Peru is famous for being a megadiverse country brimming with history and culture. It’s one of the places in Latin America where modernity and tradition seem to coexist more harmoniously. Before setting to out explore its age-old ruins, snow-capped mountains, and deserts that meet the ocean, make sure to check out our list of the most startling features that Peru is known for worldwide.
Peru is famous for its cities and architectural wonders
1. Machu Picchu
To call Machu Picchu “Peru’s famous landmark” is to grossly underestimate its importance. One of the world’s new seven wonders, it’s quite simply the most iconic archeological park in the country — and possibly the whole Southern Hemisphere. Built between the early 1400s and the mid-1500s, it wasn’t the Inca’s capital, but their sacred city. That’s probably why most visitors describe a magical, almost inexplicable feeling upon visiting — Machu Picchu is laden with energy.
Not stopping here on your way towards Machu Picchu should be a crime. The capital of Tahuantinsuyu (i.e. the Inca Empire) from the 1200s to its conquest by Francisco Pizarro, Cusco underwent radical changes during the 1600s, the Spanish Golden Century.
The architectural legacy from that era (see no. 21), coupled with remnants from pre-colonial times and its suggestive location in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, justifies its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Cusco might have been the navel of the world for the Incas — that’s what it means in Quechua, the Empire’s lingua franca. Yet since the Spanish colonization Lima has become the core of the Peruvian civilization. A dazzling metropolis that about 10 million people call home, it provides visitors with a complex synthesis of such a fascinating country.
Whether at the trendy restaurants of Miraflores, amid the colorful cliffhanging houses of Barranco, or around the characteristic wooden balconies of the city center, you’ll find a million reasons to fall in love with Lima.
4. Nazca Lines
Drawn between 500 BCE and 500 CE in the soil of the the Nazca Desert, near the southern coast of Peru, the Nazca Lines are impressive to the very least. The 70 more complex figures are shaped like animals and plants. These ancient geoglyphs are best viewed from sightseeing airplanes, as the surrounding area is rather remote and inhospitable.
5. The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
You might already know that Lake Titicaca is definitely on top five of Peru’s famous places. But would you ever guess that it hosts a community of about 1,200 people living on 60 artificial islands? I highly doubt it. The Aymara-speaking Uros have been building their islets and homes with totora reeds harvested from the Titicaca shores since pre-colonial times. Tourists are welcome aboard to learn more about their unique way of life.
Peru is famous for its stunning nature
6. The Peruvian Andes
The Peruvian section of the South American spine is special enough for being the source of the two rivers that merge to form the Amazon. Besides, its southernmost end is a part of the Altiplano, to which Cusco and the Sacred Valley serve as gateways. Encompassing the whole western half of Bolivia and the northern tip of Chile as well, the Andean Plateau was the cradle of powerful civilizations that left an enduring mark on the entire region.
7. Vinicunca, or the Rainbow Mountain
Admiring the breathtaking beauty of this mountain is not for the faint of heart. It requires a couple hours of trekking at 4,000m+ altitude. But no one regrets making the top of the lookout. Located in the Cusco region (though sort of far from it), the 5,200m peak is not overrun by tourists just yet: a must-see if I’ve ever seen one!
8. Llamas, Alpacas, Vicuñas, and Guanacos
Feeding llamas and alpacas — and watching not to be spat on — or spotting vicuñas and guanacos (their wild cousins) in the Andean steppe are truly unique Peruvian experiences. While the untrained eye might have a hard time telling the four camelids apart, the keys are size and hair: alpacas tend to be smaller and stockier and have softer fleece. Guanacos and vicuñas have even finer wool, though the former are also way larger.
9. The Sacred Valley of the Incas
What is Peru famous for above all else? I’d say it’s for having been the seat of the most powerful empire in the Americas before the landing of the conquistadors. Yet what most folks ignore is that most of its territory was made up of vassal states. These owed allegiance to the central polity, located right here. The Incas built most of their stone cities in this huge oasis in the middle of the Andean steppe. They left behind a startling archaeological and cultural heritage after their downfall.
