The first thing that comes to mind when most people hear Peru is Machu Picchu and/or the Inca Trail. And while those two sites are really incredible, there are over a million square kilometers in Peru with everything from beaches to Amazon rainforest, and a number of other ruins that are also beautiful. Below are a few of our favorite off-the-beaten-track spots to check out in Peru.
1. Huacachina Oasis
In the southwest part of Peru, in a small village named Ica, is a desert oasis that is the perfect place to relax. Large sand dunes conceal the oasis that is home to a mere 100 people. Visitors venture to this location for a quiet retreat in the middle of the desert. Many come to sandboard the 500 meter high sand dunes or drive buggies around the surrounding desert. Legend has it that an Incan princess was bathing naked and was discovered by a hunter causing her to flee. It is said that the mirror she left behind became the lake and her clothes formed the surrounding dunes. The muds of the lake are also said to have healing powers, and many wealthy Peruvians flocked to the lake in the 1900s to take advantage of this oasis.
Not far off from the famous archaeological site of Machu Picchu, is a lesser known ruin called Choquequirao, or the Cradle of Gold. Though it is said to be about three times bigger than its more famous sister, Choquequirao sees only tens of visitors per day. These ruins are believed to be the the last city that the Sons of the Sun took refuge in during the 16th century when fleeing from Cusco, and archaeologists have only uncovered about 30% of the site. There are talks of the Peruvian government installing a cable car to bring tourists to this destination, but for now it is about a two-day or four-day hike from Cusco with a trek that is known to be twice as difficult as the Inca Trail. Definitely one for the more seasoned hikers!
3. Mancora and Huanchaco Beaches
Northern Peru doesn’t get a lot of publicity as most people focus on the ruins and cities in the south, but there are many beautiful and secluded beaches along the coast. Take for instance the towns of Mancora and Huanchaco that are perfect for a relaxing beach vacation with great food and even better surf, and also whale watching. The food in the north is also some of the best in the country and features a lot of fresh fish. While local tourists know all about these beach towns, foreigners are only now starting to make their way and learning that there’s more to Peru than ancient ruins and Lima.
4. Cotahuasi Canyon
While many people know the Grand Canyon in the U.S., they don’t realize that there are a few other canyons that are much deeper. The Cotahuasi Canyon between Cusco and Arequipa is the third largest canyon in the world and more than double the depth of the Grand Canyon. At its deepest point Cotahuasi Canyon is 3,535 meters deep and is cut by the Cotahuasi River. Many villages and people reside in this canyon and a number still adhere to an old way of life. Visiting this canyon is like a step back in time for Peruvian culture and is a great off-the-beaten-track spot to visit.
5. Chacapoyas and the Kuelap Fortress
Another spot in northern Peru that is fairly unknown among foreign tourists is Chacapoyas, the gateway to the Kuelap Fortress, a pre-Incan ruin. It is named after the Chacapoya people, or the People of the Clouds and is also in a strategic area along the Amazon rainforest. It is now a busy market town with its own airport and a number of activities. Aside from the fortress ruins, there are two waterfalls, the Yumbilla and Gocta, 896 and 771 meters respectively, that are some of the tallest in the world. If you like mummies there is a Museum of Mummies in the nearby town of Leymebamba, as well as burial centers with large sarcophagi in Karajia and Pueblo de los Muertes, The Town of the Dead. This region also has a number of treks ranging from a few hours to a few days that will give you extraordinary views of the area.
While Machu Picchu and Lima are great places to add to your itinerary and are definite “must-sees,” the places mentioned above give you a different look into what Peru is like outside of these regions. From beaches to deserts and Amazon jungle, there is a lot to see in this incredible country.