Since its unveiling to the modern Western world in 1905, Machu Picchu has enchanted travelers of all nationalities with its natural beauty and incredible glimpse into the lives of the ancient Inca. While it’s certainly a worthwhile attraction, particularly for the first-time visitor to South America, let’s not forget how much more Peru has to offer. If you’ve paid your respects on the Inca Trail and are ready to branch out beyond the Sacred Valley, consider these alternative destinations.
The starting point for many journeys along the Inca Trail holds its own fair share of Peruvian charms. Cusco was the capital of the ancient Inca empire, so there’s plenty of history right here in town. Spend an afternoon wandering the Centro Historico, soaking up Incan ruins and colonial Spanish influences. Historic churches pepper the cobblestone streets, while local restaurants dish out the infamous Peruvian dish cuy – fried guinea pig.
Peru’s modern capital also boasts a colonial city center, but offers travelers an added dash of vivacity with a lively arts scene and bustling foodie culture. The country is home to a variety of traditional crafts and folk art, and Lima is an ideal place to pick up authentic souvenirs, like handmade clay retablos or colorful textiles. While the city doesn’t often attract praise for its architecture, it makes up for the lack of postcard-worthy facades with sweeping ocean views. Get your fair share of photo ops with a stroll along Miraflores, a three-mile-long park and promenade, followed by a meal of fresh seafood at one of Lima’s world-class restaurants.
The number of hikers on the Inca Trail may be limited for preservation purposes, but if you want even fewer tourist crowds to battle, head south to Puno. This major city and center of both Peru’s agricultural industry and the country’s artistic traditions lies on the scenic shores of Lake Titicaca. There’s plenty of hiking in the area, but the real attractions are out on the water. Tour the floating reed islands of the Uros or the Sillustani burial towers to learn about local civilizations big and small that have made their livings on the lake. To get a better feel for local culture, time your visit for one of the area’s festivals, like the Feast of the Virgen de la Candelaria or the Regional Competition of Autochthonous Dances.
Less than 200 miles west, you’ll find what may very well be Puno’s polar opposite. The baroque city of Arequipa sits nestled between three volcanoes, still standing after over 400 years of wild earthquakes and raucous revolutions. Pay homage to the colonial history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Plaza de Armas or the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. For a bit of natural beauty, join an adventure tour and journey into the nearby Colca Canyon, or head east to the Laguna de Salinas, which becomes a pure white salt flat between May and December. Or just eat your way through town – Arequipa may be only one-tenth the size of Lima, but it gives the nation’s capital a run for its money in the gourmet dining department.