Long before South America became a must-do for backpackers worldwide, Peru was already attracting tourists desperate to witness one of the world’s greatest wonders – the breathtaking Machu Picchu.
However, whilst you’d be crazy to take a trip to this remarkable country and not visit this ancient city in the clouds, there is plenty to keep even the most intrepid of travellers entertained for months.
Proud indigenous tribes, beautiful cities, great surf and fantastic hiking are just a few things that will have you screaming from the rooftops that there is so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu.
Kick back in the country’s best surf towns
Whilst, undoubtedly, Peru doesn’t have the prettiest beaches in South America, that’s not to say that the northern coastline should be missed – especially if you happen to be in there during the colder months when much of the country is shivering at higher altitudes.
Two spots well-trodden on the backpacking trail and Huanchaco and Mancoro. The former, a chilled spot with abundant ceviche, killer waves (longest left-hand break in the world don’t you know) and a laid-back surfer vibe, the latter, a crazy party town with little to do but jump on a surfboard, relax on the beach and while away your nights drinking rum with new friends.
Escape the cities on some epic hikes
If you value nature over city lights, then there are few better countries to be than Peru – and for hardcore hikers, there is enough to keep you entertained for weeks.
For a taste of something different, far away from the Sacred Valley, head north into the Cordillera Blanca and take on the Santa Cruz trek, arguably one of the best hikes in the country. Covered in four days, this challenging but oh-so-rewarding 50 km trek takes you through lush open valleys, incredible mountain peaks and to the edge of spectacular turquoise glacier lakes.
The Colca Canyon is another incredible spot for hikers. Although there are only a few modest archaeological sites, the place makes up for it with extreme topography and vast, otherworldly landscapes.
Looking for even more adventure? Head deep into the jungle and hike to the Laguna de los Condores, where the cliffs are hiding an amazing secret – an ancient burial site, discovered only in 1996. But a word of warning: this trek is tough, even with a guide, a pack-horse and a love of challenging hikes. Complete it, however, and you can be content knowing that there are only 149 other people who manage it each year. Bear Grylls, eat your heart out!
Get a little taste of the Galapagos
Sitting just a few kilometers off the coast of Peru is a little place that will make budget backpackers rejoice – ‘The Poor Man’s Galapagos’.
Sure, you’re not going to find 100-year-old giant tortoises, but take a day boat trip to Isla Ballestas and you’ll see hundreds of seals and sea lions, the famous blue-footed boobies and if you’re lucky, even a few penguins.
And at around about $15 for the day trip, it’s significantly cheaper than a cruise around Ecuador’s biggest draw, the Galapagos islands.
Experience real Peruvian culture
There is no denying it – Peru is a touristy place. Wander the streets of Cusco, and you will find many locals dressed in traditional gear with baby alpacas for photo ops and all manner of ‘authentic experiences’ touted by tour companies. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find the real Peru on a short trip, however (even within the Sacred Valley), you just need to know where to go.
Markets are the lifeblood of every Peruvian town, they are where you will find farmers selling their monthly harvest, families purchasing corn, fruit, and vegetables for the week, wrinkled old women touting handmade blankets and everything in between – they are a fantastic place to get a glimpse into local culture.
Some of the best in the country are the Baratillo Smuggler’s Market in Cusco, Chincero Market north of Cusco (make sure you go to the Sunday market) and Mercado San Camilo in Arequipa (you won’t find any alpaca jumpers here, but the place is fascinating to visit).
Discover the ‘Other Machu Picchu’
Just 161km from Cusco, hidden in the Vilcanota mountain range is Choquequirao, a remarkable Incan site lovingly referred to as ‘Machu Picchu’s little sister’. And yet, despite this accolade, very little is actually known about this 500-year-old site. Indeed, archaeologists are still uncovering new parts, and less than 50% has been restored.
Requiring a challenging multi-day hike over rough terrain, this is not an easy place to reach, but for those who make the strenuous journey, the rewards are ample: lush green wilderness, spectacular mountain views, and the chance to these fascinating ancient ruins in peace. With fewer than 100 people per day in high season, this is the very definition of off-the-beaten-track!
Want to witness the extraordinary beauty of Peru for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures.
Feature image c/o – Shutterstock