Close your eyes. If someone says, “Peru,” what do you picture? One of the first images to come to mind is likely the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, located high in the Andes Mountains.
Machu Picchu is certainly an impressive and recognizable sight. In fact, it’s so well-known, it’s become a sort of short-hand for Peru, the Andes, and Incan civilization as a whole. It shouldn’t be surprising to know Machu Picchu is actually the most popular tourist destination in the entire country.
Of course, Machu Picchu, the Incan Trail, and a number of other attractions associated with the trek are obviously popular and often crowded. Access to Machu Picchu is being restricted by the government in hopes of preserving the site, which means you have to book early or risk missing out.
Is it really “missing out” though? There are so many other places and attractions to explore in Peru. The country is vast and rich in both natural wonders and cultural heritage. There’s a lot to take in here, so you might actually want to skip Machu Picchu altogether, and explore some other hidden gems!
We’ve picked 20 of the best things to see and do in Peru other than Machu Picchu.
20 Trek To The Bottom Of The World’s 2nd Deepest Canyon
For a long time, people thought Peru’s Colca Canyon was the deepest in the world. It turns out, that it’s actually the 2nd deepest, and the deepest one is right next door, in the neighboring Cotahuasi Canyon.
Colca Canyon is still twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, although it makes for an easier hike. Set out from Arequipa on a 2-day trek, and you’ll hike to the bottom of the canyon the first day. The 2nd day is a little more intense as you climb back up from the bottom. Afterwards, relax in one of Arequipa’s amazing hot springs.
19 If You Love Archeology, Visit Chan Chan
Machu Picchu is perhaps the most famous ancient ruins in all of South America, but if you really want to pretend you’re Indiana Jones, check out Chan Chan.
Chan Chan is another ancient city, although it’s relatively unknown and underappreciated by tourists. Chan Chan predates the Incan empire, and it served as the capital of the ancient Chimu Kingdom from around the year 1300.
You can spend hours exploring here, as it’s the world’s largest adobe city. There are plazas, streets, houses, gardens, reservoirs, and even temples just waiting for you to discover. You can also explore the tombs of the ancient Chimu kings.
18 Discover The Amazon At Manu National Park
Manu National Park is a sprawling biosphere reserve located in Peru’s southeast, in the Cusco and Madres de Dios regions. The park is vast, taking in mountain climes, cloud forest, and Amazonian jungle ecosystems alike. If you want to experience the Amazon in Peru, this is one of the best places to do it.
The park is home to some of Peru’s most stunning wildlife. You can usually expect to see a variety of birds, some monkeys, and maybe even a few other animals nosing about the park. The best time to visit is during the dry season, between June and November.
17 Get Above It All To See The Nazca Lines
One of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions has to be the mysterious Nazca Lines. No one knows quite how these lines were created. You can only see them from the air, which makes the fact that they’re ancient all the more impressive.
The lines make up various drawings in the Nazca Desert. Some of the drawings appear to be a hummingbird, a tree, and a spider, and they’re spread over an area of 450 kilometers.
Experts have suggested the lines were made by the people of the Nazca civilization sometimes between 500 BC and 500 AD, but no one quite knows why or how an ancient civilization would make such enormous drawings without the ability to view them from above.
16 Choquequirao Is Machu Picchu Without The Tourists
If you really have your heart set on visiting Incan ruins but can’t bear the crowds of Machu Picchu, check out Choquequirao instead.
This ancient city is similar to its more famous sister site, but tourists rarely make the trek so far south. The city is also remote. You’ll need to hike 2 days from the nearest village to get there.
Since Choquequirao is a bit more off the beaten path, you’ll have more space to explore at your leisure. The city dates back to the late 1400s, and it was built as an administrative and military center of power.
15 This Waterfall Was A Well-Kept Secret
The Gocta Cataracts is one of the highest waterfalls in the world, tumbling 2,530 feet (or around 770 meters) down the side of a cliff in the province of Chachapoyas.
The falls were a well-kept secret from the outside world for many centuries. Although the people living in the area knew about them, they weren’t known by outsiders until the early 21st century. A German engineer “discovered” them and publicized his findings.
