Peruvian cuisine, music, wildlife, geography, and dances are only some of the charms that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to Peru, a tourist hot-spot of the world. Although visitors enjoy many aspects of the country, Peru is perhaps best known for sights related to its diverse history and culture.
Peru has been the site of many pre-Colombian civilisations, each with its own unique culture and architecture. The Chimú, Huari, Moche, Paracas, Nazca, Caral, Chachapoyas, Killke, and Lima are some of the civilisations to have flourished in the country in the past centuries. Each one of these left magnificent and humble traces of their culture. These can take the forms of pottery, other small artifacts, and massive ruins, all of which have been examined and studied to build up current-day understanding of Peru’s past. The most iconic and prevalent culture that the minds of tourists is the great Inca Empire.
Known during its time as the Realm of the Four Parts, the Incan Empire was the largest empire to exist in pre-Colombian America, taking up modern-day Peru, Chile, parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia. The Incans were a unique civilisation, not least for expanding to such a size without knowledge of wheels, draft animals, or a writing system. They were known for their far-reaching road networks that expanded across the empire as well as their expertise in masonry and beautifully woven textiles. Even with all their accomplishments, the Inca Empire was eventually conquered by the Spaniards after a century of rule. The fall of the Incas gave birth to some of the most impressive ruins of cities and citadels along with many other remnants of their culture that bring wonder and amazement today.
All this talk about history does not even include the colourful culture of Peru today! Anyone who has an interest in culture and history should plan on visiting Peru. But with so many sites to visit and explore, planning a trip to Peru can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry! Here is a list of the top 10 places to visit in Peru for those culture and history lovers among us!
Cathedral Basilica of Lima
While so much attention is focused on the pre-Colombian history of Peru, we should not forget the long history and culture that the country had with Spain after the Inca Empire. Located in Peru’s capital city of Lima, the Cathedral Basilica of Lima is a huge Roman Catholic cathedral. Dedicated to Saint John, the Apostle and Evangelist, the basilica’s construction was finished in 1649, 114 years after the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro laid the first stone for the Cathedral’s construction. As of today, the basilica remains his resting place.
With its combination of gothic, baroque, and neo-classical architecture, the beautiful basilica is a sight to behold. It has 14 side chapels, bell towers, fine stonework, and religious art. With the importance of Christianity to the culture and religion of Peru today, a stop at the Lima Cathedral is a must.
In the Atuncolla District of the Puno Region lies the deep blue Lake Umayo. As you walk along the lakefront, you will come across strange cylindrical stone towers. These are known as the Sillustani Chullpas. The Kolla people created these towers as a way of venerating the deceased members of society with the highest status and authority. An interesting difference in their masonry compared to the Incas is that the Kollas preferred to use rectangular stones instead of stones of varied shapes. All the tombs face east, which the Kolla as the direction where the sun is reborn each day. Right now, about 90 of these towers stand at Sillustani as a symbol of the Kolla’s respect for the dead and architectural prowess.
The Uros Islands
On the border of Bolivia and Peru at the Andes, you can find another breathtaking lake. Lake Titicaca is often referred to as the highest navigable lake. It is also the largest lake in South America. This lake was fundamental to many cultures in the past, leaving behind ruins and artifacts such as Moon Island, Sun Island, and numerous underwater ruins. But perhaps the most fascinating site that you can visit there is the Uros Islands.
The Uros Islands are floating islands created by their inhabitants out of totora roots and reeds. Many houses and boats there are made of totora material, making the majority of the islands a surreal, beautiful land of straw. These totora reeds are a keystone in the lives of the Uros community because they are also used as a nutrition source and medicine. Visiting these islands will give you a unique look into the ancient culture and a sight of how they adapted and grew in the modern world.
The District of Ica is located in Southern Peru. This place is known by the locals as the “Land of the Sun” and is a vital area for agriculture. It has a warm, dry climate and many days of sunshine. On another note, Pre-Colombian cultures such as the Inca, Paracas, and Chincha inhabited the region, leaving behind many artifacts. Some of those historical pieces can be found in the Museo Regional de Ica.
Ica also has a desert. One of the popular destinations you can visit is Huacachina, an oasis city surrounded by sprawling dunes. This oasis is a famous destination for both locals and tourists. It has a lot of stories about the local legends and myths about its water. Stories about mermaids and healing definitely capture people’s attention. Above anything else, a walk across the dunes of the silent desert with the golden glow of the sunset in front of you is truly a humbling experience.
The Geoglyphs of Nazca
Continuing our exploration of the south of Peru, travelling to the Nazca Desert, we find the Nazca Lines. The Nazca lines depict figures of plants, animals, and some bare lines across the landscape. These works of art were preserved by the naturally dry climate of the land. H undreds of designs – such as monkeys, hummingbirds, spiders, and condors – can be found. Due to the size of these geoglyphs, it is best to see them from air or high locations. Recently, many new geoglyphs have been discovered because of the advancement of drone technology.
