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Things to Do in Peru

From the lush Amazon rainforest to the high-altitude Andes Mountains, Peru packs a topography as diverse as its offerings, weaving colonial architecture, Inca ruins, multiday hikes, Amazonian wildlife, and culinary diversity into a South American adventure. The iconic Machu Picchu, which must be booked via tour, tops most Peru travel itineraries, as do the surrounding archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the colonial town of Cusco. A tour guide can unlock the mysteries of the Inca Empire as you trek the trail to the lost city of Choquequirao, summit the Andes on the Inca Trail, bike from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and take in the views of Lake Titicaca in Puno. To make sense of Cessna’s Nazca Lines, take to the skies via helicopter or scenic flight. While in Peru's southern end, don't miss the view from a volcano in Arequipa. A sightseeing tour of the Peruvian capital of Lima will take you to its colonial center for catacombs, pre-Colombian artwork, lively nightlife, and relics of Inca history; while nearby Miraflores is a popular novice surf spot. In Cusco, opt for a food tour to sample lomo saltado (beef), Peruvian corn on the cob, and even cuy (guinea pig); or delve into traditional drinks such as pisco sour cocktails and coca tea. Explorer-types should head to the rainforest: Near Iquitos lies a vast mass of wetlands full of wildlife and plant diversity—or aim for the Tarpaca River Walk, if you’re after a stroll.
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Amazon River
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The mighty Amazon River and its enormous, thickly forested basin are the heart of South America, the lungs of the world and the guardian of one fifth of the Earth’s fresh water. This river is the reason for Iquitos’ very existence and though it flows past the northern tip of the city, a bit beyond the river walk, the Rio Itaya, its influence is felt by everyone.

While its origins are much contested—any of the big river’s innumerable tributaries has a legitimate claim to the title—the “Birthplace of the Amazon” can be said to lie at the confluence of the Ucayali and Maranon Rivers, accessible from the Port of Nauta, 90km (56mi) from Iquitos on the newish paved highway. It is the quintessential daytrip, allowing travelers to ascend a 30m (100ft) observation tower that offers the region’s iconic photo op. There are several ways to experience the Amazon and its unparalleled biodiversity, all of them beginning with a boat trip.

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Machu Picchu
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The holy grail for lovers of Inca monuments, the enigmatic lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in all of South America.

The spectacular collection of temples, terraced hills and plazas was the mountain-top citadel of the Inca under Pachacutec and Tupac Yupanqui, until the coming of the Europeans with Pizarro. It may have the most familiar name, but Machu Picchu has refused to reveal many of its mysteries, including the secrets of its construction, function and demise. The overgrown ruins were discovered by US historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, and the quality of the stonework hints that it was an extremely important ceremonial site. The remains are thought to date from around 1450, built at the height of the Inca Empire, and as they escaped being plundered by the Spanish they include semi-intact icons and shrines that were defaced or removed at other sites.

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Inca Trail
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South America’s most famous trek is the most stunning and unforgettable way to reach the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. Along the way, the four-day trek takes in three Andean mountain passes, Inca ruins and stupendous views of the snow capped Andes.

Over the four days the treks take you from km82 (82 kilometers along the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes) to Huayllabamba on day one, to Pacamayo on day two, to Huinay Huayna on day three, and to Machu Picchu on day four. The highlight of the trek, after having woken at 3am to catch it, is seeing the sun rise over the mountains at Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. May to September is the driest and best time to walk the trail, but it’s also the busiest. To walk the trail, you need to join a group of fellow hikers led by a licensed guide. Trail permits are limited, with only 500 hikers permitted on the trail, so you need to book ahead. The easiest way to book and make arrangements is by joining a tour.

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Lake Titicaca
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Sweet, clear and a deep diaphanous blue, Lake Titicaca shimmers above South America at 3,812 meters (12,507 feet), the highest navigable lake in the world. It is considered the spiritual homeland of the Andean peoples and its 41 starkly beautiful islands are topped with traditional villages and ancient stone ruins that echo with myths and legends. Beneath fiery streaked sunset skies reflected in these luminous waters, cradled by snowcapped mountains, it can be difficult to refute such tales completely.

