Visiting Machu Picchu is high on the list of travelers from around the world. Not…
Have you dreamed of traveling to Peru, a South American country famous for its diverse landscapes, and one-of-a-kind experiences? Peru packs a punch for a country that is just five times the size of the United Kingdom. It’s a nature lover’s dream destination with over 1,800 bird species, 500 mammal species and an astounding 3,700 butterfly species. It’s home to ancient archeological sites, including world renown Machu Picchu, Choquequiaro and the Nazca Lines to name but a few. And Peru is where you’ll find one of the worlds highest sand dunes and deepest canyons along with one of the driest deserts on the planet, the Andes Mountains, the Amazon River and Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake.
With so many unique Peru attractions, this is one country I think every nature lover, hiker, explorer, adventurer, archeologist, and photographer will enjoy visiting. I have been twice. The first time, John and I did a two week, self-supported trek through the magnificent Cordillera Blanca mountains to the Alpamayo basecamp, and the second, the high altitude Choquequirao trek to Machu Picchu. I have unfinished business in the country and would love to visit every one of the unique Peru destinations described below.
When that might happen, is anyone’s guess. But for now, Peru is a safe destination to dream about visiting. When the world reopens again, Peru plans to have all necessary health measures in place to keep it that way.
Location map of unique Peru attractions
Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash
The Cordillera Blanca is part of the Andes mountain range that is easily accessible from the town of Huaraz, about a seven hour drive north of Lima. Many of the peaks in the range are over 6,000 m and much of the trekking is done between altitudes of 3,657 m – 4,572 m (12,000- 15,000 feet). The Cordillera Huayhuash is the neighbouring mountain range and it too is accessed from Huaraz. (Remember the book Touching the Void by Joe Simpson? His misadventure took place in the Cordillera Huayhuash.)
There are several famous treks in the two mountain ranges. The Huayhuash trek is a tough 8 – 12-day adventure whereas, the 3-4 day Santa Cruz hike is easier. We did most of what is called the Alpamayo Circuit, getting close to Alpamayo, called the most beautiful mountain in the world by Alpinismus Magazine back in 1966.
On any of the hikes in the area, whether it’s a day hike or a multi-day adventure, you are going to be in for a treat. Mountain landscapes are like no other I have experienced in the world. Picture deep indigo-blue and stunning, turquoise-coloured lakes, tall grasses, and colourful wildflowers, along with take-your-breath-away snow-covered peaks. And best of all, this area is not overrun with tourists!
Unique Peru experience – Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon with a depth of 3,270 m (10,728 feet) is one of the world’s deepest canyons. It’s located in southern Peru and accessed from the city of Arequipa. It can be visited on one long day trip but it’s also a well-known trekking destination. Most treks take three days and while they may be a bit touristy, they get you deep into a landscape that is nothing short of stunning – rich green terraced valleys with traditional remote villages. Overhead, you might just see a giant condor too, especially early in the morning.
My preference would be the multi-day hike into Colca Canyon. I love the sense of space and light in canyons – and the fact you tend to leave the crowds behind.
Machu Picchu needs no introduction. It’s a UNESCO site and as of 2007, one of the Wonders of the Modern World. With a stunning location and an amazing story to go with it, it’s no wonder this Incan Citadel sees so many visitors.
It’s an important place to see on so many levels. The engineering, both visible and invisible, which according to National Geographic accounts for 60% of the construction done on the site, is sophisticated. Some of the buildings offer not just panoramic views but they’re so advanced that they are able to play of astronomical alignments.
Don’t miss the dramatic Inka Bridge, reportedly a secret western entrance to Machu Picchu – though one look at the bridge and you might opt for the main route in. It’s in a dramatic setting and the trail to access it isn’t for the faint of heart.
When you visit these incredibly well-preserved ruins, go with a sense of respect.
The fertile Sacred Valley, also called the Urubamba Valley, is one of the top places in Peru for both exploring Inca ruins and enjoying a hike or two – at least if you’re acclimatized. There is also plenty of mountain biking and horseback riding along with visits to small towns where the indigenous people carry on centuries old traditions. The Sacred Valley can be visited as a day trip from Cusco, but I’d recommend an overnight stay as there’s so much to see.
I did spend a full day in the Sacred Valley, hiking to the Storehouse Ruins from Ollantaytambo, a colourful town filled with cobblestone streets and a common starting point of the Inca Trail.
I ate a memorable lunch at the Parwa Community Restaurant where ingredients were locally grown, bought from local farmers, and cooked and served by local women, all in a win-win effort to financially benefit 1,000 community members. And at the Ccaccaccollo Community and Women’s Weaving Co-Op I learned a thing or two about weaving and natural dyes. In just a few hours, I scratched the surface of this gorgeous, colourful valley and highly recommend it as part of any unique Peru itinerary.
