In a country so culturally vibrant and historically rich as Peru, planning your travel route can be daunting. And, after maxing out my visa in the country, I came to learn a thing or two about the must-see spots.
There is a range of attractions sprawled across Peru, from manmade wonders and World Heritage sites to natural marvels and spectacles of unknown origin! To make sure you witness the best of the best, I’ve shortlisted the most exciting of Peru’s landmarks to help you plan your trip below.
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18 Bucket List Landmarks in Peru 🇵🇪
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1. Machu Picchu
It is impossible to talk about the most famous landmarks in Peru without mentioning the crème de la crème – Machu Picchu. This ancient Incan city has graced the cover of countless Peru guidebooks and stands out as one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the whole world.
Built in the 15th century, it was only discovered in modern times by Hiram Bingham back in 1911. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu sees over 5,000 travellers per day despite a cap on visitor numbers!
No visit to Peru is complete without a visit here and travellers make the journey in a whole range of ways. While the train is the most popular method of transport among day trippers, the best way to experience the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ is via one of the trekking routes.
The Inca Trail is undoubtedly the most famous of these but it is also the most logistically challenging, requiring advance reservations and extra planning. The Salkantay Trek is the second most popular trail but having made a name for itself as the ‘backpacker favourite’, it sees more travellers than it used to. For an off-the-beaten-track option, there is the Lares Trek, best known for the traditional culture on display en route.
“Like most travellers, the thing I was most excited about doing in Peru was hiking to Machu Picchu. The long days trudging along the trail were tough but it was all worth it when I first saw the mist clearing over Machu Picchu. This is one of my favourite travel experiences ever!”
2. Ballestas Islands
The Ballestas Islands are what draws the majority of visitors to the small fishing town of Paracas. A small cluster of islands, they are famous for their rich and diverse birdlife. These rock formations are a favourite hangout for a range of birds, from Humboldt penguins to the Blue Footed Booby (one of the Galápagos’ best-known residents) and the Guanay cormorant.
As well as birds, there are also sea lions and seals. The most popular way to experience these islands is to hop on one of the boat tours which leave from Paracas harbour daily. These budget-friendly tours are ideal for seeing the wildlife. Bear in mind that it is not possible to dismount on land, the boat tours take place solely on the water. If you are a wildlife lover, you should make sure you add this natural landmark to your Peru itinerary!
3. Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain, routinely visited on a day trip from Cusco, is the image of Peru that you may have taken from Instagram. Just over a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of this colourful spot but since it went viral on social media, visitor numbers have exploded.
While undoubtedly a popular attraction, it is still worth a visit. A true marvel of nature, Rainbow Mountain gets its name from its most prominent feature – coloured stripes created by minerals in the layers of rock! Hues of red, orange, gold, green and purple can all be seen, though the vibrancy depends on the weather the day you visit.
Pretty much every tourist agency in Cusco runs daily trips to Rainbow Mountain which is the cheapest way to visit. Visitors should beware though – group numbers can be extremely large. If you’d rather see the rainbow effect with fewer crowds, consider a visit to the alternative Rainbow Mountain, Palccoyo.
Still featuring the rainbow effect, Palccoyo is a little more out of the way and only specialised operators offer trips here. It might be more expensive but if you value a quieter landscape and a smaller tour group, it is likely a better choice for you.
4. Nasca Lines
The Nasca Lines are one of Peru’s most enigmatic landmarks. Sprawling more than 50 km2 across the Nasca desert, these petroglyphs feature a range of animal and plant designs, as well as straight lines crisscrossing the landscape.
It is not known for sure how they came to exist but the most popular theory is that they were an ancient kind of observatory. However, our favourite hypothesis is that they were created by alien lifeforms – spooky!
While there is a viewing platform where you can see a couple of the lines, this fails to convey their true scale and majesty. A far better way to experience them is from the sky, on board a Cessna aeroplane.
These short flights offer pretty good value for money and are undoubtedly the best way to take in the full effect of the lines. For an added bonus, speak to your pilot beforehand to see whether they’d mind taking a short detour to the Cantalloc Aqueducts, they are very impressive when viewed from the sky!
“When I visited Peru, I was in two minds about whether to splash out on a flight over the Nasca Lines. Boy am I glad I did, nothing demonstrates the sheer size of these geoglyphs like flying overhead. It was more expensive than a lot of activities I did in Peru but worth the splurge for sure!”
5. Gocta Falls
Many of the most famous landmarks in Peru are clustered in the south of the country. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see further north though! Hidden not far from the cloud forest town of Chachapoyas, you’ll find Gocta Falls.
This beautiful waterfall is 771 metres high and one of the best things to see in Peru’s Amazonas region. Considered to be one of the tallest waterfalls in the world (depending on your source – there is a lot of contention over how to measure a waterfall!), it attracts a few visitors but still sees far fewer spectators than it deserves.
Gocta Andes Lodge is a great place to stay in the area if you want an amazing view of this natural wonder. However, if that is a bit steep for you, base yourself in the nearby town of Chachapoyas and venture here on a tour or by colectivo. There is a trek you can take down to the bottom of the waterfall.
