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Peru: Places to See

Peru’s wildly distinct landscape embodies a rich configuration of coastline, highlands and jungle, making it a one-of-a-kind destination sure to entice any traveler. Explore sacred ruins, ancient temples, tropical rainforests, the Amazon River, the Andean mountain range and much more.

The third-largest country in South America, Peru is situated just below the Equator and is home to 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the arid coastal region, one such UNESCO site is the old quarter of Lima, the country’s capital fondly known as the City of Kings. This urban desert metropolis fuses Spanish and French architectural styles with its many stately museums, magnificent cathedrals and solemn monasteries. The Historic Centre of Lima is the city’s oldest district and home to such colonial monuments as the Archbishop’s Palace, the Government Palace and the Cathedral of Lima, where the tomb of city founder Francisco Pizarro rests. Admire these regal structures at Plaza Mayor, considered Lima’s birthplace, and be sure to visit the nearby Monastery of San Francisco, famous for its subterranean catacombs, biblical paintings and convent library.

Just south of Lima, in the heart of the coastal desert region, is the sleepy fishing village of Paracas -- the launching point for a trip to the Ballestas Islands. The Ballestas make up a sanctuary for marine fauna including guanay cormorant birds, blue-footed boobies, Humboldt penguins, fur seals and sea lions. A trip to the desert lands is not complete without a stop at the mysterious Nazca Lines, a centuries-old intricate and massive tapestry of geoglyphs depicting birds, animals, insects and plants. With the largest design measuring 660 feet across, they’re best appreciated from the air.

Journey to majestic Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at roughly 12,500 feet above sea level, to behold the floating, artificial Uros Islands made entirely of totora reeds by the local inhabitants. Equally riveting are the traditions adhered to on Taquile and Amantaní, two remote islands on the lake where no cars, hotels, electricity or machinery can be found. Puno hugs the shores of Lake Titicaca and is a great place to witness traditional folkloric festivals.

Elegant Arequipa, with its colonial churches, mansions, a resplendent Plaza de Armas and the worshipped 16th-century Santa Catalina convent, sits at the base of three snowcapped volcanic peaks. Aside from sightseeing, visitors to nearby Colca Canyon can partake in hiking, mountain biking, trekking, mountaineering, rafting, horseback riding and fishing. The canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States and is habitat to the Andean condor. Small villages rich in tradition are strewn across Colca Valley, where locals continue to cultivate the pre-Inca agricultural terraces.

As the historic former Incan capital, Cuzco is a sacred highlight in Peru and the gateway to Machu Picchu. High in the Andes, Cuzco stands atop layers of cultures with Incan ruins, such as Sacsayhuamán (the stone-walled fortress overlooking the city) and Coricancha (the Temple of the Sun), replaced by Spanish-built palaces, mansions and churches including the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. Travel through Sacred Valley along the Inca Trail and pass the charming mountain towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, both hailed for artisan markets, steep agricultural terraces and incredible temple and fortress ruins.

The Inca Trail culminates at Machu Picchu, a stunning archaeological site comprised of 12 acres of terraces, gardens, staircases, temples and aqueducts. Commonly referred to as the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu stayed hidden during the Spanish conquest and did not garner international attention until 1911. Soak up the surroundings and view the royal and sacred districts, including the Temple of the Sun and the divine Intihuatana stone that once served as an astronomical and agricultural calendar. Arrive early to hike the steep mountain, Huayna Picchu, for sweeping views of Machu Picchu or climb up to Intipunku (Sun Gate) where the sun’s rays illuminate two stone gates on the days of the summer and winter solstices.

Many Peru tour itineraries include exploration through the Amazon Jungle and at times a cruise along the Amazon River. About 60 percent of Peru is canopied in rainforest that features the world’s most biodiverse collection of birds, mammals, plants, amphibians, reptiles and fish. In the north, your gateway to the Amazon likely is Nauta, a quiet town near the river bank, while the southern jungle typically is accessed through Puerto Maldonado and a journey up the Tambopata River to view caimans, monkeys, turtles and river birdlife.