Things to do in Peru, besides Machu Picchu
As one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the world, the legendary Incan city of Machu Picchu needs little introduction. Set high in the misty Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu is Peru’s greatest treasure and it lives up to every expectation.
Our trip to Peru was centered around the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. The challenging 4-day trek continues to rank as one of the most memorable travel experiences of our lives. We did the Inca Trail hike with G Adventures and would highly recommend them.
The moment we crossed over the Sun Gate and witnessed Machu Picchu for the first time will forever be etched in our minds. It’s a special place.
Although Machu Picchu gets most of the glory, and rightly so, there is so much more to Peru. From the arid Pacific coast to the lush Amazon Rainforest, Peru is one of the most diverse countries in world.
In this post, we share a few of the other things to do in Peru for first time visitors.
Note – this post was originally published in 2010 but was updated in February 2020.
1. Hike the Colca Canyon
Even if hiking is not your thing, witnessing the beauty of the Colca Canyon should not be missed. Along with its spectacular scenery, Colca Canyon’s claim to fame is that it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States, though the canyon walls are not as dramatic.
Colca Canyon is said to be one of the deepest canyons in the world, so trekkers are advised to take it slow to avoid altitude sickness (the canyon depth is over 10,000 feet!).
There are several mountain villages in the Colca Valley, but the most popular is the town of Chivay, celebrated for its natural hot springs. An added bonus is that the drive to Colca Canyon passes an incredible terraced valley (see photo below).
The bus stopped at this viewpoint so we could photograph these beautiful terraces in the Colca Valley.
Get your $45 credit for AirBnB accommodations here.
Arequipa to Colca Canyon
It’s easy to book Colca Canyon tours that depart from Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. The journey passes through remarkable volcano country (see above photo – can you spot the wild alpaca?), at heights over 4,900 meters, before descending into the Colca Valley.
Technically, you can do a full day trip to Colca Canyon from Arequipa, but it would be a very long day (15 hours). We recommend you stay overnight in Chivay. Here are a few things to do in Chivay and places to stay in Chivay.
Colca Canyon weather can be unpredictable, given the region’s diverse landscapes. Bring warm clothing and layers, even if you don’t plan to go hiking the Colca Canyon.
The Colca Valley is Peru’s third most-visited tourist destination with 120,000+ visitors annually.
Andean Condor in the Colca Canyon
The Colca Canyon region is also famous for being home to the rare Andean Condor, an enormous bird with the largest wing span of any land bird (3.2 meters).
2. The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Aside from having the title as being the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca is famous for its floating reed islands. The islands are home to the Uros, an indigenous people that pre-dates Incan civilization.
Touring these man-made floating islands offers an interesting perspective into the lives of the Uros people. It’s a strange feeling the first time you step on an island made entirely of reeds. You can’t help but think that at any moment the reeds might give way and you’ll slip into the frigid lake.
There are over 100 floating islands on Lake Titicaca. Most are located 5 km from the shores of Puno. The larger islands house about ten families, while smaller ones house two or three families.
How to get to Lake Titicaca
The best way to get to Lake Titicaca is to take the bus from Cusco to Puno (assuming you visit the floating islands after Machu Picchu). The bus from Cusco to Puno takes about 8 hours. You can also take the bus from Arequipa to Puno, which takes about 5 hours. Peru bus passes can be purchased at Peru Hop.
If you’re backpacking in Peru, you can easily book day trips to the floating islands from the city of Puno. Hotels in Puno are relatively inexpensive. We stayed at this Puno hotel and it was good value. It’s located near the Puno Cathedral and Puno Plaza de Armas.
To reach the floating islands from Puno, you will board a covered motor boat (similar to one in the distance in the above photo). Guests can tour the floating islands in this canoe-style boat, also made of reeds.
View of the homes on the floating island. Tourism is important for the Uros peoples’ economy.
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3. Explore the Amazon Rainforest
The main Peru entry points to the Amazon Basin are from Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. It’s recommended to fly to both regions because the road infrastructure is quite poor.
We took a flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, known as a gateway to the southern Amazon jungle. From the airport, we transferred to a covered river boat and traveled 3 hours up the Tambopata River.
We spent two nights in an isolated and remote jungle lodge. There is something eerie, yet peaceful, about sleeping in an open cabin in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. Rain drops dance on the thatched roof while howler monkeys hoot in the distance.
We visited the Peruvian Amazon on a tour with G Adventures.
The runway at the Padre Aldamiz International Airport in Puerto Maldonado.
Aboard the river boat on the Tambopata River in the Peru Amazon Rainforest.
We spotted this curious, yet frightened, sloth on a night walk. He was not happy to see us.
Night boat tour in Peru’s Amazon Rainforest
We went on a night boat tour while in the Amazon Rainforest. We captured this little caiman hiding in the jungle mangroves on the river’s edge.
