Peru is probably best known for Machu Picchu, a major destination for multi-day trekking tours. But Peru is also home to the Amazon Basin, historic Spanish colonial-era cities, the boisterous capital Lima, and a share of 12,500-foot-high Lake Titicaca, with its host of artificial islands and bird life. Many travelers also combine trips to Peru with a visit to the Galapagos.
Peru: The name conjures up images of majestic natural wonders, deep canyons, Amazonian wildlife, superlative lakes, sacred valleys, and, of course, Machu Picchu - the Lost City of the Incas.
This is all for good reason -- Peru provides a little bit of everything, especially for the adventurous traveler. Few destinations captivate like Peru or offer such a diverse array of experiences packed into such a small country.
World-renowned Archaeological Treasures
Peru is home to one of the world’s most famous ruins: Machu Picchu. Nestled high in the Andean mountains, this nearly impenetrable site is a relic of a bygone Incan Empire, and is sure to captivate you with its physical impressiveness and the mystery surrounding the site. As you walk the sacred steps up to the former citadel, hanging on a dramatic cliff side, you’ll take in mountain vistas of rivers, waterfalls, and the ruins themselves for a memory you’ll cherish for life.
Whether you climb the mighty Andean spine across the legendary Inca trail, or sit in luxury aboard a classic train traversing the Sacred Valley, getting to Machu Picchu is half the experience. Traveling from the vibrant city of Cusco, a destination in its own right, to Machu Picchu you will find captivating Incan sites, quaint towns, archaeological gems, and natural wonders.
The Incans were not the only ones who established a foothold on these sacred lands. Go down from the mountains to the desert beaches to discover enigmatic pre-Incan civilizations. Encounter the beautiful tombs of the Moche civilization in Chiclayo, fly over the Nazca lines and ponder their mystery, or explore the UNESCO-listed Chan Chan –the former capital of the Chimu empire and the largest adobe city in the world.
Visiting Machu Picchu in Peru
While there is much to see in Peru, it is undeniable that Machu Picchu is one of the country's biggest attractions. This magnificent site high in the Andes is a classic bucket list item, and well worth seeing once.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. One of them most popular still is the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail is a trek along the Andean peaks and valleys to get to the specific spot of Machu Picchu, and although it is difficult, this hike is manageable for most able bodied and relatively fit travelers, and an incredible experience.
The trail takes 4 to 5 days to complete and you’ll be surrounded by spectacular scenery and history, brought to life by your guide the entire way. Historians suspect the Inca Trail was established for spiritual journeys, and even visitors traveling to Machu Picchu find the trek to have deeper meaning.
If you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail, be sure you purchase your permit into the park well ahead of time. They sell out extremely fast, and a limited number of people (500) are permitted on the trail per day. This includes porters and guides. Six months in advance is a good bet to ensure yourself a spot. It is also worth noting that you cannot hike the trail without a guide. Most large tour companies offer a Machu Picchu trek, so you have a lot of choice. Use Stride’s filtering tools to find the right tour size for you.
However, travelers are beginning to discover the other ways you can hike to Machu Picchu, which include the Lares Trek and Salkantay Trek. The Lares Treks is comparable, difficulty wise to the Inca Trail, but Salkantay is quite a bit more challenging, both in length and type.
Tours to Machu Picchu begin in Cusco, where you can take a few days to acclimate to the altitude, as well as get an introduction to Inca history in preparation for your journey into history.
If you’re not hiking, you will take one of three rail journeys from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. There are different price points, but if you’re willing to splurge, the Belmond Hiram Bingham train is well worth the price. Drift through the Sacred Valley in luxury, while gazing out at the historic landscape through large windows.
Aguas Calientes is the main hub for travelers going to Machu Picchu, about 15 minutes away from the site by bus. It is a good idea to stay in Aguas Calientes for a few days. Let yourself relax and not worry about seeing all of Machu Picchu in one fell swoop.
Use one day to catch the first bus after waiting in line at 4am to see the sunrise, but use your second day to go later. If you have time, don’t pass up a visit to the hot springs (Aguas Calientes literally translates to “hot water”.
The Diverse Natural Beauty of Peru
Though Peru is a small and navigable country, it boasts more biodiversity than the entire North American continent. This boils down to one major feature the country has access to: the Amazon Rainforest. Peru is the perfect base for the world’s most impressive rainforest: the mighty Amazon. Among many lodging options are eco-lodges nestled deep in the jungle, providing opportunities to encounter colorful toucans and macaws, howler monkeys, pink river dolphins, and perhaps even an elusive jaguar.
Beyond the Amazon, you can tour Manu National Park and the unique moss-covered Peruvian Yunga region, home to some of the world’s best birding. Afterwards, you can head toward the northern beaches to park a tent in beautiful sun-splashed Punta Sal or catch a wave at Huancayo, the world’s very first surfing beach.
Then of course there’s the unparalleled beauty of the Andes Mountains. There are many ways to discover the incredible Andes, from multi day hikes along historic trails, to treks through ancient villages.
