Peru is most often equated with its top attraction, Machu Picchu. The 15th-century Inca city high in the mountains is rightfully one of the most fascinating attractions in the world, but there’s much more to this South American nation than its ancient artifacts.
Peru is an active traveler’s dream, with countless sporting activities throughout the country (sand surfing, anyone?). It’s a country known for its festivals, markets, food, varied landscapes and wildlife. Truly, there is something to keep everyone wide-eyed and occupied.
Ride a Dune Buggy in the Desert
Just west of the city of Ica is a strange sight: sand dunes emerging from the landscape out of nowhere, with a palm tree-lined lagoon plopped right in the middle. You’d think the scene was created for a Hollywood movie, but it’s completely natural. Local families flock to the lake for day trips, but dune buggy rides on the soaring dunes have become an even more popular attraction.
Nearly every hotel in Ica offers dune buggy rides, as do local tour operators (see Huacachina.com and MysteryPeru.com). Like riding on a roller coaster, you’ll zip up and down and around the sandy dunes for a few hours via the open-air buggies. Some travelers combine the ride with dune surfing. Others go in the late afternoon to take in sunset views from the top of the mounds. Sunscreen, sunglasses and a bandana to cover your nose and mouth are a must, as the sand goes flying during the thrilling desert sprint.
Browse Cuzco’s San Pedro Market
From the outside, the market looks like a dilapidated, shabby building you’d never want to enter. But the San Pedro Market is a dizzying kaleidoscope of noise, color and aromas, and is truly one of the most multisensory and exciting experiences in all of Cuzco. This is an honest-to-goodness, authentic commerce center for locals, who come to buy their food for the week among the seemingly endless stalls of fruits, vegetables, breads, meats and cheeses.
Benches line makeshift restaurants where fried guinea pigs rest on Styrofoam plates. Children weave among the locals, drinking freshly made juice and eating homemade gelatins. Around one corner, you might run into piles of potatoes in colors you’d never imagine; in another, you might spot a table full of donkey snouts. Plan to wander and sample eats for hours.
The marketplace building takes up three blocks off Tupac Amaru and spills out onto the streets. It’s open every day.
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Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Best Cities of South America by Michael Z.
“At over 11,000 [feet] above sea level, Cuzco takes your breath away both literally and figuratively. Nestled in the Andes, this is the continent’s oldest continually inhabited city and a great hub for exploring the magnificent archaeological sites nearby. Cuzco is filled with a diversity of people. Travelers rub shoulders with the progeny of the Incas. Peruvian Spanish mingles with the language of tourists, complemented by the Quechua, spoken by the locals making their living alongside the stepped streets.” Read more!
Monitor Macaws in the Rain Forest
Macaws are what researchers call a “flagship species.” That means that scientists study them in order to glean clues about the health of the surrounding environment. By watching these colorful birds, you can determine how well the Amazon rain forest is doing.
Travelers can aid researchers studying macaws at the remote Tambopata Research Center deep in the Amazon. Accessible only by boat, the center sits on a river where hundreds of parrots and macaws congregate at a clay-lick (where they get essential nutrients from the mud).The work researchers are doing includes studies of blue and gold macaws’ feeding habits, examinations of genetics and parasites, and population counts. Travelers can choose to help with some of the more basic tasks.
The research center has a lodge with 18 rooms and eight shared bathrooms; it can be reserved through PeruNature.com.
Spend the Night on a Floating Island
The Uros people have lived atop floating islands on Lake Titicaca since pre-Incan times. The islands are made of woven reeds called totora that the residents are constantly replenishing. That they’re able to exist on these massive, woven “rafts” is astounding — nothing like it exists anywhere else in the world.
Through a handful of tour operators, such as Titicaca Tour (ToursLakeTiticaca.com) or All Ways Travel (TiticacaPeru.com), travelers can learn about the Uros’ way of life and spend the night with a family in their home. You can help them cut reeds to add to the floating islands, go fishing or help knit sweaters, which is one of the main livelihoods for locals.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Unbelievable Peru by John Rybczyk
“The boat ride on Lake Titicaca was long. We heard about the Floating Island, sure, a floating island where people live and work and eat and sleep, sounded good, but a floating island. Well, seeing is believing. I think the first thing that struck me was the colorful clothing the people were wearing and when they explained how they made the ‘floating island,’ it’s unbelievable.” Read more!
Witness the Festival of the Sun
Hundreds of thousands of people converge on Cuzco in June to celebrate Inti Raymi, or the Festival of the Sun. It’s one of the largest gatherings in all of South America, with the pinnacle of the weeklong celebration taking place at the ancient fortress Sacsayhuaman on June 24 (the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere).
