When planning a trip to Peru, many people focus on the two popular cities of Cuzco and Lima, unsure of what else to include on the itinerary. The reality is, adding some lesser-known yet worthwhile cities into the mix can really enhance a trip to this Andean country.
You can easily waste weeks in this laid-back beach town without even noticing it. Mancora is a great place to visit if you enjoy surfing, beach sports, morning yoga on the shore or just doing nothing. The town is also an excellent home base if you're interested in visiting the fishing village of Cabo Blanco. This is where the famous author Ernest Hemingway used to hang out, drink Pisco Sours and pen classics like "The Old Man and the Sea."
Visiting Pisco will allow you to visit one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places in the world, the Islas Ballestas. Commonly referred to as the poor man's Galapagos, these small islands feature seals, penguins, blue-footed boobies, guanay guano birds and other marine wildlife. Additionally, Pisco is close to Paracas National Reservation, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only marine reservation in Peru. Often considered one of the richest yet most bizarre ecosystems, you'll find animals like penguins, sea lions, marine cats, black ostrich, dolphins, purple crabs and chita fish. For a bit of history in Pisco, make sure to visit Tambo Colorado. It's an ancient adobe-style Inca fort that's been well preserved, with mazes and various rooms to explore. You'll also see the red, yellow and white painted walls from Inca times.
This city in northwestern Peru is full of history and culture. Visit the well-preserved ruins site of Chan Chan, which is considered the largest pre-Hispanic mud brick settlement in the Americas. Its origin dates back to the beginnings of the first millennium A.D. When in Trujillo, there is also an interesting archaeological complex called El Brujo. It dates back to the Moche culture from 100 B.C. to 650 A.D., and is thought to have been used for religious ceremonies. There is also an interesting museum about the site worth checking out. For more Moche history, travelers to Trujillo can also visit the Moche Pyramids, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna. Literally translating to "Pyramid of the Sun" and "Pyramid of the Moon," this is where it is believed priests carried out bloody human sacrifices.
While there isn't too much beauty in the actual city of Puno, you will find a lot of culture. Indigenous markets, authentic eateries serving three course meals for $1 and an array of unique transportation modes like go-karts and tuk-tuks abound. The main reason to go to Puno, however, is for the boat trips to the more beautiful areas of Lake Titicaca. Visit the man-made floating islands of Uros, made entirely out of reeds, while meeting the indigenous Uru people. You can also take a boat ride out to the traditional collectivist island of Taquile, known for its untouched beauty and locals who make handwoven textiles and clothing. These handicrafts are said to be of the highest quality in Peru. Moreover, the island has a unique method of tourism where cultural programming and homestays are the focus, which allows you to really get to know the people and their way of life.
Huaraz is a hiker's paradise, and if you love unusual landscapes, this is a city you must visit on a vacation to Peru. It's in the Cordillera Blanca region, an area of Peru's Northern Sierra. Trekkers can go to the "House of Guides" for complimentary trail information. If you're looking for a lengthy hike, go from Santa Cruz to Llanganuco. This four- to five-day excursion reaches 15,583 feet and allows you views of Huascaran, Peru's highest peak, beautiful valleys and crystal lakes. Along with hiking, visitors can enjoy mountaineering, rock climbing, biking, markets, archaeological sites, museums and parks.
The main reason to visit the town of Chivay is to take in the natural beauty of "the world's deepest canyon," Colca Canyon. At 13,650 feet deep, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Hike the volcanic landscape, view ancient cave art and take in the unique scenery of the area. In Chivay, you'll also be able to enjoy natural hot springs, an astronomical observatory and cultural markets.
If you love surfing, the beach town of Huanchaco is the perfect place to add to your Peru itinerary. Surfers of all levels can enjoy the good wind and swell direction, with swells ranging from 3 feet to 8 feet or more. It can also be interesting to learn about the ancient fishing tradition that is still practiced today. You'll notice numerous "cabalitos de torta," or "little reed horses." They get their name from the way they are straddled by fishermen when taking their nets into the water to catch fish. Interestingly, these boats are made of the same reeds used by the people of the Uros Islands to create their man-made floating islands. For a bit of culture, visit the town center of Huanchaco with colonial architecture, historic churches and peaceful squares.
amazon jungle Iquitos
Located in the Amazonas region of Peru, Iquitos offers opportunities to visit the largest tropical forest in the world, the Amazon Jungle. Adventurous travelers can take boat rides to view wildlife such as crocodiles, anacondas, monkeys, boas and more. There's also trekking, visiting indigenous communities and bird watching on the Amazon tours. Other experiences to have in Iquitos include visiting butterfly farms, monkey sanctuaries, manatee orphanages, animal rescue centers and national reserves.
