Most people visit Peru to see the legendary Machu Picchu, either by train or the Inca Trail hike, and you certainly can’t plan a visit to Peru without seeing it. But there is so much to the country than the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These are some of the most notable places to visit in the southern half of the country that I visited and recommend.
1. Immerse Yourself in Cusco
Cusco is often used as the launch pad for most people’s Machu Picchu adventures, but it’s so much more culturally rich than that touristic base. Everywhere you look, you see clear evidence of how the Incan/Quechua culture has merged with that of the Spanish conquerors. One month you’ll see a Corpus Christi festival, and the next you’ll see Inti Raymi, the celebration of the winter solstice in honour of an Incan deity. Colonial architecture blends with Incan ruins, and the markets bustle with fruit, meat, and goods made from incredibly soft Alpaca wool.
2. Boat Across Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca, by the city of Puno, is the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is home to the Uros Islands, which are man-made floating islands made from reeds. You can take a reed boat between the floating islands, or venture out further to the natural islands of Taquile and Amantani, both of which remain largely unchanged by modern technologies used by the mainland.
3. Hike into the Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world – twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you’re lucky, you may even see a magnificent condor soaring through the valley while on your hike. We broke up a two-day hiking route by spending the night in an oasis at the very depth of the canyon – we slept in mud huts with not a lick of electricity. But the view under the stars that night, with a complete picture of the Milky Way, was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
4. Explore Arequipa
Arequipa, the “White City,” is near the Colca Canyon, and is backdropped by a wall of mountains and volcanoes. Its historic city centre was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beautiful blue and orange walls of the Santa Catalina Monastery look even better in the late afternoon light. You can also visit the famously-preserved Incan mummy, Juanita, at the University Museum.
5. Surf the Sand Dunes of Huacachina
Finally, if you’re a thrill-seeker, the desert of Ica and its neighbouring oasis Huacachina are a must! Hop aboard a buggy and soar through the sand, and use a board to sled or “shred” down the dunes.
What about Lima? In Peru’s dry season, which is the optimum season for hiking the Inca Trail, Lima is covered in a smoggy haze. It is a wonderful city for foodies, as the restaurant culture is very strong and the food delicious, but it doesn’t require much more than a day. Work in a day or two at the beginning or end of your trip for the restaurants and vibrancy of the Miraflores and Barranco neighbourhoods, since Lima houses the international airport you’re likely to be flying through anyway.
This post only covers what I saw in the Southern half of Peru, since my short three weeks in that amazing country didn’t give me enough time to explore the Amazonian north. And I regretfully missed flying over the Nazca Lines and visiting the Paracas National Reserve, both of which are in Peru’s south.
Have you been to Peru? What do you recommend?
*This post is an extended version of the tips I published in the Edmonton Journal’s Passport Post feature for the week of May 16, 2015.