Many come to Peru for the Inca Trail, a four day ascent through epic mountain scenery culminating in the hidden ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, but there is so much more to discover in this vast South American country. From endless miles of barren desert on the western coast to the dense, humid jungle of the Amazon; high altitude towns that appear in the middle of imposing mountain ranges to high octane deserts brimming with opportunities for adventure. Here are 10 absolute must do’s for a traveller getting off the beaten track in Peru.
- Sand boarding in Huacachina.
After finding the highest dune hop off the buggy and grab a board. Like snowboarding but warmer sandboarding is taking off in Peru, all you need is good balance and a bit of skill, or, in the absence of either, good old hands and knees is just as fun!Huacachina lies on the western coast of Peru, a small oasis in a barren desert of rolling sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Jump on a sand buggy from here and venture into the desert for a white knuckle ride traversing the steep dunes and transient landscape.
- The women’s weaving project – Cusco
Historically weaving has played an important part in the culture of the local Quechua people of Peru, telling stories through the generations as the craft has been handed down from one woman to another. Just outside of Cusco tourism is being used to support the communities of local women through their weaving (Planeterra Womens weaving workshop). Everything from how the dye is made, spun and woven to the finished product is demonstrated. Sales from the alpaca wool and handicrafts made by the community help support the families and preserve their way of life.
- Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of Uros
Landing on the floating islands of Uros is like stepping into another world. Everything is made of reeds from the floor you stand on to the simple single room houses that family life revolves around. The lake is the lifeblood of the community providing the food, shelter and protection: The people were said to have moved here to escape invaders, the high altitude lake providing an impenetrable barrier which leaves them isolated to this day. Traditional reed boats are the only way to get around linking one family island to the next. Cut off from modern technology and convenience these islands thrive on their traditional ways.
- High Tea in the Andes
Winding through the high Andes reaching heights of over four thousand meters above sea level altitude sickness is a real threat. Lucky for us the Peruvians have several solutions to this; chocolate (always a favourite), coffee and something a little stronger. Known as Inca tea locals use a mix of herbs including the coca leaf with hot water to create a potent remedy to the thin air.
- Flamingo spotting at 16,000 feet
Along the roads between Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu not much survives in the thin mountain air. Large expanses of flat land intersperse the rugged mountain landscape of the Andes, rain water collects on the plains providing an unlikely home for some of Peru’s most unusual inhabitants. Bright pink and standing on one spindly leg it’s a wonder how Flamingo’s survive in this inhospitable landscape but they do gathering in what’s commonly known as a flamboyance of flamingos.
- Overindulge in Arequipa
Come for the colonial architecture that gives fame to Peru’s second largest city, stay for the eats. Arequipa is well known for its baroque buildings hewn from the white sillar rock of the three great volcanoes that surround the area but the city is now undergoing somewhat of a food renaissance with everything from the archetypal deep fried Guinea pig to sublime Alpaca steaks (think beef taste meets lamb tenderness) and ocopa (boiled potato in a spicy creamy sauce). Que Rico!
- Hike alongside the Condors in Colca Canyon
It’s quite hard to travel around the central highlands of Peru and not find an amazing backdrop of mountains, rivers or agricultural remnants of ancient civilizations. But Colca Canyon takes some beating. From the friendly cultural hub of Chivay travelers can make their way into one of the deepest canyons in the world and take advantage of a range of adventure sports on offer. To take in the full enormity of it all visit “Cruz del Condor” viewpoint where spotting an Andean condor cruising the thermals is a likely highlight.
- Experience “Peru’s Galapagos” at Ballestas Islands
Jumping on Ecuador’s bandwagon day trips to the Ballestas Islands are readily available from Lima, but for a more unique experience spend a night or two in Paracas. Sample fresh Ceviche and learn how the birds of Ballestas make it possible for people to live in this dry desert before taking an early boat tour with a local guide to avoid the day tripping crowds. Spot everything from pelicans to penguins on these wildlife rich rocks just off shore.
- Party like a local in Paracas
Peruvians know how to throw a good party and the small seaside town of Paracas is no exception. Arrive during a local festival and the party extends from the town to take over the whole beach with live performances and glitter and glamour a plenty it’s time to get familiar with another local tradition; Pisco sours!
- Get your Attenborough on in the Amazon
Arrive by plane to Puerto Maldonado deep in the Peruvian Amazon, from here travel a few hours by bus and boat further into the jungle and you will find a small eco lodge surrounded by the astoundingly bio-diverse Tambopata reserve. Go all Attenborough as you spot pocket monkeys, hummingbirds, capybara (the world’s largest rodent), caiman and all sorts of bird life. Avoid the temptation for a quick dip to escape the heat here though, piranhas lurk just out of site beneath the muddy waters.