If you're going to go to Peru, there are some destinations you simply cannot miss, including charming towns and Peru's cultural meccas. The town of Puno will get you as close as possible to Lake Titicaca and Aguas Calientes is your closest home base to Machu Picchu. If you're concerned about missing out on a meaningful experience, be aware that there's a difference between a 'must-see' tourist destination and a 'tourist trap.' There's only one place you can see the Uros Floating Islands, and if you don't go there, you'll miss out on them entirely.
Peru's best destinations ensure that you don't miss one beautiful thing the country has to offer. Be in awe when you see the Sacred Valley for the first time, just like the ancients were. Appreciate the stark contrast between red sand and blue sea at Paracas National Park. Marvel at the Nazca Lines, and develop your own theory about how these geoglyphs were created long before the age of technology. Discover fun, eco-friendly hotels in Peru, and enjoy unexpected activities such as surfing in Peru.
Don't miss out on any of Peru's top things to do, because Peru's top destinations aren't just great cities — they're gateways to great adventures.
The jumping off point for trips to magnificent Incan ruins, the mighty Amazon Jungle, and majestic Lake Titicaca, Cusco finds itself conveniently located on the gringo trail. But, don't be mistaken, this city is far more than just a base.
Cusco's cobblestone streets, mountain surrounds, and curious mix of Incan and Spanish culture create the kind of vibe that travelers cross oceans to find. Many of the city's historic sites are within walking distance of each other; independent cafes and restaurants hide around every corner; and the plazas are full of locals and visitors alike.
Once you get used to the altitude, take the time to wander the streets at a laidback pace and get a feel for the energy of Cusco. It's not hard to see why people return again and again.
As capital cities go, Lima is quite the introduction to Peru. A big, sprawling city with an irresistible charm, it has history, culture, entertainment, and nature all rolled into one.
Once the seat of power for the Spanish Conquistadors and an important trading port, Lima's history lives on today in its colonial architecture, imposing palaces, and numerous museums. With a mix of locals from all over Peru and every corner of the globe, it is also an incredibly cosmopolitan city. This diversity is especially evident in the many bars and restaurants that Lima is famous for; you will eat very well in Peru's capital.
When the hustle and bustle of city life gets to be too much, you can head to the ocean to enjoy the sunset over the South Pacific. The rolling waves and dramatic cliffs are perfect for surfing and paragliding, steps from the city streets.
#3: Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is most famous for its proximity to Machu Picchu, and the well-trodden gringo trail has turned this small town into the perfect post-hike comfort base.
Situated in a steep valley, this unlikely tourist hub has grown up around the rushing Rio Aguas Calientes and a rather extraordinary railway that runs straight through town. Boutique hotels and international restaurants climb the valley, offering lovely views and a respite from the busy streets, and relaxing hot springs are a short walk away.
There are a number of different ways to approach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, including the bus or a forest hike. If you're feeling especially adventrous and are an experienced climber, then you can pack your gear and ascend Mount Putukusi. Previously, there was a ladder available for use but it is now defunct, making this an expert climb only.
Puno isn't Peru's prettiest city, however, as the gateway to the magnificent Lake Titicaca, it is a necessary stop on the Peru itinerary of most travelers. Plenty of hotels, shops, and restaurants ensure you are well prepared for a few days 'off-grid' when you do venture out to the remote islands of the lake.
While Lake Titicaca is certainly the main draw of visiting Puno, there are also a few places in town to keep you entertained. Visit the Lima pedestrian street for food and shopping, and then stroll to the Plaza de Armas to view the beautiful 17th century Catedral Basílica San Carlos Borromeo at its center.
While in Puno, you may also be lucky enough to take part in one of the many festivals that this region is famous for. If your trip doesn't coincide with one of these 300 festivals, head to a restaurant offering an evening dance performance for a taste of the Puno party atmosphere.
Arequipa may just be one of Peru's most picturesque towns. Also known as the 'white city,' Arequipa's old town is remarkably well preserved — despite numerous earthquakes, and the distinct shape of three volcanoes create a striking backdrop along with the towering spires of the Basilica Cathedral.
Beautiful Spanish-era churches, bridges, and plazas are all within walking distance of one another, as well as fantastic restaurants and bars. In fact, the city is well known for its gastronomic prowess and rivals Lima for foodie delights. Time spent wandering around the city is incomplete without a trip into the colorful walls of the Santa Catalina Monastery, built in the 16th century.
Further afield, visitors have plenty of options for nature and adventure in the surrounding countryside, those iconic volcanoes, and nearby Colca Canyon.
