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Regional Summaries

Regions of Peru

The Andes form the spine of Peru, between the sterile beige desert of the coast and the verdant jungles of the Amazon lowlands. From surfing to mountain climbing; from ancient ruins to Spanish colonial architecture to modern skyscrapers; from world-class museums and restaurants to exotic birds and mammals; from lost civilizations to bloody battlefields of centuries of war; from oases nestled in sand dunes to alpine lakes sheltered by sky-scraping cordilleras—Peru has much to offer the visitor. If you sojourn on the Amazon River or through the back-roads of the highlands, you will discover a Peru very few have known. So pack your bags and strike out. Peru is so much more than just the former Inca Empire.


Lima, once the seat of a Spanish Empire Viceroyalty, is today a large metropolis. If arriving by air, your plane will slice through the infamous smog, especially during the garúa (Scotch mist) season when the cold and damp creep through the streets and into your bones and spirit. But glimmering through the mist are the many jewels Lima has to offer you. Pre-Columbian ruins and numerous museums hide within the folds of modern neighborhoods like San Isidro and Miraflores. Step back into time before the Spaniards, before the Inca, at sites like Huaca Huallamarca and Huanca Pucllana. Admire the artistry displayed at the Museo de Arte, the Larco Museum or Italian Art Museum—or that by modern-day hands at the myriad markets and cooperatives. Learn about Peruvian culture at Museo Nacional de Arqueología. The Centro Histórico to this day preserves much colonial architecture with numerous centuries-old churches and the imposing Plaza de Armas. Wander through the catacombs of Iglesia San Francisco or witness the horrific torture methods of the Spanish Inquisition at the interesting Museo de la Inquisición. Sample fresh seafood dishes, including ceviche in Chorrillos, or sample the wines of Queirolo vineyards, considered by many to be the finest vintner in the country. There are beaches to comb or surf, clubs to dance the night away, language schools to study Spanish or Quechua, shopping malls in the suburbs and some of the country’s finest restaurants. Don’t let the city’s reputation for its crime and pollution drive you away too soon—spend a few days here and admire the gems hidden throughout Lima.

Pacific Coast South of Lima

South of Lima are the many beaches where Limeños find refuge from the gray, dank jungle of the city. Be warned, though—the water is icy due to the Humboldt Current. Stop in the vineyards near Ica, either Tacama Winery, Bodega El Catador or Vista Alegre, and sample some of the nation’s best wines—and, of course, pisco (a grape brandy). Ica’s Museo Histórico Regional is worth a visit, for its excellent exhibits of mummies and quipus (pre-Inca structures). You can watch amazing sunsets and gaze upon stars dazzling in a midnight-blue sky at Oasis Huacachina, hidden amongst the desert dunes, which seem to unfold endlessly until you reach the Pacific Ocean. If you need a bit of an adrenaline rush, you can sandboard or dunebuggy the desert expanse. Be sure to fly over the still little-understood Nasca Lines, and visit the fascinating museums, Casa-Museo María Reiche, Museo Antonini or the María Reiche Planetarium. Pre-Columbian civilizations left many other reminders of their existence in this region; be sure to spend an extra day or two exploring nearby Paredones, Cahuichi or Cementerios de Chauchilla, near Nasca. The coastline and off-shore islands are home to several nature preserves, often called the “Galápagos of Peru”: Candelabra de los Andes, Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas, near Paracas, and San Juan de Marcona Marine Reserve, near Nasca.

In the southern-most reaches of Peru is Tacna, near the Chilean border. (Well, it was, at one time, part of Chile—from 1880 until 1929—until the people voted to once more be Peruvians.) If you get the chance, hop on the train to skip over the border—and before boarding, chug down memory lane at the Museo Ferroviario at the Tacna station. Also to entertain your hours, you can stroll around town, checking out the Cathedral, designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), colonial houses and fountain-misted plazas. Further afield you can relax or investigate the San Francisco de Miculla Petroglyphs.

Pacific Coast North of Lima

The Chimú dynasty that ruled the northern Peruvian coast worshipped the sea. The ruins of Chan Chan, their most important city—and perhaps the largest adobe city ever built in the Americas—lies near Trujillo. Molded into the walls are many intricate pictures, including fishnet designs, sea otters and pelicans.

Today the northern coast of Peru continues to attract worshippers of the sea. The ocean is cooled by the Humboldt Current for many kilometers north of Lima, until it finally veers westward, allowing the north coast of this country to enjoy warmer waters. You can surf one of the longest left-breaks in the world at Máncora, or hit the open sea in a totora raft in Huanchaco, and study Spanish at both places in your free time. Beachcomb for fossils at Colán, near Piura. Also check out the pristine beaches of Zorritos.

