Say the word “Peru” and an image of the elaborate stone complex of Machu Picchu, South America’s most famous Inca ruins, springs to mind. But beyond the walls of this citadel, a wealth of other attractions awaits travelers, including even older archaeological sites, mammoth waterfalls ranking among the world’s highest and cities home to beautiful traditional crafts.
Whether you’re planning a trip or just seeking your daily dose of wanderlust, join us as we take you to the 15 unmissable destinations to visit in Peru.
Huaca de la Luna, La Libertad Region
310 miles (500 kilometers) north of the Peruvian capital, Lima, lies Trujillo, a pretty colonial city and the access point for the fascinating Huaca de la Luna. This adobe-brick ceremonial center belonged to the Moche civilization; excavations suggest it was built any time between the first and eigth centuries and is part of a larger archeological complex that also includes Huaca del Sol, another Moche temple.
The Huaca de la Luna lay partially buried under sand for centuries, helping to preserve it from the worst intentions of looters. Although most tourists head to the more famous Chan Chan complex of the Chimú civilization, also located just outside Trujillo, the Huaca de la Luna is more visually striking, particularly thanks to its wall of original, colorful murals narrating grizzly sacrifice rituals known to have been practiced by the Moche.
Cajamarca, Cajamarca Region
Brimming with colonial and ancient history, Cajamarca is a city that merits a visit on a trip to Peru. It’s greatest claim to fame is how it was the site of the Spanish conquistador Pizarro’s trickery towards and eventual capture of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa—events that would lead to the ultimate conquest of the Inca empire by the Spanish.
Visitors can explore El Cuarto del Rescate (aka Atahualpa’s Ransom Room), the only remaining Inca structure in the whole city. Here, a line drawn around the room is still visible; it is believed that Atahualpa drew it to indicate the quantity of gold that he would give to the Spanish in return for his release. Despite the Inca emperor sticking to his half of the bargain, the Spanish weren’t to be trusted; Atahualpa was executed anyway.
Beyond its grizzly history, the city boasts a series of spectacular buildings. These include the intricately carved Baroque cathedral on the Plaza de Armas and the truly fascinating Ventanillas de Otuzco and Combayo. Visitors to the latter will find the remains of two pre-Inca necropolises where in around 500 BC, window-like holes were carved into the volcanic rock and used to bury the chieftains of the Cajamarca people.
Kuélap Fortress, Amazonas Region
Once reachable only by a grueling, four-hour trek or vertigo-inducing bus journey, Kuélap—or “the Machu Picchu of the North” as it’s often known—is now far more accessible, making it a deserving detour from the more famous sites in southern Peru. A new system of cable cars now zips visitors up to this mountaintop fortress in 20 minutes, offering sprawling panoramic views of the surrounding valley along the way.
Growing popularity means the citadel of the “Cloud Warriors” or Chachapoyas people is no longer free of tourists but it’s still a spectacular sixth-century monument. What’s more, it’s an incredible feat of engineering, a fact that can be admired in its soaring defensive walls and three tiers of circular stone houses. In the latter, you’ll see the remains of where guinea pigs—the inhabitants’ main source of protein—were kept and even a niche beneath the floor to store the mummies of their ancestors.
Salinas de Maras, Cusco Region
The white salt ponds of Maras that seem to spill down the mountain into the Sacred Valley are a truly unique sight. From the visitor’s center, a short path brings you to the pools, where locals can be watched patiently farming each salt-laden trough—as they have done since Inca times.
Take a tour from Cusco or get there on foot via a trail that connects the ponds with the circular terraces of Moray, around 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away.
Catacombs at the Convent of San Francisco, Lima Region
Bones, it’s all about the bones. Sure, the monastery itself is a fine example of religious architecture, but let’s face it, we all go to the Convento de San Francisco de Asis in Lima for the catacombs.
The crypts below the monastery are full of skulls, femurs, tibiae and fibulae—some laid out in spiraling or circular patterns—and you can walk among them through the darkened arched passageways. By some estimates, the remains of more than 25,000 bodies lie in these subterranean vaults.
Machu Picchu, Cusco Region
Machu Picchu, the erstwhile holiday home of Inca royalty, is arguably the reason why most visitors find their way to the country. Set within a landscape of ice-capped peaks and deep valleys, these ruins are Peru’s—if not South America’s—most impressive.
Despite rapidly increasing visitor numbers over the years, Machu Picchu still retains its air of being a forgotten city in the heart of the Andes. To help protect the site, as of 2017, new rules implemented by the Peruvian government require visitors to book a morning or afternoon entry slot and can only enter the site with a certified guide. Although some might argue that no longer being able to explore the ruins at will reduces some of the magic of the visit, watching the sun rise from Intipunku (the Sun Gate) is still an experience few can forget.
Saqsaywaman, Cusco Region
Of all of the archaeological sites on the Boleto Turístico del Cusco (Cusco Tourist Ticket), Saqsaywaman (pronounced—in jest—by local guides as “sexy woman”) is the most impressive in terms of historical importance and archaeology.
The massive stone walls that slot almost perfectly into place without the need of cement are among the finest examples of Inca masonry, and the sheer scale of the site makes it clear that this was a hugely important citadel. It also overlooks Cusco, offering exceptional views across the city and its surroundings.
