Man, I cannot say enough good things about Peru. Anyone who knows me or has followed me for some time is probably annoyed by how often I gush about this South American paradise. There is so much to love about this country. Few places in the world have it all, but Peru is about as close as it comes: snow-capped mountains, vast deserts, rich indigenous cultures, ancient ruins, all flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon Rainforest. You really can’t ask for much more. Throw in an incredible gastronomy scene and a fun-loving people and Peru is firmly cemented as one of my favorite destinations in the world.
I’ve been to Peru four times now yet have never grown tired of it. I over-stayed my 3-month visa once. You’d think I’d have gotten my fill, right? Nope. I went back a month later. Cusco has started to feel like a second home to me, and other cities like Huaraz and Arequipa are not too far behind. My experiences in Peru hold some of my most unforgettable memories. These are just a few of those experiences.
10. Gocta Waterfalls
It was one of my first days in northern Peru after hitching a ride over from Ecuador in some old dude’s converted Austrian army vehicle. That alone should give you an idea of how adventurous this first week was going to be. Over the course of two days, we drove through what felt like half a dozen different countries. We passed by rice terraces akin to South East Asia. The army van chugged along through desert landscapes out of America’s wild west. The landscapes kept changing, but so far, everything had somewhere I could compare it to. Once we started approaching the Amazonas region of Peru, I started running out of comparisons.
I had never been in the jungle before, at least not one like this. We settled in at the small town of Chachapoyas before taking on our first adventures in northern Peru. We visited Gocta Falls, the third-tallest waterfalls in the world at the time that they were discovered. Unlike some hikes where the payoff only comes at the end, the trek to Gocta Falls was brimming with beauty from the get-go. I mean, you could see the waterfalls from the trailhead. But as you get closer and closer, the enormity and marvel of these nearly 800 meter high waterfalls becomes more and more apparent. Few things compared to reaching the basin at the bottom of those falls. The entire trek had been filled with lush greenery from start to finish, but the area surrounding the basin at the end was the most vibrant green I had ever seen in my life.
I fully expected to run into Tarzan or King Kong at some point. For miles and miles, all you could see was dense, lush, green jungle. Not a speck of civilization anywhere. Not even a sign of the overgrown greenery letting up. Not until I made it to Rurrenabaque in Bolivia did I experience anything quite like the hike to Gocta Falls.
9. Sunset Chased and Surfed the Sands of Huacachina
When I first visited Huacachina, it was a hidden gem visited mostly by backpackers. When I returned to the oasis a few years later, I was disappointed but not surprised to see that it had become overtaken by tourism. Only a dune buggy or two would be out on the desert sands when I first visited. Now, there was a whole ass dune buggy parking lot situated above the small oasis. While it is sad to see just how touristy Huacachina has become, it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the desert. Especially at sunset.
Desert sunsets are something else entirely. Golden hour over golden sands can make for an otherworldly scene. My first time in Huacachina, there were only four of us that hiked up to the big dune overlooking the oasis. The four of us shared a sunset beer and Huacachina firmly cemented itself as one of my favorite hidden gems in the world. Sure, it’s not much of a hidden gem anymore but it deserves all the popularity that it’s gotten. Who even knew desert oases were real things? Let alone something you would find in Peru.
While there is not much else to do in Huacachina, it has become a quintessential stop on any traveler’s Peruvian itinerary. Come for a day or two to go dune-buggying or to try your hand at sandboarding. And always, always make it up to the big dune for the sunset with Cusqueña in hand.
8. Surfing at the Birthplace of Surf
The caballito de totoro is among one of the earliest surf vessels known to man. Years and years before the modern surfboard was invented, fishermen in Huanchaco, Peru would ride those reed boats out in the morning and then surf the waves back to shore with their catch in the afternoon. Of course, when I found that out, I knew that my wobbly legs would have to give surfing another go. I never was any good at it, but a sunset surf sesh after a long day exploring the ruins of Chan Chan was much needed.
Huanchaco is one of the best surf spots in all of Peru. This stretch of Peru’s Pacific Coast is where surfers of all levels can try and catch a wave. For the more hardcore surfers, just a couple of hours away is Chicama, where you will find what is one of the world’s longest rideable waves. Some of those waves stretch out for over 2 kilometers. Now, I can’t even fathom wanting to paddle that much or walk back that distance with surfboard in tow, so I stuck to Huanchaco. But when I say Peru has diversity and excels at damn near everything it does, that is what I mean.
