Last Updated on November 21, 2017 by
Maybe you’ve seen the photos coming out of Peru over the last week or two: raging rivers, washed-out bridges, mud-buckled railroad lines, and tourists being airlifted from under the shadow of Machu Picchu in the town of Aguas Calientes.
We’re here to suggest — despite it all — that you keep Peru on (or consider adding it to) your travel bucket list.
Thousands of people earn their livelihoods by way of the tourism industry in and around Cusco and Machu Picchu. They work as guides, porters, and hotel staff; they are weavers and craft vendors.
With the latest wave of rain-driven natural disasters, locals have suffered plenty. The last thing they need is a fear-driven tourist drought to take away what few jobs they had, making it even more difficult to provide for their families.
We understand that tugging at heartstrings may not convince you to visit Peru anytime soon, but maybe our experiences and photos will.
The not-so-well known in Peru
There’s certainly more to Peru than just Machu Picchu.
Chachapoyas and Kuelap
Don’t let the endless bus rides full of sheer cliffs scare you away from the northern Peruvian town of Chachapoyas. The town itself is pleasant and the nearby pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap, with their circular stone buildings, are worth a side trip.
After all, everyone has heard of the Incas. But who were the folks in the region before them? Archeological theories abound as to why buildings were circular, but the reality is that no one really knows (our guide was quite honest about this speculation, thankfully). It all adds to the mystique of the 1000 year-old mountaintop citadel.
In the town of Chachapoyas, the friendliness of vendors and the abundance of fruit at the central market is surprising. There’s even some street food! Don’t forget to try the black olives — delicious and absurdly inexpensive.
There’s something about the not-too-thin air of mid-alpine colonial Cajamarca. People are friendly, dairy products like manjar blanco, dulce de leche and cheese are likely some of the country’s best, and the indigenous head wear appear carved from giant loaves of white bread.
Because Cajamarca is a university town, cultural events are frequent. You might even be lucky enough to catch an international folk dance festival during your visit.
Or more pedestrian concerns may draw you to avail yourself of one of the best and cheapest haircuts on the planet.
Many people dislike Lima; they minimize their time there or often avoid it altogether. The biggest thing going against Lima is the weather: a chronically gray perma-drizzle. But in Lima’s defense, it’s actually a nice place to visit.
We are convinced that Lima’s poor reputation has this has to do with the neighborhood where most travelers choose to stay: Miraflores.
While Central Lima is a bit down-at-the-heels, Miraflores is downright soulless. Do yourself a favor and stay in Barranco, a neighborhood a little further out from the center than Miraflores, but one with an abundance of independent restaurants, cool graffiti and an air of an artists’ community.
Most importantly, a visit to Lima is worth it for the eating experiences alone.
Interested in someplace without any tourists where you can get a feel for indigenous Andean Peru? If so, Huancavelica is the place for you.
We found ourselves there for a photography project and saw only one other traveler in the course of a week. The town itself is relatively small, but you can head out into the surrounding hills and villages for some visually spectacular walks. Although the region has been affected by the recent heavy rains, we've been told that the damage hasn't been on the scale of that seen in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
The well known in Peru
We didn’t take excursions to the Sacred Valley or buy entry into the various churches or museums. Instead, we used our time in Cusco to acclimatize, look for a trek to Machu Picchu, and walk the city. We also hung out on the main square on Sunday to talk with handicraft vendors and take in a parade marched by local military, school and hospital staff.
If the hawkers in Cusco's main square drive you mad, consider taking a walk up into the hills of Cusco where ordinary people make their way.
Note: On the first Sunday of every month, a corner of the main square Plaza de Armas fills with indigenous crafts vendors from around the surrounding hills. The vendors are decked out in their colorful indigenous dress. If you get up early enough, you'll have a chance to not only check out their wares without the crowds, but you'll also enjoy a bit of conversation with the vendors about where they come from and how they acquired their skills. They are exceptionally friendly and are happy to talk about their crafts and the techniques they use.
As one vendor explained, “We like this market since we can sell directly to the customer instead of having to sell through shops. We make more for our families and the customer pays less. Good for everyone.”
How can you argue with that?
Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trek
The granddaddy of sights in Peru, Machu Picchu makes the bucket list of many. And for good reason.
If you haven't already, check out the full story of our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu in which we document our entire journey.
So don't let pictures of Peru's floods scare you away; keep it on the list.
And when you build your Peru itinerary, keep in mind that it's a big country. Throw in an exploration or two beyond the main tourist sights.