6. Colca Canyon
Did you know that the Andean condor is one of the largest flying birds in the entire world? These impressive beasts run the skies above the Andes and Colca Canyon is a great place to see them in the wild.
Routinely visited from the city of Arequipa, backpackers flock to Colca Canyon in search of condors, hiking trails and jaw-dropping scenery. The canyon is the third most popular tourist attraction in the country but don’t let this put you off – there are plenty of ways to get off the beaten track here.
Day trips are the easiest and most budget-friendly way to experience the canyon but for the full experience, you should carve out a few days to spend tramping along the hiking trails. There are a range of routes on offer, all with different difficulty levels. Although you can do guided hikes along the trails, tackling the routes independently allows you to be flexible with your plans and see a less touristy part of Peru.
If you’re less fussed about hiking in the area but desperately want to see the condors in flight, head to Cruz del Condor. This viewpoint is the best place to witness these mighty creatures.
7. Lord Sipan’s Tomb
If you’ve already ticked the most popular Peru landmarks off your bucket list and are looking to experience a hidden gem, look no further than the tomb of Lord Sipan, located close to the northern city of Chiclayo.
Although many travellers will transit through the city, very few stop overnight, failing to see the nearby attractions. Of all the things to do in and around Chiclayo, the best is a visit to Lord Sipan’s Tomb, responsible for one of the largest treasure troves ever discovered!
When you go, make sure to visit both the ceremonial site and the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán. While the first is the original burial site, the second is where you’ll find all the treasure seized during the excavation.
Traveller infrastructure is pretty basic here and there will be little choice but to take a tour if you have limited Spanish.
8. Humantay Lake
If you’re dreaming of pristine glacier lakes, Humantay should absolutely be on your list. Not only is it extremely beautiful but it is also one of the most sacred attractions close to Cusco. Often visited on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, this lake is also frequented by those on day trips from the Incan capital.
Humantay Lake sits at approximately 4,200 metres above sea level so it is important to acclimatise to the high altitude setting before you attempt the steep and exhausting walk up to the lake. Dry season is the best time to visit and falls between May to September. Rain is less likely during this time but conditions are always fickle at high altitudes so be prepared with a rain jacket just in case!
When you arrive at the lake, it is tradition to make an offering to Pachamama to thank her for granting you safe passage. Most people choose to leave coca leaves. As this is a sacred lake for the local communities, you should be respectful of any ceremonies you encounter. Do not swim in the lake – the local people find this very offensive.
Nicknamed the ‘Machu Picchu of the North’, the walled fortress of Kuélap is a must-visit for history buffs and scenery seekers alike. Perched high over the Utcubamba Valley, Kuélap showcases some of Peru’s best cloud forest landscapes.
Built by the Chachapoyas people, this pre-Incan site spans a whopping 15 acres, making it one of the largest stone ruins anywhere in the Americas. Unlike Machu Picchu which has been plagued for years by over-tourism, Kuélap is still largely unknown, making it a wonderful hidden gem.
Owing to its cloud forest setting, it rains at Kuélap a lot. The best time to visit for dry weather is April to October, however, downpours still happen – make sure you bring a packable rain jacket!
“When I visited Kuélap, I was in awe. Not only was this ancient site fascinating and beautiful but there was hardly anyone there! A definite hidden gem in Peru.”
10. Ausangate Mountain
Located in the Andes, Ausangate Mountain is one Peruvian landmark that has long been revered by the locals. Situated around 100km from Cusco, the mountain is known locally as the ‘Father of All Mountains’.
The Incan people believed that the spirit of the mountain, known as Apu, protected them. This is because when the glacier melts, it provides water which flows into the lakes, sustaining the people of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
While still of huge spiritual importance, the mountain has also become an appealing landmark for climbers and hikers alike. Less than four teams successfully summit the mountain every year but plenty do the challenging Ausangate trek which spans 4-6 days.
11. Paracas Candelabra
If you enjoy mysteries, the Paracas Candelabra is one Peruvian landmark that you won’t want to miss. Located near the fishing town of Paracas which also acts as the gateway to Islas Ballestas, this prehistoric geoglyph is shrouded in secret.
Much like the Nasca Lines, no one knows what the Candelabra is meant to symbolise or why it has been carved into the rock. However, there are theories. Some say that is meant to be a visual representation of the trident held by the God Viracocha, a notable figure in South American mythology.
Others believe that the Candelabra was designed to be some kind of landmark for sailors, who would’ve been able to see it when they were out at sea. Others have theorised that it represents a hallucinogenic plant, which would’ve been used to help indigenous communities communicate with the Gods.
12. Chan Chan Ruins
Located just outside Trujillo in Northern Peru, the Chan Chan archaeological zone was once the seat of the ancient Chimú civilisation. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, it was quickly put on the ‘World Heritage Sites in Danger’ list, due to conservation concerns.
The abandoned ‘Mud City’ covers nearly 14 square miles and sits in the desert, meaning that a visit here is very hot and humid – remember your suncream! A trip to the Chan Chan ruins offers a brilliant insight into how people once lived in the Chimú kingdom. You can see the remains of the living quarters, irrigation systems and burial places.