The government has since made the area more accessible for tourists, with trails and a hotel. You can trek to the base of the falls, or climb up to get a better view of the upper portion.
14 Learn About The Chachapoyas People At Kuelap
The Incas are the most famous of Peru’s Indigenous peoples, but they certainly weren’t the only peoples to inhabit the Andes Mountains and the Amazon rainforest here. If you visit the 9th-century fortress of Kuelap, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about another.
Kuelap was built by the Chachapoyas people, who lived in this region almost until the time of the Spanish conquest. Today, Kuelap is an impressive testament to their civilization, with limestone walls surrounding about 450 houses.
If you choose to visit this city, you may want to book an organized tour from a nearby town. The fortress is 3,000 meters above sea level, so be prepared to hike.
13 Tour The Floating Islands Of Lake Titicaca
Funny jokes about the name aside, Lake Titicaca is one of Peru’s top tourist destinations. One of its famous attractions are the Uros islands, reed islands that float about in the lake. The Uros people have inhabited these islands since before the Incan Empire was even created.
You can visit the islands to get a feel for the traditional way of life among this unique people, or you can opt to visit some of the small villages along the shores. Kicking back and relaxing is another great option.
To get here, book a bus from Cusco or Arequipa to Puno. You can also fly in and out of nearby Juliaca.
12 Choose Ollantaytambo For Incan Ruins
If traveling to the deep south of Peru and trekking for 2 days to Choquequiero isn’t high on your bucket list, there are other ancient Incan sites you can choose that aren’t Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo is another great option for those who want to get away from the tourist trap Machu Picchu has become. Ollantaytambo is one of the only towns that retain the original street grid and Incan walls. The area is protected by steep terraces, which may have contributed to the Spanish defeat here.
It’s also much easier to access, since most trains on their way to Machu Picchu stop here.
11 Journey The Amazon River From Iquitos
When people think of the Amazon jungle, they usually picture Brazil. Although Brazil's portion of this amazing biosphere is more famous, the Amazon jungle is enormous, spreading through several countries, including Peru.
Those who have had the opportunity to compare usually pick the Amazon in Peru over Brazil. You’ll see much of the same wildlife, but it hasn’t yet been overrun with tourists. The prices also provide better value.
Set out on your journey from the city of Iquitos. You’ll need to fly or boat in, as Iquitos is the largest city in the world with no road access.
10 Take A Food Tour Of The City Of Kings
Lima is the capital of Peru, but it often gets looked over in favor of Cusco and Machu Picchu by tourists. Also called the City of Kings, Lima has much to offer. Check out neighborhoods like Miraflores and Barranco.
The city is rich in history, and you can visit plenty of museums to get a taste for local history and culture. The Museo Larco houses ancient pre-Columbian artifacts from a number of Peru’s Indigenous peoples.
Lima is also an excellent destination for foodies, and the city has been named as one of the top destinations in the world for food tourism. Be sure to book a food tour or check out some of the world-class restaurants here.
9 Visit The Incan Capital
Lima is indeed the capital of modern Peru, but in the past, the city of Cusco was the true seat of power. The Incan Empire was centered around this ancient city. Machu Picchu isn’t far from here, so most people make their way through the city on their way to the mountain.
Take some time to explore Cusco, whether you plan to continue on to Machu Picchu or not. Steeped in both Incan and colonial history, the city has a distinctly European vibe. Visit the Plaza de Armas or the Cusco Cathedral, with its displays of relics and artifacts from colonial times.
8 Tour Two Amazon Reserves From Puerto Maldonado
Hop a half-hour flight from Cusco, and land in Puerto Maldonado if you want to explore some of Peru’s wildest reaches. Here, you’ll find not 1 but 2 Amazonian reserves. Capybaras, monkeys, and caimans all roam through Reserva Nacional Tambopata and Parque Nacional Bahuaja Sonene.
