TOP 6 PLACES TO VISIT IN PERU
Updated: Sep 17
I visited Peru in 2012 for part of a service trip with what at the time was called Lifeworks International (but is now Go Beyond Student Travel). This was the second time I'd done a service trip with the company before and it was once again one of the best times of my life. I highly, highly recommend their trips. My first was in Costa Rica when I was 13 and I went to Peru when I was 17.
They do community service in a great way by working with local communities. (Which if you don't know anything about international community service trips or how "voluntourism" can actually harm communities, you can check out my blog post about it here).
If you're curious about the itinerary I participated in, this one is the closest to what I did.
So part of my trip was going through the Andes Mountains before going to Machu Picchu. If you’re into hiking or would want to have a guided tour - I highly, HIGHLY recommend doing this. It's about 3-4 days and absolutely amazing. I saw the Milky Way (and I've never been able to say a view took my breath away in such a way that this one did). I saw incredible views along the way, and this was actually my very first camping trip! For sure it's not typically how most people go camping since the guides took care of everything, i.e. the meals, setting up the tents, and even a tented toilet (!) - it was like a lower tier of glamping but still luxurious in comparison to actual camping.
I personally am unsure how much this would cost because this was incorporated into my program, but I found some resources you can check out below here:
MACHU PICCHU So truthfully, this may come as a surprise but I personally didn’t really like Machu Picchu because it wasn’t as authentic as I thought it was going to be. It appeared to be rebuilt so it wasn’t really in “ruins” similar to other monuments like the Colosseum in Rome. I mean, it's absolutely still beautiful and of course still worth visiting. If you do go, I highly recommend going before sunrise.
You have to hike up at like 4am and the hike is brutal - it's literally climbing stairs for hours but it's a once in a lifetime experience because it's what the Incan's literally did... everyday! Honestly it's truly insane - they must have been in insane shape cause I was a three season athlete and in pretty decent shape and I was still dying just going up them once. Overall, even if I didn't like what Machu Picchu looked like, it was still a spectacular experience.
HUAYNA PICCHU There’s also another mountain right next to Machu Picchu called Huayna Picchu that’s also pretty cool and worth visiting while you're right there.
The views are beautiful but if you’re too beat from climbing the beastly mountain of stairs, do it another day. Don't stress.
AGUES CALIENTES What I really loved about that place was the town though - Agues Calientes. I really remembered the people and the markets - it’s very touristy so be cautious about getting souvenirs here because they will try to rip you off, but again, its South America so it’s not insanely expensive but just keep it in mind. I’d honestly recommend getting souvenirs in Cusco or other smaller cities or towns you visit.
I also definitely recommend checking out the local grocery markets and buying an avocado because they are legitimately the size of a toddlers head and are amaaaaazing! My friends and I cut one open and just dug chips right into it like it was guacamole ready to go - it was that good.
There’s also a hot springs that’s pretty nice too. In general it wasn’t recommended to roam Agues Calientes late at night, (but again I was 17 at the time and I'm 24 now so it may have been for this reason, and it may be different now, so I would ask at the hostel you're staying at what they would recommend if you have safety concerns).
The Putucusi Mountain is also stunning and definitely worth seeing if you can!
This trail is a little more complicated though in some spots and I would suggest checking out this post if you're interested in checking out this area.
CUZCO Cuzco is such a quaint place! Again, I was like 17 at the time so we weren’t allowed to roam around at night alone (and I'm not sure if it’s changed since then but the hostel person recommended not to go around late at night when it was dark, i.e. past like 9-10pm but again I would ask at the front desk what they think because they know the area best! & of course do what you’re most comfortable with).
The main square, "Plaza de Armas" is hard to miss, but I definitely recommend checking it out - it has some beautiful views of the city and is a lovely town center.
Food Market In Cuzco
San Pedro Market is lively and really cool spot to see the local food and people. It’s a farmers market type of thing with a lot of delicious fruits and veggies (and a lot of things you’ve likely never seen before!) Definitely recommend.
