Say the word “Peru” and an image of the elaborate stone complex of Machu Picchu, South America’s most famous Inca ruins, springs to mind. But beyond the walls of this citadel, a wealth of other attractions awaits travelers, including even older archaeological sites, mammoth waterfalls ranking among the world’s highest and cities home to beautiful traditional crafts.
Huaca de la Luna, La Libertad Region
310 miles (500 kilometers) north of the Peruvian capital, Lima, lies Trujillo, a pretty colonial city and the access point for the fascinating Huaca de la Luna. This adobe-brick ceremonial center belonged to the Moche civilization; excavations suggest it was built any time between the first and eigth centuries and is part of a larger archeological complex that also includes Huaca del Sol, another Moche temple.
The Huaca de la Luna lay partially buried under sand for centuries, helping to preserve it from the worst intentions of looters. Although most tourists head to the more famous Chan Chan complex of the Chimú civilization, also located just outside Trujillo, the Huaca de la Luna is more visually striking, particularly thanks to its wall of original, colorful murals narrating grizzly sacrifice rituals known to have been practiced by the Moche.
Cajamarca, Cajamarca Region
Brimming with colonial and ancient history, Cajamarca is a city that merits a visit on a trip to Peru. It’s greatest claim to fame is how it was the site of the Spanish conquistador Pizarro’s trickery towards and eventual capture of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa—events that would lead to the ultimate conquest of the Inca empire by the Spanish.
Visitors can explore El Cuarto del Rescate (aka Atahualpa’s Ransom Room), the only remaining Inca structure in the whole city. Here, a line drawn around the room is still visible; it is believed that Atahualpa drew it to indicate the quantity of gold that he would give to the Spanish in return for his release. Despite the Inca emperor sticking to his half of the bargain, the Spanish weren’t to be trusted; Atahualpa was executed anyway.
Beyond its grizzly history, the city boasts a series of spectacular buildings. These include the intricately carved Baroque cathedral on the Plaza de Armas and the truly fascinating Ventanillas de Otuzco and Combayo. Visitors to the latter will find the remains of two pre-Inca necropolises where in around 500 BC, window-like holes were carved into the volcanic rock and used to bury the chieftains of the Cajamarca people.
Kuélap Fortress, Amazonas Region
Once reachable only by a grueling, four-hour trek or vertigo-inducing bus journey, Kuélap—or “the Machu Picchu of the North” as it’s often known—is now far more accessible, making it a deserving detour from the more famous sites in southern Peru. A new system of cable cars now zips visitors up to this mountaintop fortress in 20 minutes, offering sprawling panoramic views of the surrounding valley along the way.
Growing popularity means the citadel of the “Cloud Warriors” or Chachapoyas people is no longer free of tourists but it’s still a spectacular sixth-century monument. What’s more, it’s an incredible feat of engineering, a fact that can be admired in its soaring defensive walls and three tiers of circular stone houses. In the latter, you’ll see the remains of where guinea pigs—the inhabitants’ main source of protein—were kept and even a niche beneath the floor to store the mummies of their ancestors.
Salinas de Maras, Cusco Region
The white salt ponds of Maras that seem to spill down the mountain into the Sacred Valley are a truly unique sight. From the visitor’s center, a short path brings you to the pools, where locals can be watched patiently farming each salt-laden trough—as they have done since Inca times.
Take a tour from Cusco or get there on foot via a trail that connects the ponds with the circular terraces of Moray, around 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away.
Catacombs at the Convent of San Francisco, Lima Region
Bones, it’s all about the bones. Sure, the monastery itself is a fine example of religious architecture, but let’s face it, we all go to the Convento de San Francisco de Asis in Lima for the catacombs.
The crypts below the monastery are full of skulls, femurs, tibiae and fibulae—some laid out in spiraling or circular patterns—and you can walk among them through the darkened arched passageways. By some estimates, the remains of more than 25,000 bodies lie in these subterranean vaults.
Machu Picchu, Cusco Region
Machu Picchu, the erstwhile holiday home of Inca royalty, is arguably the reason why most visitors find their way to the country. Set within a landscape of ice-capped peaks and deep valleys, these ruins are Peru’s—if not South America’s—most impressive.
Despite rapidly increasing visitor numbers over the years, Machu Picchu still retains its air of being a forgotten city in the heart of the Andes. To help protect the site, as of 2017, new rules implemented by the Peruvian government require visitors to book a morning or afternoon entry slot and can only enter the site with a certified guide. Although some might argue that no longer being able to explore the ruins at will reduces some of the magic of the visit, watching the sun rise from Intipunku (the Sun Gate) is still an experience few can forget.
Saqsaywaman, Cusco Region
Of all of the archaeological sites on the Boleto Turístico del Cusco (Cusco Tourist Ticket), Saqsaywaman (pronounced—in jest—by local guides as “sexy woman”) is the most impressive in terms of historical importance and archaeology.
The massive stone walls that slot almost perfectly into place without the need of cement are among the finest examples of Inca masonry, and the sheer scale of the site makes it clear that this was a hugely important citadel. It also overlooks Cusco, offering exceptional views across the city and its surroundings.
Isla Taquile, Puno Region
Believed by the Inca to be the birthplace of the sun, lake Titicaca—the largest in South America—is a place of shimmering waters and mysterious islands of myth and legend, colorful culture and traditional dress.
None is more enchanting than Isla Taquile, where visitors can spend a night in a homestay and learn about the island’s long tradition of weaving. Various community-run textile shops also make for excellent places from which to buy a unique souvenir.
Although many backpackers skip Puno and instead head for Copacabana and the Bolivian side of the lake, Isla Taquile shouldn’t be missed, as it offers a pocket of centuries-old culture so enthrallingly distinct from that on the mainland.