22 thoughts on “Keep Peru on Your Bucket List: Here’s Why”
We have found Peru to be an incredible country with great variety in landscapes and culture. Aracely and I had our Machu Picchu trek canceled due to the floods. The devastation to locals living in clay homes is a greater topic than our trek being canceled, however, it has helped us gain a greater insight to all that Peru has to offer. Minus Machu Picchu, we still find Peru to be #1 on our list of countries that we have visited so far. So, even if Machu Picchu remains closed, there is no reason to miss such a beautiful country.
I absolutely fell in love with Peru when I went a few months ago, so I’d be sad to see anyone take it off their list because of the weather craziness going on. Peru is such an amazing complex country, with fantastic food, history, and culture….and everything is sooooooooo cheap! I spent four weeks in Moquegua on a field school (an amazing town down south which I would recommend to everyone – no real sights to visit, no other foreigners around save the archaeologists, but a great place to just relax and really absorb the culture. and the market, oh!!) and would really love to visit the north coast at some point to check out all those Moche ruins. Hopefully Macchu Picchu will still be around then 🙂
Incredible piece. The photos from the Bee actually encourage me more to visit Peru. Obviously there is devastation, but I saw people grouping and working together. Logic stands that nature sometimes wins, but that shouldn’t deter someone from a destination. A few years ago Vancouver suffered massive wind storms that felled several trees in Stanley Park, effectively closing off a major tourist area. Power and heat were cut off to several districts. Yet, tourism still thrived. It annoys me when people assume 1) disaster only affects poor countries, so why should we care. 2) a single landmark is reflective of an entire country. Peru stays on my list permanently. By the way, when are you going to press with those Uncornered Market guide books? 🙂
Haha, we did a post a few months ago about checking off the bucket list in Peru. Peru has so many sites and experiences for everyone, that you really can do so much of everything that you have ever dreamed of there. Great shot of Cusco, where did you take that from?
@Jason: So many of the mud adobe houses we saw in Andean Peru looked precarious in the best of times. I’ve seen some photos and articles of how the floods and mudslides affected local populations, but still have many more questions. When you’ve been to a place, media coverage of that place never seems to go deep enough.
You guys have a great attitude – making the best of your canceled Machu Picchu trip to learn more about Peru. Even though we spent almost two months in Peru, we have so many places we’d still like to explore. It’s a big and diverse country.
@Naomi: Don’t worry, Machu Picchu will still be there for your next visit! It’s nice to spend several weeks in a place to really get to know the community. We’ll have to add Moquegua for our next visit. Now that we’re in Buenos Aires, we miss the prices of Peru!
@Nomadic Chick: That’s great that the Bee photos made you want to visit Peru even more! Our friend who lives in Cusco said that she’s been amazed at how the local community has come together to help those affected by the floods.
We’ve been in countries when natural disasters have occurred (e.g., Thailand during the 2004 Tsunami) and the way the media covers disasters makes it seem like the ENTIRE country is a disaster when only one area may be affected. It scares people away from the whole country even though the majority of the country is OK and still want people to visit.
So, about those Uncornered Market guides. What would be the most important thing to include in these guides? We’re thinking about and developing new sections/products for our site – we’d love your feedback.
@Jessie: I’m really sorry to hear the stories of tours getting canceled and the hostel experiencing cancellations. I really hope websites like yours are able to convince people that Machu Picchu is just a small part of Peru – the rest of the country is safe to travel around and there is so much more to see.
I feel like we’ve become the unofficial Lima tourism board! We’re constantly telling travelers we meet not to skip Lima and to just enjoy the city for what it has to offer (great food, some cool neighborhoods) instead of a church and ruins frenzy. If you have food (or other) recommendations for Lima, it would be great if you could leave them as a comment on the Peruvian food post or at the bottom of the Peru Travel Tips page.
@Dave and Deb: The photo of Cusco was taken from the terrace at our guest house, Hostal Resbalosa. It was challenging to walk the steep steps several times a day to get up to the guest house (we joked that it was more difficult than the Salkantay Trek!), but the view was pretty spectacular.
Great piece, thanks for posting this! The hostel that we’re staying in in Magdalena, Lima (another awesome neighborhood alternative to Miraflores) has had a ton of concellations from people who were coming to Peru for the sole purpose of seeing Machu Picchu, and I just got an email from a friend working for a tour company that does months-long trips of all South America who said that they’re getting cancellations for those trips, too. If people can’t see Machu Picchu, they don’t see a reason to visit South America? It’s bizarre.
I’ve loved reading your food posts about Lima, by the way. Delicious stuff!
That is funny. Sometimes guesthouses are in the most peculiar places. But hey, you got the shot!
Have been desperate to get to Peru. Now my wanderlust is in the throes of addiction. LOVE the photos and excellent tips.
I’m definitely keeping Peru on my list for October, I’m now adding Huancavelica to the list of towns to visit.
