1. Machu Picchu & the Inca Trail
If Machu Picchu isn’t already on your must-do list, get your notepad out. Set high atop a mountain plateau in the heart of the Andes, the iconic Inca citadel is rightfully considered one of the New Wonders of the World. There are many ways to visit Machu Picchu, which is arguably the biggest attraction of Peru. Hike the four day Inca Trail, take a scenic train or even trek to the citadel in just one day - these are just some of the many options to consider when planning a holiday to Machu Picchu. Fancy something different? Why not journey to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay Trek - a scenic hike past Mount Salkantay, with the option to stay in luxurious cabins overnight.
2. Amazon Rainforest
Covering over half of Peru’s territory, the Amazon Jungle is a vast ecological treasure. Venture out from jungle cities Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos to experience one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Stay in a rustic lodge enveloped in rainforest and take guided walks to spot flocks of capuchin monkeys in the canopy, snakes slithering across the path at your feet, hand-sized spiders sunbathing on the trunks of trees, bats hanging in lines on branches, many colourful varieties of birds and plenty of squawking parrots. Take a boat trip to see macaws coming for a dose of salt at a clay lick, and keep an eye open for river otters, turtles and capybara visiting the river’s edge for a drink. At night-time, take a canoe ride to spot shiny caiman eyes under torchlight in the black water
3. Lake Titicaca
As the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world, the Inca believed Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of the sun. What draws many people to its waters, however, is the unique cultures that live on the lake. The Uros people arrived at Lake Titicaca around 3,700 years ago and learned to build floating islands made of Totora reeds, and top them with reed houses. This unique approach to engineering allows the islands to be tied to each other, moved quickly to avoid unwanted invaders, or even cut into separate dwellings in the event of social disharmony. Nowadays, the islanders, numbering about 1,200 across 60 reed islands, welcome people from all over the world to showcase their history, traditions and high quality handicrafts, which include bright and elaborately embroidered fabrics. Visitors may also be invited to taste the edible part of a reed, or offered the chance to row a reed boat. Other (non-floating) islands on Lake Titicaca, such as Amantani and Taquile, offer homestay opportunities where you can enjoy the local Aymara people’s hospitality, and witness something of their way of life. It wouldn’t be out of place to see women herding disobedient flocks of sheep, men carding wool and knitting elaborate woollen hats and youngsters playing high-altitude football on a concrete pitch. If you’re lucky, they may even invite you to join in.
4. Ballestas Islands
A short, breezy boat ride off the coast of Peru, about 250 kilometres south of Lima, the Ballestas Islands (also known as Peru’s ‘mini Galapagos’) offer refuge to many wildlife species. Home to thousands of sea lions, dolphins and endangered Humboldt penguins, the archipelago can only be seen from the water as the islands themselves are protected. As you buzz around craggy cliffs and strange and unusual rock formations, you can see an array of interesting sea birds here including guanay cormorant, the Peruvian booby, blue footed boobies and the Peruvian pelican. Keep eyes peeled for dolphins and you may even be lucky enough to spot a migratory humpback whale. Once back on dry land, there’s plenty of fascinating landscapes to explore in the 3,300 square kilometre Paracas National Reserve (RNP), which also encompasses the Ballestas Islands and marine area nearby.
5. Colca Canyon
Once colonised by pre-Inca civilisations, the giant Colca Canyon is both a cultural and a natural highlight. It’s deepest point is an incredible 3,400 metres (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), its highest peak Ampato reaches 6,388 metres above sea level, and the valley it stretches some 100 kilometres long. It’s literally impossible to imagine the scale of the world’s second deepest canyon before you see it on a tour or trek from Arequipa. Nor is it possible to get it all in one shot. Visitors need to find multiple vantage points to get those all-important wide-angle pictures of multi-terraced farmlands and steep slopes, thermal springs and traditional Andean villages. But this is only part of the story - the Colca Canyon has an abundance of wildlife attractions, with 300 plant species, 100 bird species and more than 30 types of cactus. The most famous inhabitant of all is the mighty Andean condor, which float over the canyon on thermal updraughts on impressive 3-metre wingspans, and can be seen at the Cruz de Condor viewpoint.
6. Nazca Lines
Spread over 500 square kilometres of desert, these surreal line drawings have puzzled academics and visitors alike for many years. The Nazca Lines are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world's great mysteries. The best way to see the glyphs, including the lizard, monkey and condor, is by air. There are scenic flights available from the nearby town of Nazca, offering the chance to come up with your own theory - were they made by an ancient human civilisation, and if so for what purpose, or are they somehow not of this earth?
7. Huacachina Oasis
Towering sand dunes will make you feel as though you are traversing the Sahara desert while the idyllic Huacachina Oasis stands out as an emerald jewel amongst the gold. With palm trees encircling the lagoon, the oasis is a tranquil setting where wealthy Peruvians once came to relax and heal. However, as a hub for adventure activities it is not always tranquillity that visitors are after! If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, there is plenty to get the juices flowing. Bomb down the dunes on a sandboard or bodyboard, or practically fly around them Mad Max-style on a dune buggy ride. Cool down with a drink and watch the sunset from a wind-sculpted dune, and your day is done.
Before the Incas spread through Peru, other civilisations left their mark with fortified cities full of houses, stores and temples. The largest, most important and best known walled cities of the Chachapoyas culture is Kuélap, built on a mountain in the cloud forest of the Amazonian region in the sixth century AD. With a tremendous view from their 3,000-metre elevation, the “Warriors of the Sky” could have controlled any threats and repelled any invaders, but farmers and merchants inhabited the cone-roofed stone houses as well. There are over 550 structures in total, which housed perhaps as many as 3,500 people, traces of whom can be found in artistic friezes and intricate geometric designs decorating the site. Day trips depart from the nearby city of Chachapoyas and a cable car service provides quick and easy access to the site.
Mancora has everything you could possibly want in a seaside town: warm water for surfing, sandy beaches for sunbathing, plenty of high-energy places to party right on the beach, some of Peru’s best fish restaurants and seemingly endless sunshine. Even if you’re here for a few days, there’s no way you’ll get bored, with activities like horseback riding, surfing school, whale watching, swimming with turtles, mud bathing and more. But if that all sounds too strenuous, kick back and enjoy the slower pace of life, where everything in Mancora gets done “mañana.”
Apart from being the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a highlight in its own right. In an area that has been continuously inhabited since pre-colonial times, it is little wonder Cusco is home to some delightful historic treasures. It was once the capital of the Inca empire and still hosts the remnants of Inca temples which exist alongside, elegant colonial cathedrals and bustling squares. Get lost in the small colonial streets and alleyways, diving into local shops selling art, handcrafts and alpaca scarves and jumpers. Enjoy Pisco Sours on one of the balconies in the Plaza de Armas or even in a bar on the hills of Cusco for views of the city below. Only 30 minutes away from Cusco is a whole array of archaeological sites, from the impressive Sacsayhuaman Citadel to the Qoricancha Sun Temple.
11. Laguna 69 at Huascaran National Park
Laguna 69 is a spectacular glacier lake that will - quite literally - take your breath away. Located at an incredible altitude, some 4,500 metres (14,764 feet) high in Huascarán National Park, it is absolutely worth the slow day-long hike to reach the hypnotic view over crystal clear blue water. As you gradually make your way up the three hour-long track, taking your time to acclimatise, you are greeted by views of high mountain peaks and plateaus, waterfalls, streams, and foraging animals. Most people rest for an hour or so and enjoy a picnic by the lake, then take the two hour-long trek back down.