If you’re planning on visiting Peru for the first time, it’s safe to assume the obvious – Machu Picchu ranks right at the top of your must-see list. Every day, hundreds of underprepared tourists start on the steep, soggy, punishing slog that is the Inca Trail hike to see this manmade wonder of the world with their own eyes. They do it willingly, because the mystical, mist-shrouded lost city waiting at the end is a sight truly beyond compare.
Without the magnificent ruins of the ancient Inca capital, it’s doubtful that Peru would be the desirable destination that it is today.
And that’s kind of a shame.
Machu Picchu or no, Peru is still one of South America’s most enchantingly beautiful, stunningly diverse destinations.
Peru has much, much more to offer beyond the typical Lima – Cuzco – Machu Picchu itinerary. And if you’re planning on exploring the country by motorcycle, the journey to reach some of the attractions we’ve listed below can be just as exhilarating as the destinations themselves.
The Nazca Lines are Peru’s most widely recognised archaeological site outside of Machu Picchu, and their exact origins are even more of a mystery.
The Nazca Lines are a collection of geoglyphs depicting animals, plants, humans, straight lines and geometric shapes, created by carving shallow trenches in the earth. In total, they cover a staggering area of approximately 450 square kilometres. The designs, such as the 135m long condor are so large, an aerial view is needed to be able to make them out.
Despite presumably any means of ascending high enough to actually see their creations, the pre-Incan Nazca culture was responsible for the motifs, somewhere between 200 BC and 400 AD. That makes the Nazca Lines roughly 1,400 years older than Machu Picchu.
Nazca is located on Peru’s coastal plain, about 400km south of Lima. It’s a scenic ride from the Pacific Coast to the dry Nazca plains along the Pan-American Highway. Once you get there, you’ll definitely want to book yourself on to a light plane tour, as you’ll need to be airborne to truly appreciate the vast scale of this ancient enigma.
Peru has so many ridiculously awesome motorcycling roads, but with its combination of never-ending curves and cinematic scenery, the wildly careening descent into the Colca Canyon is up there there with the country’s most exhilarating rides.
Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the second deepest in the world, Colca plunges to 3,270m at the deepest point of its 70km extent, carved out of the Andes by the surging Rio Colca.
160 km north west of Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa, the region is one of the few places you can regularly spot the Andean condor (endangered in much of its range) soaring freely above the majestic landscape.
At 3,810m above sea level, straddling the borders of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world navigable to large vessels. While a cool fact, it’s more likely that its mesmerising sapphire blue sheen and sweeping high altitude scenery are Titicaca’s biggest drawcards.
The lovely city of Puno sits on the western shore of Lake Titicaca, and from there you can take boat excursions out to the manmade Uros Islands, home to the fishing and farming indigenous Uros people.
HUACACHINA DESERT OASIS
Peru really does have it all. Beaches, mountains, cloud forest, jungles and yes, desert’s too. Surrounded by sand dunes in the middle of the scorching south Peruvian desert is a miraculous miniature village called Huacachina, nestled on the edge of a palm-tree fringed lagoon in the middle of one of the most desolate places on the continent. The picturesque oasis, 5km from the city of Ica, has developed a modest industry around letting tourists blast around the desert on dune buggies and sandboards.
HUASCARAN NATIONAL PARK
An adventurous, semi off-road ride roughly 440 km north of Lima leads you to one of the most beautiful national parks in Peru. It’s home to Nevado Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru at over 6,600m. Summitting this snow-capped beauty is only for experienced climbers, but you can enjoy fantastic views of the Cordillera Blanca range from numerous epic hiking trails within the park.
One of the most popular walks is the short yet demanding high altitude trek to the stunning glacial turquoise lake known as Laguna 69. In case you’re wondering about the name, before the creation of the park in 1975, all the lakes it would encompass had to be named. While some had their indigenous Quechan names restored, others were named by the surveyors, who clearly weren’t feeling especially creative.
THE SACRED VALLEY
Cusco is best known as home base for excursions to Machu Picchu, but it’s also the starting point for trips into another of Peru’s incredible archaeological sites, the Urumba Valley, also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Incas built an incredibly advanced road system which included the tightly zig-zagging stretch which still exists today through the Urumba Valley, and once connected the settlement of Pisac to Machu Picchu, 100km to the north west.
Take the old road out of Cusco through the Sacred Valley and you’ll be up against days’ worth of steep and narrow dirt tracks, with the breathtaking backdrop of the Andes as your constant companion.
Sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of Peru” (a nickname that may be just a tad exaggerated!) is this pristine offshore wildlife sanctuary, an hour or two’s boat ride beyond the arid coastal cliffs of the Paracas National Reserve.
The cluster of small islands are mostly made up of jagged rock formations and almost completely devoid of vegetation. Animals, however, exist here in abundance.
Colossal seabird colonies and Humboldt penguin colonies are the star attractions, but a short cruise around the islands can also reward visitors with sightings of sea lions, dolphins and humpback whales.
PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
Located in the Amazon Basin and completely flooded for much the year, Pacaya Samiria is known as the ‘mirrored forest’ due the reflections its towering tropical trees cast over the water’s surface.
The reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Peru and is a refuge for an astonishing 1,000 animal species including the jaguar, South American tapir, giant otter, scarlet macaw and Amazon River dolphin.
To gain access to the park, you’ll have to base yourself in Iquitos. Said to be the most populous town on earth with no road access (although there are ambitious, environmentally questionable plans by the Peruvian government to change this), Iquitos can be reached by either boat or plane.
From Iquitos, the best way to experience the beauty of the flooded forest is on a multi-day cruise, ideally accompanied by an experienced wildlife guide.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)