While there are plenty of tour agencies in Trujillo that offer visits here, it is worth noting that as northern Peru sees very few tourists compared to the southern areas, the companies cater mainly to local tourists and most guides only speak Spanish.
13. Lake Titicaca
The highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. Most commonly accessed via Copacabana in Bolivia and Puno in Peru, the latter is the largest urban settlement in the lake and the folklore capital.
Home to the floating islands of Uros and the communities of Taquille and Amantani, Lake Titicaca is an important area for the indigenous Aymara and Quechua communities. While dubbed as a tourist trap by many, a visit to Uros showcases the power of man’s resourcefulness (the islands are made from totora reeds) and an insight into a different way of life.
While travellers often argue over whether it is better to explore the Bolivian or Peruvian side of the lake, both have their merits and we’d recommend experiencing both if you have the time!
Another Incan site, Choquequirao is relatively unknown among travellers. Hugging the Vilcabamba mountainside, this ruin is similar in structure to its more famous sibling Machu Picchu.
Sitting at 3,050 metres above sea level, the sprawling site spans 1,800 hectares. The only way to reach this epic Peruvian landmark is to take the challenging two-day hike from outside Cusco. Once you’ve reached the site, it is then possible to hike on to Machu Picchu if you wish.
The Peruvian government has said that it plans to construct a cable car to take visitors to the ruin, thus cutting the need for the difficult hike. However, since the announcement of this colossal infrastructure project in 2017, progress seems to have stalled and updates are thin on the ground.
15. Misti Volcano
Conical and snow-topped, they may well have modelled the volcano emoji on Misti! Sitting in the Andes, Misti is undoubtedly one of Peru’s most impressive volcanoes. Towering at 5,821 metres above sea level, the silhouette of this natural beast looms large over the nearby White City of Arequipa.
Misti last erupted in 1985 and is considered to be active, however, volcanic eruptions are thankfully very uncommon and tend to be fairly minimal. Back in the 90s, Misti used to have a permanent snow cap, however, with increasing global temperatures, the snow now melts away during the summer months.
Many intrepid travellers summit the volcano every year and lots of tour agencies in Arequipa offer guided treks. Beware, this is no mean feat and altitude sickness is a real risk – make sure you have acclimatised if you are considering the hike!
16. Sacsayhuaman Fortress
Perhaps the most famous Incan site in Cusco itself, Sacsayhuaman was believed to have been created by more than 20,000 men. This archaeological site was once an important Incan military base and is still used for the Inti Raymi celebrations today.
The complex is most famous for its stonework, with each giant stone fitting perfectly in place. Some of these stones stand as high as four metres tall and weigh in at 100 tonnes, making the fortress (and its builders) even more impressive!
Owing to its proximity to Cusco, Sacsayhuaman is easy to visit independently and can be reached on foot or by taking one of the colectivos that leave from Cusco’s centre. To enter, you will need to buy a Cusco tourist ticket. Using this, you can enter a range of major sites including the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
17. Basilica and Convent of San Francisco
The huge complex of San Francisco Church and Convent is the only Peru landmark on our list to be located in the capital, Lima. Easily recognisable for its Baroque architecture and cream facade, this religious site has undergone many iterations over the years but retained its splendour and beauty.
While religion enthusiasts will enjoy a visit here for the history and grandeur alone, the complex also holds other secrets which may appeal to a different kind of traveller. The building also includes catacombs which were discovered in 1951.
It is believed that these catacombs would have operated as late as 1810 and at that time, the crypt would have housed around 70,000 people. It is possible to visit the catacombs on a guided tour and see a range of rooms filled with bones and skulls. While it isn’t quite Paris, it is still a worthwhile visit for any fan of the macabre!
“I was so glad someone told me about the catacombs at San Francisco Church and Convent – I would’ve hated to have missed them! Be warned, it’s a creepy place!”
18. Laguna 69
Located close to the trekking paradise of Huaraz, Laguna 69 is one of the most spectacular lakes in the country. While many wonder whether there is some folklore behind its name, the truth is rather more dull. It was the sixty-ninth lake to be discovered in Huaraz, thus earning it the name.
Laguna 69 has been created by melting glaciers, as a result of climate change. Easily recognised for its reflective turquoise water, travellers have flocked to this landmark to see its beauty firsthand, thus making it Instagram famous!
Sitting at 4,500 metres above sea level, the hike to Laguna 69 is tough and should not be attempted by those who haven’t allowed themselves to acclimatise. As one of the most popular day hikes in the area, a range of tour companies run guided treks to the lake, however, it is also possible to hike there independently.
From the awe-inspiring Lost City of the Incas to the rugged scenery of Misti volcano, Peru’s landmarks beckon visitors to embrace its rich history and jaw-dropping natural beauty.
As you wander the streets of Lima and pound the mountain paths of Huaraz, remember that all of the above landmarks in Peru are so much more than natural and historical spots. Each of them tells a story in its own right, providing travellers with fascinating insights into the enduring culture and history of this vibrant country.
What is your favourite landmark in Peru? Share it with us in the comments!