Isla Taquile, Puno Region
Believed by the Inca to be the birthplace of the sun, lake Titicaca—the largest in South America—is a place of shimmering waters and mysterious islands of myth and legend, colorful culture and traditional dress.
None is more enchanting than Isla Taquile, where visitors can spend a night in a homestay and learn about the island’s long tradition of weaving. Various community-run textile shops also make for excellent places from which to buy a unique souvenir.
Although many backpackers skip Puno and instead head for Copacabana and the Bolivian side of the lake, Isla Taquile shouldn’t be missed, as it offers a pocket of centuries-old culture so enthrallingly distinct from that on the mainland.
The Huchuy Qosqo Trek, Cusco Region
If you’re looking to stretch your legs and tick off a visit to Machu Picchu along the way, look no further than the short Huchuy Qosqo trek to Machu Picchu. You’ll pass through varied scenery, from rolling hills to sheltered Inca trails winding through narrow river canyons as you arrive at the Inca-built Huchuy Qosqo (which means “Little Cusco” in Quechua).
It might lack some of the grandeur of Machu Picchu, but this archeological site is still an impressive example of Inca architecture and makes for an interesting detour before continuing on to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Ayacucho, Ayacucho Region
With its stately central Plaza de Armas and status as Peru’s city of traditional crafts, Ayacucho should receive far more visitors than it does. As such, it’s one of the country’s best kept secrets, despite being relatively close (in Peruvian terms) to Cusco and just a one-hour flight from Lima.
Known as the artisanal capital of the country, Ayacucho is a souvenir shopper or craft lover’s dream. In the Santa Ana neighborhood, local artisans still make elaborate textiles in their workshops and visitors can learn about the city’s proud history of weaving before buying a beautiful rug or wall hanging—many of which can sell for hundreds of dollars.
Mancora, Piura Region
Peru might not be particularly renowned for its beaches (especially when compared with Ecuador and Colombia further north), but with around 1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) of coastline, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of stunning spots to be found.
For those in the know, Peru’s northern coast is synonymous with surf. Close to the Ecuadorian border, Mancora has one of the most popular of the beaches, as it can be relied upon for its warm waters and beginner-friendly waves. The town itself has also acquired a reputation as Peru’s number one place to party and those looking to let off a bit of steam will be pleasantly surprised by the number of lively restaurants and bars.
Huaraz, Ancash Region
Serious hikers should look no further than the mountain town of Huaraz. Situated 10,000 feet (3,052 meters) above sea level, the town itself is—quite literally—breathtaking but it’s the scenery in the Cordillera Blanca in the nearby Huascarán National Park that draws the crowds.
Everything from five-day hikes in the shadow of dramatic, snow-capped peaks to tours to crystal clear, high-altitude lakes, such as Laguna 69, are on offer from Huaraz. If you’ve plenty of experience, the options are even more adventurous. Embark on treks up to two weeks long as you seek out landscapes of crystalline lakes and isolated rural villages that few other tourists ever reach.
Gocta and Yumbilla Falls, Amazonas Region
As striking natural landmarks go, nothing quite beats a spectacular waterfall. Luckily, Peru is home to not one but two of the largest in the world, both situated an hour or so north of Chachapoyas.
2,500-foot- (771-meter-) high Gocta is the most known of the pair, finding fame after it was “discovered” by a group of German explorers as recently as 2006. With a 3.4-mile (5.5-kilometer) trail leading to its base, you don’t have to be an intrepid explorer to reach the falls and the walk takes you through verdant cloud forest and scenery that looks like it’s not changed a jot in the last few millennia.
Just a bit further north on the road towards Tarapoto and the Amazon Rainforest, Yumbilla Falls are even higher and more remote. From the trailhead, an hour’s hike through humid forest brings you to a picture-perfect viewpoint of the waterfalls and an excellent spot for appreciating their colossal 2,900-foot (896-meter) height. Just remember to bring a waterproof—you’ll inevitably get soaked by the spray.
The Colca Canyon
While hiking trips in the Peruvian Andes Mountains can take you up to extreme, high-altitude passes, a trek into the Colca Canyon offers the exact opposite. With the valley floor 10,700 feet (3,270 meters) below the highest point, the canyon is officially one of the deepest in the world.
Luckily, the hike down into the valley and, more importantly, back out again, doesn’t require you to descend or ascend quite so far. Trekkers can expect an altitude change of around 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) and are almost guaranteed to spot condors floating on the thermals in the sky. What’s more, hot springs in towns near the end of the hike offer tired trekkers a place to ease their sore limbs.
Islas Ballestas, Ica Region
Although they might be known by the somewhat underwhelming name “the poor man’s Galapagos,” the Islas Ballestas off the coast of Paracas are a memorable destination in their own right.
A series of rocky islands that jut out of the ocean and are accessible by speedboat from the mainland, the Islas Ballestas swarm with thousands of pelicans, Inca terns, blue-footed boobies and even Humboldt penguins. On lower outcrops of rock, look out for sunbathing fur seals and sea lions, while in the surrounding waters, it’s also not unusual to spot whales or dolphins.