I didn’t know what to expect as I entered Peru. I knew it was home to Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain but I didn’t realize how mind-blowingly beautiful the rest of the country was. I arrived in Lima and was immediately underwhelmed but luckily it was all uphill from there. Literally.
Here are the places you can’t miss in Peru.
10 - Rainbow Mountain
Tourists flock to Peru to take in the vista of this colorful mountain and that is exactly why it comes in last on my list. It’s so crowded. Plus, the hike is at 16,500-feet (5,000-m) elevation which is excruciating. All negativity aside though, it is a remarkably beautiful place. My favorite parts were the non-classic views and the alpacas.
The view to the right of Rainbow Mountain is just as stunning. You can do an additional hike along a trail here if you still have energy after tackling the climb to the first viewpoint.
There were roaming alpacas and llamas everywhere but this one at the top was pretty cute too.
This photo captures maybe a fifth of the overall area. If you go, make sure you start the hike in Maras because the other town makes the trail all uphill. We missed our stop and ended up having a long day of hiking.
9 - Maras Salt Mines
Another destination made popular by Instagrammers over-saturating images of it—Maras Salt Mines is actually a surprisingly cool spot. The photos you see online don’t show how expansive the area is. We spent a couple hours exploring and had the place pretty much to ourselves.
8 - Humantay Lake
An unbelievable shade of blue, this lake is at the start of the Salkantay Trek but can also be accessed as an easy day hike that will take your breath away both literally and metaphorically. If you have a short amount of time in Cusco, I’d recommend doing the day hike here and then doing Machu Picchu separately versus doing the whole Salkantay Trek.
7 - Huacachina
A desert-oasis town is not something I expected to find in Peru. It shocked me that not only does Peru have some of the most epic mountains I’ve ever seen but that you can also travel a few hours from them and feel like Mad Max riding dune buggies down Fury Road. While I didn’t love the actual town of Huacachina, the sunsets and sand-board and dune-buggy adventures made it worth the detour.
6 - Laguna Paron
If I’d hiked four miles to this lake and earned the views, I think it’d rank higher on my list. However, the journey to the lake is a long and bumpy bus ride and then you just step out of the van and see this view. It’s wonderfully accessible for people of all ages and fitness levels which is great on one hand but makes it seem less appealing on the other. If you visit, do the Paramount hike as this makes it more than just a pit stop on a long road trip.
5 - Laguna 69
With a puzzling but actually completely uncreative name (nearby lakes are 67, 68, etc…), Laguna 69 was one of the most stunning lakes I visited on my trip. The water is a blue that needs no photoshopping and the hike is both challenging and gorgeous.
To get to Laguna 69, you hike through this valley that has waterfalls flowing into it. It makes for muddy feet, but it’s worth it.
4 - Salkantay Trek
A four or five-day trek that leads you to Machu Picchu and only costs $165 for a fully catered and geared out experience? Yes, please. The camping on this trek is more glamping than anything but during rainy season, it’s wonderful to have shelter that keeps you completely dry. The hike isn’t too hard but some days have a lot of mileage.
You can add on side activities like zip-lining and thermal pools to give your legs a much needed reprieve along the way. Also, the hike can be done by yourself as long as you bring your own gear or rent it in Cusco.
3 - Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was my fourth and favorite of the New Seven Wonders of the World. While crowded, it was still awe inspiring. Tip: if you’ve just done a long trek to get to Machu Picchu, book the train back to Cusco. It’s more expensive than the bus but it saves you 11 km and a 7-hour bus ride from hell. Also, do your knees a favor and book the shuttle either to the top or on the way back down so that you only have to do the 1700 steps once.
2 - Santa Cruz Trek
It poured rain on us every afternoon, was freezing at night, and we had a horrible guide—but this trek has been my favorite multi-day trek of the trip. Yes, better than Salkantay that leads to Machu Picchu. Why? It doesn’t feel touristy at all and you are in the mountains the entire time. Unlike Salkantay, there is no place to buy water every day, no Wi-Fi, no electricity, no walking down regular roads, and no bus to help you skip sections of the trek. We had glorious weather as we went through the highest pass, so that helped as well.
The cost is around $100 for a four-day guided trek and includes all the gear and food you need. Or you can just do it by yourself since the trail is super easy to follow.
1 - Laguna Churup
Maybe it’s because it was my first hike in Peru or because the water seemed to constantly shift through every shade of blue and green, but Laguna Churup won my heart fully. With waterfall views for 90% of the hike and ropes to climb up like Indiana Jones near the end—it was just such a special experience.
When I tell other travelers that went to the same area that it was my favorite hike in Peru, almost all of them say, “What hike?” It’s so unknown that I actually only saw only four other people at the lake Plus, unlike most hikes in Peru, it’s only a short ride from the town nearby versus an average of six hours in a van.
It’s a coin toss for me whether Peru or Guatemala has been my favorite country of this trip. I hadn’t expected much from either and both more than impressed me with how beautiful their landscapes were.
If you find yourself in Peru, my recommendation is that you steer toward Huaraz instead of Cusco. Most of my top choices are day trips from there.
Nearly everything is cheaper to book in person and the prices you see online are way above average. The only exception to this is if you decide to do the Inca Trail which needs to be reserved in advance.
Get massages after big hikes or just because. I had a hour-long session in Cusco for $7.
I traveled from city to city with Cruz del Sur. Their busses are so comfortable that I was able to sleep 15 hours out of an 18-hour bus ride.
When you inevitably decide to buy a wool sweater or poncho, ask several different vendors what they charge. Everyone sells the same patterns and styles so just go with the cheapest. Beware that most “baby alpaca” options are probably “maybe alpaca?” options.
Don’t miss the market in Cusco. At the very least, go and get your smoothie there in the morning. You can pick any fruit or vegetables you want and it is way cheaper than buying one from a restaurant or cafe.
If you need any gear, stock up in Lima where you can go to official stores and not end up with knock-off North Face equipment. Better yet, buy it in your home country where you can assure the quality and where it is probably just as cheap and has a decent return policy.
Don’t completely fear the dreaded “rainy season.” I was there during the main part of that season and it just means afternoon showers most days (think Florida thunderstorms and not all-day rain like Seattle or dreary places). It also means you share the trails with way fewer people and that hostels aren’t fully booked.
If you have food allergies or restrictions, stock up on snacks and supplies in larger towns that have proper grocery stores and you should be fine. Most meals in Peru consist of soup, meat, rice, and french fries. All of the tours I did catered to me being gluten free (though not well in some cases…tuna mixed with cold fries for breakfast was interesting…).
If you’re planning a trip to Peru and have any questions or want any recommendations, just leave a comment below or send me an email. It’s such an amazing country and I could talk about it all day.