Night Life In Cuzco
I wasn't able to participate in any of the night life with the program that I was in during the time, but according to research I looked into - Cuzco is the party capital of Peru! And has some of the liveliest night life locations in South America. Some of the top night life spots in the area appear to be, “Mama Africa” which is the most popular along with “Ukukus." However, again I highly recommend speaking with the staff or the front desk of your hotel or hostel because they are an awesome local resource for you about the best areas to check out, where the best spots to eat are, best areas to party or hang out, etc.
One thing that's going to sound weird, but you're likely to run into - around Cuzco there are women holding really adorable baby goats (again, I know this sounds weird!) but when I was there, they walk right up to you and practically shove them in your arms. Obviously these baby goats are adorable and who could say no to these cute little things, but basically these women want you to pay to take a picture with it. This was not made clear to me beforehand (most of the women don't speak English either, or at least not very well or maybe they pretended not to), but I lucked out having my guides near me and they figured out what was happening sorted it out without me having to pay. But if you see this and want to hold the goat, just be wary you may need to pay for holding one, and the photo.
OLLANTAYTAMBO Another stunning city I’d highly recommend visiting in sacred valley is Ollantaytambo. Truthfully, this was my favorite place to visit. It's fairly small and remote (at least it feels that way!) and it has its own stunning ruins called Ollantaytambo sanctuary and Pinkuylluna. (The top image is Pinkuylluna, the bottom image is Ollantaytambo sanctuary).
The locals themselves though are really what makes this spot so unique. During my time here, my group leaders created a scavenger hunt that required us to interact with the locals - many who did not speak English or Spanish. (The local language in smaller areas in Peru is Quechua which I explain in more detail below). But even though we had to ask these complete strangers for things that literally required us to take a picture of us doing laundry how they traditionally do it (requiring us to touch their clothes!) they happily invited a rowdy group of complete teenage strangers from America into their home and were beyond friendly. I was, (and truthfully still am), floored by everyone's generosity in this town.
Another family welcomed us when we asked to take a picture with their guinea pigs. This family had - I kid you not - a whole shed filled with dozens and dozens of guinea pigs. (In Peru, guinea pigs aren't considered pets, they're actually on the menu which is why this family had so many). Another man even let us water and brush his horses.
These families were so generous, welcoming complete strangers into their home and the whole area as a whole was breathtakingly beautiful. It is absolutely worth stopping by at - even if it's just for a day. Again, it's a small town, so it can be done in 2-3 days tops and it's a good stop between Cuzco and Macchu Picchu.
FOOD & DRINK So the altitude in Peru is much different than the US and something that can help with this is coca tea which is popular in the country. You'll be surprised to find that it's literally leaves in hot water. (No, literally...).
Fun fact, these are also the same leaves that are used to make cocaine. But don't worry!! It will definitely NOT get you high you have to do lots of stuff to the leaves in order to do create it, on it's own it's very helpful for altitude sickness.
But coca tea is everywhere and it’s pretty nice and soothing because altitude sickness can make you nauseous, tired, dizzy and short of breath so just be cautious while you’re walking around to go slow because it can hit you without you really realizing it, so it's important to be conscientious of it.
Also, like I mentioned, guinea pigs or "cuy" in this country aren't beloved pets but actually on the dinner menu in this country.
Personally, I grew up with guinea pigs and it made me sick to my stomach to even think about eating one, but I wanted to respect the local culture and at least attempt to try it.
So, I did try a single bite of guinea pig at the very end of my trip - and if you're not interested in trying it - or even if you are and just want to know: it tastes very similar to chicken. (At least to me it did!)
Alpaca steak is another delicacy in the region. Quinoa is also a major staple addition to meals in the country, plus it's a great source of protein for those who are vegetarian or vegan.
LANGUAGE A big thing I really didn’t know before I went to Peru was that a lot of people don’t speak Spanish.
Some do in Lima and major cities that have more tourists, but for the most part in areas like Ollantaytambo and Cuszco, etc. people primarily speak a language called "Quechua" and it’s very different from Spanish.
But Quechua is the most wildly spoken indigenous language in the Americas. The majority of Quechua speakers live in 1 of 3 countries: Peru, Ecuador, or Bolivia, with sections of speakers in other countries throughout South America and even in the United States.
I absolutely loved Peru and it is one of my favorite trips that I've ever done.
It has breathtaking views, generous people, and lots of things to do. Anyone can find something that they could enjoy in Peru no matter what they're into.