Dotted throughout with ruins of ancient settlements, the Peruvian Andes are a pathway through history. Llamas roam the hills and native Andean people live here as they have for centuries. Nothing quite achieves the separation from the modern world like a trip through the Andes.
Adventure Travel in Peru
Like much of South America, Peru is a natural destination for adventure travel - but not just of the zipline variety. In Peru, you can tour Lake Titicaca, the legendary lake on top of the world with it's intriguing customs and legends. Here, you’ll tour Puno’s fascinating floating artificial islands, and you can even stay in a freshwater island resort. These a breathtaking high-altitude retreats come complete with superlative sunsets, and allow you to experience Peru in a truly unique way.
Of course there’s the famous trek to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. This adventure is once in a lifetime and on the bucket list of many a traveler - both young and old. The Inca Trail is achievable for most healthy and moderately physically fit people, and an adventure in which you’ll follow in the footsteps of explorers and the ancient Inca Empire to reach the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu.
If, however, you are unable to trek, or less interested in 4 hard days of hiking through altitude up treacherous hills and camping on hard ground, there are other ways to reach Machu Picchu! Consider traveling on a rail journey through the beautiful Sacred Valley.
This is a very popular option for older travelers or those with young children. It’s also a good idea if you’re only in Peru a short time. You will still get an adventure and a half as you arrive in Aguas Calientes and eagerly await the bus to Machu Picchu.
For those who prefer more vigorous outdoors adventure, Peru also offers the unique Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is replete with Incan terraces and natural beauty. For incredible photo ops, go to Cruz del Condor, a peak where flocks of the normally reclusive Andean condor swarm at sunrise. Visit on a day hike or some tours operate multi day treks through the incredible landscape.
Trekking enthusiasts looking for opportunities in Peru beyond Machu Picchu, should absolutely explore the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Wind your way through tiny Andean villages and take in breathtaking views of lakes and sheer rock faces.
There is also an area of Peru known as the “poor man’s Galapagos.” This is Islas Ballestas, where you can travel to see incredible diverse wildlife, including some similar species to those you will experience in the Galapagos. These include penguins, sea lions, and Peruvian boobies.
Immersing yourself in Peru also means discovering its vibrant cities. Lima, Peru’s capital, offers fascinating museums and “peñas,” lively traditional dance halls that hold weekly Peruvian dance shows. Though travelers should remain cautious in Lima, which is still a big city in a developing country, a tour in particular you will find more peace of mind than as a solo traveler.
For a different urban experience, a tour of Peru could include the magnificent white city of Arequipa and its Spanish colonial treasures. Arequipa is an architectural wonder, famous for its intact 16th century churches, and home to Monesterio de Santa Catalina, a “city within a city,” whose pastel walls and priceless frescoes make it one of the most beautiful convents in the world.
Cusco is another of Peru’s exciting cities, though often thought of as a mere stepping stone to Machu Picchu. However, it is so much more. Travelers are discovering the delights of Cusco, which include its long and fascinating history as the capital of the Inca Empire, followed by the Spanish occupation and colonization.
Festivals and Processions in Peru
In Peru, culture is never far off. Every weekend, towns across the country have celebrations and festivals where you can watch somber religious processions followed by raucous folk marching bands.
Deep ties to folklore from many native tribes, as well as many Spanish influenced customs make Peru one of the best destinations for celebrations, and parades.
Some Peruvian festivals you might encounter while touring Peru include:
1. Carnaval, March: Perhaps the best known festival, Carnaval is celebrated throughout South America, taking place in the days leading up to the Catholic holiday of Lent. Carnaval is a bright and vibrant multi-day celebration. One of the best places in Peru to experience this festival is Cajamarca in Northern Peru, where traditional dances and ancient traditions are in the forefront.
2. Fiesta de la Vendimia, March: this is a traditional wine festival, which takes place in Ica, a small town on Peru’s southern coast. Complete with grape stomping events, tastings, music and dancing, it’s a can’t miss event for wine enthusiasts.
3. Fiesta de la Cruz, May: This is the “festival of the cross” and while it has significant religious meaning and undertones, like much of the festivals in Peru, it’s more about celebration than sombor devotion. Go just to see the mysterious “scissor dancers” a tradition that harkens back to the 16th century, connected to resistance to Spanish rule.
4. Fiesta del Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), June: The ancient Inca were obsessed with the Sun, and this festival is directly related to some of their more serious beliefs. Celebrated on the winter solstice every year, this festival involves colorful traditional dress, parades, and performances to native music and using native instruments, all presented in worship to the sun. If you’re in Cusco on June 24th, this is an event not to be missed.
5. Virgen del Carmen, July: In the small town of Paucartambo, one of the more raucous festivals is held. With three days of drinking, dancing, eating, music and singing in the traditional language of Quechua. This is a celebration that draws people by the thousands. Go for the intense energy as people go through the streets wearing scary costumes, and masks. Often the celebrations end up at the cemetery.
