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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 and the guardian of 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. Visitors from around the globe come to Iquitos to cruise the river’s storied waters and catch a glimpse of diverse fauna both above and below the surface.

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Chan Chan
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The ancient city of Chan Chan, in Peru’s Moche Valley, was once the largest city in the Americas. For nearly 600 years, this metropolis of adobe buildings was the seat of the Chimú Kingdom (1000–1471 AD) and home to around 60,000 people. Today, the ruins constitute one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.

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Santa Catalina Monastery (Monasterio de Santa Catalina)
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Among the oldest structures in Arequipa, the historically significant Monastery of St. Catherine (Monasterio de Santa Catalina) covers an area of 15,615 square feet (20,000 square meters). The convent harbors a complete city with parks, houses, plazas, chapels, and a cemetery, offering visitors a meditative break from the busy historic center of Arequipa.

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Machu Picchu
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The lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in Peru and all of South America. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection of temples, terraced hills, and plazas was once the mountaintop citadel of the ancient Inca empire. It may now be world famous, but Machu Picchu still hasn't revealed the mysteries behind its construction, function, and eventual demise.

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Inca Trail
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South America's most famous trek is an unforgettable way to reach the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. Along the way, the four-day trek takes hikers past three Andean mountain passes, Inca ruins, and views of the snow-capped Andes, culminating in a stellar sunrise over Machu Picchu—a UNESCO World Heritage site—from the Sun Gate.

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Lake Titicaca
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Lake Titicaca, glistening atop the Andes Mountains, is a tourist attraction, spiritual oasis, and cultural hub all in one. It is also South America’s highest (at 12,507 feet/3,812 meters) and largest (at an astounding 3,230 square miles/8,366 square kilometers) lake, as well as the highest navigable lake in the world.

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Temples of Moche (Huacas del Sol y de la Luna)
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The Temples de Moche (Huacas de Moche), are Trujillo’s two most important sites that date to the Moche Empire. It’s hard to enough to fathom that civilizations existed here over 2,000 years ago, and even harder to fathom how some of their artwork has miraculously managed to remain.

At the Huaca de la Luna—Temple of the Moon—archaeologists are still uncovering frescoes which were thankfully missed by looters. Many of the paintings depict the deity Ayapec, whose snarling face and animated teeth are found on everything from ceramics to walls. It’s also believed that Huaca de Luna was a site of human sacrifice, and diggers have unearthed dozens of remains that suggest torture, warfare, and sacrifice. Given the murals and the human remains, it’s highly likely that the Huaca de Luna was a site of religious importance, and walking the corridors of the temple today is as enchanting as it is surreal.

Across the dusty Moche Valley, the Huaca del Sol—Temple of the Sun—rises 135 feet from the desert and is comprised of over 50 million bricks. It’s officially classified as the world’s largest adobe structure, although due to heavy looting by the Spanish and damage from El Niño rains, the temple hasn’t been excavated as heavily and is closed to the general public.

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Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas)
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A cluster of tiny islands off the Peruvian coast, the Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas) are often touted as the “Peruvian Galapagos,” famed for their spectacular variety of birdlife and rugged coastline of soaring cliffs, rocky beaches, and remote sea caves.

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Túcume (Valley of the Pyramids)
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When comparing the ancient ruins of the world, Túcume might be the most fascinating site that most people have never heard of. Located 21 miles to the north of Chiclayo, Túcume is home to 26 pyramids that were built over 1,000 years ago. One of these pyramids—Huaca Larga—has a base that is over 2,000 ft. in length and was the largest pyramid in the world.

Due to heavy rains, however, these dusty, sand-carved, ancient pyramids have been reduced to eroded mounds, although archeological discoveries continue to be made in the burial chambers below. At Huaca Larga, 119 bodies were discovered deep beneath the pyramid, and evidence suggests that the bodies were part of a mass human sacrifice to the gods. Other findings are less grotesque, such as the murals and carvings of the Lambayeque god Naymlap, a revered deity who emerged from the sea and gave rise to the powerful city.

As the ancient people of the Lambayeque Valley constructed these towering pyramids, they subsequently abandoned the massive structures when they felt it would please the gods. Today, the area around Túcume is still largely abandoned, the main reason being that local villagers are wary of the spiritual past; only healers and traditional shamans will visit Túcume by night, and there is a palpable sense of power and history when touring Túcume today.

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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. Here you’ll find the city’s best restaurants, shops, and hotels, plus waterfront mansions and high-rise towers. Lovely parks and beaches decorate the area, as well as the ancient ruins of Huaca Pucllana—a pre-Inca temple.

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More Things to Do in Peru

Peruvian Amazon

Peruvian Amazon

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The sprawling Peruvian Amazon covers nearly 60 percent of the entire country, stretching from the Andes Mountains to the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. The expanse is generally divided into two ecological regions—the lowland jungle and the highland jungle—with two main gateways, Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado.

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Colca Canyon (Canon del Colca)

Colca Canyon (Canon del Colca)

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Plunging 13,650 feet (4,160 meters) down, Peru’s Colca Canyon is officially one of the world’s deepest canyons—with a breadth of activities to match. Visitors opt to visit this off-the-beaten-track attraction for its opportunities for adventure in a stunning natural environment, its large population of Andean condors, and its pre-Inca historical sites.

