A World Within Peru

From following in the footsteps of the mighty Incas to savouring the flavours of world-class cuisine, Peru is brimming with culture, nature and adventure…

There are few countries that encompass such great geographic transitions as Peru. If you’re lured to the country by a sense of adventure or a wish to embrace nature, it’s clear that this country can deliver many times over. With Andean ridges stretching for 1,700km, 2,400km of coastline and with almost half of its total area covered in forest, this is a country that offers so much more to the adventurer and nature-lover than just the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

If it’s culture or gastronomy that’s a motivating factor in your explorations then you can be sure that a country that combined the traditions (culinary and otherwise) of the kingdom of the Incas and the Indigenous communities of the Amazon will bring irresistible specialities of its own to the table.

Here we’ll help to narrow the immense choice so that you can select the perfect jewels from this South American El Dorado.

Nature Buffs

From the Andean peaks, through the high páramo to the deep Amazon, Peru offers a world of appeal for nature lovers. For wildlife enthusiasts it is invariably the Amazonian jungle that springs to mind and the Peruvian Amazon offers unparalleled access to our planet’s richest natural habitat.

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to cruise a jungle river among pink river dolphins, caimans, piranhas and giant river otters is a wildlife buff’s wildest dream. Iconic creatures like spider monkeys, tapirs, toucans and macaws add their own colour and background charm to mental snapshots that will last a lifetime.  

Most cruises tend to depart from Iquitos – the largest city in the world without road access – and many voyage upriver to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. This 20,000-square-kilometre wetland wilderness is known as the ‘jungle of mirrors’ for its hypnotic beauty and boasts more than 500 birds and 102 mammal species.

Tambopata National Reserve in Peru’s far southeast offers almost guaranteed sightings of giant river otters – ‘wolves of the river’ to the local people – and is one of the best places in the world for close encounters with wild jaguars. Birders flock to nearby Chuncho Clay Lick, one of the world’s wildlife wonders, where hundreds of macaws and parrots gather each day. Tambopata, with several highly recommended community-run lodges, has gained an enviable reputation for research, conservation ethics and community empowerment.

To experience Peru’s natural wonder in depth, head on the Peru Nature Explorer trip with Geodyssey.

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Tarapoto (‘City of Palms’), further to the north in San Martín province, is one of the most convenient access points to the Amazonian rainforest and nearby Cordillera Azul National Park lures birders with unparalleled sightings of the endemic blue-headed macaws. Climbing to a higher altitude (although still in the incredibly diverse San Martín province) you’ll find Rio Abiseo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that offers trekkers a chance to spot both jaguars and Andean bears.

While crowds of hikers throng the congested Inca Trail routes around Machu Picchu, the northern highlands of Alto Mayo Protected Forest (less than 200km from the Ecuador border) are known only to savvy wildlife aficionados who are aware that the hiking trails – and refreshing waterfalls – bring unsung treasures in the form of birds and wildlife sightings, including the iconic yellow-tailed woolly monkey.

Colca Canyon (in Cajamarca Province) is probably the best place in the world to see Andean condors soaring on their three-metre wingspans. Peru boasts more than 120 species of hummingbirds and Colca Canyon also offers an opportunity to spot the spectacular giant hummingbird (as big as a European thrush).

Once you leave the high peaks to descend to the Pacific Coast you enter yet another realm of Peru’s animal kingdom. The nutrient-rich Humboldt Current lures vast numbers of migrating whales up the coast. Thirty-two types of whales and dolphins have been spotted in Peruvian waters and, between July and October, the northern coast becomes a breeding ground for vast numbers of humpback whales.

Llama Travel offers a Grand Tour of Peru to delve into the country and its nature.

Gastronomy Devotees

Given Peru’s spectacular geographic diversity, it should come as no surprise that the national gastronomy encompasses a world of flavours.

As you travel beyond the capital (with its wealth of world class restaurants) you’ll continue to discover culinary traditions where indigenous foods, European influences and Asian innovations have fused to create one of the world’s most exciting (and adventurous) national cuisines.

The Amazon forest is home to around 40,000 plant species so it’s not surprising that it historically reaped a rich harvest for the Indigenous cultures who learned to live in harmony with it. Even today traditional markets throughout the jungle region are an exciting experience for any gourmand who would like to learn more about the unusual ingredients that bring such unique flavour to all Peruvian journeys. You’ll see vitamin-packed camu camu berries and creamy cherimoya (sometimes called custard apple), so soft that it can be scooped with a spoon.

