.
Learn Peru’s fascinating history
Peru has a fascinating history. Aside from the Incan Civilization, there were many different pre-Incan cultures. These include the Norte Chico, Chavin, Moche, Paracas, Nazca, Wari and Chachapoyas. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of tribes that have lived in the Amazon Rainforest. However, there are some other theories to tribal origins.
The Norte Chico are thought to be the oldest civilization in the Americas, which also ranks them as one of the world’s oldest. The Inca were then the largest civilization in the Americas until their defeat at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors in 1572. From the Inca civilization we have Machu Picchu, which is now Peru’s most famous attraction.
Cusco was once the administrative and political hub of the Inca Empire, which spanned an area from Ecuador to Chile. After the Spanish conquest and near destruction of Cusco, the Spanish buildings were built on top of the Incan foundations. This makes for some fascinating city walks as you see giant granite blocks topped with the finer Spanish brickwork.
To learn about Peruvian history, you can also enjoy some different museums. If you have a day in Lima, we recommend the BCRP Museum (Museo del Banco Central de Reserva). This museum also contains products of Incan gold and artifacts from many different Peruvian cultures.
Know that Peru offers some of the world’s top-rated restaurants
Peruvian cuisine is often regarded as one of the world’s most celebrated culinary fusions. A mix of traditional ingredients with Asian, Arabic, and Italian influence, the gastronomy is a central part of Peru’s national pride.
The popular dishes include lomo saltado made from sauteed steak mixed with tomatoes, onions, coriander, soy sauce and vinegar. There is also tallarines verdes, which is spaghetti coated with a sauce of basil, spinach and Peruvian cheese. The national dish and often a favorite of Peruvians is ceviche. This is raw fish drizzled with lemon juice and spices. There are also a variety of different stews and soups to try.
in Lima, some of the top-rated restaurants to enjoy include Maras Restaurante, Central, Astrid y Gastón, Rafael Restaurant, Tanta, Restaurante Rodrigo, La Mar, El Mercado, and Maido Restaurant. There are also different options in Cusco.
Some of these, such as Maido, Central, and Astrid y Gastón feature as some of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Don’t forget to try a pisco sour, which is Peru’s national cocktail. A good place to try these is at the Museo del Pisco, which is also a nice restaurant. This is found in both Lima and Cusco.
Know the best tours to make the most of your visit
Some of the most recommended tours in Peru are the Belmond tours, which offer a fantastic experience staying in Belmond’s range of luxury hotels. The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, for example, is the only hotel located close to Machu Picchu, which means you can often explore the incredible area before or after the majority of visitors enjoy the site.
This gives you a more personal experience in addition to enjoying spectacular views of Machu Picchu from the hotel itself. You can also enjoy a trip on the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to return to Cusco in style.
We also recommend a luxury cruise on the Amazon River itself. These depart from Iquitos in Peru’s north, which is the country’s gateway to the northern Amazon Rainforest. Recommended options include the highly exclusive Delfin I with only 4 oversized suites and its sister vessel the Delfin II. The Aria Amazon then offers longer itineraries, elegantly styled interiors and fantastic expeditions to explore Amazonia.
Other comfortable Amazon River cruises include the Delfin III, which is the newest addition to the Delfin fleet, and La Perla Amazon Cruise.
If you’re interested in a deep Amazon Rainforest lodge, the recommended options include the Tahuayo Lodge 150 km from Iquitos for the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve in Peru’s northern rainforest. Enjoy a private guide and custom itinerary at this Rainforest Alliance certified and top rated lodge.
Another options is the Tambopata Research Center in the middle of the highly diverse Tambopata National Reserve. Located near a large macaw claylick to see hundreds of brightly colored macaws, in the surrounding rainforest you can find abundant wildlife, including spider monkeys, howler monkeys, peccary and even jaguar. The lodge now reports around 20% of guests are lucky enough to spot jaguar by the river.
If you only have a few days to explore the Amazon Rainforest, we recommended the Refugio amazonas Lodge or Posada Amazonas Lodge for the Tambopata rainforest from Puerto Maldonado in southern Peru.
The Posada Amazonas is a community-owned lodge and a great place to spot giant river otters and other wildlife. Refugio Amazonas is then found in the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve and offers different trails to find abundant wildlife.
Recently, the lodge has found that harpy eagles frequently nest in the nearby ironwood trees increasing your chances of spotting these fantastic birds. You can also enjoy the canopy tower to spot parrots, toucans and other colorful birds. Nearby the Refugio Amazonas Lodge, you can find the Amazon Villa for an exclusive and luxurious alternative to the Refugio Amazonas.
About the Author: Ash Card is a frequent visitor to the Tropics and has a passion for helping visitors get the best experiences from tropical locations. Ash is a contributor to both TourTheTropics.com and ThinkJungle.com writing about tropical destinations, rainforests and wildlife. Feel free to contact Ash for tour help in the tropics. When not helping tourists with tours and info, Ash can be found salsa-ing the night away or posing near waterfalls.