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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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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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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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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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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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Sacred City of Caral-Supe
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As the oldest known city in the Americas, the archeological site of Caral is among Peru’s most impressive ruins and makes a popular day trip from nearby Lima. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site covers an area of around 60 hectares in the arid Supe Valley and was first inhabited between 2600 BCE and 2000 BCE.

Although initially discovered back in 1948, recent excavations of Caral revealed an elaborate complex of temples, sunken plazas and some of the largest terraced pyramids in the world, leading archeologists to ponder the possibility of Caral being the fabled ‘Mother City’ of ancient civilizations. Now open to the public, the site has garnered acclaim for its beautifully preserved ruins and intriguing collection of artifacts, which include a quipu (a unique knot system used by ancient Andean civilizations) and a number of musical instruments fashioned from animal bones, but significantly, no trace of warfare or weaponry.

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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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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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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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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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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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More Things to Do in Peru

Mujica Gallo (Gold Museum)

Mujica Gallo (Gold Museum)

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Gold and silver were highly prized and beautifully worked by the Inca. The precious materials were worked into symbolic and decorative pieces, but were never used as money. The gold drew the attention of the Spanish and led to the empire’s downfall, but not all of the Inca gold was removed and melted down by the conquistadors. The privately owned and operated Mujica Gallo displays more than 8,000 gold, silver and gilt copper artifacts surviving from pre-Inca and Inca civilizations.

The collection also includes pottery, weapons and clothing but the golden figurines and gem-studded jewelry are the real highlight. Work your way through the various rooms crammed with golden drinking vessels, gilt animals and birds, masks, armor, swords and pistols, and take home a replica souvenir from the gift shop.

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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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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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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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Lima Plaza Mayor

Lima Plaza Mayor

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Lima’s Plaza Mayor (main square) is central Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic heart and birthplace.

Landscaped with palm trees, elaborate lampposts, flower beds and greenery, the square’s focus is the 1650 tiered bronze fountain in the center and the statue of Francisco Pizarro on horseback nearby. Visit at 11:45am to watch the changing of the guard, or visit any time to find an empty seat and watch the world wander by. There’s plenty to look at, with the cathedral on one side and the beautiful balconies of the Palacio Arzobispal next door. Several other attractive buildings with balconies and arched porticoes line the square, including the City Hall and Government Palace.

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Church and Convent of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco)

Church and Convent of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco)

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The Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco is a spectacular example of Moorish-inspired Spanish baroque colonial grandeur, but the real highlight is the spooky labyrinth of catacombs underground.

One of the best preserved churches in Lima, the Convent of San Francis of Assisi also has a remarkable library of antique texts and a tranquil cloistered garden. A guided visit to the Museum and Convent takes you through the buildings’ history and architecture, before venturing into the underground passages lined with the bones of 25,000 Lima citizens from over 200 years of burials. Bones were interred here until 1808, when Lima’s cemetery was established, and the catacombs lay undiscovered until 1943. A visit is not for the fainthearted, but those who do make the journey will be surprised to see the various skulls and thigh bones arranged in decorative patterns.

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ChocoMuseo Miraflores

ChocoMuseo Miraflores

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There are few places more perfect for chocolate lovers than the ChocoMuseo in Miraflores. Travelers can tour the chocolate factory and watch expert artisans craft dark, milk and white chocolate delights by hand, or participate in one of the museum’s unique workshops that grant visitors an opportunity to create rich chocolate truffles or transform cocoa beans to bars under the direction of master chocolatiers. A world-class café offers up chocolate-themed pastries, desserts and beverages, and a well-stocked chocolate shop is lined with shelves of locally sourced treats. Interested travelers can even tour nearby cocoa plantations and learn how local farmers grow and harvest these prized beans to provide pastry chefs and cooks with one of the world’s most coveted ingredients. A visit to ChocoMuseo Miraflores is the perfect way for chocolate lovers to spend an afternoon experiencing the wonder of this rich and delicious delicacy with all of their senses.

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San Pedro Church (Iglesia de San Pedro)

San Pedro Church (Iglesia de San Pedro)

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Lima’s baroque Church of San Pedro was built in grand style by the Jesuits in 1638. The Jesuit Order’s premier church in Peru, it’s also one of the country’s finest buildings.

With its three naves and dome, the church features lovely glazed tiles and Moorish-influenced carvings. Interesting tours reveal the history of the church and highlight its richly ornamented altars and chapels. The San Ignacio de Loyola chapel is the most highly decorated, and some prime colonial artworks hang in the chapels. The tour includes a visit to the underground crypt.

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Indian Market (Mercado Indio)

Indian Market (Mercado Indio)

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Avenida Petit Thouars in Miraflores is lined with numerous handicraft shops, and the Indian Market (Mercado Indio) is one of the biggest and best. If you’re looking for one-stop souvenir shopping, the Indian Market is your best bet, as it’s packed with vendors selling all variety of Peruvian crafts: silver, alpaca wool, ceramics, wooden carvings, paintings and inexpensive fossilized shark teeth.

If you’re planning to do some shopping in the Indian Market, prepare to do some bargaining, and if you’re in the market for high quality silver or alpaca, it helps to know the difference between the good stuff and the mass-produced items before you go. If it sounds too cheap to be true, it likely is.

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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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Kennedy Park (Parque Kennedy)

Kennedy Park (Parque Kennedy)

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Kennedy Park in Miraflores is literally the cat’s meow. Aside from being a well-kept park in Lima’s most popular district, the park is known for the dozens of cats that live in the cushy grass. If you’re a visitor who’s missing your pet back at home—or just want a cuddly experience—sit in the grass and wait for a cat to jump up and sit in your lap. Aside from the friendly Peruvian felines, Kennedy Park is also known for its collection of musicians and artisans—many of whom will gather on weekends to display and sell their work. Impromptu, upbeat music performances will occasionally enliven the park, and it’s a gathering spot where expats and locals mingle in Miraflores. Surrounding the park are the teeming amenities of Peru’s modern capital, including shopping, restaurants, numerous cafés, banks, and city bus lines. To escape the hectic Miraflores buzz, visit the Church of Virgen Milagrosa inside of Kennedy Park.

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Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros)

Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros)

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If you’re looking for an atmospheric spot to watch the sunset in Lima, there are few lookouts as romantic as the Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros), the principal landmark of Lima’s Barranco district and even immortalized in song by renowned Peruvian singer Chabuca Granda. Built in 1876, the wooden bridge runs across the high banks of the Bajada de los Baños ravine between the streets of Ayacucho and La Ermita, and joins the pretty red chapel of La Ermita to the Parque Municipal.

The iconic bridge is most renowned for its views along the Bajada below, a scenic walkway that leads down to the seafront, and the colorful colonial houses that line its banks, many of which have been transformed into bars, restaurants and music venues. Taking an evening stroll across the Bridge of Sighs has long been a favored pastime for local lovers and legend dictates that if you make a wish and cross the 31 meter long bridge without taking a breath, your wish will be granted.

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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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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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