Such ingredients have even made their way onto the menus in Lima’s famously innovative fine-dining outlets. In fact, four Peruvian restaurants have been named among the best in the world in 2023, which include: Central, Maido, Kjolle and Mayta). For example, chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz at Central (voted #1 among ‘the world’s 50 best restaurants’ for 2023) offers a 17-course menu that leads your tastebuds on a journey throughout the country. At Maido (voted #6), Mitsuharu ‘Micha’ Tsumura has taken the gastronomic tradition known as Nikkei (a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine) to new levels with creations like his beef short rib cooked for 50 hours until it can be carved with a spoon. Lady Bee is a revolutionary Lima cocktail-bar and restaurant that focuses heavily on sustainability and recycling.

To experience the flavours of Peru firsthand, head on this Gastronomic Highlights trip with Latin Routes.

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Even if you’re travelling on a budget it’s easy to live healthily in Peru. Fruit juice stalls are ubiquitous – often advertising under the name of Súper Vitaminas – and the combinations of ingredients can be exhaustive: aguaje fruit (from a jungle palm and known as the ‘Amazonian superfruit’) and maca root are common…but anything from bee pollen, to quinoa, to raw egg and beer might be added.

Pick-me-up drinks extend to tea made from coca leaves (a reliable antidote to altitude sickness) and the famous pisco sour – a shaken concoction of local alcohol (pisco), fresh lemon, sugar and egg-white.

In the famous market in Cusco you should look out for lucuma fruit – the gold of the Incas – and the bizarrely wrinkled and knobbly local potatoes. In some communities, even today, a potential bride is judged on her ability to be able to peel such potatoes faultlessly. (Anyone who resents such macho prerequisites would do well to recall that in other communities – on Lake Titicaca – a man is judged on his ability to knit the perfect watertight woollen hat.) It is often said that the Incas were credited with inventing Instant Smash (dehydrated potato) and potato in a variety of forms is usually likely to accompany your alpaca steak or baked cuy (guinea pig).

For some travellers it might be pushing the limit to try marketplace ceviche in Cusco’s San Pedro market but – if you pick a popular street stall – market food in Peru can be a delicious, memorable (and highly cost-effective) experience. (The best ceviche is seasoned with ‘tiger’s milk’ – a spicy mixture of chili tomato and evaporated milk!)

More adventurous travellers might be lured to the northern province of Pacasmayo where lizard ceviche is a regional speciality!       

Explore has a specialised Taste of Peru trip for curious foodies to tuck into Peru’s culinary delights. 

Culture Enthusiasts

Peru’s cultural diversity spans the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas and the Indigenous communities of the world’s greatest rainforest.

You could spend the morning watching fishermen surfing their woven reed caballito de totora boats in Huanchaco (on the northern coast) and the same afternoon you might be standing on a manmade floating island on Lake Titicaca.

The Inca Trail has become a household name but Peru’s kaleidoscopic cultural diversity could offer enough excitement for a lifetime of adventurous travel. Cusco, capital of the Inca Empire, has been called the ‘Archaeological Capital of the Americas’. Machu Picchu (just 65km away as the condor flies) is justifiably known as a wonder of the ancient world but even a short wander into the hills around Cusco will reveal sacred sites, fortresses and stone-built trading routes that predate the arrival of the Spanish. Even within the confines of the city itself you’ll see astounding feats of Inca engineering skill like the Acllahuasi wall and remains of the Coricancha – the temple dedicated to Inti (the Sun God) which was largely destroyed by the conquistadors who, in 1633, built the Church of Santo Domingo among the ruins.

Almost four centuries later the Sun God is very much alive and well among the descendants of the Incas and these time-honoured rituals are best observed during the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), which begins with a vibrant procession from the Coricancha to Cusco’s main plaza on 24th June each year.

To learn about Peru’s culture and history in depth, head on this Culture of the Northern Andes trip with Journey Latin America.

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The Spanish undeniably left their stamp on the country and in traditional mountain communities especially you will witness how Catholic festivals such as Easter, Corpus Christi and All Saints (with ‘Day of the Dead’) are often combined fascinatingly with vestiges of pre-Colombian rituals and beliefs.

