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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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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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Cusco Cathedral (Catedral del Cuzco)
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Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.

The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.

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Larco Museum (Museo Larco)
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To help you get your head around Peru’s centuries of history and culture, visit the well-regarded Museo Larco Herrera in Lima.

The chronological overview of 3,000 years of history takes you through pre-Inca cultures and pre-Colombian art, to present-day interpretations of pre-Hispanic ceramics.

The museum is structured in a series of galleries, and its highlight is the fine collection of Inca gold and silver jewelry and artifacts, studded with prized lapis lazuli, turquoise and amethyst.

Painted pottery vases and tools are also displayed, along with elaborately fashioned metal ware, cotton and feather textiles. A unique feature of the museum is that visitors are granted access to the storage area, where 45,000 objects are arranged and cataloged.

The museum is housed in an 18th-century vice-royal mansion, built over a 7th-century pyramid and surrounded by leafy gardens.

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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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San Blas
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San Blas is the artisan precinct of Peru’s most famous handicrafts town, Cusco. This area of workshops and studios, galleries and shops is the home of Cusco’s weavers, sculptors and potters. The artists’ enclave is ideal for a stroll, its cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed adobe houses decorated with contrasting blue doors and window frames.

You’ll also see remnants of Inca walls in this hilly enclave, where some narrow streets are so steep they are stepped. San Blas is a perfect late-afternoon destination, with bars and restaurants, galleries and studios for relaxed visits into the evening.

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Awana Kancha
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The textile mill at Awana Kancha is an entertaining and culturally-rich stop on the journey between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Set 30 minutes outside of the Cusco city center, this popular artisan outpost is a budget-friendly place to experience alpacas and Andean culture.

With no entry fee, visitors to Awana Kancha can marvel at traditionally-dressed women and the colorful textiles they spin before your eyes. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunyas, the women create patterns using natural dyes that have existed in the Andes since the time of the Inca. What’s more, in addition to the textiles, visitors have the chance to hand-feed llamas or nurse baby alpacas with milk from a bottle. The name Awana Kancha literally translates as the Palace of Weaving, and the fine works of handicraft which are on sale at the co-op are arguably nicer than you’ll find in larger markets.

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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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Santiago de Surco
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Between bohemian Barranco, glitzy Miraflores, and the coastal streets of Chorillos, the Surco district is a part of Lima that few visitors see. Located well off of the tourist trail—though physically not far away—Surco is stocked with universities and hundreds of manicured gardens. It’s a place that was heavily looted and destroyed in the War of the Pacific with Chile, and a place where locals gather in droves in the green oasis of the parks. Take a stroll through the Surco district’s very own Plaza Mayor, which is punctuated by the baroque Iglesia Santo Apostol rising up from the square. While there aren’t a lot of formal sights, Surco becomes a sight unto itself whenever it hosts a festival. The Vendimia festival in the second week of March is an ode to the district’s wine harvest, when downtown Surco becomes festively punchdrunk on music, drinking, and song.

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Callao
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Located just up the coast from Lima, the seafront town of Callao has been Peru’s most important port since the colonial era and remains the capital’s principal cruise port, receiving thousands of annual visitors. With easy transport links to the center of Lima, most cruise travelers find themselves heading straight into the city, but there are still a few worthwhile attractions to visit in Callao itself.

Explore the imposing Real Felipe Fortress, built during colonial times to protect the shores from pirate invasions and named after King Felipe V of Spain; hit the beach at La Punta; or discover Callao’s rich maritime history with a visit to the Abtao Submarine Museum and the Naval Museum. Callao is also the starting point for cruises to the Pacific islands of Palomino, Cabinzas and El Frontón, renowned for their variety of birdlife and sea lion colonies and a popular day trip from Lima.

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More Things to Do in Peru

Love Park (Parque del Amor)

Love Park (Parque del Amor)

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Dedicated to Lima’s lovers, Love Park (Parque del Amor) understandably attracts couples who come to enjoy the Pacific Ocean views, especially around sunset. Located in the Miraflores district, the park bears a resemblance to Park Güell in Barcelona, thanks to the colorful mosaic walls displaying quotes on love spread throughout.

At the center of the park stands a sculpture by Victor Delfín entitled El Beso (The Kiss), unveiled in 1993 and still the best known work by the Peruvian artist. If you’re in Lima for Valentine’s Day, head to Love Park to watch young couples compete in a longest kiss contest staged by the statue.

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Plaza de Armas (Huacaypata)

Plaza de Armas (Huacaypata)

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There was once a time when Cusco was the center of the powerful Incan Empire. From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every decision within the empire traced back to the city of Cusco. It was the beating heart at the very center of one of the greatest civilizations in history, and at the center of Cusco was the massive square which was known as Huacaypata.

When the Spanish besieged the city, however, many of the buildings around Huacaypata were viciously razed to the ground. Western structures were erected in their place to solidify the imperial dominance, and the name of the square was also changed to reflect the Spanish heritage.

