Peru is one of the most famous and popular countries in South America and a dream destination for me.
So it was near impossible to contain my excitement when I was invited by Prom Peru to visit and uncover this bucket list country country filled with a wealth of experiences spanning centuries. I stepped back in time to ancient civilizations and explored their landscapes, sounds, colors and tastes.
Attracting the attention of people from all over the world, I left feeling that one single trip is not enough to discover all the mysterious wonders of this land. My trip was an insight to a place where the authenticity of the Peruvian culture permeates throughout the land and where the diversity of nature (one of 10 mega-diverse countries of the world) has lived in harmony for thousands of years.
But with so much diversity, 10 days didn’t seem like nearly long enough to properly explore some of the most remote and mythical nature landscapes – from the costal city of Lima, to the magnificent highlands of Cuzco and beyond, and lastly restoring in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. But those 10 days were magical, and left me with excitement as to what I will experience on my return to this South American gem.
As I daydream about the golden light and the vibrant colors, I have put together a list of things to do in Peru in a limited time span.
24 hours in the capital and largest city of Peru, a bustling metropolis shrouded in history, where colonial facades and high-rise buildings rise from the crumbling sea cliffs. Lima is a charming place surrounded by fog and culinary delights that is certainly not to be missed.
Traveling from Australia, the flight path is long and the jetlag can hit you like 1,000 bricks, however it is all too quickly forgotten with an overnight stay in the urban sanctuary of Belmond Miraflores Park. A deliciously warm bath and dreamy nights sleep in the cloud-like beds, followed by a slow start to the morning and I was more than ready to explore the city.
My guide and I embarked on a journey through the most representative flavors of Peruvian gastronomy. We began with a tour through a typical Peruvian market; a morning spent sampling a broad variety of fresh national ingredients including tradition Peruvian fruit (Cherimoya, Lucuma and Aguaymanto). Our next stop was to Urban Kitchen for an explosive and interactive experience, learning how to prepare the delicious dishes from one of the most varies cuisines in the world. More than just a cooking lesson though, the dedicated and innovative owner catered everything to my Vegan diet and made a special emphasis on sharing the history of Peruvian Cuisine and the social and culture issues that made the experience not only focused on the kitchen, but the culture.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around “the City of Kings,” learning about the most important city in America during colonial times. Some of my favorite locations that I wouldn’t suggest missing are the Main Square, Governments Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, City hall and the Cathedral. Once you venture out of the main city, make sure to visit the colorful bohemian district of Barranco. This is the hotspot for artists, musicians, designers and photographers, making it an amazing place to wander and get lost in. And if you happen to be traveling with your signifcant other, make sure to check out “Parque del Amor” (Love Park) in the Miraflores district, a park entirely dedicated to all lovers. Gaze upon the El Beso (the kiss), a large sculpture that sits in front of a stunning view over the bay of Lima. As the sun set and blue hour descended, I finished my first evening with a delightful dinner watching the waves crash into the rocks below.
24 hours in Lima is the perfect introduction to the diversity Peru has to offer.
Explore The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is the heart of the Inca Heartland. 60 kilometers of Spanish colonial villages and fertile farmland have made the Sacred Valley an important part of Peruvian culture for centuries.
As a part of the exploration through the Inca Heartland, a stay in the Sacred Valley is a must. One of the most important agriculture centers of the Inca Empire, the Sacred Valley is named after the Vilcanota River or Sacred River of the Incas (also called the Urubamba River). The ancient Incas believed that they were connected with the galaxy, as they discovered a connection between the sacred river and the Milky Way.
With one of the most pleasant climates in the Andes nestled in-between green mountains, the Sacred Valley’s beautiful scenery and picturesque villages are the reflection of authentic Peruvian life. Known for some of the finest archaeological sites (including the Maras salt ponds and the circular ruins of Moray) the Sacred Valley is also a paradise for eco-friendly adventure sports such as trekking, kayaking, mountain biking, horseback riding and river rafting.
My stay began with a countryside backdrop at the most luxurious hotel, Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba with breathtaking views of the valley and an ‘Earth to Table’ organic plantation – aka my kind of heaven.
The Sacred Valley is quiet, beautiful, and easy to access from Cuzco. Along with Machu Picchu, these three should all be explored one after another due to their close proximity.
With a glimpse of the richest heritage and oldest continual inhabited city in South America, Cuzco is likely a stop over penciled in-between Lima, Machu Picchu, Rainbow Valley or the Amazon, however it is worth slowing and immersing yourself here. A unique place where the bustling cobblestone streets of the foremost city of the Inca Empire meets the 21st century.
The Cuzco adventure began with a visit to Piuray Lagoon as I kayaked around taking in the distant snow capped peaks and delighted surroundings. Followed by a mouth watering Pachamanca (Quechua for “earth oven”) experience, the traditional cooking of several of Andean ingredients by hot stones underground.
From here we stopped in at a local village by the name of Chinchero, where I met Mellyy (29) and her beautiful 9 month old baby Caqui (Kaki) and I captured some portraits as Mellyy proudly showed me around her town, her traditional dress and introduced me to their Alpaca’s. I walked away with my cheeks positively hurting from smiling so much during this interaction.
Visit the Ancient Salt Pans of Maras
Nestled in the Sacred Valley, in between Cuzco and Machu Picchu lies Maras, home of the ancient salt pans known as Salineras de Maras, which have been used for the past five centuries to mine salt in the Sacred Valley. Thousands of shallow pools are strategically dug into the mountains side that fill with salt water and eventually evaporates leaving behind crystallized salt in a process that has been practiced for over 500 years. I was mesmerized by the striking contrasts and textures of bleached white and rusty browns, hidden deep in the steep valley (3,000m) in the Andes – the color pallet during golden hour was something to write home about.
