Peru is considered one of the top 17 most mega-diverse countries in the world, yet few who visit travel beyond the Cusco and Machu Picchu area to see what this Andean wonderland really offers in terms of natural splendor. Besides the majestic beauty of the towering peaks of the second highest mountain range in the world, Peru is home to an extensive Pacific coastline lined with golden sand beaches and offshore islands as well as the pulsating vibrant depths of the mighty Amazon rainforest, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the country.
Leaving the beaten path behind, Peru offers nature lovers endless options for exploration in a wide variety of different awe-inspiring different ecosystems, from deserts to rainforest to ice-covered craggy peaks. In fact, Peru has the highest percentage of protected land in South America (more than 30 percent of total land area), making it quite possibly the best country on the continent for natural exploration. Because it would truly take a lifetime to see all of the raw natural beauty here, we have put together a list of the top jaw-dropping spots for avid outdoor adventurers just like you.
1. The Islas Ballestas and the Paracas National Reserve
Often referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos—they’re incredibly cheap to visit and are home to unique and diverse species including Humboldt penguins and giant sea lion colonies—the Islas Ballestas are part of the larger Paracas National Reserve. Besides the half-day boat trip out to the islands the reserve also holds red sand beaches to explore, ancient petroglyphs to discover and rocky cliffs that look out over the crashing surf. A perfect day is spent visiting the islands in the morning and then renting a bike in the town of Paracas and riding around the peninsular reserve the rest of the day.
2. The Colca Canyon
Photo by Pedro Szekely/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
With cliffs that hover over 13,000 feet above the valley floor, Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and the natural marvel, located just outside the charming colonial city of Arequipa, is one of Peru’s top attractions. Besides the amazing views, natural hot springs and endless hiking opportunities, Colca Canyon is also the best place in the world to see the giant Andean condor up close as they often hover above the canyon rim and right in front of visitors’ faces as they scan the valley floor far below.
3. Huascarán National Park
Photo by Paulo Tomaz/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
You would have to travel to the Himalayas to get peaks higher than those found in Peru’s Cordillera Blanco (White Mountains), and Huascaran National Park is home to the tallest of the tall, including Huascaran itself, the country’s highest, surpassing 22,000 feet. Located just outside of the city of Huaraz, known as the outdoor enthusiasts’s capital of Peru, this is the highest tropical mountain range in the world and an absolute mecca for hikers and those who simply want to gawk at impressive mountain scenery. Turquoise blue high alpine lakes are fed by more than 600 glaciers, all of them crisscrossed by trail networks where pumas, condor and a wide variety of birds are often sighted.
4. Sierra del Divisor National Park
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Photo by Alberto Ñiquen/Instagram
With a lone mountain rising out of the flat jungle like a scene right out of myth and legend, Sierra Divisor is Peru’s newest National Park and has not experienced a rush of tourism yet. Besides conical rainforest covered volcanoes that issue steaming hot spring rivers at their base and spectacular waterfalls, Sierra de Divisor park is also home to an incredible variety of Amazonian flora and fauna as well as many villages of the matriarchal Shipibo tribe, known across the country for their fine embroidery skills. The park is a day’s boat ride from the rainforest metropolis of Pucallpa and accessible from the quaint riverside village of Contamana, where tour agencies have recently set up shop.
5. Manu National Park
Photo by Patty Ho/Flickr CC BY 2.0
A UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses 1.5 million hectares, Manu includes several different pristine ecosystems as it rolls down from the cloud forest covered Andean foothills to the Amazon rainforest. Just hours from Cusco and the Sacred Valley straight down the mountain, Manu National Park is one of the most visited natural areas in the country and a must do for anyone who makes the trip to Machu Picchu but wants to see the Amazon jungle in all its natural glory as well.
Besides the famous brightly colored macaws and boisterous spider monkeys that make the park their home, visitors also often spot black caimans and even the elusive jaguar while visiting Manu. While independent exploration is possible along the parks edge where several indigenous communities are located, the inner depths of the park are off limits to all besides scientific researchers and a handful of licensed tour operators. These tours to Manu are easy to book in Cusco or in Puerto Maldonaldo, a pleasant jungle town near the park.
Main photo by unukorno/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Ocean Malandra writes the EarthRx column for Paste and divides his time between Northern California and South America.