It’s often easiest to hit a country’s most accessible and well-known locations. On the other hand, the rewards that come when you challenge yourself to zig left when others zag right are invaluable.
Peru is one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world, featuring three main regions: the jungle, the mountains, and the coast. The country’s shifting shape, climate, and colors make it a haven for explorers, who (if they plan accordingly and follow this guide) can discover the 11 ecological regions and 84 life zones (of 117 in the world) located in Peru.
While Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu represent some of the most popular places in Peru, there are other fascinating regions worth exploring. Each zone offers something for everyone: Seafarers can venture out by boat, while others can trek through the Amazon Jungle, hike the Inca trails in the mountains, or indulge in fresh seafood by the coast.
However you choose to soak up the Peruvian culture, different regions and cities offer a variety of experiences for even the most seasoned travelers. Behind all of Peru’s beauty lies a deep history represented today by leftover ruins, ancient customs, and traditions scattered throughout the country.
Established in 1975, Paracas is the oldest marine reserve in Peru, and it incorporates a variety of marine habitats, as well as a tropical desert. The Paracas National Reserve protects prehistoric sites of the Paracas culture and other ancient civilizations dating as far back as 800 BCE.
Personally, I love this area because of the juxtaposition found on the Ballestas Islands just off the coast. With thriving wildlife (similar to what you see in the Galápagos) on one side and barren desert on the other, the natural variation is so stark that it’s hard to believe the two areas exist so closely to one another.
Paracas is also the gateway to see the nearby Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert. The high, arid plateau stretches more than 50 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa. Some geoglyphs resemble Paracas motifs, while hundreds are simple lines and geometric shapes. There are more than 70 depictions of animals, such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, and even human figures.
The lesser known, colorful coastal town of Trujillo blends cultures of times past. The region was originally home to the Moche and Chimu ancient civilizations, and when the Spanish arrived they partnered with the Chimu to take down the Incas. The Spanish influence can be felt throughout Trujillo — from the architecture of colonial mansions to the details found in the Plaza de Armas.
Beyond the history, I found Trujillo to be the perfect jumping off point for visiting the nearby ruins of Chan Chan, the capital city of the Chimu Empire, as well as the complexes and temples of Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol.
After exploring the ruins, I like to head to Huanchaco, a surf spot just north of Trujillo, to stroll along the sandy beaches while watching fishermen cast deep into the waters.
Arequipa & the Colca Canyon
Nestled between three volcanoes, Arequipa is Peru’s colonial-era capital. Dubbed the “white city” due to the volcanic sillar stone used to build its architecturally stunning mansions and churches, Arequipa has maintained its beauty over centuries.
Like many, I love this city for its delicious and distinct cuisine, usually found in picanterías (typical lunchtime eateries) by locals and lucky tourists. From Arequipa, you can also visit Colca Valley and Canyon. The Colca Canyon is considered one of the deepest canyons on the planet, and is home to the magnificent and massive Andean condor, spotted most often at Cruz del Condor lookout or Condor Cross.
With a little luck you will see these giant birds flying from the bottom of the canyon, and if you are very fortunate, you may even be able to feel the wind cut by their enormous wings.
Also notable is Canocota village. Travelers take part in a three-hour hike along the valley, where the canyon is still open and shallow. This side of the canyon is a must-see, as it takes you away from the crowds and allows you to admire the fields made by the local inhabitants.
The highest navigable lake in the world, and, according to Incan mythology, the birthplace of the sun, Lake Titicaca is more than just a classic Peruvian landmark. This protected sanctuary plays host to great biological diversity, and one island even boasts ceremonial sites with pre-Inca terraces.
The communities of Uros and Uros Titino inhabit small floating islands of the same names along the lake, living in small straw huts and maintaining ancestral cultural traditions.
Seeing their mastery in traditional textiles (which is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) was an amazing, humbling experience. Some communities offer homestays that allow you to experience life on the islands as the locals do. Nearby, the town of Puno, which sits on the shores of the lake, serves as a trading hub and is also known as the folkloric capital of Peru due to its lively festivals televised nationwide.
Fifty-nine percent of Peruvian territory is made up of Amazon Rainforest, though only 12% of Peru’s inhabitants live in these regions. This hot, tropical, and often wet climate holds the country’s largest natural reserves teeming with biodiversity. Tapirs, giant anteaters, birds of all kinds, jaguars, and anacondas loom in the dense Amazon jungle.
There are still indigenous tribes living in the Amazon who are isolated from modern-day life. Notable cities in the Amazon include Iquitos in the North, which is the world’s largest city without road access (the only way in or out is by boat or flight), and Puerto Maldonado in the South, the closest city to some of the most pristine rainforests in the world.