Peru See And Do
To travel on the Amazon River, first head to Iquitos, where vestiges of 19th- and early 20th-century European rubber boom architecture meet the so-called Venice of the Amazon: the ramshackle suburb of Belen, whose floating market offers everything from piranhas to plantains. Iquitos also serves as the home base for Aqua Expeditions, an operator of luxury cruises in the fabled Pacaya Samiria Reserve and other places.
Another sector of Peru's Amazon basin, Manu National Park, has the greatest biological diversity of any place on the planet. Marquis inhabitants of this vast UNESCO Biosphere Reserve include jaguars, giant river otters, and all manner of parrots and monkeys. However, given the resident ecosystems' inherent fragility—and the critical importance of conservation—the lay visitor has access to only a fraction of the reserve. (Access is restricted even for researchers and NGOs.) That said, Manu Wildlife Center is a great place to observe some of the park's most colorful birds and elusive mammals.
A third stunning swath of the Peruvian Amazon—where travel is considerably easier than in Manu—is the Tambopata National Reserve. Rainforest Expeditions operates three of the best local lodges there. While the facilities are admittedly spare, they place you—and a crack team of biologist guides—in the middle of some of the most surreal wildlife displays in existence, not least the sunrise macaw-fest at the massive clay lick next to the Tambopata Research Center. Much closer to Tambopata's air hub of Puerto Maldonado, Reserva Amazonica is the best local luxury option.—Updated by Abbie Kozolchyk
At more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is inherently dramatic and also home to some of the world's largest flying birds, Andean condors. Easily the greatest local spectacle is their morning hunting flight—best seen from the Cruz del Condor lookout, almost 4,000 feet up from the canyon floor—and all attendant ascents, descents, and flybys. At times, you'll think these creatures, whose wingspans can reach 10.5 feet, might actually touch down on your head. (Never happens.) When the show is over, you'll want to explore other parts of the Colca region, which includes some of Peru's most photogenic architectural terraces. Local hotels and tour operators, such as Las Casitas del Colca, can arrange hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding excursions. Note: To reach this region, you'll most likely fly to Arequipa, a UNESCO World Heritage designee well worth seeing. Highlights include an arrestingly beautiful central plaza (especially at night, when the all-white buildings are illuminated); the Santa Catalina convent, a centuries-old, convincingly Andalusian city-within-a-city; and the mummy "Juanita," a sacrificed Incan girl whose ice-preserved remains were discovered by an anthropologist in 1995 atop Arequipa's neighboring Mount Ampato.—Updated by Abbie Kozolchyk
At 12,500 feet above sea level, this natural border between Peru and Bolivia is the fabled birthplace of the Incas, and the world's highest-altitude commercially navigable lake. The 40-odd floating islands on the Peruvian side were established centuries ago by the Inca-fleeing Uros, whose descendants still populate (at least part-time) this ever-shifting reed flotilla. Whether you're staying at the Libertador Puno or one of the other hotels in town, the staff can arrange a trip to the islands—and to the traditional textile-producing terra firma islands of Taquile and Amantani—or direct you to an agency that can. The Islas del Sol and de la Luna, which you'll find on the Bolivian side of the lake, have Inca ruins and agricultural terraces that warrant the long day trip from Puno (or an overnight). As for Puno itself, the greatest show in town—and the apex of the local religious/folkloric calendar—is the Festividad Virgen Maria de la Candelaria (or simply Candelaria, as this festival at the beginning of February is commonly known). An ode to the region's most venerated image of Mary, in the form of solemn processions and wild, colorful dance competitions, this two-week extravaganza draws celebrants and observers from all over the country and the world. If you want to attend, check out the annual schedule at Punofolklore.com or Punomagico.com, and book as early as possible.—Updated by Abbie Kozolchyk
Remote and high enough to elude the ravaging conquistadors, this vast Incan complex was most famously rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. Locals had long since known about it, however—not least Melchor Arteaga, who led the Yale archaeologist to the ruins. Having made UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1983, followed by the New Seven Wonders of the World list in 2007, Machu Picchu has seen epic tourism growth over the last few decades—and the centennial of the rediscovery promises more throughout 2011. While authorities contemplate how best to avoid damage to the palaces, temples, fountains, and residences, visitors generally contemplate how best to avoid each other. The most strenuous—and arguably the most rewarding—way to sidestep the crowds is the two- or four-day trek along the fabled Inca Trail. On the last morning, you start walking before dawn in order to reach Machu Picchu's Sun Gate (Inti Punku) by sunrise, after which you can expect a crowd-free couple of hours before the buses start to roll in. Good Inca Trail operators include Gap and Myths and Mountains, or Intrepid Travel; book as far in advance as possible, as trail permits are limited. Alternatively, you can stay at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, where you'll be among the first nonhikers to enter the gate at 5:40 am, if you so choose. Or stay in Machu Picchu Pueblo (a.k.a. Aguas Calientes) and catch one of the first buses to Machu Picchu: Buses start leaving at around 5:20 am and take you on a 20-minute, zigzagging ride up a thickly forested mountain. Even if you see Machu Picchu on a day trip from Cuzco or the Sacred Valley—and even if the ruins are at capacity—rest assured that you will still be humbled and amazed. A final note: The tallest peak you see in the backdrop of every Machu Picchu shot is Huayna Picchu, and you can hike to the top for some of the most amazing views of the complex. But you'll need to get to the entrance early and pick up the free Huayna Picchu trail ticket (limited to 400 people daily).—Updated by Abbie Kozolchyk
The countless—typically immense—lines and animal figures etched into the southern coast's hard desert floor are the most famous legacy of the pre-Inca Nazca civilization. Though the figures' meaning is unknown (theories touch on everything from the agricultural to the extraterrestrial), some of the menagerie's most iconic members include the monkey, hummingbird, condor, and spider. Collectively forming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they're visible only from above—and while there is a viewing tower, you'll see a lot more by plane. Several local operators offer cheap flights, but one of the best-maintained planes is the Libertador Hotel group's, available to Hotel Paracas guests for $250 per hour-long flight. And as long as you're in the neighborhood, don't miss the Galápagos-evoking Islas Ballestas, with their gorgeous rock formations and squawking, bobbing hoards (penguins, pelicans, boobies, sea lions, and cormorants, for starters).—Updated by Abbie Kozolchyk