The majority of tourists visit Peru for one reason: to see Machu Picchu. Yes, Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful and incredible places on the planet that everyone needs to see at least once in their lifetime, but not enough people venture outside the box to see the rest of what Peru has to offer. These are the best things to do in Peru other than Machu Picchu.
Explore the Gateway to Machu Picchu
This one may be surprising at first read as it is in fact the gateway to Machu Picchu, but hardly anyone ACTUALLY spends time in Cusco before heading to the famous World Wonder via train. Spending a little bit of extra time in Cusco is worth every second. Not to mention, you should be spending at minimum three days around town to acclimate to the high altitude of the Andes Mountains. A stroll through the historic center is extremely picturesque as the narrow, cobblestone streets open up to gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape and colonial architecture. You will find some of the best views of Cusco in the San Blas neighborhood.
The fashion style of Cusco is one of a kind as everyone seemingly walks around wearing a colorful and artisanal Poncho, handmade from soft Alpaca wool. It’s easy to understand why there is such an abundance of alpaca clothing as baby alpacas themselves are often seen clinking and clanking their hooves through the piazzas. And don’t leave Cusco without enjoying a traditional Andean meal.
Drive the Longest Road in the World
Home to one of the most jaw- dropping and unique landscapes, Paracas is a 3.5 hour drive south of Lima, directly down the Pan-American Highway, which holds the Guinness World Record as the longest motorable road in the world.
You can schedule day tours that go out and back, but the best way to see this otherworldly location is by renting a car. The drive down the coast is stunning as you pass by wind-swept, sand dune deserts that lead into the jagged beaches of the Pacific Ocean. Paracas is a popular vacation spot for Peruvian tourists, but you won’t find too many international groups coming through. The town itself is small, but a nice spot to enjoy a Pisco Sour and a bowl of Ceviche.
Spanning well over 3,350 square kilometers, the stunning red sand Paracas National Reserve is home to over 400 species of flora and fauna, including the cute Humboldt penguin, the wind gliding Peruvian booby, loud and angry sea lions, elegant humpback whales and fun loving dolphins. The best way to catch a glimpse of all the diverse wildlife is via boat out to Islas Ballestas, also known as “Peru’s Galapagos”. The nutrient-rich waters of Paracas makes for the highest concentration of seabirds anywhere in the world.
The reserve is also home to the Candelabra Geoglyph, a large candlestick-shaped design etched into the sand dunes. Many believe that this geoglyph is another part of the mysterious Nazca Lines, located a few more hours South. Keep in mind when visiting that “Paracas” derives from the Quechua words meaning “rain of sand”. The violent and dry winds regularly whip across the sandy coastline and cliffs, directly into your face.
Try World-Renowned Peruvian Cuisine
This one might also come as a surprise on this list of best things to do in Peru other than Machu Picchu as to even get to Cusco and Machu Picchu, you have to first fly through the capital city of Lima. However, it seems like no one sticks around Lima for more than a few hours. That’s unfortunate for them, since Lima may be one of the best cities on the planet. Its food culture is annually voted as one of the world’s best and is home to several of the world’s top 50 restuarants. The beautiful and very safe Miraflores and Barranco neighborhoods are a perfect home-base as they are full of art, night life, museums, restaurants and gorgeous cliff side views looking out over the Pacific.
Get Lost in the White City
Arequipa may be one of the most underrated cities in South America… scratch that—the world. Nicknamed, “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City) this charming, colonial town is filled with baroque buildings carved from white, volcanic stone. Its Plaza de Armas is perhaps the most beautiful in the entire country as the impressive architecture of the Basilica Cathedral de Arequipa commands the space. The city is surrounded by three volcanoes, making for gorgeous views around every corner. The most famous of all, “El Misti,” towers over the skyline with its perfect snowcapped cone shape. Misti is thought to have had religious significance for the Incas.
After exploring the scenic city streets and taking in the volcanic views on a stuffed stomach of Arequipa’s best adobo and other Peruvian specialties, there is one sight you absolutely cannot miss: Juanita. Juanita was a young Inca girl sacrificed to the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450, at the age of 12-15 years. Her body was discovered in 1995 on Mount Ampato and is still preserved almost 600 years later due to the low temperatures. You can visit her in her chilly preservation room at Museo Santuarios Andinos and learn about sacrificial rituals of the Inca. Meeting Juanita is an impactful, one of a kind experience.
Hit Up a Pisco Distillery
Everyone wants to visit Ica because they regularly see the small, nearby desert oasis town of Huacachina via their social media algorithm. Don’t get me wrong, Huacachina is a very fun and beautiful spot, but it’s overrun with tourists. One of the best things to do in Peru, and in Ica specifically, is go on a historic Pisco and wine tasting adventure.