6. Puno week, November: Puno is known as the “folklore capital of Peru” so it’s no wonder it has one of the most popular festivals. This particular week-long festival is to celebrate the Amerindian roots in the area. An enormous procession happens from Lake Titicaca into the center of Puno, with loud music, dancing, and revelry.
Touring the Peruvian Amazon and Rainforest
The imposing Amazon is one of the longest rivers in the world, and winds its way through six countries, including Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador. Peru is it’s source, and one of the most ecologically diverse portions of the Amazon - 60% of Peru’s landscape belongs to the Amazon, separated into two distinct ecological regions, and home to 5% of the country's population.
River cruises along the Amazon are quickly becoming a popular “adventurous” destination for river cruisers, especially senior travelers. It’s one of the best ways to see the world in comfort and cover a lot of ground.
When considering your tour to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, there are a few things to keep in mind. The high water season in Peru’s Amazon is from December through May. The low water season lasts from June through November. Rain is common throughout the year, but heaviest in December to May.
You can visit the Peruvian Amazon at any time of year, but if you choose to go during a wet period, your chances of shore excursions could be limited, due to flooding and difficulty navigating through muddy paths. Mosquitos also love this time of year, and Peru is a Zika zone, so be very careful when traveling during wet weather. Wear lots of bug spray and wear long sleeves and pants.
If you choose to take a Peru river cruise in the dry season (June through November), you will have much more opportunity to disembark and explore the jungle. However, some of the smaller creeks and byways that are navigable during the rainy season are now inaccessible to river boat vessels. So you won’t have the chance to explore “off the beaten path” (or river as the case may be) if you travel during this time of year.
Birding Tours in Peru
Peru is an extremely popular destination for birding, particularly in the Amazon. Home to nearly 2000 separate species, including 120 rare species only found in Peru, it’s a birding enthusiasts dream destination.
To see some of Peru’s incredible aviary creatures, plan a long birding tour where you can visit several habitat types, as well as increase your chances of seeing the rarer species. Some birding tours to Peru are over two weeks long, providing ample time to see the country and learn about the local wildlife and cultures.
Take a birding tour to discover such elusive varieties as the predatory Black-Collared Hawk, the male Golden-Headed Manakin, with his oddly stark colors of gold and black, the prehistoric looking Hoatzin, which for laymen may be confused with a Quetzel. Of course you’ll see plenty of Amazonian Macaws, with their bright red, yellow, and blue feathers, and Toucans of which there are 40 different species.
Food in Peru
The local cuisine in Peru is generally excellent - combining elements from the coast (seafood), Andean (pre-Hispanic dishes), Amazonian (palm hearts and other exotic foods), and Spanish colonial influences. Adventurous eaters may even try a plate of Cuy, a Peruvian national dish centered around roasted Guinea pig.
Ceviche is another classic national dish in Peru. This delectable concoction has been copied and interpreted all around the world, but finds it’s roots in Peru, where simplicity is what showcases the fresh, flavorful ingredients. Ceviche is traditionally made with cubed chunks of raw fish, marinated in citrus juice for up to three hours (during this process, the fish becomes “chemically cooked” so is not technically raw when it’s served), and finished with fresh lime. Some of the best ceviche in Peru can be found in the capital, Lima, where it is served with cold sweet potatoes or corn.
Potatoes are a staple in Peruvian cuisine, as the country is home to nearly 2000 varieties. Whether you enjoy potatoes, stuffed, fried, boiled, sliced, sweet, hot or cold, you will find them in Peru. Peru is mostly a coastal nation, so another staple food item is seafood. Not only used in ceviche, as described above, but also made using many different regional methods, from stews to steamed.
Cocktail enthusiasts will enjoy the history of Pisco that can be found throughout Peru. Originally concocted by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, this brandy like drink is made similar to wine. The other major country known for Pisco is Chile, and both countries put their own unique spin on the drink.
Peru chooses to non dilute their offering. Chile is the older official producer of Pisco (official regions were declared in 1931 - 1991 in Peru), but Peru has certainly paved a way in Pisco production. Used in a lot of modern mixology, it’s a classic drink for travelers visiting Peru.
The Language in Peru
Peru is a multilingual country, the official language of which is Spanish, however many diverse native languages are used as well. Those that speak these languages are typically bilingual in Spanish. In the main tourist areas, such as Machu Picchu and Cusco, English is fairly widely spoken, however when you venture farther afield, you’ll have an easier time communicating in Spanish.
While not a full blown dialect, Peruvian Spanish differs slightly from European Spanish. A result of native words creeping into everyday speech and local pronunciation differences.The most well known indigenous language is Quechua, many variations of which is spoken by the various Quechua peoples.
It is significant in that it pre-dates the Inca Empire and is still spoken today, despite the Spanish conquest in the 1600s. Peru offers a dizzying array of options, Stride is here to guide you toward the best guided group tours to experience Peru’s dynamic sights, sounds, and flavors. Isn’t it time you said “Hola!” to Peru?