Sure, Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, ranking up there with the Great Wall and The Roman Colosseum.
You should see it before you die, no doubt.
But it’s not the only reason to go to Peru, an eminently diverse South American country that has more to offer than ruins and Sun Gates.
Start with the weather: from May to October, Peru experiences its driest season. So now (or early fall — which is spring there) is a great time to go. It’s also the best time to visit the area’s Amazon Basin (fewer mosquitoes).
So, where to begin? Right this way …
If food is your muse, Lima is bucket-list material. Spanish, African, European, Chinese and Japanese immigrants have descended upon this city for centuries, which has made the gastronomy incredibly diverse. Peru also has 84 of the 117 bio climates in the world, which means anything and everything can grow there, including more than 300 types of potatoes. This can be best seen in Lima’s markets: stop by Magdalena, Surco and Surquillo, where the city’s top chefs shop. Be sure to have ceviche and a pisco sour, and try a picarone, a Peruvian donut made of squash and sweet potatoes and covered in molasses. Try for a reservation at Astrid & Gaston, the NOMA of Lima. The chefs are Parisian trained and influenced, and each meal consists of 24 small plates.
For culture vultures, the historic center of Lima is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with colonial architectural achievements like the Plaza Mayor, the Monastery of San Francisco, the Cathedral and the grand Convent of San Francisco. If you're looking for something sui generis, try Casa de Aliaga, the oldest mansion in Lima and the oldest house in the Americas, where private dinners can be arranged. And spend a whole day at Museo Larco, with 45,000 artifacts and ceramics and an outrageous collection of archeological erotica. Finally, for culinary and cultural fusion, you can dine under the stars at Huaca Pucllana restaurant, set in an archeological compound built between 200 and 700 AD.
Set in the Peruvian Andes at 11,154 feet, the erstwhile capital of the Incan Empire and current UNESCO World Heritage City is the gateway to further Inca sites like the Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail. Many come to Cusco for a few days to acclimatize before taking on the multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. Despite its native roots, though, there is still a Spanish influence evident all over the city, as seen by the Spanish-built monasteries, temples and manor houses.
The city is best taken in on foot, with stops at the Cusco Cathedral in the city square, the trendy San Blas neighborhood for hip restaurants and bars, and San Pedro Market, where tourists and locals alike shop for food and trinkets. Don’t be surprised if you spot pigs’ heads in buckets, as we did. You’re late this year, but if you’re going next summer, consider the days-long Virgin Parade in mid-July. It’s a vibrant celebration in the city square with music and costumes.
For a luxe layover, several hotels, like the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco and Belmond Hotel Monasterio, were once convents and monasteries. And the chic, boutique El Mercado Hotel was once a market in town.
If you want an alternative to the Inca Trail, Mountain Lodges of Peru are keen to lead travelers on the road less traveled. The Lares Trail from Cuncani to Huacahuasi, across the Cruzcosa Pass, is a four-hour trek where you will see no one except a villager or two. The scenery is stunning and serene, punctuated with wild horses, llamas and dogs. As the sun sets, it’s a dead run to the Huacahuasi Lodge. In between piscos and the fresh cuisine at dinner, go for a mind-blowing massage to prep you for the next day’s nine-hour trek.
At 118 miles in max diameter, Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake. Bordering Peru and Bolivia in the Andes Mountains, it is also believed to be the birthplace of the Incas. Naturally, there are numerous ruins. Your best bet is to get out on the lake to fully grasp its vastness. A mere forty-minute boat ride away from the main port of Puno is a cluster of floating, man-made islands which are inhabited by the ancient Uros people to this day. For more immersive travel, homestays are quite common in Puno and on the islands.
The Nazca Lines, one of many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Peru, are a series of twelve drawings on the desert floor. Most are animal figures and can be as large as a football field. It’s believed that the drawings were done by a pre-Incan civilization between 450 and 600 AD. They are best seen from a Mirador (an observation deck above the desert floor) or a chartered flyover. Just outside of Nazca are still-functioning aqueducts, and south of the city is an ancient cemetery, the Cemeterio de Chauchilla, that comes complete with mummified bodies and ruins. If adventure’s what you’re after, the area also offers sandboarding tours in a dune buggy.
The Peruvian Amazon makes up a mere 13% of the region’s total area (the second largest chunk; 60% of it is in Brazil). You won’t see the big cruise ships that float other parts of the region, but you will see a few tiny fishing boats with one or or two riverones (locals) floating from village to village. For the best tour of the region, hop on Aria’s luxury riverboat, featuring sixteen 250-square foot suites with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, perfect for taking in the wilds.
The Amazon is the most biodiverse place on the planet, with more than 400 species of mammals, nearly 1,400 birds and some 3,000 fish. Similar to a safari schedule, you will see monkeys, sloths and an endless array of birds — from macaws to parrots, toucans to hawks. You may or may not see a jaguar and an anaconda, but you are sure to see the famous pink dolphins on your twice-daily skiff excursions. Sundowners involve a quiet bob on the river with chilled champagne in hand.