The region is littered with dozens of archaeological sites. Between Trujillo and Huanchaco, not only will you find Chan Chan, but also the Moche ruins Huaca del Sol y Huaca de la Luna with brilliant painted friezes. Near Chiclayo are Sipán, where a gold-adorned ruler and his entourage were uncovered in 1987, and Túcume, presently undergoing extensive excavation. Of course, with all this archaeological richness, northern Peru boasts some world-class museums: Chiclayo’s Brüning Archaeological Museum, Sicán National Museum and Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum; Trujillo’s Museo de Arqueología; and Piura’s small but impressive Museo Municipal Vicús. If you feel like taking a spiritual retreat, head to Huancabamba in the East.

This region of Peru isn’t just about ancient civilizations. It also boasts ports that were important throughout the Spanish colonial rule and the struggles for independence. You can visit a number of colonial mansions in Trujillo, including the Casa de la Emancipación. In Piura you can see the Casa Museo Gran Almirante Grau and about 12 kilometers from Piura is the port town of Paita, where Manuela Sáenz—Bolívar’s compañera—lived in exile after the Libertador’s death.

Northern Andes

The northern Andes region presents you with a wide-ranging Peruvian world—from Cajamarca, where the last Inca emperor was murdered by the Spaniards, to unexplored ruins hidden in the Amazon jungles.

In Cajamarca, you can stand in the Cuarto de Rescate where Atahualpa, the last Inca ruler, was held for ransom by the Spaniards, and later stroll through the Plaza de Armas where he was executed. Dozens of colonial churches await your devotion and the Museo Arqueológico y Etnográfico is the perfect place for a history lesson. Outside of Cajamarca, soak in the Baños del Inca hot springs or explore the 3,500-year-old Cumbe Mayo aqueduct, Ventanillas de Otuzco funerary ruins or many quaint Andean villages nearby.

The mysterious realm of the Chachapoya awaits you in the cloud forests of the Río Utcubamba River valley. Dotted with hundreds of unexcavated ruins connected with pre-Inca stone roads, it is said to be archaeologically richer than the Sacred Valley. Still seldom-visited by national or foreign tourists, you can explore the tremendous ruins of Kuélap, the stunning sarcophagi statues at Karajía and the colorful mausoleums at Revash. The traditional culture lives into this present day in the village Jalca Grande, the bartering market of Yerbabuena, and through the Yaraví music in Leymebamba and pottery workshops in Huancas. The region also shelters natural beauty: caverns, the emerald-green Huaylla Belén river valley, and Gojta, the sixth-highest waterfall in the world.

Central Andes

Often called the “Peruvian Alps,” the Cordillera Blanca, Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Huayhuash mountain ranges boasts alpine lakes snuggled in high valleys and icy peaks. If you are a mountain climber, or just enjoy hiking in spirit-moving scenery, you will have many opportunities here. Parque Nacional Huascarán, home of Huascarán, the highest peak in Peru, encompasses these Cordilleras.

Huaraz, the largest city, is a good base from which to arrange excursions into the national park or the Cordilleras. Caraz’s focus is on adventure sports like rafting and kayaking as well as mountain climbing and hiking to Laguna Parón. From Chiquián you can reach Huayhuash, with over 165 kilometers of trails meandering through the mountains, or scale El Carnicero, Peru’s second-highest peak. The entire central Andean region provides many weeks of adventure sports, like mountain climbing, long-range trekking, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking and paragliding. Such laid-back sports as birdwatching, fishing, day hikes and horseback riding, are also possibilities.

After wandering the Cordilleras, you can give your muscles a good, relaxing soak. Head for the hot springs at Monterrey, near Huaraz, or the Baños de la Merced, near Carhuaz.

If you are more culturally inclined, you will not be disappointed. Huaraz is home to the Museo Regional de Ancash, focused on archaeology, and the Sala de Cultura of Banco Wiese, an art museum. Within these sierras hide some of the oldest and most impressive archaeological sites of the Chavín people, a culture believed to be the ancestor of all other great pre-Columbian societies, including the Wari and the Inca. Explore the ruins of Chavín de Huántar, Tumshukaiko near Caraz, Huanoca Pampa, near Chiquián, or Willkawaína near Huaraz.

Ancient cities aren’t the only ruins in this region. Yungay was the site of a devastating landslide that killed over 90 percent of the population in 1970. The site of the former town is now a cemetery. The town has been rebuilt up on higher ground and serves as a gateway to fine trekking in the Cordilleras.