Show me a picture of a lake as beautiful at glacial Laguna Humantay and I want to see it for myself. This is another day trip that can be done from Cusco. It’s a three hour drive each way but the hike itself is just 1.5 hours return. While tours are offered, I would prefer a private taxi timed to arrive when the tours are departing so I had a high probability of having the lake all to myself. This is my idea of paradise – and a totally unique Peru experience.
Humantay Lake is at altitude – 5427 m or 13,900 feet to be exact. When you visit, be sure to drink lots of water and have Advil at your disposal.
Paracas National Reserve and the Islas Ballestas
Just a four hour drive south of Lima sits Paracas National Reserve, Peru’s only marine protected area. The reserve is one of the stops on the bird migration and part of the reason that upwards of 200 species of birds, can be seen here – depending of course on the time of year you visit.
The reserve is also a place of great beauty – cue the sand dunes, part of the driest desert in the world contrasted with the rich blue of the Pacific Ocean. There are many stunning beaches, though most aren’t safe for swimming.
Islas Ballestas is an archipelago of islands that’s part of the reserve. It is peppered with tunnels, arches and rock carved by the wind and sea that are typically visited as part of a 2.5-hour boat tour. The islands are home to abundant wildlife including Humboldt penguins, sea lions, seals, sea turtles, albatross, pelicans and lots of seabirds.
Nazca Lines – a UNESCO site
I’ve heard about the Nazca Lines, a UNESCO site, for years and have always wanted to see them. The designs called geoglyphs were carved or etched into the subsoil primarily between 200 – 700 AD. Most of the geoglyphs represent animals. The lines span an area of some 80 km and are best seen from the air in a small plane, typically out of Nazca, about a 7 hour drive south of Lima.
Unique Peru – Visit Vinicunca – the Mountain of Seven Colours
Vinicunca – called Rainbow Mountain or the Mountain of Seven Colours was discovered in 2015 when snow and ice melted to reveal thick layers of mineral deposits over sandstone rock. Stripes of gold, red, turquoise, and lavender minerals turned out to be highly Instagrammable and part of the reason for the area’s sudden fame. On bluebird days, the mountains really are incredible – but whoever visits must temper their expectations as often the mountains are shrouded in low cloud.
The trip to Vinicunca is done out of Cusco. I ran out of time to do it when I was there, but one person in our hiking group had booked the trip. You leave early in the morning and don’t get back until 7 PM as it’s about a four hour drive each way. The mountain is at an elevation of around 16,000 feet – nausea and debilitating headache territory if you’re not properly acclimatized to the altitude.
I’d love to walk on a rainbow, a truly unique Peru experience.
Huacachina – a desert oasis town
Huacachina is a desert oasis town, located just 10 minutes from the city of Ica in the southern part of Peru. The unique, mostly touristy town is popular as a stopping point to see the Nazca Lines. While I don’t normally love these sorts of towns, I am a big fan of experiencing the sand dunes. I’m too much of a wimp to try a dune buggy tour, but my hope is that someone would drive me out to some of the tallest dunes so I could wander aimlessly for an hour at sunset. That is my idea of bliss. And then come back and enjoy one of Peru’s famous pisco sours.
For the rest of you, enjoy the thrills of sandboarding – and associated face plants along with a stomach flipping ride in a dune buggy.
A Once in a Lifetime Trip to the Amazon
If geography isn’t your strong point, you might not appreciate that the Amazon River originates in Peru’s Andes Mountains. In fact, more than 60% of the country is covered by the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 11% of the length of the Amazon River flows through Peru – and I for one would like to see it.
However, this is one part of Peru where I would want the luxury experience. The Amazon rainforest is home to the most diverse collection of plant and animal life – along with more than its fair share of reptiles, amphibians and insects. Hence the reason I’m after a luxurious experience.
Aqua Expeditions runs cruises that average five days. Onboard are naturalists to pick out the birds and animals you would otherwise miss. And with smaller motorboats and canoes, there are opportunities to get even closer to nature. This is the way I envision experiencing the Amazon, a once in a lifetime experience for sure!
I would also be open to staying in well-appointed jungle lodges like those run by Inkaterra. Pictured below is one of 35 wooden cabanas at Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica. The lodge was named by National Geographic in 2013 as one of the top 25 eco-lodges in the world. It’s easily accessible from Cusco via a 25-minute flight.
The lodge is in the southern Peru rainforest region considered the biodiversity capital of Peru and next door to the Tambopata National Reserve. An incredible 540 species of bird species have been seen on the grounds here – enough to keep my birder husband happy for days.
Another option is the Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción located in the heart of the Amazon on 819 acres of rainforest between the Tambopata National Reserve and the shores of the Madre de Dios River. A stay here offers a chance to see giant river otters, caimans, and howler monkeys.
I sure hope that by sometime in late 2021 or early 2022, we can turn our travel dreams into reality. Until then #DreamThenTravel
Thank you to PromPerú for making this post possible – and to keeping travel dreams alive.
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