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Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site perched atop a mountain, shrouded in picturesque clouds of mist. Appearing on almost every traveler’s bucket list, this former Inca civilization sees thousands of visitors daily. But once you’ve seen Peru’s most famous tourist attraction and gotten your signature Instagram photo, the country has so much more to offer beyond these incredible ruins. Here are eight of our favorite off-the-beaten-path places to go after you’ve visited Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
1. Gocta Cataracts (aka. Gocta Falls)
Rankin waterfalls can be a tedious procedure, but at 2,530 feet, some say Gocta is one of the tallest in Latin America. The locals, having known about the waterfall since, well, forever, didn’t realize that once it was “discovered,” in 2006, visitors would travel far and wide to see the two-tiered wonder. Thanks to its obscure location, the waterfall still doesn’t see an excessive number of tourists, as many are unwilling to travel more than 400 miles north of Lima deep into the jungles of Peru. To get here, you have to fly into Chiclayo, then drive or take a bus for about eight hours to reach the village of Cocachimba, where you should be prepared for an intense hike to the top of the falls. Horses are also available to take you part of the way.
Larger than Machu Picchu, these ancient ruins are located in the same region as the aforementioned waterfall, so you can make a trip out of visiting both Gocta and Kuélap. The ruins actually date back to pre-Inca times and were built by the Chachapoya civilization sometime between 1000 and 1400 AD. The walled city is a true gem, almost untouched by tourism, so you’d better go soon if you want to see these 550-stone circular structures. Your base town should be Cocachimba or the village of Chachapoyas, and there’s a dirt road that will take you to the ticket office followed by a short uphill hike to get to the ruins. Note that it’s best to go only when the weather conditions are good.
3. Colca Canyon
One of the world’s largest canyons, this is one of the few places where you can see Andean condors flying in their natural habitat. Colca Valley and Colca Canyon both offer immense opportunities for all sorts of outdoor activities, like hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Start your trip off in the picturesque town of Arequipa, which is famous for its gorgeous cathedral, Plaza de Armas and El Misti, the volcano that keeps watch over the city. Instead of contracting a day tour to Colca, do one that allows you to spend the night in a village near the canyon like Chivay or Yanque, giving you a real look inside the Andean mountain lifestyle. Make sure to get to the Mirador Cruz del Condor just after sunrise so you can spot the magnificent birds flying over the snow-capped mountains.
4. Lake Titicaca
The highest navigable lake in the world, this giant body of water sits at an altitude of 12,500 feet. Bordering both Peru and Bolivia, the nearby city of Puno is an easy jumping-off point to explore the lake and its many islands. The city’s not known for its beauty, so it’s best to spend as little time in Puno as possible and quickly get out onto the lake’s quiet waters. Lake Titicaca is home to both floating islands and regular islands — natives actually make the floating islands out of reeds, using the plant to form the island itself as well as almost all the structures on it.
Many native tribes, such as the Amantani and Taquile, inhabit islands farther into the lake. For a taste of real local flavor, contract a tour that takes you by boat out to these spots to spend the night with local families in their homes. You can often see both Peru and Bolivia on opposing sides from high points on the islands.
Huacachina is one of the most unique villages in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to its lagoon surrounded by barren desert white sands. The body of water is know to have special healing properties, and you can bathe or cover yourself in the lagoon’s mud. Known as “the oasis of America,” the tiny village has a few hotels, shops and a local population of about 100. Tourists can play in the lake, sandboard or spin around the sands in dune buggies. As it’s about an hour away from Paracas, this trip is best combined with a visit to Peru’s coast.
6. Paracas National Reserve and Ballestas Islands
Speaking of Paracas… Nature lovers can spot flamingos, sea lions, dolphins and penguins on boat rides from Paracas National Reserve to the Ballestas Islands.
During the summer, which is usually January to March, walk along the dirt road from Lagunillas to La Mina, a tranquil beach with pure white sands and lots of marine and wildlife. The nearby Playa Roja has red sand, caused by a local rock, pink granodiorite, which creates an extraordinary contrast against the yellow cliffs and turquoise waters. Buses and private cars can drive you the five hours from Lima along the coast to the reserve.
Although these ruins are located in the Sacred Valley, it’s not one of the typical tourist visits like Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Maras or Moray. Though Choquequirao has been named the sister site of Machu Picchu, these ruins see barely any tourists, mainly because it takes two days of grueling trekking to get there. If you’re an avid hiker, you can do a weeklong trek that includes seeing both Machu Picchu and these ruins, but you’ve been warned: This one’s for advanced hikers. Depending on which hike you do, you may be able to go part of the way on horseback, but it still won’t be easy. Tentative plans to construct a cable car reaching the site have been halted and restarted a number of times, though it would certainly make the site more accessible. But if you really want a true adventure filled with Inca history and culture, brave the site on foot — before the herds of tourists eventually take over.
8. The Amazon
Peru is home to many different regions of the Amazon rainforest, meaning you have several options when it comes to being a jungle explorer. One of the best spots is in Iquitos, which is only accessibly by air or boat.
This is a solid option for those wanting to cruise down the Amazon River. The Manu region is home to Manu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, often sees a lot of backpackers and is considered one of the more economical and accessible areas of the Amazon — it’s cheap and easy to go by bus from Cusco, thought it takes about 8 to 10 hours. The area of Tambopata is the place to be if you want to do jungle wildlife tours, thanks to an abundance of local flora and fauna. You can get there by flying into Puerto Maldonado.
Have you traveled off-the-beaten-path in Peru? Share your stories, below.
Featured image of the ruins at Choquequirao by Alejandra Brun / Getty Images.
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