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Cathedral of Lima (Catedral de Lima)

Cathedral of Lima (Catedral de Lima)

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Lima's baroque twin-towered cathedral dominates the city's central Plaza de Armas. The cathedral's elaborate colonial exterior looks intact, but it has suffered plenty of wear and tear over the years from earthquakes since its construction in the 1530s. Much of what you see dates from the rebuilding program of 1746. Step inside the huge cathedral via one of its grand three doors and you’ll find a lofty white and gold interior with soaring ribbed ceilings, mosaic chapels and pillared aisles.

The cathedral's walls are lined with paintings, and the highlight of the chapels is the elaborate marble tomb of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who laid the cathedral's first stone in 1535. Entry includes a guided tour and a visit to the cathedral's museum. The cathedral is brilliantly illuminated with floodlights at night, and the palm-filled square in front is a popular meeting spot with seating.

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Tambomachay

Tambomachay

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Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.

Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty. When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous.

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Q'enqo (Qenko)

Q'enqo (Qenko)

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Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo. This site which is at 3,600 meters above sea level has some of the best examples of undisturbed Incan carving in the world. The name (which has many alternative spellings, sometimes with a k) means zig-zag, and this is in reference to the carved channels in the rock at the site. The site is actually comprised of four different parts, with the most popularly visited being Q’engo Grande, which was used as an astronomical observatory and holy site.

Q’engo Grande is a large limestone outcrop with two small knobs that show a shadow pattern at the summer solstice in June. Also carved into the limestone are a series of caves, altars and hollows that would have been used to move water. The site was used as a stopping point on a pilgrimage of religious importance during the Inca period, and mummification took place onsite as well.

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Qorikancha (Coricancha)

Qorikancha (Coricancha)

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The Inca site of Qorikancha forms the foundations of the colonial church of Santo Domingo, creating an unusual combination of monolithic Inca and arched colonial architecture.

Qorikancha means ‘Golden Courtyard’, and in Inca times the temple walls were clad with 700 sheets of solid gold, proving a tempting lure for the conquistadors. The gold sheets and gold and silver statues are gone, melted down and recast by the Spanish, but the impressively hewn curved wall of basalt stonework remains. The temple complex is thought to have been built by the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, 100 years before the coming of the Spaniards. It was built as an observatory and religious temple to the sun, housing the mummified bodies of the Inca rulers. When you enter the courtyard, imagine the octagonal front clad with solid gold, flanked by temples to the moon and the stars draped in solid silver.

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Mercado Central de San Pedro

Mercado Central de San Pedro

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There is a certain irony that one of the best sites in Cusco really isn’t a site at all. Rather, the Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market) is simply the place in the center of Cusco where most of the locals go for their groceries.

The difference, however, is that grocery shopping in Cusco is a little bit different than shopping at the local market back back home. At the Mercado Central de San Pedro, all of the items are on vibrant display and are fascinatingly set right out in the open. You can wander the stalls past towers of fruit and be greeted by a pig’s head on the very next corner. You can shop for a dozen varieties of potatoes and then watch someone purchase a bag of fried guinea pigs. It’s an authentic look at everyday culture which lies outside the circuit of regular sights. There is also a food court that serves local dishes at a fraction of the cost of most local restaurants.

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Cusco Historic Center (Centro Historico de Cusco)

Cusco Historic Center (Centro Historico de Cusco)

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When it comes to history, few cities in South America are more historic than Cusco. This sprawling city was once the capital of the entire Inca Empire, and many will tell you that ancient Cusco was the grandest city in Peru. Even the name “Cusco” translates as “Navel of the Earth” since the Inca believed the city to be the center of the known world. It pulses with an energy unlike elsewhere in Peru, and there is a palpable magic which permeates these streets set high in the foothills of the Andes.

During the 16th Century, when Spanish conquistadors came marching into Cusco, they kept the structure of the city intact but destroyed many of the buildings. Colonial cathedrals and Spanish architecture took the place of Inca temples, and the city became an Andean fusion of Spanish and Inca design. Given the cultural combination and the grandiose scale of the city, UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983.

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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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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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ChocoMuseo Cusco

ChocoMuseo Cusco

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Cusco’s ChocoMuseo allows travelers to immerse themselves in everything cacao. The interactive museum covers the history of cocoa beans in Peru as well as the chocolate-making process, from bean to the chocolate bar. In partnership with local Peruvian farmers, the ChocoMuseo produces organic, high-quality chocolate with its guests, who get the opportunity to create their own handmade treats with custom ingredients in the workshop. From roasting the cocoa beans and removing the husk to grinding the cocoa nibs on a metate, chocolate lovers can eat their creations on the spot or save them to indulge in later. Specialized workshop tours also include hot chocolate tastings.

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Amazon River

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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Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

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The pepper-pot belfry of Santo Domingo, one of Lima’s most historic churches, makes a rococo statement on Lima’s skyline. The interior has a neoclassical design in turquoise and sumptuous gold.

The church was completed in 1599, though it’s been rebuilt over the centuries following several earthquakes. The grand church has three naves, several altars, chapels and shrines, and Peru’s oldest choir stalls. Paintings and Seville tiles decorate the main cloisters surrounding the tranquil central gardens. Many visitors make the pilgrimage to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo to pay their respects to the Americas’ first black saint, San Martin de Porres. Santa Rosa de Lima also has a chapel in Santo Domingo.

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