It’s still not clear what the purpose of the Nazca geoglyphs is. One hypothesis is that they were created for the deities in the sky to see. Another theory is that they follow the paths of aquifers. But whatever their purpose may be, simply looking at these geoglyphs will surely bring one a sense of awe and mystery.
Aptly named as the “Land of the Sun”, Ica is a perfect place for vineyards and wineries because of its warm, dry weather and abundance of sunlight. Wineries in the region have quite a past, with a history dating back centuries. One of these is the Tacama winery, the very first vineyard in South America and one that’s received numerous wine awards. F ounded by Francisco de Carabantes, the vineyard has survived several centuries, including the protective measures Spain placed on Peru in 1776 that prohibited the import of wines. That seemingly unfortunate event led to a focus on distillation and resulted in the birth of Peru’s famous grape brandy, Pisco.
The Tacama vineyard offers tours for those keen to learn more about their winery and history. Sampling of fine wines is included. Those interested in wine and history will surely enjoy learning more about this legendary vineyard.
Going up to the Andes Mountains lies a historical city like no other. Cusco is a popular tourist destination in Peru, receiving about 2 million tourists visiting annually. It was the capital of the Inca Empire and is now the capital of the Cusco Region and Province. The city of Cusco is a treasure trove of historical and cultural artifacts and ruins, earning its spot as the Historical Capital of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A walk through Cusco is like a journey through time. Visitors to the ancient city will enjoy exploring the old city streets laid out with pre-Colombian and colonial architecture. The city also has numerous museums displaying pre-Colombian artifacts and textiles.
In addition, Cusco has a cacao and chocolate museum known as the ChocoMuseo, which is perfect for people looking for a little gastronomic delight. The ChocoMuseo offers bean-to-bar workshops, cooking classes, and truffle workshops for those who wish to learn the secrets of chocolate.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
The Urubamba Valley (also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas) is another Peru’s popular tourist destination, located about 20 kilometers north of Cusco. Built along the Urubamba River and surrounded by massive mountains, the sacred valley is covered with lush deep greenery. Historically, the Sacred Valley has been a vital agricultural hub for the re gion, supporting large-scale maize production and bringing cocoa and chili to Cusco.
Multiple ruins can be visited in the sacred valley. These include the circular, amphitheater-shaped Moray ruins and the Winay Wayna, a group of houses and agricultural terraces that can only be reached by foot.
You might also want to visit the Písac market – this colourful market is a great place to shop for alpaca wool bags, fabric and clothing, and other Peruvian souvenirs. It is also a delightful experience to taste freshly baked empanadas as you walk through the bustling marketplace.
The Inca Trail
The Inca trail is a stunning, five-day hiking trail culminating at Machu Picchu. A walk along trails made centuries ago by the Inca Empire is like a walk into the pre-Colombian past. This iconic trail gives access to many Incan ruins and settlements, from the small Wayllapampa village to the steep Sayaqmarka, to name a few. Given the popularity of the Inca Trail and the Machu Picchu ruins, the Peruvian government has imposed strict limitations on how many people can hike the legendary trail each day. Make sure to book your permits in advance if you plan on walking the Inca Trail !
Now, we arrive at Machu Picchu, the iconic and well-known citadel that is probably Peru’s best known attraction. The ruin was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage in 1983. The name Machu Picchu is thought to describe the old mountain on which the iconic citadel was built.
It is believed that Machu Picchu was constructed for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti. The citadel was no doubt a sight to behold, with around 750 people living and working there at its peak. It was surronded by agricultural terraces supplying the citadel with food.
The central building was constructed using an Incan technique known as ashlar. Ashlar is a building method that uses carefully cut blocks of dry-stone that are fitted tightly together without the use of mortar.
Machu Picchu contains many structures of religious importance such as its Temple of the Sun, the Intihuatana stone, and the Inti Mach’ay cave. Each of these structures is related to Incan worship of the sun. There are two main hikes up the mountains of Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu if you want to get different views of the historical site!
From Catholic cathedrals to busy cities, from a desert oasis to Incan citadels, Peru is a country filled with so much history and culture that one could fully immerse themselves for a lifetime. A trip to Peru is a trip to the past where you can experience the ancient world of the pre-Colombian civilisations and gain insights about modern Peruvian culture and cuisine. With good planning before you set off on your vacation to Peru, you can make the most of your trip and experience the most that Peru has to offer. We hope these sites caught your eye for your next trip there!
Guest post written and photographed by Julien Mordret.