Peru has it all. It is one of the most spectacular, culturally dense, and interesting countries to visit on the globe. And it’s quickly rising to the top of must-visit places in the world thanks to the exquisite landscapes, colonial architecture, and cultural diversity that this welcoming country offers.
Unfortunately, many travelers come to Peru for the sole purpose of visiting Machu Picchu without knowing what other destinations and attractions this massive country has to offer. And while Machu Picchu rightfully deserves a place on every traveler’s bucket list, make sure you give this spectacular country the exploration it truly deserves.
The northern coast of Peru has pristine beaches and sublime surfing spots including the beach town of Chicama where you’ll find the world longest left-breaking wave. Chachapoyas, also in Northern Peru, is home to one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, Gotca Waterfall, a jaw-dropping sight that will forever linger in your memory. And for hiking, head to Huaraz in the central Peruvian Andes mountains which has epic trails leading to beautiful crystal clear alpine lakes.
Arequipa in southern Peru is a beautiful white-washed city that is surrounded by volcanoes and also serves as a good starting point to visit the Colca Canyon. Near Bolivia, visit the cultural hub of Puno to see the folkloric capital of Peru and witness traditional dancing, lively music, and fantastic parades. You can literally spend years in Peru and not see everything that this beautiful country has to offer!
These 5 Machu Picchu alternatives promise the same mix of history and spellbinding scenery but with fewer crowds. So read on for our guide to 5 spectacular things to do in Peru beyond Machu Picchu and leave the tourist crowds of Cusco far behind!
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How to Get Around Peru
Peru is a massive country and if you are short on time, flying is definitely your best option. Flying in Peru can also be quite affordable with Sky Airline, Viva Air, and LATAM Airlines all offering low-cost flights. But while the quickest way to travel is by plane, you will miss seeing many beautiful destinations along the way.
Bus travel is reasonably inexpensive within Peru and it’s a good way to see more of the country while avoiding the expense of flights. Unfortunately, this option can be time-consuming as Peru is a rather large country. Some bus routes are over 20 hours in duration! If you want to save time and money on accommodation, many bus companies in Peru offer night routes.
Most buses in Peru have air conditioning, onboard meals, a decent movie selection, and, best of all, reclining seats that provide even more legroom than airport seating. These luxurious coach buses are right on par with some airline cabins. In fact, some bus operators like the Cruz del Sur fleet are more comfortable than flying and you might even have a hostess onboard serving snacks and meals.
You can see all of the bus routes in Peru and compare ticket prices on Bookaway.com. It’s by far the best site for booking bus tickets online!
The Best Places to Visit in Peru Besides Machu Picchu
1. Head to Northern Peru for Beachy Vibes
Start your off-the-beaten-path Peru itinerary in the North. Many visitors to Peru miss out on this part of the country and all the sun and surf it provides.
For one of the best surf spots in Peru check out the small beach town of Lobitos. Hidden in an arid desert, Lobitos is home to a multitude of waves that all break in different swell sizes making it a perfect destination for advanced surfers.
Or, if you are new to surfing, consider a stop in Puerto Malabrigo, known to the locals as “Chicama“. This small coastal town in northwestern Peru is located in the La Libertad Region about 40 miles north of the city of Trujillo. Chicama is home to the longest left-breaking wave in the world – perfect for beginner surfers.
If you are seeking something more social, head to the hip beach town of Mancora for beach parties, surfing, kitesurfing, swimming with sea turtles, and lazy pool days. Whatever Peruvian beach you choose, the water is beautiful and provides a much-needed escape from the heat.
2. See the Hidden Treasures of Chachapoyas
In the northern Amazonas region of Peru lies the white-washed colonial city of Chachapoyas. This city is surrounded by archaeological ruins, some even older than Machu Picchu.
For a true adventure, hike to one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, Gocta Falls. This majestic two-level waterfall drops a powerful surge of water over 2,500 feet. It will take your breath away, even from a far distance. The hike is quite strenuous and not for the faint of heart as you are often on a steep rocky surface and surrounded by the thick Amazon jungle that shelters toucans and howler monkeys.
Equally awe-inspiring is the archaeological site of Kuelap – a walled city with hundreds of buildings from an ancient civilization built before Machu Picchu. The natural beauty and ancient wonders surrounding Chachapoyas are plenty and this is a not-to-be-missed destination on your trip to Peru!
3. Hike the Andes Mountains in Huaraz
Located in the Central Andes, Huaraz is the perfect base camp for hikers, outdoor adventurers, and mountaineers. Huascarán National Park has over 600 glaciers, 300 glacial lakes, hundreds of snow-capped peaks, and over 25 trekking routes.