Lake Titicaca is thought to be the birthplace of the Andean peoples, where the Creator God Viracocha first summoned the sun, moon and first human beings from what is now called Isla del Sol. The Incas, Aymaras, Uros, and countless other indigenous nations thus hold this lake sacred.

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Santa Catalina Monastery (Monasterio de Santa Catalina)
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Inaugurated on October 2, 1580, 40 years after the city was founded, the Monastery of Saint Catherine has grown to become a city in itself. In fact, its over 215,285-foot-square design resembles the original city streets of Arequipa. Arequipa is often called the “White City” due to the fact that many of the buildings are made of volcanic white sillar, and this structure is no exception. It’s also made of ashlar, or petrified volcanic ash, coming from Volcan Chachani which overlooks Arequipa.

Visitors are able to explore the monastery on their own, wandering through narrow streets, ambient courtyards, peaceful plazas and ancient churches. Along with the historical churches and chapels, check out some of the cloisters. There is the Main Cloister, the largest in the monastery with paintings and confessionals, and the Cloister of the Oranges, which features three beautiful crosses residing amongst vibrant orange trees.

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Chan Chan
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There was once a time when a city in Peru was one of the largest known cities in the Americas. For nearly 600 years, the sprawling city was the seat of an Empire that extended for hundreds of miles, and its residents were masters of engineering techniques unknown to the rest of the world. No, we’re not talking about Machu Picchu, the ruin so often equated with Peru. Rather, this massive city was Chan Chan, a complex of adobe and sand.

Set on the outskirts of modern day Trujillo, Chan Chan was the seat of the Chimu Empire from 850-1470 AD. At its height, it’s believed to have housed up to 60,000 residents before being conquered by the infamous Inca. With its wide open courtyards, narrow alleyways, and walls which reach heights of over 30 feet, the city of Chan Chan once covered an area of nearly 8 square miles of desert. Today, the Tschudi Palace area is open to visitors to walk in the footsteps of the Chimu.

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Miraflores
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The swanky beachfront suburb of Miraflores is one of Lima’s most sought-after zip codes.

Miraflores is where you’ll find Lima’s best restaurants, shops and hotels, plus the waterfront mansions and high-rise towers of the city’s movers and shakers. It’s also home to lovely parks and gardens, beaches and promenades.

Some ancient history remains in Miraflores, including the Huaca Pucllana, the remains of a pre-Inca mud-brick temple.

Paragliders come to Miraflores to leap off the area’s rocky cliffs over the sea. The beaches are popular, but the coast tends to be rocky rather than sandy and the better beaches lie further south.

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Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas)
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Often called “the Peruvian Galapagos,” the Ballestas Islands are where savvy travelers can experience wildlife on a budget. Here, on these rocky islets about 90 minutes off the coast of Paracas, hundreds of sea lions lounge on rocks that are covered in thousands of birds, and the cost of visiting is a fraction of the cost of visiting the Galapagos in Ecuador. When approaching the eroded islands by sea, there are so many boobies, cormorants, and penguins resting on the rocky cliffs, the entire island seems to vibrate with the collective fidgeting of feathers. Humboldt penguins are another draw for visiting the Ballestas Islands, and these tuxedo-clad birds can only be found off the coast of Chile and Peru. While motoring out to the guano covered islands, keep an eye out for the Candelabra Geoglyph that’s etched into the hillside. At 595 feet in height, the mysterious, ancient, unexplained symbol can be seen 12 miles out to sea.

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Colca Canyon (Canon del Colca)
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Located about 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River. Its main claim to fame is being touted as the “world’s deepest canyon,” with a depth of 13,650 feet. Colca Canyon can be explored in many ways, like hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding and rafting. Not only is this vibrant Andean valley great for adventure-enthusiasts, it also offers pre-Incan history and is still home to Collagua and the Cabana cultures, who still retain their heritage from 800 BC. Visitors can find archeological sites such as the caves of Mollepunko above Callalli, where 6,000-year-old rock art shows the domestication of the alpaca.