7. Visited the Rainbow Mountains of Cusco
Akin to how Huacachina has become extremely touristy, the iconic Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain is along the same vein. My first trip to Peru was just months after it was initially discovered, so I was fortunate to be among only a few tour groups there at the time. These days, you’ll be fighting tooth and nail with a thousand other people for your iconic shot of Rainbow Mountain.
But Rainbow Mountain is more than just Rainbow Mountain. The grueling trek takes you through some obscenely beautiful scenery. Much of it is hard for me to describe. The harsh and inhospitable conditions make Rainbow Mountain one of the most difficult day treks I’ve done, but it was worth every step of the struggle.
But wait, there’s more! Literally, there are more Rainbow Mountains. On my latest trip to Peru, I heard of an alternative to the crowds of Vinicunca. Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain was becoming a new offering among tour agencies, and this time, it boasted three times the Rainbow Mountains for about a fifth of the struggle. You mean I don’t have to hate myself to get some Instagram bangers? While Palccoyo is not as iconic as Vinicunca, it is still a beautiful excursion. The drive and the hike are stunning throughout, although you never get too close to any of the Rainbow Mountains.
6. Hiked Down One Of The Deepest Canyons in the World
Peru does not joke around when it comes to its natural wonders. Everything it has, it does well. So that being said, Peru doesn’t just have any old canyon. It has one of the world’s deepest canyons. Down near Arequipa, you have Colca Canyon, yet another of Peru’s you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it type deals. We opted for a two-day adventure deep into the canyon where we spent the night in a small oasis town along the canyon’s river.
Depending on how one measures the depth of a canyon, Colca Canyon sits anywhere from the deepest to the 5th deepest canyon in the world. It was proclaimed by the Guinness Book of World Records and National Geographic to be the world’s deepest canyon at some point, so if that matters to you, there you go. The beauty of Colca Canyon speaks for itself and doesn’t need any numbers to make it any more special.
As we descended from our starting point at 4,200 meters, it didn’t take long to see why this was such an awe-inspiring trek. You are flanked on both sides by unfathomably large canyon walls, with the occasional condor flying overhead the only other sign of life to be seen. The early morning start on the second day as the sun rises offers a surreal view. The steady incline for hours really drives home the fact that you are in one of the world’s deepest canyons. Seriously, that climb up is utterly exhausting.
5. Hopping My Way Around The Sacred Valley
Between Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, I could spend forever in Peru. While Cusco itself isn’t even that large of a city, the hustle and bustle can feel like too much. Thankfully, there are no shortage of small villages in the surrounding region. Many of those small villages served as a second home away from my second home. The serenity of little villages like Pisac and Urubamba were a drastic change from Cusco’s crowds and chaos. Cusco is a beautiful city, but due to its sprawling size, you might not notice the natural beauty surrounding it.
Go visit a place like Ollantaytambo and you are thrown smack dab into some of the most mind-boggling scenery you will encounter. Seriously, look at that.
And the best part of hopping around the Sacred Valley? It is cheap, it is easy, and it is, for the most part, relatively unknown to tourists. Sure, Machu Picchu and even Ollantaytambo are no longer hidden gems, but go to sites like Pisac and Chinchero and you will wonder how the hell you have the entire place to yourself. I was traveling from village to village for about $1.50 for an hour’s ride and crashing in private rooms for $6 a night.
One of the blessings of having already visited Machu Picchu my first go-around in Peru is that I never had to worry about crossing it off on my last three trips to Peru. That gave me an immense amount of time to explore the Sacred Valley. I even did the same exact route again to show a few of my friends around. Take advantage of everyone’s obsession with Machu Picchu and hop around the Sacred Valley.
Check out my complete travel guide on the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I cover everything from the exact streets you need to go to to catch a $1 ride to the most breathtaking hidden gems in the area.
4. Laguna 69-ed With Some Friends
Aside from Incan ruins and alpacas, one thing that Peru has in abundance is glacial lakes and stunning mountains. It is hard to name the best one, because quite literally, it doesn’t have a name. With over 500 glacial lagunas littered throughout Huascaran National Park, many of them were assigned numbers instead of names. That’s why you have lagunas that are simply called Laguna 512 and the like.