Explore the Golden Highlands by Mountain Bike
As it was nearing sunset we made our way to the nearby highlands by mountain bikes to watch the last light of the day channel through the mountain peaks and illuminate the golden fields below, as the full moon made her timely ascent. After another restful night back in the serene setting of the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, I rose for sunrise with burst of energy, as I was extremely excited about the day ahead. A day I thought I would only see in my dreams.
Visit The 15th Century Archaeological Site Of Ollantaytambo
The trek to my bucket list destination had begun! And there really is no better place to start an expedition to Machu Picchu than Ollantaytambo. In the 15th century, Inca emperor Pachacuti conquered the town, turning it and the surrounding region into his personal estate. The history of Ollantaytambo is rich and the town is gorgeous. Before heading out, I spent a few hours roaming the cobblestone streets meeting locals, patting their guinea pigs and learning (through translation from my guide) about the Huilloq and Patacancha communities, as I created some portraits with the ladies and their children.
Ollantaytambo is a place where I could see myself staying for days. Just a few hours wasn’t enough, but it was well worth it.
Take The Train To Aguas Calientes
There are many ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the small, hilly town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu, but by far the most exciting is by train. In Ollantaytambo, I boarded the luxurious and exclusive Hiram Bingham Train which takes you on a memorable journey through the Sacred Valley. If time is short or you don’t feel the need to visit Ollantaytambo, you can take the train directly from Cuzco. As if the scenery wasn’t enough to make the train trip worth it, guests are also treated to a delectable brunch, live onboard local music and the stunning backdrop of the Andes as it makes three hour journey to Aguas Calientes.
Fulfill A Lifelong Dream of Visiting Machu Picchu
For many around the world (myself included) a visit to the Inca City of Machu Picchu is the highlight of any trip to Peru and even to South America. The citadel of Machu Picchu (situated at 2,360m) is one of the best-known archaeological sites on the continent and one of the seven modern wonders of the world. I’ve dreamed of visiting for years.
The landscape is shaped by a series of sheer granite Andean mountains, rising thousands of feet above the raging rapids of the sacred Urubamba River and surrounded by a lush, dense forest. Machu Picchu is one of the most mysterious and breathtaking places in the world.
From Aguas Calientes, the bus ascent to the ruins begins. For those looking for a little exercise or trying to save money, you can hike up from town, which is a STEEP 2 hour walk. Once I arrived, I knew that Machy Picchu was everything I thought it would be. The journey is one of the most unforgettable and once in a lifetime opportunities. I spent the entire afternoon exploring and relaxing taking in the grandeur of the awe-inspiring ancient city before me – a golden afternoon, floating as if I was in a dream.
Find Peace in the Amazon Jungle
As if leaving one dream and entering another, by the next afternoon I found myself gliding through the Amazon Basin in Tambopata National Reserve.
Switching off and immersing in the jungle environment – “Tomate in tiempo y disfruta” – “take time and enjoy it” – and enjoy it I did.
The Amazon River is the largest river system in the world, spanning over 6,400km and crossing the entire continent of South America. I spent four blissful days at the pristine Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica uncovering the world’s greatest rainforest, guided by boat and foot, watching as the jungle came alive.
Twilight each day was spent with a guided cruise on the Madre de Dios river excursions, witnessing the transformation from a diurnal to a nocturnal world. The animals and birds of the daytime give way to species specially adapted to the night, we were searching for nightjars, owls, capybaras and big caimans and learning about their habitats.
Water is abundant in the Amazon jungle, and Lake Sandoval is one of the most impressive day trips you can do away from the rivers. I spent a morning taking in the sights on this beautiful, mirror-like oxbow lake, which is home to the endangered giant river otter, red howler monkeys, macaws and prehistoric hoatzins.
Explore Deeper into the Amazon Rainforest
I visited the Inkaterra Canopy Walkway, and took guided tours through the forest floor absorbing every opportunity for bird watching in an environment which holds a record-settling number of animal species and variety of plant life that is greater than almost anywhere in the world.
The Amazon Rainforest is unlike anywhere else in the world. It touches nine nations in South America, and while 60% of it is located in Brazil, Peru holds 13%, more, more than any of the other nations besides Brazil. Needless to say, Peru is an excellent place to get your first Amazon Rain Forest experience.
Stargaze in Dark Skies
There is very little light pollution in this part of the world, making the Amazon rainforest a stargazers paradise. After dinner each night was a routine of observing the spectacular night sky and an early retirement to the hammock in my cabaña, finally falling asleep whilst listening to the sounds of the jungle by night.
It was as if time stood still here, slowing to find the beauty in the simple moments of each passing day – There’s nothing like some reflection time in the Peruvian Jungle to refresh and restore and a perfect ending to what was an incredible taste of this captivating country.
Find a Sloth!
Now there is no sure fire way to find a sloth in the wild, but just keep your eyes peeled in the Amazon Jungle for these cute little guys! For those who follow along on Instagram or watch my stories, you might already be aware of my slight (okay borderline unhealthy) obsession with sloths. I was lucky enough to see two three-toed sloth in the wild – TWO!!! Another dream come true.
From slowing down in the jungle to the exploration of remote and mythical natural landscapes, Peru has captivated my heart and mind. A place of immense beauty and culture – I’ve had my taste and I am constantly daydreaming to experience more.
Thank you for having me Prom Peru thank you for making a dream of mine come true.
Melissa Findley is an Queensland, Australia based travel photographer. Working with brands such as The Intrepid Foundation, Canon Australia and a number of different tourism boards across the globe, Melissa has spent the past few years relentlessly chasing her dreams, wherever they take her. Follow here adventures on Instagram, Facebook and her website.
A version of this article appeared on her blog.