There are also ruins of pre-Hispanic settlements throughout the valley, as well as Chimpa, a pre-Inca fortress where you can see hanging tombs. Adventure, heritage and the ability to easily spot Andean condors make this Peru’s third most popular tourist attraction.

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Historic Centre of Arequipa
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Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, gets its nickname “La Ciudad Blana,” or “The White City,” from its central historic district built almost entirely from a porous, white volcanic stone known as sillar. The UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Arequipa, founded in 1540 by a group of Spanish conquistadores, is dotted with colonial churches, plazas and mansions that blend European and indigenous architectural styles.

At the heart of the district is Plaza de Armas, considered one of Peru’s most beautiful plazas and the site of the city’s most important buildings, including City Hall, the old Jesuit Iglesia de la Compañía and the neo-renaissance Cathedral. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a Dominican convent founded in 1579 and one of Arequipa’s most worthwhile sites, is also located in the historic centre.

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More Things to Do in Peru

Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines

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The arid plains surrounding the small town of Nazca are detailed with South America’s most enigmatic sight, the extraordinary Nazca Lines.

Etched into more than 80km (50 miles) of rocky desert, and only properly appreciated from the air, the Nazca Lines are made up of more than 800 lines, 300 figures and 70 animal and plant outlines.

Creatures drawn here include monkeys measuring 90m (300 feet), lizards, spiders representing fertility, and an astronaut lookalike. Birds like the hummingbird, condor and flamingo represent summer and winter, and point exactly to where the sun rises and sets. The largest drawings measure 200m (660 feet) across.

There are a number of theories behind the lines and their construction - who made them, why and how? - but no one knows for sure, and they were only rediscovered in 1939.

One theory dates them to between 400 and 600 AD, believing that they were mapped as an astronomical calendar by early mathematicians.

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Peruvian Amazon

Peruvian Amazon

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Covering over half of the country, yet home to a mere 5% of its population, the Peruvian Amazon is Peru’s most precious natural asset, a vast wilderness of lush rainforest and indigenous lands stretching east of the Andes Mountains.

Peru’s principal ‘Gateway to the Amazon’ is the northern town of Iquitos and its location on the banks of the mighty Amazon River makes it a popular starting point for multi-day river cruises and river activities like canoeing, piranha fishing or swimming with pink river dolphins. From here, it’s possible to cruise all the way to Manaus in Brazil, stopping along the way to visit tribal villages, trek through the jungle or sleep out in an Amazon eco-lodge.

The southern region of the Peruvian Amazon is also prime ground for wildlife spotting and home to a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, a colorful array of bird life and everything from howler monkeys to tapir prowling through the jungle.

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Magic Water Circuit

Magic Water Circuit

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The Magic Water Circuit, located within the Parque de la Reserva, provides a fun and family-friendly option for those looking for something inexpensive to do in Lima. The municipal project—a series of 12 fountains choreographed to music and lights—was inaugurated in 2007 and has since become a favorite attraction in the capital city among locals and visitors alike.

While the fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday, beginning in the late afternoon, they’re undeniably most impressive at night, when the lights and laser effects are most visible. Each of the fountains has a different theme, and some are interactive (you’ll get wet), making them a huge hit with kids. The Maze of the Dream (Laberinto del Ensueño) is a major highlight of the Magic Water Circuit and challenges visitors to find their way to an inner circle through a maze made from vertical walls of water. After dark, the Fantasia Fountain (Fuente de la Fantasía) entertains with a choreographed show.

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Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

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The 40-plus floating Uros Islands are perhaps the most photographed attraction on Lake Titicaca, famously constructed with springy totora reeds. The reeds are collected from around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and used to replenish the fragile islands every three months or so, as the bottom of the two-meter (6.5ft) totora mat slowly rots back into the lake. Thus, the islands change shape, size and even number as the centuries pass, anchored to the lake bottom but in many ways a completely separate world.