@Dave and Deb: A Kiva Fellow we met in Ecuador (who then moved to Cusco) pointed us in the direction of the hostel (we would have probably never found it on our own). She warned us in advance about the stairs, but we almost died (my heart almost jumped out of my chest) the first day when we had to walk the stairs with our backpacks without being acclimatized to the altitude. The reward for the hard work was a beautiful view!
@Andy: Glad that our photos and tips have contributed to your new addiction 🙂 I hope you make it to Peru soon to see it all for yourself!
@Ayngelina: Yay, glad to see someone else going to visit Huancavelica! It’s a simple town without the tourism infrastructure like Cusco, but we found people to be really friendly and the surrounding hills are beautiful. If you buy some scarves or hats there, they may be from some of the women we met on our microfinance photo project. Beautiful work.
I have to agree that Peru is an amazing country. Several months ago, my husband and I spent two weeks riding dirt bikes (motorcycles) through the northern area of the country, after visiting Machu Picchu. The roads were a biker’s dream–one curve after another, with vistas that continually made us gasp. However, the people were what made the country so memorable; we met so many who went out of their way to make us feel welcome, especially in the remote villages. And the food was consistently superb, which was a pleasant surprise. I had to laugh when I read your comments on Cajamarca, as we were fortunate enough to arrive there and find a festival with parades and traditional dances being performed in the streets–that was very special! We were only in Lima for two nights, but we enjoyed our stay in that city. The northern area has a very different personality than the southern, and I would encourage more people to venture up into the Andes. We have traveled quite a bit, and Peru turned out to be one of our all-time favorite places.
Excellent article backing up one of travels stalwart destinations. I’ve never visited, but the region has long been embedded in my dreams. Although I was saddened to see recent events, I always think the years following such disasters create an interesting period. It can create conversation, and the compassion shown to the locals from travellers will reaffirm the good in people for all involved, both locals and onlookers alike. A great, considered article guys. Thanks
@Kathy: We went over a lot of the roads in northern Peru by bus – the mountains never ended! Your motorbiking trip across northern Peru must have been incredible. Our impressions of the north was similar to yours – we thought people were very friendly and open and the area is different than what we saw in the south. Not very many tourists, too.
@Ant: Interesting observation about the positive knock off effects that sometimes occur after natural disasters. I think you are right – hopefully locals will remember the work of travellers (e.g., filling sandbags and donating money) and travelers will have a special bond with the country and hopefully return or invest somehow. Thanks for your kind words about this piece.
@Blake: Peru for Spring Break – that will be awesome! While Machu Picchu is definitely worth a visit, the not so well known areas are really quite special and unique.
As for home stays or volunteer programs, I don’t remember anything from the LP, but here are two thoughts. Karikuy is connected with us on Twitter and he often posts updates about volunteer programs. Another idea would be to contact Nuevos Caminos in Chachapoyas. The woman running the cafe had a lot of information on volunteer and cultural stays in the northern region. Sounds like a lot of fun!
Hey cool piece! We’re going to Peru this Spring break (partially inspired by some of your previous pieces linked in this one). Although, we’re just going to Machu Picchu for this trip, I’m totally interested in doing a cultural voyage of Peru. I love the part on the not so well known Peru.
I’ve read in the LP that there are places where you can basically stay with an indigenous family and work with them for like two weeks. Has anyone heard about this?
@ Kathy: You must be a pretty competent biker for such a moto trek! That sounds like a blast. It’s the stuff of backpacker legends. You didn’t by chance get a video of it, did you?
@Blake: Dirt biking is a passion of mine, and I have found that it is the best (and most fun) way to travel to remote places. I didn’t take any videos in Peru, but I took lots of photos and wrote an in-depth ride report. (I don’t know if this “Comments” section allows for links within the text, so I hope this link works. If not, you can click on my name, which will link you to my stories.)
Thanks a bunch for this article.. Im thinking about going soon and love that I found this!
@jon: Enjoy. If you have any more questions about traveling to Peru (and particularly some of the more offbeat locations that we went to), let us know.
Wow. I love the photos of less known places. We always hear about Macho Picchu. this is great to show some of the off the beaten track parts of Peru. For sure on my bucket list. Thank you.
@susan: Glad you enjoyed the photos. The nature of our travels takes us off-path quite a bit. For us, it adds some necessary context. Thanks for keeping Peru on your bucket list.
Peru is certainly a very picturesque location and a “must” on anyone’s buquet list. Appart from the cultural legacy of Macchu Picchu and other historical places one should also consider having a look at Modern Peru. Lima is a clear example of great modern architecture combined with breathtaking views. Having a look at the way La Costa Verde looks these days is a clear example. So definitely, Peru has a lot to offer.