From the highs of the Andes to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest, Peru is a place of discovery and enlightenment. Home to some of the the world’s most beautiful natural wonders, the country is infused with ancient cultures such as that of the Incan civilization.
For those in search of adventure, the opportunities here are endless. There are citadels and forts, which stand against lush mountainscapes and help unravel the country’s rich heritage. A trek up these mountains reveal attractions such as the Sacred Valley, an agricultural site dating back to 800 BC.
Over in the east, the world’s largest rainforest stakes its claim. The Amazon River is best sailed in Peru, where it’s narrow enough that the river banks stay in sight and the wildlife sightings are endless. Courtesy of its floor-to-ceiling windows, Aqua Nera provides the best possible views while sailing this extraordinary destination. Led by expert naturalist guides, guests also get to embark on land and tender-based excursions, in search of exotic wildlife such as black caimans and pink river dolphins.
Given the range of options, it can be tough to plan the perfect Peruvian vacation. To ease the process, we’ve put together this list of top five places to visit while exploring Peru.
Cusco: Hidden in the Clouds
Nestled within the Urubamba valley of the Andes mountain range, Cusco is an ancient city dating back to the Inca Empire of the 13th Century. Once an important center for the indigenous people, the city — although still populated — has been preserved like an ancient relic. Walking around, you’ll find fortresses and colonial constructions which have stood the test of time.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Cusco is located at an elevation of around 11,000 feet. With rolling hills and mountains in the backdrop, the city’s main attractions include architectural creations such as the Plaza de Armas de Cusco. Ever since Incan times, the plaza has served as one of the most important sites in Cusco.
It used to be the meeting point for important ceremonies held to recognize the Sun festival and the Winter Solstice. Following the Spanish invasion of Peru, the Plaza retained its importance as a center for trade and military gatherings. Fast forward to present day and remnants of this rich past can be spotted around the area. People still gather here for the celebration of the Sun festival, which was prohibited during the colonial era but brought back afterwards.
Cusco is known for its charming cobblestone streets, art galleries, handicraft shops, and a stunning culinary scene. Another highlight is the city’s Spanish Baroque cathedral, featuring an altar made of pure silver, as well as the nearby archeological site of the Temple of the Sun, which was once home to 4,000 Incan priests.
The Nazca Lines: Aliens or Ancient Civilizations?
The arid coastal plains south of Lima are host to one of the world’s most puzzling mysteries: The Nazca Lines. These geometric giant ancient drawings were scratched into the dry earth between 500 B.C and A.D 500, representing creatures, plants and imaginary beings.
Nobody knows why these million year-old carvings were left in the ground, but their size, prevalence, and aesthetic continue to captivate experts and tourists alike. Many believe that these enigmatic geoglyphs may have been used for ritual astronomy.
The combined length of all the lines is over 1,300 km, with each of them typically being 10 to 15 centimeters deep. They are best admired from the sky, where one can see hundreds of simple lines and geometric shapes. More than 70 designs are inspired by nature, depicting trees, flowers, a hummingbird, spider, fish, monkey, dog, cat and even humans.
The Peruvian Amazon: Into the Jungle
At 6,872 kilometers, the Amazon River is the longest river in the world, and covers 75 percent of Peruvian territory. This means Peru is home to four percent of the planet’s freshwater!
Encompassing an area that measures more than three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is a vital part of the Amazonian rainforest and river system. Located between the Marañón and Ucayali tributaries at the head of the mighty Amazon River, the Reserve contains two large alluvial river basins, seasonal flooded forests, freshwater lakes and lagoons, gorges and canals, as well as tropical forest cover.
It is here that Aria Amazon and Aqua Nera set sail, bringing explorers deep into the jungle to experience the world’s largest and most diverse collection of plant and animal life. The Peruvian Amazon is home to more than one-third of all recorded animal species in the world. It boasts 20 percent of all bird species, 40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians and around 3,000 freshwater fish!
Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas
Standing 6,500 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu is the quintessential attraction to visit while in Peru. It’s the most recognizable monument from the Inca civilization — an estate built in the 1400s for the royal emperor. Since it’s hidden within a tropical forest in the mountains, the site is often referred to as the ‘lost city of the Incas’. In fact, Machu Picchu was only brought to international attention in 1911 when an American historian traveled to Peru in search of the old Inca capital.
The dramatic landscape is only one of the reasons why Machu Picchu is known today as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The city features around 200 structures, including religious, ceremonial, and astronomical centers. For these structures to have survived for centuries on the side of a mountain, it’s a testament to the architects of the ancient world.
Huascaran National Park: Peru’s Highest Peaks
Spanning 340,000 hectares, Huascaran National Park is situated in the heart of Cordillera Blanca — the world’s tallest tropical mountain range, which makes up part of the Peruvian Andes. Featuring over twenty snow-covered peaks, tropical glaciers, and ice blue lakes, the park conserves the region’s wide range of ecosystems. Animals such as pumas, mountain lions, and spectacled bears are just a few of the species which have been sighted here.
Despite being one of 400 lakes in Huascaran National Park, Lake 69 is one of the most popular attractions in the region. Visitors can journey up a thirteen kilometer trail to the turquoise lake, which sits at the base of a hanging glacier. Swimming in the lake is allowed, but it requires you to brave icy cold waters — after all, what else would you expect at an altitude of 15,000 feet?
Another sight which is impossible to miss is the park’s namesake mountain, Mount Huascaran. Featuring two distinct summits, the mountain’s southern peak is the highest in all of Peru. Climbing Mount Huascaran takes between five to seven days and is known to be quite the challenge.