While most travelers head to large Peruvian hubs like Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa, those who venture to the smaller cities and more unknown destinations around this South American country will be pleasantly surprised. If you’re not sold just yet, consider visiting a few of Peru’s hidden gems.
Any traveler whose favorite activity is exploring a city’s unique churches and religious monuments should head straight for Ayacucho. This city is situated in the Central Highlands, in a region with which it shares a name, but its real attraction is its 33 colonial-era churches — one for each year of Jesus’ life. Aside from the town’s (many) religious structures, Ayacucho is also known for its handcrafted goods. Thankfully, it’s remained off-the-radar and still feels quite small in comparison to other destinations in Peru — except during the Holy Week of Easter, when the city comes alive in celebration.
Located in Northern Peru, Cajamarca is nestled between the Andes Mountains. Known to some as a “Mini Cusco,” the town features colonial architecture, beautiful landscapes, and plenty of history. Its position in the Highlands of Peru make it the perfect spot for day trips to some of the country’s most well-known archaeological sites — and there are even hot springs in one of the nearby towns, if you need a relaxing stop after all of your exploring.
Since the city is located at an elevation of 7,661 feet (2,335 meters), it’s no wonder that the people of Chachapoya were called “Warriors of the Clouds.” Though that particular civilization was conquered by the Inca Empire in the 16th century, the isolated city remains to this day. Once there, travelers can visit the ancient stone city of Kuelap, see its karajia sarcophagi on a narrow cliff ledge, trek through the cloud forest to reach impressive thundering waterfalls, and take in the view at nearby Cañon del Sonche.
If you’ve ever seen rolling sand dunes and wondered whether it would be fun to essentially snowboard in the desert, Huacachina is the place for you. This intriguing destination is plopped right in the middle of miles and miles of dunes, and its most popular activity is sand boarding. The town was built around the central lake in the 1930s, and legend has it that a mermaid still lives in the waters of the desert oasis. So, grab a sand board, head to Huacachina, and see if you can spot her.
Known for its famous ruins and colonial-style cities, this South American country also features a stretch of coastline along the Pacific and a host of small surf towns. One such place is Máncora. This tiny, laidback fishing town is located just a few miles south of the Ecuador/Peru border and features sandy beaches, delicious seafood, perfect waves, beautiful sunsets, and a population of only 10,000 residents. What could be better?
Tambopata National Reserve
Those looking to add a rainforest expedition to their Peruvian itinerary should check out Tambopata National Reserve. This protected area in southern Peru boasts over 1,700 species of plants, 1,000 different kinds of butterflies, 600 varieties of birds, 100 types of mammals, and 90 species of amphibians. In fact, Tambopata is one of the largest sections of protected tropical rainforest in the world. On day treks, river cruises, and treetop walks through the forest, visitors can observe this amazing environment in an up-close-and-personal way. And don’t miss the macaws and other animals at the clay licks — of which Tambopata has more than any other place on Earth.
Nicknamed the “Door of the Amazonia,” Tingo María is situated where the mountains meet the jungle and the Huallaga river meets the Marañón. Considered unreachable until the Montaña road was extended in the 1930s, the town now welcomes visitors interested in outdoor adventures. Nearby Tingo María National Park beckons travelers to explore its caves and caverns; travelers can also climb La Bella Durmiente (a mountain that provides a beautiful view of the town and is named after Sleeping Beauty) — the nearby rainforest and limestone mountain range feature many other opportunities for natural discovery. The town itself is one of Peru’s main centers for commercial coffee growth, and its streets are filled with the smell of freshly-brewed beans.
Though it’s the largest town in the Sacred Valley, Urubamba is often seen as a gateway to the archaeological and natural wonders nearby. But those who actually spend time in the town itself will be pleasantly surprised. Urubamba features the remains of Quispiguanca, an Inca palace, and its streets rumble with life as rickshaws move between the squares. With perfect weather year round, plenty of outdoor activities (i.e. hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and zip-lining), and a host of creative spaces scattered across town, Urubamba is a destination that travelers would be remiss to skip.
Header image by Tatiana Liñan Vargas