I’ll admit, the night boat tour was freaky. It’s so quiet in the middle of the jungle. The lodge was miles away from civilization. The only light was from the glow of the moon and our captain’s flash light.
All smiles after a morning walk in the rainforest. This is the exclusive G Lodge Amazon resort.
4. Fly over the mysterious Nazca Lines
Located in the Nazca Desert plains, the mysterious Nazca Lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs that range from wildlife to geometric designs. There are several theories about how and why the geoglyphs were created, but it seems nothing is conclusive.
Regardless, the Nazca Lines are one of Peru’s most interesting and peculiar attractions. The best way to view these World Heritage-listed geoglyphs is by airplane.
Nazca Lines Air tours depart from Lima. If you plan to return to Lima, this is a full day tour (about 11-12 hours). A luxurious van will pick you up at your Lima hotel and drive 4 hours to Paracas. This is where you will board your Nazca Lines air tour. Flight time is typically 1.5 hours. After the flight, you spend some time in Paracas before returning to Lima.
5. Sand boarding and Dune Buggy in Huacachina
Giant sand dunes in Peru? Yup, Peru really does have a little bit of everything.
Huacachina is a unique desert oasis located just outside the city of Ica. The massive sand dunes that surround the small desert village are a playground for adrenaline seeking tourists.
The most popular things to do in Huacachina is sand boarding and high speed dune buggy rides (we highly recommend both). Most dune buggy tours will include sand boarding and sand skiing. You can rent sand boarding equipment from most hostels and hotels.
Dune buggy tours are typically 2 hours. Departure times are later in the afternoon (around 4:00 PM) because the sand is too hot during the middle of the day. It also lines up well with sunset. Witnessing the sunset from the peak of a giant sand dune is a bucketlist experience you will never forget.
Huacachina is located 4 hours south of Lima and 11 hours from Arequipa. We took the overnight bus from Arequipa to Ica (get the tourist class, it’s similar to first class seats on an airplane – very comfortable).
Although it’s nice to sleep for most of the bus trip, the downside is that we arrived in Ica at 6:00 AM when nothing is open. We took a taxi from the Ica bus station to Huacachina and sat at a restaurant for a few hours until our hotel room was available.
You can paddle boat on the lake at Huacachina. You can also swim in the lake, but most hostels and hotels in Huacachina have swimming pools.
Dune buggy tours in Huacachina
The high speed dune buggy tours are awesome. Our driver enjoyed slamming on the gas and jumping down the sides of the sand dunes. There were a few intense moments where I thought he was going to roll the buggy, but he didn’t.
It was quite the ride. We highly recommend you give it a shot.
For a different perspective, lie on your stomach and ride down the dunes face first. But make sure you take a deep breathe and close your mouth. Sand doesn’t taste very good.
Above and below – Cameron sand boarding down the giant sand dunes in Huacachina.
Use an old snowboard with proper bindings and boots, if available. You can find old snowboards and skis at hostels and hotels in Huacachina. Otherwise, you’re likely to be strapped to a heavy wooden plank with poor control.
Watch your speed on the sand boards. Although it feels similar to snowboarding, it’s not. Sand is sticky, so it takes a little longer to get going and the boards act differently on sand.
If you go too fast and you fall, you will eat lots of sand. Not fun. You will also be sweaty (you’re in the desert) so the sand will stick to your body. Also not fun.
Where to stay in Huacachina?
There a plenty of accommodations in Huacachina. The village is basically built for tourism, so you have a wide range of options to choose from.
Keep in mind, Huacachina is a popular stop on the backpacker trail, so most of the hostels have a loud party vibe. If you’re looking for quiet, consider staying at a hotel in Ica, like the
We spent a total of 4 nights in Huacachina. The first night was at La Casa de Bamboo Hostel. It’s cheap but does not have a pool. It was the only option that was available at the time of our early arrival.
We decided to spend a little more money and relocate to the Carola Lodge. We would recommend this hotel. It has a big pool and a fun party vibe. But be forewarned, it can get loud on a Friday night.
Search for more Huacachina hotels here.
Watching the sunset from the peak of a giant sand dune is an epic experience.
6. Surfing in Mancora
Where is the best place to surf in Peru? Well, that depends on who you ask!
Located on the Pacific coast in Northern Peru, the beach town of Mancora is famed for its pristine beaches, great surf and chilled out atmosphere. It’s home to Peru’s best stretch of sandy beach and it’s known for serving up the country’s best ceviche.
If beach lounging and catching waves are your thing, Mancora is calling.
Mancora is a popular stop on the South America backpacking trail. If you’re traveling north to south, the bus from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Mancora takes about 7 hours. Alternatively, the bus from Lima to Mancora takes 18 hours, so make sure you bring a comfortable pillow!
Stay at La Casa de Sebas for a laid back vibe. It’s located 2 minutes from the beach.
