When it comes to Peru, three obvious destinations (Machu Picchu, Lima, and Cusco) never fail to make every top to-do list. And with unparalleled views, unique activity offerings, and fresh and mouthwatering cuisine, there's no doubt they should make the cut. Still, we believe there are several often overlooked, off-the-grid gems dotting the country that deserve some love, too. So if you’re searching for something that’s a little off-the-beaten-path, these go-here, not-there destinations are a good place to start. With fewer crowds but similar perks to their hot spot counterparts, these unsung heroes are some of the best-kept secrets around. Consider yourself in our circle of trust.
1. Hike the other Machu Picchu—Choquequirao
The name Choquequirao, which literally translates to “cradle of gold,” is quite fitting considering this place makes travelers feel like they’ve stumbled across some hidden treasure. Unlike its sister spot, Machu Picchu, which is only 25 miles away and teeming with up to 2,500 iPhone-toting tourists daily, this hidden gem is a peaceful, unexplored oasis. Just make sure to pack your walking shoes—the up-and-down journey, which kicks off from the village of Cachora, can be a grueling, sweat-inducing one with no showers or roads nearby. The reward for the fruits of your labor come in the form of epic views that go on for days. Look down over the canyons plunging into the Apurimac River; gaze up and marvel at the Inca ruins surrounded by snowy peaks and lush wilderness. Translation: you’ve hit the jackpot.
2. Set your sights on Lake Titicaca from a new vantage point
Straddling Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is a must-hit destination on any visit to the country. At 12,500 feet above sea level, it’s the highest commercially navigable lake in the world—which is a nice way of saying: good luck, you’ll be dodging tourists left and right. So what’s the secret to seeing this wonder in solitude? Llachon. Approximately 50 miles northeast of Puno (that’s where Lake Titicaca is situated), this picturesque little village—which also offers hikes to historic sites and kayaking on the lake—feels eons away from the bustling parts of Peru. With nary a car in sight, you’re more likely to share the magical views with the occasional sheep, pigs, and llamas. Just make sure to rise and shine early.
3. Traipse around Kuelap Fortress
Grab your comfiest pair of kicks and hit the road to explore this fortified citadel built by the Chachapoyans. One of the largest ancient monuments in America (the original spanned an eye-popping 25,000 square miles), today, it majestically sits 3,000 feet above sea level on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru. Once you’ve arrived (getting there isn't the easiest feat), you’ll want to spend at least a few hours exploring the ruins, which feature gargantuan stone walls consisting of more than 400 round dwellings and expansive the 360-degree panoramic views. Three words: worth the burn.
4. Explore Cotahuasi Canyon
The pictures will never do this incredible site justice. The deepest canyon in the world (to put things into perspective, it’s twice the scope as Arizona’s Grand Canyon), this natural wonder is just something you have to see first-hand to believe. While its better-known counterpart, Colca Canyon, is more easily accessible and a stone’s throw from more hospitable accommodations, this larger, isolated stretch is for thrill-seekers looking to satisfy their appetite for adventure. Among the to-dos to throw on your itinerary are mountain climbing, biking, hiking, and kayaking. Waterfalls, hot springs, and llama and alpaca sightings top off the list.
5. Channel your inner Indiana Jones at Manu National Park
While the rest of the tourists book it to Iquitos, those in the know make their way to the Manu National Park, a protected natural reserve surrounding the Madre de Dios river in southwestern Peru. Relatively remote (you'll actually be forced to unplug), the UNESCO world heritage site is a feast for the eyes when it comes to its rich flora (figs, palms) and fauna (otters, caiman, jaguars, macaws). Plus, there’s no shortage of things to do: Slip on a pair of waterproof shoes to explore the jungle, drift along the the lakes, reel in a fresh catch, and the list goes on.
6. Ride a wave at Mancora
Mancora, a town positioned along the Peruvian coastline, is the type of place you never want to leave. Lukewarm waters make it a popular destination for throwing on a wetsuit and riding a wave. And activities (kitesurfing, fishing, morning yoga, scubadiving, surfing, among others) are aplenty. Join the locals and follow the formula: Surf, swim, sunbathe, repeat.