The main reason people visit Nazca is to see the famous Nazca Lines, the ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was believed to have been created by an ancient Nazca culture between 400 and 650 A.D., can be enjoyed on land or by viewing the site overhead from a helicopter. The Nazca Lines, however, aren't the only reason to visit this city. There's also hiking, sandboarding, a vibrant Sunday market, the Pardeones Ruins and Chauchilla Cemetery, which is full of mummified bodies.
The second most popular city in Peru, Arequipa lies in the Andes Mountains with excellent views of El Misti Volcano, which you'll be able to climb if you wish. Walking around, you'll notice Spanish-style buildings from colonial times made of pearly-white volcanic rock. Because of this unique architecture, Arequipa's historical center was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Other activities of interest in the city include visiting the traditional neighborhood of Yanahuara, exploring the Santa Teresa Convent & Museum of Colonial Art and trekking through the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve.
It's 9 a.m. and the piranhas aren't biting. No matter. Our skiff is backed up to a banana tree in the flooded Amazon River basin of Peru on this warm and sunny morning, and pink dolphins are putting on a show a few feet in front of us. Yes, pink dolphins, which seem almost as happy as we are to be here.
What a great way to start the day. Off to one side is a cecropia tree, its huge leaves making it feel as if we're sheltered in an outdoor room while listening to the chattering birds and monkeys in the tree canopy overhead.
The noise is unmistakable, even when you don't expect to hear it. It's a gentle roar that rises every now and again; it bubbles with passion.
It seems so out of place here in the market, where most of the sounds are of vendors entreating you to relieve them of their wares. Below that is the normal hubbub of tourists stocking up on their Peruvian souvenirs, the colourful beanies and mass-produced T-shirts.
But deep in the background there's that noise, that distant hum of action, so I decide to follow it, to see if it really is what I think it is.
Taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is tough.
Machu Picchu is great, but I prefer my culture living and breathing. Photo: Reuters
Out on the street it's been raining - the river here in Aguas Calientes is as strong as ever, rushing past the town with a promise of violence that seems strange in such a beautiful place. Slip in there at this time of year, during the rainy season, and you'd be in serious trouble.
Bus after bus rolls through the little town's narrow streets, dropping passengers off and preparing to ferry yet another load up the hill to Machu Picchu, the sight everyone is here to see. Brakes groan, doors squeak, people file on and off.
There's no other reason to come to Aguas Calientes, nothing else to do here but wander through those tourist markets and select something to remind you of your visit to Machu Picchu. It's a Sunday afternoon but it's business as usual in town - the tourist trade here never sleeps.
The sound seems like it's coming from up the hill, away from the train tracks and the main square. Not many gringos make it up there, because there's no reason to. There are just a couple of local restaurants of questionable quality and blocks of apartments. Nothing much to see.
I'm almost certain I'm right now - the sound has joy in it, and passion, but also a little fury. Two kids dash past me on the cobbled alley, making their way up the hill, and I'm sure it's what I think it is.
Sure enough, I round one last corner, past one more block of flats, and there in the middle of Aguas Calientes, not two blocks from the tourist markets and the bars but hidden in another world, is the local football pitch. It's perched on the hillside right in among the city, carved between the buildings and alleys and squares.
The noise is from the crowd, the large group of locals who've gathered outside the high wire fences that surround the pitch to cheer on their local team. No one pays any mind to the gringo in their midst - they're engrossed in the game, in chatting to each other, in eating their food and drinking their beers.
It might sound stupid but I've found my holy grail.
This morning I'd been in Machu Picchu, the Incan ruins that must top more bucket lists than almost any sight in the world. It had been fascinating, of course. A lifelong highlight. But I like my culture living and breathing, which is why I'm just as happy having stumbled upon a local football game as I was stumbling across ancient ruins just a few hours earlier.
This is fun. I can't even tell which team is the local one, until the guys in blue score a goal and no one cheers. Right, so we're going for the pink team then. The people around me don't seem too bothered by the score - this is a social event, the game comes second.
I don't speak Spanish, so I'm not joining in the conversation, but still, there are few global unifiers quite like football. Put it up there with music, or dance, or food, or a simple smile. Doesn't matter where you go in the world, if you know football, you've got something in common with everyone.
I know when to cheer. I know who the bad guys are. I know we hate the referee. And I know that here, very briefly, until the guy in black blows the final whistle, I won't be treated as a tourist. I'll just be a fan.
The setting is spectacular. The Andes rise steep and imposing on all sides of the narrow valley. The synthetic pitch is a raw, striking green among the drab greys and browns on the buildings.
The crowd, perched on concrete benches or standing with fingers curled around the wire fencing, is a sea of colour, from their beanies to their knock-off football jerseys of teams from around the world. They're still chatting, or cheering, or some even singing.
With just a couple of minutes to go, the pink team - our team - scores, sending the crowd wild. The guy on the bench next to me throws an arm around my shoulders, gives a high salute to the gods of the beautiful game. I'm doing exactly the same.
You don't expect to top a visit to Machu Picchu in a lifetime, let alone that same day. But strangely enough, I might have.
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