Of course, there is one laguna that stands out above the rest. Whether for its beauty or for its number, we shall never know. And obviously, that laguna would be Laguna 69.
I seriously cried when I first laid eyes on this laguna. A 3 AM wake-up call followed by this grueling high altitude trek with an incline of over 2,000 feet was no joke. Despite being a pretty seasoned trekker, there was no doubt that the altitude affected me. The final 30 minute stretch was brutal and I stopped nearly every ten seconds just to catch my breath. But was it worth it? Well, yeah. Look at that thing.
3. Santa Cruz Trek
Think I’d be done trekking after seeing the wonders of Laguna 69? Hell no. Shortly after, I went on a 4-day trek through Huascaran National Park. Alone and isolated in the mountains and far, far away from civilizations is my happy place. And for those four days, I was very, very happy. So happy that I danced my way down the mountain for the last couple hours of each day. Was it wise to conserve my energy so poorly? Nope.
But you’d be dancing too if you were constantly surrounded by those beautiful views. I seriously couldn’t believe some of the campsites that we were posting up at. It was legitimately mind-boggling how a trek like this could fall so under the radar that we ran into only a handful of other people the entire time.
This trek had it all, and the best part is that it is not too particularly challenging. Aside from stretches where the altitude can become a problem, very few of us had any issues completing this trek. Like I said, I even wasted my energy dancing my way down the mountain. You cover a lot of ground over those four days, but only the second day is really challenging. You cross your only mountain pass, Punta Union at 4,750 meters above sea level, and then it’s all flat or downhill from there.
For a good starter trek to make you fall in love with the mountains, Santa Cruz is a perfect go-to.
2. Saw This Place Called Machu Picchu
Have you heard of it? Probably not. It’s a hidden gem of sorts.
Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I’m being sarcastic there. Despite the insane popularity that Machu Picchu has, I still stand by the opinion that it is one of the most incredible things you will ever see in your life. It earned that world wonders title for a reason. On my latest trip through South America, I heard quite a few backpackers talk about skipping over Machu Picchu because it was too touristy or because it was expensive. I mean, I’m not one to tell anyone how to travel, but excuse me, what?
One does not simply go to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. This place is stunning and iconic. I vividly remember the moment those clouds started clearing up after we conquered a 5-day trek. We were met that morning with absolutely nothing. The fog was so thick that we could have been at any old archaeological site. By the time we hiked up to one of the higher viewpoints, the clouds finally started to clear.
To this day, there is nothing that I can compare to that ecstasy and accomplishment. It was my first multi-day hike and what an incredible one to choose.
1. Conquered The Cordillera Huayhuash
If there is anything that could top Machu Picchu in jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, all-around epicness, it would be the Cordillera Huayhuash. For eight days, we trekked at high altitudes often topping 5,000 meters. It was 140 kilometers of brutal struggle but every step was worth it. I couldn’t believe this place. One of the world’s best kept secrets is the Cordillera Huayhuash.
Located six hours away from the city of Huaraz, this trek is as remote as you could ask for. We ran into only one other trekking group over our eight days there, and a handful of brave solo hikers who were eager to conquer this monster of a trek.
It was a challenge that I knew I had to be prepared for. Even as I ticked off trek after trek in Huaraz, I never felt truly ready. I was coming up with excuse after excuse. After a few days of rain in Huaraz, half of my trekking group backed out and I was beginning to second-guess the decision myself. Eventually, I realized that this was one of those things that you will never really feel ready for. So what was left my group and I decided to embark on this epic journey. Despite the rainy season starting, we had perfect weather for almost the entire duration of the trek.
Our luck was hard to believe, almost as unbelievable as the views themselves. We were exploring some of the world’s most untouched environments and despite the difficulties and struggles along the way, we were able to conquer the Cordillera Huayhuash. Those eight days are still the most amazing days of travel that I have experienced.
There you have it. After four trips to Peru and months and months spent exploring the riches of this country, these are the best damn things I’ve managed to cross off. And the best part? I hope this list becomes obsolete soon. There is so much more that I want to do and so much more that has yet to be unearthed that this country has to offer. I’ll be coming back for you again one day, Peru.