Southern Andes

The southern Peruvian Andes are perhaps the least touristy place you will visit in Peru. For several decades, it was a zone abandoned due to the violence of the civil war, the Peruvian military and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Only in the past decade have tourists begun to return to know this region, discovering its punas, (high Andean plateaus) populated by small adobe villages, flamingos and tassel-earringed alpacas. There are craftspeople to chat with, ruins to wander and birds to scout.

The ancient Kotosh civilization was centered near Huánuco, a city teeming with colonial buildings, churches and vibrant markets. Five kilometers away is the 4,000-year-old Kotosh temple, Templo de las Manos Cruzadas.

Be sure to bring your binoculars to Reserva Nacional JunĂ­n, possessing the second largest lake in the country, Lago de JunĂ­n, as well as over 100 species of birds.

Railroad buffs are not left out of the action here. You can board the Highest Train in the World to Huancayo, or click-clack along on the last truly local train left in Peru, that from Huancayo to Huancavelica. Huancayo and the Mantaro valley are home to many crafts virtuosos. Call on artist-shaman Pedro Marticorena Oroña Laya at his Wali Wasi home in Huancayo. Drop in at the many artisan workshops in the valley’s villages: Cochas Grande and Cochas Chico are renowned for carved gourds or mates burilados; Hualhuas, for weavings; and Jerónimo de Tunán for silver jewelry. Yes, of course, this region also has its museums and ruins to discover.

Ayacucho, the “Corner of Blood,” has seen war throughout its history: from Inca to Spanish conquest, from Wars of Independence to the armed conflicts with the Sendero Luminoso. But it is also a university city with abundant culture: many poets and musicians who make their home here; there are 33 churches, the Museo de Arte Popular Joaquín López Antay and the Museo Arqueológico Hipólito Unánue, as well as the artisan neighborhood of Barrio Santa Ana. Outside of town are the ruins of Vilcashuamán, Baños Intihuatana and Wari. Join in the Semana Santa festivities, with flower-carpeted streets, solemn processions and bull effigies with firework horns.

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

Under majestic volcano El Misti’s shadow, the romantic city of Arequipa awaits you in Southern Peru. Pearly white, arcaded buildings made of white volcanic stone line the city’s many plazas. Myriads of colonial churches, including the 400-year-old Monasterio de Santa Catalina (which you can visit), the Cathedral, La Compañía of the Jesuits and others, as well as colonial-era mansions scatter the city. You can learn more about the history and culture of Arequipa at the Museo Santuarios Andinos, home of the 13-year-old mummy Juanita, the Museo de Arte Contemporánea and the Museo Histórico Municipal.

If the mere altitude of Arequipa doesn’t give you enough of a high, get your adrenaline pumping with a climb of one the neighboring volcanoes: El Misti (5,822 m / 19,101 ft), Chachani (over 6,000 m / 19,685 ft), or Ampato (6,288 m / 20, 630 ft). Beyond their cordillera lie two canyons much deeper than the U.S.’ Grand Canyon. Delve into the depths of Colca Canyon (3,400 meters / 11,155 feet deep) or Cotahuasi Canyon (3,535 m / 12,000 ft — the deepest in the world), rafting through three- to five-grade white waters. Trek or ride horses through trails that wind along their lunarscape walls and visit the villages that preserve much of their ancient ways. Your thrill will only be heightened by the sound of a condor’s wings swooping overhead. From the Colca Canyon, you can catch spectacular views of these high Andes and the Valley of the Volcanoes, and check out the Toro Muerto Petroglyphs. Be sure to drop by Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, an area of stunningly beautiful salty lakes and grasslands teeming with wildlife, like flamingos, geese, black-faced Andean gulls, vicuñas and vizcachas. Take a relaxing bath in La Caldera hot springs near Chivay. Cotahuasi Canyon is home to Solimama volcano, the highest in Peru at 6,425 meters / 21,079 feet and Catarata Sipia, a 150-meter / 492-ft high waterfall.

Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Many dream of undertaking the four-day trek along the Inca Trail to that holy grail, Machu Picchu. If you are one, don’t forget to make your reservation well ahead of time. Regulations instituted in 2002 limit the number of hikers that can be on the trail on any day. Don’t forget that the Inca Trail is closed during the month of February for maintenance.

But many other Inca trails await your footfall here in the Sacred Valley, like those of Salcantay, Vilcabamba, and Ausangate in the Cordillera Vilcanota. And ruins? Well, there’s way more than in that new Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Drop by Sacsayhuamán, Q’enqo, Puca Pucara, Tambo Machay, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Quaint pueblos also are to be checked out here, many producing good alpaca and llama wool products.

Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire was later razed and rebuilt by the Spaniards. While wandering the narrow streets you will encounter dozens of churches whose foundations are the massive-stone walls of Inca temples. You can spend hours or even weeks combing through the museums Cusco has to offer.