The Uros people are an ancient race, predating the Incas by millennia and, according to local legend, even the sun and stars. The “People of the Lake,” as they call themselves, once said that they did not feel the cold, thanks to their “black blood.”

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Lima Plaza Mayor

Lima Plaza Mayor

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Lima’s Plaza Mayor (main square) is central Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic heart and birthplace.

Landscaped with palm trees, elaborate lampposts, flower beds and greenery, the square’s focus is the 1650 tiered bronze fountain in the center and the statue of Francisco Pizarro on horseback nearby. Visit at 11:45am to watch the changing of the guard, or visit any time to find an empty seat and watch the world wander by. There’s plenty to look at, with the cathedral on one side and the beautiful balconies of the Palacio Arzobispal next door. Several other attractive buildings with balconies and arched porticoes line the square, including the City Hall and Government Palace.

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Paracas History Museum

Paracas History Museum

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Don’t be put off by its diminutive size – the tiny Paracas History Museum is home to some of Peru’s most fascinating archaeological finds. The museum has made headlines all around the world for its display of elongated human skulls, discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello in 1928.

The unique skulls have divided opinion, with some claiming them as proof of alien existence, some insisting they are fake and others concluding that they are mere anomalies. The reality is likely a little less dramatic – the skulls were probably a result of head-binding traditions among Peru’s ancient indigenous cultures. Whatever your opinion, the collection of bizarrely formed skulls is utterly captivating and while there’s little else of interest in the museum, it’s worth a detour to take a peek.

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Pastoruri Glacier

Pastoruri Glacier

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Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

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Sacsayhuaman is the largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru. Built by the Incas, it served an important military function and was the site of a major battle with the Spanish in 1536. The name itself can be translated as “speckled head” and some say that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman forming the head.

The complex was constructed out of massive stones, some weighing as much as 300 tons, cut to fit together without the use of mortar. Today, many of the outside walls, built in a tiered, zigzag formation, remain, as do several tunnels and the “Inca’s Throne.” The latter is a series of large rocks with well-worn grooves used by many visitors as slides. A large, open plaza holding several thousand people was once home to ceremonial activities and continues to be used today – most notably for the annual celebration of the Inti Raymi festival in late June.

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Barranco

Barranco

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Lima’s most bohemian district, the lively coastal neighborhood of Barranco first became popular towards the end of the 19th Century, drawing an influx of poets, writers and artists to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas and Barranquito. Although it was integrated into the capital territory in 1860, Barranco retains its village-like feel, with its striking colonial architecture and brightly painted buildings standing in stark contrast to the modern high-rises of neighboring Miraflores.

Best explored on foot, the elegant Plaza San Francisco is the starting point for a walking tour, home to the 19th century Iglesia San Francisco, and encircled by boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, the Bajada de los Baños ravine is the most popular hangout during the daytime, where the flower-lined Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) makes a romantic spot for watching the sunset.

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Huanchaco

Huanchaco

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Historic Centre of Lima (Centro Historico de Lima)

Historic Centre of Lima (Centro Historico de Lima)

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Stretching between the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin, and bisected by the principal boulevard of Jirón de la Unión, the historic center of Lima is still the focal point of the modern-day city. Today, the UNESCO-listed area forms the basis of most tourist itineraries, with the majority of attractions within easy walking distance and a wealth of elegant buildings, churches and monumental statues dating back to the colonial era.

The Plaza de Armas makes a popular starting point for walking tours, home to a cluster of landmarks including the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace (City Hall) and the Palace of the Union, as well as a bronze fountain bearing the coats-of-arms of Lima. Famously the site of the foundation of the ‘City of the Kings’ in 1535, the Plaza de Armas became the city’s first public square and was later the site of the declaration of the Republic of Peru in 1821.

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Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum

Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum

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