Even though train service to Machu Picchu has been interrupted for at least the next six weeks or so (FYI: a bus/train connection via Santa Teresa is supposedly in the works until it is repaired) and the Inca Trail is closed for it’s annual maintenance in February, there are still plenty of alternatives to spend your time in Peru. There’s much more to Peru than Machu Picchu. Sure, it’s a world wonder and a UNESCO world heritage site, but there’s 11 other world heritage sites in Peru too.
Around Cusco & the Sacred Valley
OK, so you already bought your flights to Cusco and need to stay in the region. Relax, there’s plenty more here to do:
Cusco: With luxury hotels in Cusco having dropped their prices after the mass cancellations, you can have this city full of visitors almost to yourself and for one third of the price. There’s plenty of fine restaurants and bars, excellent museums and churches, and lots of historical sites to keep your mind off of that other one (Machu something?).
Sacred Valley: A glut of new luxury lodges (Aranwa, Urubamba Villas, Casa Andina Private Collection) in the Sacred Valley has vastly expanded services here. There are better and better country style restaurants opening here everyday (try El Huacatay), rafting on the Rio Urubamba, horseback riding to a handful of Inca Ruins, and of course exploring the market at Pisac.
Lake Titicaca: A short flight, train ride, or bus ride to the high altiplano takes you to Puno, the launching point for trips on the world’s highest navigable lake. There are luxury hotels such as Titialaka, more remote Casa Andina hotel on Isla Suasi, and homestays with villagers on the islands of Taquile and Amantani, a once in a lifetime experience. Every trip here should include a trip to the Islas de Uros, or Uros floating islands.
Hikes/Treks: Outside of the Inca Trail, there are dozens of treks to take from Cusco. Some would even say they’re better than the Inca Trail, not to mention less crowded. The Lares Valley and Salkantay treks both take in the nature of the high Andes, while hikes to Vilcabamba and Choquequirao are based on visits to ruins as significant to the Incas as Machu Picchu was, if not more so.
Elsewhere in Peru:
Caral: A 5,000 year old pyramid complex from the Caral-Supe culture is just a few hours north of Lima. Having co-existed around the time of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Caral has completely redefined what we know of early history in the Americas.
Kuelap: This citadel in the high jungle not far from the city of Chachapoyas has a setting that rivals that of Machu Picchu and still retains much of the mystery that Machu Picchu lacks. Plus, there are no crowds here whatsoever.
Chan Chan: The world’s largest adobe city sits relatively close to the modern city of Trujillo, Peru’s third largest, and several other major ancient sites such as the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. Nearby Lambayeque is home to the Sipan museum, which houses the legendary remains of Señor de Sipan, considered one of the ost important archeological discoveries of the 20th century.
Tucume: Excavted by Thor Heyerdahl of Kontiki fame, this vast pyramid complex near the northern city of Chiclayo appears to be a mountain range. Only when you get close to you realize they are in fact adobe pyramids. Fascinating.
Santa Cruz: This 4-day hike in the Cordillera Blanca that starts in Huaraz is one of South America’s favorites. You’ll see unparallel views of the highest mountains in the world outside of the Himalayas and pass herds of llamas and isolated mountain villages.
Choquequirao: Often called Machu Picchu’s sister city for its similar design, though unlike Machu Picchu it cannot be reached by train, so it sees far fewer visitors. The 1,800 hectares complex is only partially excavated, so you get to see it at a more natural state. The only way there is a 3-5 day hike (depending on your route).
Lares Valley: Cusco’s 5 day, high altitude nature trek crosses high mountain passes and delves deep into lush river valleys. It passes hot springs, Inca ruins, rarely seen mountain lakes, and Quechua people that have lived unchanged for centuries.
Paracas: In 2009, three major resorts (Doubletree/Hilton, La Hacienda, and Luxury Collection/Libertador) have opened on the desert coast bordering the Paracas National Marine Reserve. While the ocean here is more for kitesurfing and water sports, the pool scenes at each hotel are as fine as any Caribbean resort. When not lounging around, there are flights over the Nazca Lines, Pisco distilleries, the Islas Ballestas (the poor man’s Galapagos), desert dune buggy rides, sandboarding, and lots of other activities you will find nowhere else on earth.
Mancora: The Caribbean like waters at this surf town in the north of Peru have still yet to have been discovered by the masses. There are dozens of small hotels, a few of them pure luxury, spread out up and down the coast on a dozen or so different beaches (Las Pocitas is the best).
Surfing: Home to women’s world champion and fan favorite Sofia Mulanovich, Peru has long been one of the world’s top surfing destinations. The Beach Boys even mentioned the town of Cerro Azul in the song “Surfin’ Safari”. Surf tours are growing in number to the best waves in Lima, Punta Hermosa, Mancora, and Chicama, which is home to the world’s largest left hand break.
Pacaya Samiria: One of the largest and most important national parks in Peru, this northern section of low-lying jungle is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s quite difficult to reach, so luxury river boars such as the MV Aqua have made an adventure here considerably easier.
Tambopata: Very close to Puerto Maldonado, which is reached by several daily flights from Cusco, the Tambopata National Reserve is one of the places with the highest biodiversity on earth. Macaw Clay Licks, hordes of Capybara, caiman, and even Giant River Otters are regularly seen here while making a base at nearly a dozen or so of the country’s most comfortable jungle lodges.
Manu Biosphere Reserve: The most biodiverse place on earth is one of the most strictly protected places in the entire Amazon. Rare and endangered creatures such as Jaguars, the Andean Spectacled Bear, the Cock of the Rock, and Tapir live in abundance here (though they’re still not easy to spot). There are several isolated tribes that live within the confines of the park, which is only partially open to visitors.
Lima: It’s an evitable stop unless you’re coming overland. Few realize however, just how dynamic of a place Peru’s capital is. Most visitors have one full day of activity here before jetting off to Cusco, but you could easily spend much longer, especially if you like food. Some of the best restaurants in the Americas are found here and for much less than you would pay back in the states. There’s Herve from a Michelin star chef, Gaston Acurio’s many restaurants, La Gloria, Rafael, Rodrigo, and Malabar. All are excellent.
Arequipa: Peru’s second largest city enjoys a year round Mediterranean like climate and within shouting distance of Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest after nearby Cotahuasi. The historic center is similar to Cusco in that most of the cities hotels and restaurants are concentrated there, but those volcanic white sillar walls give it a look that is all of its own.
Cajamarca: When Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in the 16th century, he and his men lucked out when they heard that Atahualpa, the Inca ruler was resting at the hot springs after a long civil war at this highland city. The large plaza, much larger than the one in Cusco and surrounded by colonial architecture equally as stunning, was the site of one of the most significant events in the Americas when the Spanish declared war on the Incas and captured their ruler.
Iquitos: This sprawling city near the Amazon River in Northern Peru is filled with rubber boom history and a fine jumping off point for exploring national parks further a field. One of the most fascinating markets in the entire Amazon region, the floating city of Belen, nearby indigenous villages, a Butterfly Farm, and several handicraft markets make it the vibrant city worth a closer look.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.