If you’re looking for a South American adventure tinged with history, impossibly fresh seafood, and awe-inspiring views, then we recommend these seven sights in Peru.
Travel to Peru: Map
1: Machu Picchu
Little surprise that this tops our list. Machu Picchu, commonly known for the sweeping ruins capping the mountains outside of Cusco, is also the namesake of the nearby town. While there is no broad consensus on the ruins’ origins, many archaeologists believe Machu Picchu to be a sprawling estate constructed in the 15th century for Incan Emperor Pachacuti. It was abandoned shortly thereafter due to the Spanish conquest, but you can still experience the mesmerizing mountains views and scope of the complex today. (Insider tip: Historians believe the estate was built to resemble a condor, a sacred bird in Incan tradition. See if you can figure out what part of the complex is the beak of the bird and which part is the tail.)
2: Cusco Cathedral (Plaza de Armas)
The gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a quaint mountain town about 45 minutes away from Lima by plane. While much of the city features plain, boxy architecture, the center of town is a time capsule of Spanish design, style, and culture. In fact, at the center of the city sits the expansive square, Plaza de Armas, presided by an imposing fountain and surrounded by two-story buildings with ornate balconies and intricate woodwork, much of which features the classic Churrigueresque style (otherwise known as “ultra Baroque”). At one end of the square sits the Roman Catholic Cusco Cathedral, built over the course of a century, starting in the mid-1500s. Today, it serves both as a place of worship for devoted Peruvians and a repository of colonial art. Its pivotal role in the region and longstanding history earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1983.
3: Sacred Valley of the Incas
Sometimes called the Urubamba Valley, the Sacred Valley of the Incas sits in the Andes Mountains in southern Peru. Today, the Valley serves as a landmark for tourists who choose to make the trek to Machu Picchu on foot; it stands part way between Cusco, where the so-called Incan Trail begins, and Machu Picchu itself. The importance of the site to native Incans was primarily its climate; it was notably warmer than surrounding areas, permitting farmers to grow maize. This was more than just nourishment, however. Maize was the key ingredient of chicha, a fermented maize drink used in religious ceremonies. This was central to its reputation as a sacred site, bolstered by later use as a site for royal estates and homes — the ruins of which you can still see.
4: Miraflores Market, Lima
If you want “upscale” in the bustling capital city of Lima, head to Miraflores. Here, you’ll find a fun mix of European architectural styles, Western shopping outlets, and starred restaurants known the world over. For a taste of a true Peruvian market, however, head to the Miraflores Market — an indoor/outdoor emporium of foods, cebiche bars, trinket stalls, and produce stands. The market itself is laid out in concentric circles, so start on the outside, then make your way to the center where you’ll find fresh cebiche sourced from the ocean nearby, butchers, and the home goods outlet. (Pro tip: Coca leaves, alongside many other herbs, often hang from the ceiling in Peruvian markets, pitched as cures for languid love lives. While they’re not the cure you’d hope for, the coca leaf — the very same used in the production of cocaine, though with a much lower concentration of psychoactive alkaloids — makes a nice, soothing tea. You can also do what the natives do: Grab a coca leaf and chew on it. Just don’t swallow.)
If you enjoy a mix of art and history, make your way to the Museum of Precolombian Art in Cusco. Their standing exhibits feature countless rooms of figurines, sculptures, textiles, and paintings from native Peruvian populations dating back some three thousand years. The museum itself is housed in a building that blends mission-style Spanish architecture with modern, angular design to give visitors a sense of history’s progress in the region. Unlike many other museums, which often group exhibits by era, the Museum of Precolombian Art devotes specific rooms to the materials used in the production of ancient goods, including wood, shells, silver, and gold. (Pro tip: Museum-gazing is also appetite-inducing, so process all of that history at the MAP Café in the museum’s quaint courtyard. You can enjoy lighter bites like mushroom soup and cream of maize (corn), or go big with the grilled alpaca.)
6: Mancora Beach
A fixture at the very north of Peru, Mancora Beach is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of a big city like Lima. Its sandy beaches, accompanying seaside village, and distinctly relaxing vibe make it an idyllic vacation getaway. You can easily get an Airbnb if you stay here, and you’ll find there’s plenty to keep you busy. Surf your heart out, slurp up seafood just off the boat, or just sit on the sand and contemplate the origins of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea” — the inspiration for which purportedly came from Mancora. You won’t have problems getting around, either; there’s one road that weaves through town and you can walk anywhere.
In the heart of the popular tourist destination Arequipa (located in southern Peru) sits a massive, 215,000-square-foot Spanish convent dubbed Santa Catalina. The convent houses nuns from the Dominican Second Order and was built in the late 16th century. Over the years, the convent amassed a great deal of wealth, owing to the Spanish custom of second-born children entering religious life and contributing much of their personal wealth to the monastery or convent where they ultimately resided. At its peak, Santa Catalina housed some 450 people — a third of whom were nuns and two-thirds servants and slaves. This was “corrected” in the 1870s when Pope Pius IX freed the slaves and sent much of the convent’s acquired wealth back to Europe. Today, visitors can tour the dozens of buildings, corridors, and rooms that make up the convent, guided by multilingual docents.