If you’re planning a trip to Peru, you’re likely considering exploring Lima and Cusco, taking a tour through the Sacred Valley, and hitting a few Incan ruins. But don’t forget to plan some outdoor expeditions as well.
While you might not always equate it with adventure-rich places like New Zealand or Colorado, Peru is one of the best nations in the world for outdoor exploration. From the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to the long and rugged Pacific coastline, its varied landscape encourages a culture of adventure, with a variety of extreme sports available throughout the country. Whether you’re into conquering dangerous summits, catching big waves, or simply going for a leisurely hike, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the Land of the Incas.
Hike the Lares Trek
If you’ve ever thought about trekking in Peru, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve considered tackling the Inca Trail, the classic multi-day route that slinks through the Andes before culminating at Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate. But, if you want to avoid the crowds — to, quite literally, get off the beaten path — then check out the Lares Trek. This 20.5-mile (33-kilometer) alternative is quieter, shorter, and logistically simpler (no need for a permit!) than the Inca Trail, and it’s equally beautiful, if not more so.
The trek, which includes three exhilarating mountain passes, takes two to three days to complete, winding through the Urubamba range and traversing part of the picturesque Sacred Valley. Hikers will experience the wonder of straddling mountain ridges and sleeping beneath the starry skies of the Peruvian highlands. The only downside is that, unlike the Inca Trail, the Lares Trek does not lead directly to Machu Picchu. At the trek’s conclusion in Ollantaytambo, you can hop on a train to Aguas Calientes and then either catch a bus or hike to the top of the ruins.
Whichever route you choose, make sure to spend a few well-hydrated days in Cusco to acclimatize before heading out. The highest point of the Lares Trek clocks in at just below 15,000 feet (4,550 meters), so altitude sickness is common.
Raft the Urubamba
White-water rafting zealots from around the world flock to Peru to experience the chaos and exhilaration produced by the heavy waters flowing down from the Andes. And if you’re in Peru, there’s no river more exciting than the Urubamba. Flowing from the country’s highlands down through the Sacred Valley and finally into the lush jungle, the river features a variety of dangerous rapids that range from Class II to Class IV+ (out of VI, which is the most dangerous).
From the Upper Gauley of West Virginia to the Zambezi of Zambia, there are plenty of great rivers to raft around the globe, but few offer the same level of humbling natural scenery as the Urubamba. Even the bus ride to the put-in site will bring you past massive glaciers and towering plateaus. If you consider yourself an aquaphile at all, you shouldn’t miss rafting the Urubamba.
Climb Near Arequipa
When you think of mountaineering, you might picture the majestic Himalayas and the magical ridgelines of the Alps. You may forget that some of the best climbing in the world is found on the other side of the globe — in South America. In fact, one of the greatest mountain-climbing survival stories of all time — which was immortalized in the book and subsequent film adaptation, “Touching the Void” — took place in the Peruvian Andes.
But you don’t have to be a seasoned mountaineer to enjoy the thrill of summiting the country’s magnificent peaks. The volcanoes just beyond the city of Arequipa offer a host of ascents ranging in accessibility. El Misti (19,101 feet; 5,822 meters), for instance, may pose a long and arduous ascent, but you don’t need any technical climbing skills to reach the top — just some strong quads and a proper acclimatization plan. On the other hand, if you do possess the ability to conquer more serious summits, you can plan an ascent of the Ampato Volcano (20,630 feet; 6,288 meters) or the beautiful Coropuna (21,079 feet; 6,425 meters).
Trek the Cordillera Blanca
Mountain climbers in Peru often set their sights on the tropical Cordillera Blanca range in Huascarán National Park. But if you’re tired of climbing, the wild highland region is also ideal for long-distance treks. The area is unrivalled in its natural beauty, an otherworldly landscape of snow-capped summits, aquamarine glacial lakes, and panoramic mountain vistas.
While there are ample routes to choose from, the most popular is the four-day Santa Cruz trail, often considered one of the most beautiful treks in the world. At 31 miles (50 kilometers) one way, it’s not the longest long-distance trek out there, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in altitude and elevation gain — in other words, make sure to train before attempting it. But the hard work will be well worth it. Slinking through some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery on Earth, the Santa Cruz trek is destined to be one you never forget.
Drive ATVs and Sand-Board in Huacachina
Just 185 miles (300 kilometers) south of Lima is one of the driest climates in the world, a sprawling desert, barren of life, with dusty sand dunes stretching to the edge of the horizon. But, if you crest one of those dunes and gaze into the valley below, you’ll spot a flourishing village complete with shady palm fronds and a refreshing lagoon. Welcome to Huacachina.
Technically part of the Ica province, this desert oasis town is home to only 96 full-time residents, but it is a popular gathering spot for thousands of tourists and adventurers who utilize the village as a base camp from which to explore the surrounding landscape. Using one of the many adventure companies that operate out of Huacachina, you can rent ATVs and dune buggies to navigate the gorgeous desert and find pristine spots for sand-boarding. For this unique activity, a thin plank similar to a snowboard is used to surf down the steep sand dunes, the wind a welcome respite from the rays of the punishing sun against your face. And don’t forget to stay out late. The region offers brilliant sunsets, the disappearing light creating a parade of colors against the desert sand.
Surf the Pacific Coast
With its staggering highland region and its smattering of Incan ruins hidden among the mountains, it’s easy to forget that Peru has about 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) of coastline kissing the Pacific Ocean. And while they’re no Oahu Pipeline, the waves along Peru’s coast do provide a wide variety of fantastic surfing opportunities.
There are spots to catch waves all along the coast, but the best surfing is in the north, outside of fishing villages like Huanchaco and Máncora. Whether you prefer point breaks, reef breaks, or even big-wave surfing, there’s a wave for you in Peru. Just make sure to bring a wetsuit! The country’s beaches tend to border fairly cold sections of the Pacific.
Check out Team Surf Peru for info on taking lessons and renting boards!
Explore Colca Canyon
Plunging 10,725 feet (3,269 meters) into the Earth, Colca Canyon in southern Peru is one of the deepest in the world (compared to the Grand Canyon at 6,093 feet; 1,857 meters).
With its varied landscapes, this flourishing region can be explored by whatever your preferred mode of adventure may be — horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking … you name it. Even if you want to keep things simple, plenty of the surrounding trails can be explored on foot. The most popular sinks into the gorge from the Cruz del Cóndor, a breathtaking lookout from which you can spot the awe-inspiring Andean Condor, one of the largest birds in the world. Any adventurer planning a trip to Peru should work Colca Canyon onto their itinerary.
Cover Photo by @coconut_sports