The city of Arequipa – known as ‘the white city’ for its gleaming volcanic stone – remains one of Latin America’s prettiest urban areas, thanks largely to the majestic Cathedral Basilica (a haunting combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Andean accents) with its twin Neoclassical bell towers throwing their shadows across the Plaza de Armas. Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery is almost a city in itself, with 20,000 square metres of alleyways and courtyards shaded by majestic 16th century edifices.

To experience what might be Peru’s most mysterious cultural site you need to take to the air above the town of Nazca, on the southern coast. The so-called ‘Nazca Lines’ remain almost a complete enigma to archaeologists although it is believed that the oldest predate the supposed Nazca culture and may have been created by a culture known as the Paracas as early as 2,200 years ago. The truly astounding thing is that the beautifully executed shapes in the desert floor (the largest is a 285m-long pelican) can only be truly appreciated from the air. The significance of the mesmerising geometric drawings remains unknown but theories have included interstellar communications and coded signals to extra-terrestrials. A crazy idea perhaps…but stranger things have certainly taken place in this fascinating country throughout the millennia.

Dive into Peru’s pre-Columbian culture and Inca history on this cultural journey with Llama Travel.

Adventure Seekers

If it’s adventure that’s lured you to South America then you can find as much as you could wish for (and more) in Peru.

You might be drawn by the rarefied atmosphere of beautiful Misti Volcano (looming over the city of Arequipa from a height of 5,822m) or the 5,672m Ubinas Volcano (the country’s most active). Or it might be water that lures you. In which case you could choose an Amazon expedition or a boating trip on Titicaca (the world’s highest commercially navigable lake). Or you could raft the sacred valley of the Urubamba River or go kayaking on Cusco’s beautiful twin lakes, Huaypo and Piuray.

For hikers there’s the 40km Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, of course, or the lesser-known Great Inca Road – a historic trading network that is equally significant, but far less crowded. If it’s untrammelled highland wildernesses you’re looking for then the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca mountain range is one of the most beautiful trekking regions on the planet. The picturesque Laguna 69 (so-called because it is the 69th lake on the route to Mount Huascarán) is a particular highlight of this area and, although the trek through thinning air at 4,600m can be challenging, the views are equally breath-taking.

Get active in the elements on this trip focusing on the Mountain Lodges of Peru with Select Latin America.

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Huacachina, in southwestern Peru, is the country’s desert-adventure capital. The dunes can be explored by dune-buggies and quadbikes or you can strap a ‘sandboard’ to your feet and carve turns as you surf down the steep face of the dunes. A desert hike with an experienced guide can give you an unexpected insight into desert flora and fauna. To cool off afterwards you can also paddleboard or kayak on Huacachina Lagoon at the heart of what feels like an oasis.

If you want to take to the air, Huacachina and Cusco’s Sacred Valley both offer paragliding opportunities. The Pacific Coast cliffs of Miraflores (on the southern side of Lima) have become particularly famous for paragliding and hang-gliding flights that can last 20 minutes or more to land near Waikiki Beach (the Peruvian one, not the Hawaiian one!).

Not surprisingly, given the name, Lima’s Playa Waikiki also draws surfers but it is Punta Hermosa (just an hour farther south) that is Peru’s ‘surfer’s paradise’. With 2,400km of Pacific coastline, it’s not surprising that Peru attracts surfers (of all levels) from all over the world. Máncora in the north is a good place for learners and Chicama – Peru’s fabled ‘longest left’ – draws world-class surfers with its legendary wave that stretches for up to two kilometres.

For keen adventurers, head on this Active Peru trip including cycling, rafting and the Inca Trail with Journey Latin America.

Getting there and around

Flight time to from the UK to Peru tends to be around 12-14 hours (discounting any stopovers). As of December 2023, LATAM will operate a direct flight between London and Lima 5 times per week. British Airways, Avianca and LATAM all connect London with Lima but flying through Spain (with Iberia, for example) can often be more cost-effective.

The country is well connected with a relatively reliable and (mostly) comfortable long-distance bus network but distances are huge and it can be easy to underestimate travel times. For example it would take the best part of two days to drive from Lima to Cusco so most travellers opt to take domestic flights (LATAM, Avianca and Star Peru are recommended).

Taxis are widely available and inexpensive in cities and – nippier and cheaper – mototaxis (tuktuks) increasingly tend to be the go-to option for local people in urban areas.

What are you waiting for?

Head over to the official Peru website now to start planning your dream Peruvian trip.