Located in the middle of the jungle with access to some of Peru's most beautiful national parks, Iquitos is one of Peru's coolest travel hubs. Simply arriving in Iquitos is fun, as you have to fly in over dense rainforest or cruise in on the mighty Amazon River. For Amazon adventures, this is the place to be.
A prosperous city with a population nearing half a million people, this middle of nowhere metropolis has a unique energy. The riverside is the region's most happening spot, where you can take a stroll on the boardwalk and do a spot of bird watching, or take a seat at a restaurant for a jungle-inspired meal. Interestingly, this is also a great place to sample a bit of Peruvian nightlife!
From the center, you can also take trips to the Belen floating village, the sprawling Belen market, and various animal sanctuaries like the Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm.
#7: Sacred Valley
Home to the Inca and majestic Andean peaks, it is clear upon first look how the Sacred Valley got its name. Carved by the Rio Urubamba, the valley owes everything to this cherished water source. Mighty civilizations sprung from its banks, and agriculture (and tourism) thrives here today.
One of the most rewarding ways to experience the area is via the many trails that dot the rugged landscape. Hiking to ancient agricultural sites, ruins, and temples offers insight into the history, culture, and nature of the region. For epic peaks, there is Calca; for intact Inca villages, there is Ollantaytambo; and for hand-crafted artisanal products, there is the market town of Pisac.
The communities of the Sacred Valley will welcome you in warmly with tales of life in the hills and a glass of local corn beer.
Frequently asked questions
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- Where is the best fishing in Peru?
The best places to go fishing include the coasts off Cabo Blanco, Máncora, Trujillo, Chiclayo, Tumbes, and Lima.If you can tear yourself away from soaking up the sun on Peru's beaches, you can do some excellent fishing. The best time to head to Peru really depends on where you plan to go fishing in Peru.
Órganos, a small beach town south of Máncora, has good deep-sea fishing 5–25 miles (8–40 km) off the coast. Fish for mahi mahi, tuna, and striped marlin here. The best fishing is in July and August and from December to April.
The lakes around Huaraz are stocked and provide the opportunity to catch freshwater fish. It's also possible to catch rainbow trout in the rivers that flow through the Central Andes.
In the Amazon Basin you can fish for piraña. To do this, you're provided with a hook and a chunk of meat. Toss the baited hook into the water and you'll soon feel a tug. Be careful when reeling in these fish, as they have razor-sharp teeth. Other fishing can be done along the Amazon and Tambopata rivers.
So how do you make your dream fishing getaway a reality?
- Where is the best surfing in Peru?
Peru's best surfing is along the North Coast. Máncora is something of a fishing mecca, with consistent, left-breaking waves that rarely exceed 10 feet (3 m). This makes it perfect for both beginners and more advanced surfers.Make your next vacation the best of both worlds — part beach vacation and part adventurous getaway. A Peruvian surf vacation is awaiting you!
Surf getaway destinations
Although the town of Chicama is unexceptional, the beach here has the world's longest-breaking surf, with waves that range from 3–8 feet (1–2.5 m) in height and are reported to run as long as 1.5 miles (2.5 km). The beach of Huanchaco has mellow waves and is a good place to learn the surf.
Punta Hermosa, a half hour south of Lima, is a major surfing destination in Peru. That's because South America's largest wave, Pico Alto, forms here. In May, this wave can reach up to 40 feet (12 m) in height. There are also smaller, less intimidating waves to surf at Punta Hermosa.
Local surfers ride waves in Lima proper, but the water is often polluted, so we don't recommend surfing here. The country's long coastline means that you have no shortage of Peruvian beaches to choose from. It's better to head north or south of Lima to breaks like Punta Rocas, Playa Grande, or La Herradura in Chorrillos. For even more of Peru's best surfing, check out our Peru Surfing Guide.
Prepping for your surf getaway
Peru's entry requirements are fairly simple, so you can pretty much grab your passport and proof of travel, and head for the sun, sand, and waves. Getting to Peru is fairly simple too — if you're short on time, you'll probably fly, but if you want to take the scenic route, buses and boats are an option.
Surprisingly, December to March can be some of the best months to visit Peru's beaches. So, if you're used to winter and early spring being chilly back home, a surf holiday in a warmer locale is a great way to close or start a year. Pack typical beach gear, but you should also read this article about what to bring to Peru, because you will likely go on a few other exciting excursions. One thing you definitely do not need to bring is your own surfboard (unless you really want to) — there will be rentals aplenty.