Peru is a South American country known for its important Incan history. Hence the top things to do in Cusco, Peru are centered around visiting archaeological sites. As for the best free things to do in Peru, go for a stroll around Arequipa’s historical and uniquely-designed city center. Meanwhile, one of the most unique things to do in Peru is to fly over the Nazca Lines, which are giant geoglyphs.
If you’re searching for things to do in north Peru, head to Iquitos for an unforgettable Peruvian Amazon adventure. All of the top things to do in Peru listed below offer a guide for what to do in Peru in January as well. It’s a great time to visit, as the high season in summer brings a steady stream of tourists.
1. Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. Sitting 2430 meters above sea level in the Andes Mountains and surrounded by a lush tropical forest, the 15th-century Incan citadel is renowned for its impressive dry-stone walls that were constructed without the use of mortar. With over 1.5 million people visiting every year, you can get to Machu Picchu by hiking the famous Inca trail or by taking the train from Cusco.
The Saqsaywaman (also known as Sacsayhuamán) archaeological site stretches for 3000 hectares on the outskirts of Cusco. A 15th-century fortress with vertical sections, it was the largest structure the Incas built and it features the same masterful stone walls as Machu Picchu. Nearby you’ll also find the ruins of Qenko, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay, which are listed below. There are two easy ways to reach Saqsaywaman: by taxi or by walking from Cusco’s city center.
3. Colca Canyon
Made by the Colca River, the Colca Canyon is Peru’s third most-visited tourist destination. Located 99 miles northwest of Arequipa, at 10,730 ft it’s the world’s second deepest canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the best places in the country to see the Andean condor – a bird with a 10-ft wingspan. A popular trekking destination, there are several guided one, two, and three-day trek tours available from Arequipa, or you can go independently.
Another Incan archaeological site, Moray is located 31 miles northwest of Cusco and sits on a plateau 3500 meters above sea level. One of the country’s most unique Incan ruins, it features several circular stone terraced depressions that resemble a Greek amphitheater. Although no one knows its exact former purpose, the most agreed-upon theory is that it was an Incan agricultural research station. The best way to reach Moray is by taxi or tour group.
Qorikancha (or Coricancha) was one of the most important and richest temples during the Incan Empire. The site contained the Temple of the Sun, which was the most sacred site in Incan religion and the center of their world. Constructed in the mid-15th century, its walls were covered in 700 solid gold sheets. For more information on Cusco’s history and to see artifacts found during excavations at the temple, head to the Qorikancha Site Museum.
6. Huayna Picchu
Huayna Picchu is a mountain the overlooks Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Towering 850 feet over Machu Picchu, the panoramic views from its peak are worth the effort. However, only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu daily, so booking tickets in advance is highly recommended. There are two trails to reach the summit (varying in length), which can be steep but there are steel cables for support along the way.
7. Choquequirao Archaeological Park
Often called the “other Machu Picchu,” Choquequirao Archaeological Park is an Incan site that’s actually three times larger than Machu Picchu. The ruins include buildings and terraces divided into 12 sections, which are located both above and below its truncated hilltop. The only way to reach Choquequirao is via a 40-mile four-day hike. Involving deep valleys, scenic mountain views, and several microclimates, the trek is one of the most adventurous things to do in Peru.
Salcantay (or Salkantay) is the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range, which is a part of the Peruvian Andes. It’s located approximately 37 miles northwest of Cusco. Thanks to its proximity to Machu Picchu, an alternative to the overcrowded and renowned Inca Trail is the Salcantay Trek. ITEP Travel offers several Salcantay packages, which range from four to seven days. This is one of the best things to do in Peru for outdoor enthusiasts.
9. Manu National Park
As the name suggests, the Peruvian Amazon is the part of the amazing Amazon Rainforest located in Peru. Covering 60% of the country’s surface, the rainforest is extremely biodiverse, with 7000 plant varieties, 293 different mammal species, and 806 different birds. There are many things to do in the Peruvian Amazon, such as meeting the local shaman (medicine man), hiking through the Manu National Park to spot wildlife, and visiting the Amazon River at Iquitos.
10. Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is a 70-mile fertile valley in the Peruvian Andes, stretching from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. Once known as the epicenter of the Incan Empire, today visiting the Sacred Valley is one of the top things to do in Peru. The best places to visit include Pisac, with its popular Sunday market and Incan ruins; the aforementioned archaeological sites of Moray, Saqsaywaman, and Machu Picchu; the Ollantaytambo Ruins and Salinas, the Incan salt mines.
Tambomachay is another Incan archaeological site that sits four miles north of Cusco. Comprised of a series of aqueducts, canals, and waterfalls flowing through terraced rocks, it’s unknown whether Tambomachay was previously used as a ceremonial religious site, a spa for Incan nobility, or a military outpost. One of the best things to do in Peru is definitely to visit a few of these important Incan sites located in and surrounding UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cusco.
12. Lake Titicaca
Surrounded by the Andes Mountains and straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable body of water. Some of the best things to do on Lake Titicaca include visiting the Uros Islands, which are a series of 40 floating islands made by the local Uros people. You can also visit the scenic Playa de Copacabana, the Gold Museum on the Island of the Sun, and the pre-Inca Sillustani ruins.
Kuélap is a mountaintop walled settlement that was built in the 6th century. Predating the Incan empire and made from stone, the fortified site is one of the area’s best-preserved archaeological sites. It’s said that during its peak, it might have even acted as a city for 300,000 people. With the recent installation of a cable car that cuts the travel time to Kuélap to just 20 minutes, its number of visitors has doubled.
14. Puka Pukara
Puka Pukara means red fortress, with the name probably derived from the fact its rocks turn red at dusk. The military ruins site is made up of large walls, terraces, and staircases. It would have historically functioned as both a military base in charge of protecting Cusco and as an administration center. When visiting Puka Pukara on the outskirts of Cusco, don’t miss seeing other nearby archaeological sites too, like the aforementioned Saqsaywaman and Tambomachay.
15. Nazca Lines
Located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, the Nazca Lines are a UNESCO World Heritage-listed set of large geoglyphs that were created between 500BC and 500AD. They feature everything from simple lines to geometric and zoomorphic shapes, and some are as long as 1200 feet (the height of the Empire State Building). The best way to see the historically significant Nazca Lines is from the air, with multiple daily flights available from Pisco Airport.
16. Arequipa’s Historical City Center
Arequipa’s historical city center is officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its pink and white buildings are made from volcanic sillar rock and feature a unique combination of European and native building techniques. This is evident in the city’s walls, archways, courtyards, and intricate baroque facades. Founded in 1540, the city center’s grid layout is also typical of Spanish colonial cities. Surrounded by snow-capped volcanic peaks, don’t miss visiting Arequipa on your trip to Peru.