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Peru travel guide

The Inca left their mark on Peru, but there's more to the country than Machu Picchu. Hike Andean trails, take boats through the Amazon, and surf Pacific rollers

Everyone knows about Machu Picchu, the myth and mist shrouded Inca citadel, but don't let it outshine the rest of the country. Peru has more archaeological sites than any other country in South America, and its vast, green carpet of jungle is home to the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife on the planet.

There's more. Peru is the birthplace of surfing on Pacific waves, its rivers offer the scariest white-water rafting anywhere, and much of the Peruvian Andes, even now, are scarcely explored.

If you only visit one city, it has to be Cusco. High in the Andes it's one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Colonial buildings have been built on Inca walls, there are Inca ruins on every side and the streets are filled with local mountain people, still clad in traditional dress.

Peru’s best-known archaeological site, Machu Picchu, is the main attraction for visitors, and rightly so. Set your alarm and get up early to beat the crowds and watch the sun rise over the mountains and fill the citadel with light.

Don't overlook the other Andean attactions. The Colca Canyon is one of the world's most spectacular, a natural rift to rival any in the world but made even more enchanting by condors soaring the thermals above local women tilling the fields in bowler hats.

Head west and the Andes drop down to sultry flatlands stretching out to the Pacific. This is where you'll find the Nasca Lines written on the desert floor and the capital city, Lima. Go north to the elegant Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast, and find Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world.

In the Cordillera Blanca, deep in the northern Andes, is the architectural splendour of the 2,500-year-old fortress temple of Chavín de Huántar. The surrounding peaks offer some of the best hiking, white-water rafting, mountaineering and mountain biking on the continent.

East of the Andes the Peruvian Amazon is the most diverse and naturally rich of the entire Amazon Delta. Eco-lodges run by indigenous communities personalise your understanding and introduce the aminals of the region. The gateway town is Iquitos, the only place in Peru where you can see pink river dolphins in the morning and experience the bustle of a frenetic Amazon port in the afternoon.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Hike the Inca Trail. This unforgettable four-day walk is one of the world's greatest, using stone Inca stairways to pass deserted villages and fields terraced onto sheer Andean slopes. Numbers are limited: if you're too late to book a place try the most popular alternative, the Choquequirao Trail
  2. Go to Market. Weekly markets rotate around the villages of the Urubamba Valley, bringing traditional India communities down from their remote mountain homes. Haggle over handicrafts and buy a guinea pig for the pot
  3. Do a Darwin. The Peruvian part of the Amazon jungle is possibly the most diverse and prolific section of all. Meet caiman and paddle canoes along tranquil waterways, lulled by the all-encompassing 'symphony of green'
  4. Live the High Life. Ride the rails across the Altiplano on the Tren de la Sierra to vast Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Uros villagers still live on floating reed rafts here, but more stable homestays can be found on nearby islands
  5. Read the Nazca Lines. Enigmatic and mysterious, the figures of people and animals etched into the desert dust have long mystified the experts. Karl Sagan reckoned they were written by spacemen: overfly the site and make up your own mind
  6. Climb every Mountain. The snow-clad peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash present some of the most challenging - and remote - mountaineering experiences in the world. The trek to a base camp is quite enough for most
  7. Surf's Up. It is said that the art of surfing was born in the Pacific rollers that pound Peru's northern coast. Certainly the local fishermen are pretty handy with their canoes of bundled reeds. Pick up a paddle or borrow a board to dispel the tropical heat

Wanderlust tips

Find Peru without the tourists by heading north: few visitors stray far from the Pan-American Highway 'Gringo Trail' and you won't have to trek far to be alone with the Peruvians.

I wish I'd known...

Wanderlust web intern Thomas Rees on the thing he wished he'd known before he arrived:

"Try cuy (roast guinea pig) in Ayacucho. It's a speciality in the city and is much cheaper here than in popular Cusco where prices are inflated for tourists. The markets of Ayacucho are also a great place to buy handicrafts and textiles."

"Watch out for pickpockets in the pedestrianised areas of central of Lima. It's worth wearing your backpack on the front on busier streets. A small padlock for the zips would also be a wise investment and will give you peace of mind."

"If you have your heart set on visiting Machu Picchu but don't have time for a trek, be sure to investigate local trains from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. They take longer than the tourist train but are a fraction of the price.”

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