Visit a Real-Life Volcanoland
Located Northwest of Arequipa is one of Peru’s best destinations, the Colca Canyon. It is one of the deepest canyons in the world at a depth of about 4,000 meters, which is approximately twice that of the Grand Canyon.
There are day trips that head out to Colca via bus, but the only way you should visit Colca to truly experience it is by renting a car. The three hour drive is one of the more visually stunning in Peru as you pass through multiple landscapes of deserts, salt mines, forests and a region of more than 25 volcanoes. The highest elevation point of the drive reaches 4,800 meters at Mirador de los Volcanes. Here, you will have a cold and panoramic view of the volcanoes around the area. If you’re lucky, you may encounter some wild vicuña, the famous South American camel native to the Andes.
While in the Colca Valley, you will experience some of the best culture around Peru. The local farming communities continue to practice their traditional way of life, using Pre-Inca agricultural terraces for their crops. Aside from their beautiful farming landscapes, the local communities of Cabanas and Collaguas are serious about their textiles. Their culture is on full display through the beautiful colors and embroidery of their traditional clothing, some of the most beautiful throughout Peru.
As the landscape and culture of the Colca Canyon are equally jaw dropping, ultimately, the Andean Condor steals the show. With a wingspan that can reach up to three meters, it is the largest bird of flight in the world. You don’t realize how big the condor is until you actually see it in person. It’s a visually shocking sight when you look up and see something as large as a human gliding across the sky. It makes sense why the Incas and even local people today look to this bird as a God and a major spiritual symbol of their lives.
Visiting Colca was both the best decision I made while in Peru and the one I regret the most. The best decision because I almost didn’t go, the regret is that I didn’t spend a longer amount of time in the valley.
Lake Titicaca & the Uros
Live on a Raft
If you haven’t had enough of an adrenaline rush from altitude yet, then visiting Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water, should do it. Sitting on the border of Peru and Bolivia at 3,812 meters, the largest lake in South America is home to beautiful views, diverse wildlife, and unique culture.
To truly appreciate Lake Titicaca and its Indigenous cultures, stay with the Uros community, one of the oldest on the continent. Visit the floating village of Las Islas Flotantes de los Uros, located near the lake side city of Puno, for a fascinating adventure. The Uros community naturally constructed these floating islands with the use of reeds hundreds of years ago to escape the expanding Inca empire. The floating reeds of each small island are tied to the bottom of the lake bed and as the reeds rot on the bottom, a new layer is added on top.
To this day, the Uros still practice their traditional way of life and use the floating reeds for just about everything including hunting, textile making, boats, and cooking. It was only until recent years that this community was more exposed to travelers, as the islands used to sit out somewhere in the middle of Lake Titicaca. After a devastating storm swept through their islands in 1986, they were forcibly pushed closer to the shore near Puno. The community is open to tourism and trade but aren’t changing their lifestyle anytime soon.
The Amazon & Iquitos
Experience the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Rainforest
If you plan to visit Iquitos in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, you only have two ways to get there: by plane or boat. Iquitos is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road. If you want to make the process long, take a boat for a full adventure. You can start in Brazil and cruise up the Amazon River towards Iquitos. For those that want the quick, easy and cheaper option, one of the multiple daily flights from Lima will do.
Along the way or once you arrive (depending on your mode of transport), you’ll be immersed by the Amazon Rainforest, one of the most remote and natural places on the planet. In just a few hours, you will see dozens of different species of animals, birds, fish, reptiles and insects. If you don’t have the opportunity to see them, you will for sure hear them. The jungle sounds of the Amazon are enchanting and magical. While in the jungle, you will come face to face with monkeys, anacondas, tree frogs, tarantulas, walking sticks and if you’re lucky, pink dolphins.
Along with experiencing the spectacular Amazon jungle and cuisine, meeting different native Amazonian tribes is hands down one of the most unique things you could ever experience. When visiting Iquitos and Rio Momon, you will have the opportunity to meet multiple tribes such as the Bora, Alamas, and Jibaros. While spending time with these communities, you will learn about their traditions, practices, textiles, food and lifestyle. Each tribe is different from the other and they are happy to give you an experience of a lifetime.
Practicably indescribable, there are not many other places in the world like Peru and its natural wonders where you can truly connect with nature and local communities. While Machu Picchu is a wondrous place, there are plenty of other things to do in Peru that will leave you speechless.
All photos included in this article are courtesy of Ryan Tingle Photography.