The region’s most popular hikes include the one-day Laguna 69 trail. Don’t be fooled by this hike’s popularity, however, as it’s still quite challenging. The hike is 7.5 miles roundtrip and gains 800 vertical feet of elevation. The Laguna 69 hike ends at the crystalline-blue Laguna 69, which contrasts beautifully with the tundra and snow-capped mountain views. It’s arguably the world’s most photogenic lake!
If you are a more experienced hiker and up for a challenge, then check out the Santa Cruz Trail. This 4-day hike will take you over one of the most scenic alpine passes in the world and offer you even more views of turquoise glacial lakes. No matter what trek you choose, the scenery in the area around Huaraz is sure to impress.
And before you start your trek why not give yourself a few days to acclimate to the high altitude in Huaraz? Explore the Plaza de Armas and try the ceviche from the Mercado Central de Huaraz which is also great for people and llama-watching!
4. Explore the Heritage, Culture, and Cuisine of Arequipa
For another off-the-beaten-track destination, you’ll want to visit Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru. Despite its size, Arequipa is completely different from the modern metropolis of Lima. It remains relatively untouched and very authentic to this day. Almost every store and building you see in Arequipa is original architecture and it feels like time has stood still in this Spanish colonial city.
Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, Arequipa is known as the “White City” due to the beautiful white buildings made from the rocks of these nearby volcanoes. Its historical center is a UNESCO world heritage site and is worth spending a few days exploring. Check out the Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Siena, a beautiful colonial building built in the 1500s. And be sure to visit a local lunchtime restaurant called a “picantería” to sample regional favorites such as the rocoto relleno, a Peruvian-style stuffed pepper, or chicha de jora, a corn drink that has been a staple in communities throughout the Andes mountains for generations.
For a great day trip from Arequipa, head to Colca Canyon. It’s the second deepest canyon in the world and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. Colca Canyon offers numerous hiking opportunities with amazing views and is one of the best places in the world to see Andean condors. At the bottom of the canyon lies a green oasis that is a much-needed resting point. If you decide to stay overnight, there are even rustic accommodations with a pool for relaxing before you hike back out of the canyon.
5. Experience Peruvian Festivals and Folklore Puno
Located on the shore of the highest lake in the world – Lake Titicaca – is the small town of Puno. This colorful city is known as the folkloric capital of Peru due to the number of artistic events and festivals the city holds throughout the year.
The most famous festival is the Festival of the Virgin de la Candelaria which is held during Carnaval. During this event, hundreds upon hundreds of Andean dancers, musicians, and bands visit Puno to celebrate. It’s a vibrant affair with men and women in elaborate costumes dancing in the streets in perfect unison. The parade participants have practiced and prepared for the entire year for this and their dedication shows. Throughout the year Puno is home to similar events and folk festivals, all that center around art, music, and dance that highlight their distinct communities.
Many travelers come to Puno because it’s the perfect jumping point to cross into Bolivia. But before heading across the border, make sure you stay a few days and explore this unique area. Take a boat ride around Lake Titicaca to visit the Uro Islands which are floating islands made of reed. It’s fascinating to see how these man-made islands were made, considering the islands were constructed hundreds of years ago by the Uros people.
Or, if you crave a more off-the-beaten-path experience, stay overnight on Amantani and Taquile Islands. Much less touristy than the Uros Islands, Amanti and Taquile have just opened to visitors within the past few years and offer a much more authentic experience. These islands retain many of the ancestral traditions and cultures, and they are also known for their exquisite woven fabrics.
A Sample 2-Week Peru Itinerary
If you have two weeks to explore Peru, this north to south route is a perfect addition to your visit to Machu Picchu. Instead of heading to Cusco first, I would recommend heading to Northern Peru and make your way south to the Sacred Valley. You can easily see Peru’s lesser-visited sites as well as the magnificent Machu Picchu on a single trip with the right planning.
After the northern beaches, head to Chachapoyas to the ancient ruins of Kuelap and the beauty of Gocta Falls. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, consider trekking in the Peruvian Andes around Huaraz for views that are even more stunning than the Sacred Valley. After visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu, you can continue south to Arequipa and your last stop will be Puno.
With careful planning, you’ll find that two weeks is plenty of time to explore the best attractions and destinations that Peru has to offer. Whatever route you take and destination you choose to focus on, you will most likely be back to Peru someday. This is a spectacular country to explore and 2 weeks will leave you wanting to see more!
What’s your favorite off-the-beaten-track thing to do in Peru? Let us know in the comments below!
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Carrie Back – About the Author:
Carrie is a part-time travel writer and full-time globetrotter based in Southeast Asia. Her most recent adventures include working in the Bolivian Amazon jungle, surfing in Sri Lanka, and exploring Laos via a slow boat up the Mekong River. She’s a slow travel enthusiast and loves to write about her experiences abroad.