Peru may be inseparable from Machu Picchu and the legacy of the Inca Empire, but a scratch beneath the surface reveals a fascinating and dynamic country that preserves its Andean traditions. Cosmopolitan types dive into Lima’s world-class dining, while travelers in Gore-Tex outdoor gear gather at pubs around Cusco’s 500-year-old Plaza de Armas in anticipation of ruins treks. Yet even in this cross-section of some of Peru’s highlights, there’s much more. In Sacred Valley markets, artisans haggle over handwoven alpaca textiles. On the desert coast, a 5,000-year-old city is being excavated as you read this. There are beaches for surfing, fervent religious processions, and highland celebrations with surreal masks.
Sightseeing: Cusco revels in its Andean traditions, with exquisite Inca stonemasonry on nearly every street. Take a train though the Sacred Valley to the Inca town of Ollantaytambo and legendary Machu Picchu. The fast-paced capital, Lima, has revitalized its colonial quarter to go along with its sophisticated nightlife and shopping. Visit the ancient pyramid complex of Caral, which parallels the ones in Egypt, or surf some of South America’s most consistent waves at Punta Hermosa.
Eating & Drinking: The word’s out: Contemporary Peruvian cuisine is one of the world’s most surprising and sophisticated. Get a heaping plate of sole, sliced into Asian-inflected tiradito right off the boat, or savor ceviche at a hip, open-air restaurant. The highlands are famed for what the Incas ate: hundreds of varieties of tubers and grains like quinoa. There are giant river fish such as paiche and exotic tropical fruits from the Amazon and ají peppers that spice up all kinds of dishes. Taste a coca or passion-fruit sour—mixologists’ takes on the classic pisco sour.
Nature: Even in this small selection of terrain, Peru’s natural diversity is astounding: bold Andes mountains running down the middle of the country, a 3,220km (2,000-mile) Pacific coast, and the lush rainforest at the edge of the Amazon, which surrounds Machu Picchu. Whether you’re into extreme sports, birding, or photography, you’ll find islands full of sea lions, snowcapped mountains, raging rivers, and hillsides blanketed with orchids.
History: Peru wears its complex web of pre-Columbian cultures and Spanish colonialism on its hand-woven sleeve. From Inca ruins such as the mammoth Sacsayhuamán fortress overlooking Cusco and pre-Inca archaeological sites like Caral, to colonial mansions built by conquistadors over Inca palaces in Cusco and the Republican-era houses turned art galleries and boutique hotels in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, you don’t have to look far for a thrilling history lesson.