7. Discover the Sacred Valley of the Incas
Though Machu Picchu is the clear winner when it comes to Incan archaeology, the Sacred Valley is a must for history buffs and cultural connoisseurs.
Geographically, the Sacred Valley of the Incas stretches along the Urubamba River from Pisac to Ollantaytambo, which is the starting point for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Aside from the many ruins and archaeological sites, the region is well known for its remarkable landscapes and lush agriculture.
Guided tours of the Sacred Valley can be organized from Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, and can include river rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking.
Get your $45 credit for AirBnB accommodations here.
8. Sightseeing in Cusco, the Imperial city of the Incas
There are several historical Incan sites and attractions within the city of Cusco. So many, in fact, the city itself has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before you set off to hike the Inca Trail or visit Machu Picchu, spend a couple of days exploring Cusco while you acclimatize to the high altitude of the region (Cusco is located 3,400 meters above sea level). Cusco is a very walkable city and most attractions are 15-20 minutes walk from anywhere in the city centre (near the Plaza de Armas).
Popular attractions in Cusco are:
- Sacsayhuamán citadel and fortified complex
- Plaza de Armas
- Templo de la Sagrada Familia
- Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral
- The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
- Koricancha Temple
- Mirador de Plaza Sán Cristobal (where the above photo was captured)
You can book day trips to Machu Picchu from Cusco. We hiked the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with G Adventures. The tour included 2 nights in Cusco plus sightseeing in the Sacred Valley.
Where to stay in Cusco’s Historic Centre:
9. See penguins and wildlife at Ballestas Islands
The Islas Ballestas are a small cluster of islands off the southern coast of Peru. Located a short 24 km from the beach town of Paracas (near Pisco), these islands are only accessible by tour boat, typically lasting 2 hours.
Often described as the Galapagos Islands of Peru, the Ballestas Islands are home to many rare birds, including pelicans, penguins, cormorants, Peruvian boobies, and Inca terns. It’s also common to spot sea lions, turtles, dolphins, and whales inside the marine park.
Aside from the Peruvian Amazon, the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reservation offer the best wildlife experience in Peru.
Note – it’s not possible to visit the Ballestas Islands without a tour.
If you stay in Paracas, and you’re looking for some luxury, we recommend the Hilton Hotel Paracas. It’s located within walking distance to Pracas National Reserve and El Chaco Beach. Another good option is the Paracas Hotel Emancipador.
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10. Marvel at the Rainbow Mountains
These mountains are said to have only been discovered a few years ago, the first guided tours began in early 2016, so its fame is short lived. There is, however, concern that this fragile environment cannot handle the recent waive of mass tourism (read more here).
The mountain sits at an elevation of 6,384 meters and is located approximately 100 km southeast of Cusco. Most people will visit the Rainbow Mountains on a day trip from Cusco. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Cusco to the park entrance, plus a 2 hour hike from the car park to the viewpoint.
However, if you have some extra time, a multi-day trekking experience that links to the Ausangate circuit trek will surely be a highlight from your time in these amazing mountains.
FlashpackerConnect is a tour operator that offers both day treks and multi-day camping experiences.
11. Sightseeing in Lima
Often used as the layover en route to Cusco, Peru’s largest metropolitan city often gets overlooked. Though it does have a bad reputation for safety, Lima is extremely rich in history and culture.
Lima has an interesting mix of museums, beautiful cathedrals, eerie catacombs, electric nightlife, endless shopping and tasty traditional Peruvian cuisine (you must try fresh ceviche in Lima).
The Plaza Mayor, or Plaza de Armas, tops the list of must see attractions in Lima. Located in the Historic Centre of Lima, the plaza is surrounded by the Government Palace, Cathedral of Lima, Archbishop’s Palace of Lima and the Palace of the Union. Collectively, the Historic Centre of Lima is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While you’re in the area, another worthwhile Lima tourist attraction is San Francisco Church. Built in the baroque-style of the late 1600s, San Francisco Church is famous for its catacombs that are said to contain the bones of over 25,000 bodies.
Where to stay in Lima Peru:
BONUS – Trekking the Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz
This option is for the serious trekker and adventure seekers. Huaraz is located in north-central Peru, about 420 km north of Lima. It is the gateway to the Cordillera Blanca, the highest range of the Peruvian Andes and famous for its magnificent snowcapped peaks and glaciers.
The Cordillera Blanca includes Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru at 6,768 meters (22,205 ft) and the third highest in the Western Hemisphere.
It is arguably the best place in South America for trekking and mountain climbing expeditions.
What’s the lesson learned?
There is much more to Peru than Machu Picchu! But make sure you visit Machu Picchu, too! It’s one of the few world attractions that actually exceeds its overwhelming expectations.
And, if you’re the adventurous type, we recommend you hike the infamous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. To this day, it’s one of our most memorable travel experiences.
For organized tours, check out G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. Both have great reputations. Click here to save Save up to 25% on Adventure Travel Packages to South America.
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