You’ll travel about an hour by boat from Puerto Maldonado to reach Tambopata. Bahuaja Sonene takes about 4 hours to reach when you’re paddling, and it’s located on the border with Bolivia’s Parque Nacional Madidi. You’ll want to spend anywhere from 2 days to a full week exploring the rich and vast Amazon jungle here.
7 Try Sandboarding In Huacachina
Huacachina is a resort town, just a little to the west of the town of Ica. The town is an oasis, situated on a lagoon in the middle of the desert. Sand dunes soar to 1,000 meters here, which makes Huacachina a perfect place to try out some desert sports.
You can try your hand at sandboarding, which is similar to snowboarding. You can also rent a dune buggy, and tour through the landscape that way. If you prefer, you can also just stick to your hotel and relax under the palm trees. With year-round sun and a dry climate, this is a great place to visit any time of year.
6 These Islands Are A Great Alternative To The Galapagos
If you travel to Pisco, about 200 kilometers south of the capital, you’ll find the Islas Ballestas. Sometimes called the “poor man’s Galapagos,” the nearby national parks on the Paracas Peninsula make this a great place for nature-lovers to visit.
To get to the islands, hop on one of the daily boat tours from Pisco. After your half-day tour of the islands, you might want to visit the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, which is the largest section of protected coastline in Peru. It’s home to a rare species of otter and Humboldt penguins, among hundreds of other types of birds.
5 Check Out An Incan Laboratory
The small town of Maras acts as the gateway to a fascinating Incan site. No one quite knows what Moray was used for, but some theorize it might have been used as a kind of outdoor “laboratory” for Incan farmers.
The site consists of several terraces carved into a huge earthen bowl. The temperature difference between the top terrace and the bottom terrace can be as much as 15°C! As a result, each terrace has its own sort of microclimate. Experts think the Incas may have experimented with crop-growing conditions using these climate variations. Moray showcases just how ingenious human beings have always been.
4 Take A Challenging Hike Through The Cordillera Blanca
Calling all mountaineers and trekkers! Peru’s Cordillera Blanca is the best adventure the country has to offer. If you find hiking to the bottom of the Colca Canyon too easy, this multi-day trek through the mountains is right up your alley.
There are 16 peaks through the region, some of them more than 6,000 meters (or 19,000 feet) high. Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran, is found here. You’ll spend days hiking, climbing, and camping as you take in some of the best scenery in the Andes. If you want to try something a bit different, take on a mountain biking adventure across the terrain instead.
3 Beach Lovers, Mancora Is For You
Few people think of sandy beaches and ocean waves when they think about Peru. They probably haven’t heard of Mancora.
Mancora is a small town located on Peru’s northern coast, and those in the know say it’s home to the country’s very best sandy beach. You’ll find several kilometers of sand along the Pacific here, just waiting for you. Surfing is also a popular activity.
The town is also home to several resorts, luxury restaurants, and nightclubs. Soak up the sand and the sun during the day. Once the sun goes down, you can hit the town and party all night long.
2 Follow The Urubamba Through The Sacred Valley
You may explore some of the Sacred Valley on your way to Machu Picchu. Most people only pass through, however, choosing instead to trek onward to the main goal. The Sacred Valley has so much more to offer, so take your time as you travel through it.
The valley stretches along the Urubamba River, from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. There are many different ruins to visit in the area. You can also glimpse some of its amazing landscapes. Take a hike through the mountainous terrain here, and marvel at both natural and manmade wonders. If you prefer, you can mountain bike, ride on horseback, or even go white-water rafting.
1 This Mountain Is Literally A Rainbow
Another site you might want to check out in the Cusco region is Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain. Part of the Andes Mountains, the peaks here are a sight indeed! The hills are alive with color here, with vibrant reds, greens, yellows, and oranges all peeping through.
Book a full day trek from Cusco. You’ll depart the city early to make the 3-hour drive to the mountain. Once you’re there, you’ll spend the day climbing to 5,200 meters (or just over 17,000 feet) above sea level here. You’ll pass by villages and mountain streams. Just make sure you’re used to the altitude before you attempt the climb.
References: TripHistoric.com, PlanetWare, National Geographic, TravelingCanucks.com, Touropia.com, Lonely Planet