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Temple of the Dragon (Huaco el Dragon)

Temple of the Dragon (Huaco el Dragon)

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Temple of the Dragon (Huaco el Dragon) is an immaculately preserved Chimú temple just outside Trujillo. The pyramid-shaped adobe structure features intricate frieze murals depicting rainbows, dragons, and figures that have valiantly stood the test of time. Less known than other Chimú sites, this anti-seismic temple is an engineering marvel.

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Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum

Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum

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To archaeologists, the Lord of Sipan was a Moche noble now known as the “King Tut of Peru.” To centuries of Peruvian grave robbers (huaqueros), he was one grave they wished they’d found. To visitors traveling to the town of Chiclayo, he is the reason why you can walk through a room that is dripping in jewels and gold. Of all the museums you can visit in Chiclayo, the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is one that you absolutely must see.

Buried in a tomb beneath the desert sands to the south of modern day Chiclayo, the Lord of Sipan lay undisturbed for over 1,700 years. In 1987, however, a team of archaeologists unearthed a tomb at the remote Huaca Rajada, and what they found inside is considered to be one of the greatest finds of the last 50 years. Lying inside a wooded sarcophagus were the remains of a king, a warrior, three concubines, two dogs, a llama, a priest and a guard with no feet. Also, there were jewels—lots of gold and jewels.

Today the tomb site and many of its findings are on display at the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, a building with a strikingly modern appearance that is modeled after the Moche pyramids. Gaze at headdresses and armored plates made entirely from silver and gold while inwardly contemplating how such valuable pieces remained buried and hidden for so long.

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Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines

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The enigmatic Nazca Lines (or Nasca Lines) are second only to Machu Picchu as the most famous archaeological site in Peru. The mysterious geoglyphs at the UNESCO World Heritage Site range from geometric shapes and swirls to a hummingbird and monkey. Theories on their purpose include astronomical markers, irrigation canals, and alien messages—an enigma that has spurred intrigue since their 1927 discovery. The spectacular etchings likely date from 500 BC and 500 AD.

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Historic Centre of Arequipa

Historic Centre of Arequipa

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Arequipa is known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) for the white buildings in its historic center made from a porous, volcanic stone known as sillar. Easily explored on foot, must-see landmarks include the neoclassical Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa and Monastery of St. Catherine (Monasterio de Santa Catalina).

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Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

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The unusual 40-plus floating Uros Islands are the most photographed attractions on Lake Titicaca. Constructed with springy totora reeds and anchored to the lake bed, the fragile islands must continually be built and rebuilt, changing in shape, size and even number over time.

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Lima Plaza Mayor

Lima Plaza Mayor

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Plaza Mayor, formerly Plaza de Armas, is the heart and birthplace of Lima. The crown jewel of the city, this UNESCO World Heritage–listed square is flanked by many important buildings, such as the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno), Cathedral of Lima, City Hall (Palacio Municipal de Lima), and the Archbishop’s Palace (Palacio Arzobispal).

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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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There was once a time when Pastoturi Glacier was a massive river of ice, but today this glacier in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca is shrinking so quickly that the glacier’s retreat has become a site in itself. Located in Huascaran National Park, Pastoturi Glacier—despite its demise—continues to offer an exceptionally scenic way to visit the Andes, and has become a spot to view the effects of climate change in action. Shining blue and white against the craggy peaks, the glacier consumes about three square miles of pristine Peruvian countryside, and is one of the world’s most accessible glaciers you can reach by just driving a car.

To get an up close view, however, you’ll need to get out and walk, which can take about 30-45 minutes along a weaving walkway. Up here in the mountains it can seem the clouds are right at the tips of your fingers, and the gaping blue sky stretches out like a canvas that rests on the snowcapped peaks. In addition to visiting the glacier itself, tours from Huaraz also stop at sights like shimmering Lake Patococha, and scenic vistas that instantly help you feel the magic of these mountains.

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Magic Water Circuit

Magic Water Circuit

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In a lush 19-acre (8-hectare) nature reserve (Parque de la Reserva) on the outskirts of Miraflores, Magic Water Circuit (Circuito Mágico del Agua) is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Choreographed to classical and Peruvian music and colored lights, the circuit’s 13 interactive fountains entice you to watch and to play.

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Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

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The largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Sacsayhuaman(Saqsaywaman) was built by the Incas from massive stones weighing as much as 300 tons. A critical military site in the battle with the Spanish for the Inca empire in 1536, the ruins offer impressive views over the city below.

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Barranco

Barranco

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Barranco is an atmospheric, seaside neighborhood in Lima known for its street art and hip, bohemian culture. The area was once a summer playground for fashionable Limeños and is full of old colonial buildings. Small cafes and artist-run boutiques buzz during the day, while bars and dance define the area at night.

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Yanahuara

Yanahuara

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Yanahuara is a middle-class residential neighborhood known for El Mirador e Iglesia de Yanahuara, a lookout point that offers panoramic views of Arequipa and El Misti volcano. As in the Historic Center of Arequipa, Yanahuara’s architecture is dominated by white volcanic rock, and the streets are dotted with pretty Spanish colonial churches.

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