You’re most likely to arrive in the buzzing and at least fitfully elegant capital, Lima; a modern city, it manages to effortlessly blend traditional Peruvian heritage with twenty-first-century glitz. Cusco is perhaps the most obvious place to head from here. A beautiful and bustling colonial city, it was once the ancient heart of the Inca Empire, and is surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes and palatial ruins in Peru, and by magnificent hiking country. The world-famous Inca Trail, which culminates at the lofty, fog-shrouded Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, is just one of several equally scenic and challenging treks in this region of Peru alone.
Along the coast, there are more fascinating archeological sites as well as glorious beaches and sparky towns. South of Lima are the bizarre Nasca Lines, which have mystified since their discovery some seventy years ago, as well as the vast Reserva Nacional Paracas, dense with wildlife, and the oasis resort of Huacachina, which offers both relaxation and white-knuckle thrills. If that all sounds too active, you could always duck away to spend a day lazily sipping wine at the many Ica Valley bodegas.
North of Lima lie the great adobe city of Chan Chan and the Valley of the Pyramids. The surfing hangouts of Puerto Chicama and trendy Máncora beach are big draws along this stretch, but almost all of the coastal towns come replete with superb beaches, plentiful nightlife and great food.
For high mountains and long-distance treks, head for the stunning glacial lakes, snowy peaks and little-known ruins of the sierra north of Lima, particularly the ice-capped mountains and their valleys around Huaraz, but also the more gentle hills, attractive villages and ancient sites in the regions of Cajamarca and Chachapoyas. The central sierra is crammed with tradition and stunning colonial architecture, at its peak in Ayacucho and Huancayo; the region around Tarma is also worth exploring, offering a variety of landscapes, from jungles and caves to waterfalls and stupendous terraced valleys.
If it’s wildlife you’re interested in, there’s plenty to see almost everywhere, but the jungle provides startling opportunities for close and exotic encounters. From the comfort of tourist lodges in Iquitos to river excursions around Puerto Maldonado, the fauna and flora of the world’s largest tropical forest can be experienced first-hand here more easily than in any other Amazon-rim country. Not far from Iquitos, the Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria is a remote and stunningly beautiful, though little-visited region; while close to Cusco, just below the cloud forest, the Manu Biosphere Reserve is another wildlife hotspot. Further towards the Bolivian and Brazilian jungle frontier, the Reserva Nacional Tambopata holds some of the most exciting jungle and varied wildlife in the world.