But two warnings before heading out for any exploration in this region: make sure you rest upon arriving to let yourself get acclimatized to the 3,500+ meter altitude—and don’t forget to buy your Cusco Tourist Ticket, allowing you entrance into many sites.

Lake Titicaca

The teal-blue waters of Lago Titicaca shimmer at 3,821 meters (12,536 ft) above sea level. Sitting by golden-maroon fields of quinoa, women spin wool on hand-held spindles. Flamingoes wade through the marshes where totora reed boats bob. In the distance, on the Bolivian side, the snowy peaks of Cordillera Apolobamba scrape the crystalline sky.

According to legend, the glorious Inca dynasty rose from the depths of this, the highest lake in the world and South America’s largest fresh-water body. Their ascent is marked by the Isla del Sol and Isla de Luna, most easily reached from the Bolivian town of Copacabana. Other great nations also developed in this region, most notably the Tiwanaku, on the Bolivian side. Here on the Peruvian shores you can visit such ruins as Sillustani, Pucará and Raqchi, the latter of which sits very near the city of Cusco. Also check out the ''phallic'' temple at Chucuito, what used to be the cardinal Inca settlement in the region.

Not only ruins of those former civilizations dot the shores of Titicaca. Their Quechua & Aymara-speaking descendents continue to live here. The oldest and most enigmatic of these is the Uros peoples, whose agricultural expertise creates mat-based islands, which they continue to farm and live on to this day. You can visit their communities, as well as those on the other inhabited islands of the lake.

Puno is the transit point—whether you are traveling from Arequipa to Cusco or to the sister-nation Bolivia. From Puno you can catch the train to Cusco, and thus begin your exploration of the former Inca Empire heartland. The city affords brilliant views over the surrounding countryside, from Cerrito de Huajsapata and Mirador de Kuntur Wasi. There are also a number of charming pueblos to know, wandering through markets and entering simple colonial churches, like Llachón, Juli and Chucuito. Be sure to join in on one of the 300 festivals that happen in these villages throughout the year—especially the renowned carnaval of Puno, and the early-February Virgen de Candalaría celebrations in Copacabana, Bolivia. The region also offers fantastic trekking, biking and kayaking.

The Amazon

The majority of Peru is a low, emerald blanket that stretches across the Amazon basin. Travel the rivers and get splashed by pink river dolphins, caiman or giant river otters. Wander virgin forests, where you can watch toucans, macaws and squirrel monkeys overhead. Rough it camping out, stay in indigenous communities, or in first-rate lodges.

You can visit the Napo and Amazon River basins at Iquitos. Gustave Eiffel’s Casa de Fierro and the many fancy azulejos (decorative tiles) lend testimony to the city’s fabulously wealthy past. Today, you can go to nearby nature areas, such as Laguna Quistococha or Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samaria. While waiting for a boat to take you down the Amazon to Colombia or Brazil, you can shop at the lively markets.

If you'd like to visit the central Amazon region, hop a bus from Lima to where the Andes falls into the Amazon, and hop off in Chanchomayo Province. The central Amazon is known for its amazing waterfalls. The city of Pucallpa of the last destination by road, but from there you may ride in a canoe to explore greater depths. Rinse off in the lakes, visit a coffee plantation, and pluck an orange from a citrus tree. It's all in the central region.

The southern Amazon region is a warming experience after your stay in the heights of Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca. This region of the Amazon is largely untouched, and as a result, more difficult to get to. But once you arrive, take a swing down to Puerto Maldonado, from where you can jump off to Lago Sandoval, Parque Nacional Bahuaja-Sonene and Reserva Nacional Tambopata. Be sure to have your binoculars and bird guide at hand—and, of course, your camera to capture the macaws at the licks. If you want to hang out a bit longer, you can study Spanish here, or get involved in one of many environmental and animal-rescue projects in the area.

Also in the Madre de Dios region is the Manu Biosphere Reserve, home to thousands of species of plants and animals. Be ready to see screeching monkeys, elusive jaguars, cagey caimans, prismatic macaws and playful giant otters. If you are a birdwatcher, this is your paradise, with more than a thousand bird species.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Northern Peruvian Andes - Highlights, Peru Food and Drink , Inti Raymi, When to go, Buying Tickets , Lima Highlights, Safety on the Pacific Coast south of Lima, Responsible Tourism in Peru, Lori Berenson: An American Behind Peruvian Bars and Living in Peru.

By Martha Crowley

I work as an Editor/Writer at Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador. I first came to Latin America five years ago to escape rainy...

22 Jun 2012

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