The following list highlights the 12 most popular cities in Peru in terms of foreign visitors. These are the cities that receive the highest number of international tourists, according to figures from the Base de Datos Turísticos del Perú (BADATUR).
These cities are not necessarily the biggest cities in Peru. Paracas, for example, is a long way from being one of the major cities in Peru in terms of population, but the nearby Islas Ballestas and Paracas National Reserve make it a popular destination despite its small size.
Few foreign visitors fall in love with the Peruvian capital, but nearly all of them pass through it -- a whopping 90 percent, in fact. Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport receives the bulk of all incoming international flights, while overland travelers are likely to pass through the capital at some point. But the City of Kings is far more than a just a transport hub. Those who choose to stick around find plenty of things to do in Lima, home to some of the nation’s best restaurants, museums, parks and colonial architecture. According to the MasterCard 2014 Global Destination Cities Index, Lima was the most visited city in Latin America by foreign arrivals in 2014, and the twentieth most visited city in the world.
Cusco is Peru’s prime tourist destination, with at least 80 percent of all foreign tourists heading there during their stay. Cusco itself has plenty to offer, bursting as it is with history and tradition. Two words, however, explain the almost hypnotic attraction that the former Inca capital has over foreign visitors: Machu Picchu. The Inca citadel received 1.17 million visitors in 2013, of which 804,000 were foreigners (Peru itself received 3.16 million foreign tourists in 2013).
In terms of population, Puno only just sneaks onto the list of Peru’s 20 biggest cities. But Puno has two attributes that keep the tourists coming. The city is known as the “Folkloric Capital of Peru” thanks to its rich traditions and frequent festivals, with annual festivities drawing big crowds from across Peru and beyond. The city also sits on the banks of a rather large, very high, and incredibly popular lake. Lake Titicaca is a mystical, romantic and altogether stunning body of water between Peru and Bolivia, and one certainly worthy of a place on the bucket list.
Arequipa -- Peru’s second largest city -- is another permanent fixture on the classic Peruvian gringo trail. The city itself is brimming with colonial, republican and religious architecture, much of which was built using the distinctive white or pink volcanic ashlar stone of the region. Notable buildings surround Arequipa’s plaza de armas, while the vast Santa Catalina Monastery provides another architectural, historical and cultural highlight within the city. The surrounding area, meanwhile, is home to El Misti, a volcano that looms over the city as a constant reminder of the region’s tectonic past. Further afield is Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and one of Peru’s most visited attractions.
Ica is a nice enough place, but the city isn’t typically the main reason for staying in this part of Southern Peru. Ica serves as a base for trips to the surrounding dunes for buggy rides and sandboarding, most famously at the Huacachina oasis. The surrounding area is also part of the pisco route, with some of Peru’s finest pisco distilleries nestled in the region’s river valleys. Fans of history and archaeology -- as well as fans of questionable pseudoscience -- will find plenty of museums in Ica, some of which are home to the area’s infamous elongated skulls. But the main draws in the Ica region are the Nazca Lines, for which Ica also serves as a base (along with the city of Nazca, of course, which isn’t the most inspiring of places).
The small port town of Paracas is big on tourism thanks to the nearby Paracas National Reserve and the Islas Ballestas. As well as being a paradise for nature lovers, Paracas has also turned itself into a major beach resort, with Paracas Bay now home to a range of luxurious hotels.
Ah, the great outdoors! For trekkers, climbers and general outdoor adventurers, few places in Peru have more pull than Huaraz and its surrounding area. Huascarán National Park is one of the most popular protected natural areas of Peru -- and home to the highest mountain in Peru -- while further glaciers and mountains in the Cordillera Blanca attract hikers, climbers, and snowboarders from across the globe. Huaraz also serves as a base for trips to numerous archaeological sites in the Ancash region, including Chavín de Huántar.
The city of Trujillo is blessed with a wealth of attractions including colonial architecture, an elegant plaza de armas, numerous museums, great cuisine and some fascinating Moche archaeological sites in the surrounding area. Trujillo doesn’t have the best reputation in terms of safety and criminal activities, but most tourists won’t see many signs of that, especially within the historic city center. Trujillo is the third largest city in Peru and certainly a prime destination for anyone heading north of Lima.
Puerto Maldonado is all about the surrounding rain forest. The city itself is a little rough around the edges, but it’s an important base for exploring the nearby Manú National Park, Tambopata National Reserve and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. These protected areas attract birdwatchers and wildlife spotters from around the world. To cater for these often upscale tourists, a number of eco-lodges have dotted up outside Puerto Maldonado and within the reserves -- a happy swing towards environmentally-conscious tourism and away from the logging and gold dredging that has seen the area stripped and abused over the last 50 or so years.
Chiclayo is the second largest city in Northern Peru after Trujillo and an important destination along the Pan-American Highway north of Lima. The city center isn’t as chic as that of neighboring Trujillo, but the food is good, the people are friendly and the surrounding area is home to a number of interesting archaeological sites, most notably the Moche tomb of Sipán. Chiclayo is also a popular base for exploring the excellent museums located within the wider Lambayeque department.
The highland city of Cajamarca is one of the most historically important settlements in Peru. It was here that Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors held the Inca Atahualpa captive, famously agreeing to ransom him for a room filled with gold and twice over with silver (the room remains a popular tourist attraction today, although it’s doubtful that this was the actual gold room). Cajamarca became an important Spanish colonial settlement, a fact reflected in the local architecture, especially the construction of the city’s churches and cathedral.
Known for being the largest city in the world not reachable by road, Iquitos overcomes its geographical isolation by use of river travel and a very handy airport. The city is understandably an important destination and starting point for river cruises of both the luxurious and laborious varieties. Jungle lodges, rainforest excursions, wildlife spotting, unique culture and mystic tourism (think shamans and ayahuasca) have helped to make tourism one of the city’s principal industries, all of which are helped by Iquitos’ location on the banks of the Amazon River.