The festival honors the Sun God and traditionally helped the Incas feel assured they’d have good crops in the coming year. Banned for a period of time by Spanish conquistadors, who thought the pagan celebration was contrary to the Catholic faith, the event today includes live music and street fairs in Cuzco and an actor-led procession to Sacsayhuaman for a daylong ceremony culminating in dances around bonfires.
Given the volume of people at the festival, lodging can be hard to come by. Book as far in advance as possible, or reserve a package deal.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Three Weeks in Peru by Mike6725
“High on [our] list was the local fortress or temple Sacsayhuaman (pronounced ‘Sexy Woman’ by tourists). Another wonderful example of the stonework of the Incas, it took thousands of workers more than 50 years to construct. As impressive as the structure is now, about 80 percent of the stones were removed by the Spanish for use in construction elsewhere.” Read more!
Look for Penguins in the Ballestas Islands
Three tiny islands sit right off the coast of southern Peru. The jagged rocks, with their wind- and wave-carved arches, would normally seem unexceptional, except that they are a vital sanctuary for many species of marine wildlife and birds. In fact, the Ballestas Islands and nearby Paracas National Reserve are frequently called the “Galapagos of Peru” because they harbor such a wide variety of species. Among them: blue-footed boobies, Inca terns, flamingos, fur seals, sea lions, dolphins and endemic Humboldt penguins.
Visitors are not permitted to go ashore, but plenty of boat tours take you near enough to see the wildlife up close. Peru Dream Travel runs excursions from the town of Pisco, while Peru for Less includes the Ballestas Islands on several of its package tours.
Soak in the Chivay Thermal Pools
The town of Chivay is a popular launch point for hikers venturing into the Colca Valley or Colca Canyon (a gorge twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States). Following a long day of trekking or a bumpy bus ride through the mountains, nothing is more soothing to achy muscles than a dip in one of the thermal pools outside Chivay.
La Calera Thermal Waters are manmade pools filled with water collected from nearby springs. It’s not fancy by any means, but the mountain views are priceless. La Calera has five reasonably priced pools, with free towels and lockers available to rent.
Cruise the Amazon River
The second longest river in the world after the Nile, the Amazon snakes its way across three South American countries. Peru is the most popular among the three countries to offer tours via riverboat. The hub of river activity is Iquitos, where tourists board 20- to 60-person ships for weeklong cruises into the upper stretches of the river; you can also hire a driver/guide for a day trip on the river.
The longer trips take you deeper into the river basin to the wildlife-rich Pacaya-Samira Reserve. Shorter trips will reveal some of the wildlife of the rain forest, but mostly you’ll get exposed to human life on the river: locals transporting bananas and other produce to market, illegally harvested trees floating downstream, weathered fishermen paddling themselves in dugout canoes, beer barges that barely seem like they can float. For the most bustling experience, head out onto the river at sunrise or in the late afternoon.
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Taste Lima’s Mistura Festival
Peruvian cuisine is the ultimate fusion food; it beautifully melds native cooking with Chinese, Japanese and Spanish influences, among others. Sample everything from traditional dishes to modern nuevo cooking during the annual Mistura Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of people and is considered the second largest food festival in the world (after the Taste of Chicago).
Everyone from Peruvian farmers to world-famous chefs converges on the fairgrounds in Lima for the weeklong festival, which includes food competitions, classes, demos and lectures. Hundreds of vendors in the Grand Marketplace dole out samples of such items as coffee, quinoa, cocona jam and mashed purple potatoes, and restaurants sell full meals.
The festival is traditionally held in September. Monitor the official website at Mistura.pe.
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Best Time to Go to Peru
Roughly speaking, the best time to go to Peru is in May or September — what amounts to the shoulders around the country’s “dry” season. Peru’s weather can be roughly split into wet season (November – April) and dry season (May to October), but there is regional variance depending on whether you’re hiking the highlands (Andes), visiting the Amazon jungle or on the more desert-like coast, which includes Lima. During the dry season in the Amazon basin, the mosquito annoyance quotient reaches its nadir. Meanwhile, Inca trail trekkers will find that the dry season offers the clearest, warmest weather for wandering the landscape and ruins (it still can get to near freezing at night at higher elevations).
Peru on a Budget
Peru is a decently budget-friendly country, with a large cottage industry of hostels and campsites catering to the many backpackers who come to visit the jungle and/or hike the Inca trail. The majority of visitors come to Peru in July and August — so avoiding those months will save you money. Places with significant tourist infrastructure, like Cuzco, gateway city to the Inca Trail, offer plenty of over-priced dining venues, so try to find where the locals eat. The bus system can be a cheap way to get around — but patience (and possibly a motion sickness pill) is a virtue. Be careful when considering certain budget busters, like taking a flight over the famed Nazca lines.