10. The Peruvian Amazon
Though only 5% of Peruvians live here, the Amazon rainforest covers about 60% of the country. Second only to Brazil in its territorial share, it’s home to the largest number of bird species on Earth. The astonishing biodiversity of the Amazon in Peru is partially explained by its huge altitude range, from about 3,800m at its westernmost end to sea level in the basin of its namesake river.
11. The Coastal Desert
Apart from the northernmost region surrounding the mouth of the Tumbes River, the Pacific touches Peru through light beige to golden dunes and bluffs. The Andes cut through Peru at its closest distance from the coast, impacting winds and ocean currents. That’s basically to blame for the country’s picturesquely dry coast.
Peru is famous for its delicious food
Peru is the fourth-largest producer of dried chili peppers on the planet. It’s also the country with the greatest number of cultivars (50+). The most favored kind is ají amarillo, from which a yellow paste is made. Trust me when I say that it fits in any meal seamlessly!
Oddly enough, the first nations didn’t know either the wheel or horses before the arrival of the Spaniards. That means that Andean peoples had to be very strongly built to put up with the mountainside routine. And that’s where quinoa comes in handy. Richer in minerals, protein, fiber, and B vitamins than most grains, the superfood is versatile, tasty, and one of the instantly-recognizable icons of Peruvian cuisine.
For over a decade now, Peru’s famous food has been trending in the hottest neighborhoods of global cities across the world. The undisputed star of most is this irresistible appetizer. In it, seafood is cooked only by the acidity of lime juice.
Pro tip: most restaurants will serve you ceviche well into the evening. Yet just like locals, you shouldn’t have it past lunchtime. Why? You want to make sure the fish, usually caught early in the morning, is at its freshest.
15. Peruvian Roast Chicken
Even more oblivious tourists will notice locals’ obsession with chicken. Wings and chicken-filled sandwiches and empanadas are always in high demand. But the fact that family gatherings are such a big thing for Peruvians turns rotisserie chicken into the perfect weekend meal. Served with generous side dishes and, of course, ají sauce, it will most certainly win you over too after a tough trail.
Most of the modern culture of Latin America is made up of a mix of indigenous and European influences. Chifa is a delightful exception that confirms the rule. It’s an unexpected fusion between traditional Peruvian cuisine and Chinese elements brought over by Guangzhou immigrants. Chifa restaurants went on to become a popular option dotting all the large cities in the country (and it’s just all over Lima).
Peru is famous for its colorful drinks
Pisco a spirit made from the distillation of wine, much like brandy, yet it doesn’t age as much. It’s available in four varieties (pure, aromatic, green must, and multivarietal). To prepare pisco sour, the most hyped cocktail with the liquor as its base, you shake it together with egg white (for the extra creaminess), lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters.
Not to be mistaken for no. 23! This chicha is a very popular beverage. Well, two actually. Chicha morada, pictured above, is a nonalcoholic refreshment made from purple corn that you’ll find in snack bars across the country. Chicha de jora — the nectar of the Incas —, on the other hand, is quite simply corn beer. This one is more commonly seen at chicherías, among groups of joyful seniors having a blast over it.
19. Inca Kola
Made from indigenous lemon verbena, Inca Kola is Peru’s national soft drink. Its distinctive golden color will perhaps lead you astray when it comes to flavor, which slightly resembles that of bubblegum. Though partly owned by Coca-Cola since 1995, it still keeps its 100% Peruvian recipe.
Peru is famous for its extremely rich culture
20. Pre-Columbian Art
Peru’s native communities keep expressing themselves through art works and handicrafts to this day. But the objects that pre-colonial cultures created have a priceless archaeological value. In addition to that, even daily life tools like the one above are imbued with an aesthetic purpose, as ancient civilizations didn’t make such a clear distinction between ornaments and utensils.
21. The Andean Baroque
The Andean Baroque is a perfect example of creole architecture. It reflects the splendor of the time when it flourished throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru. Native artisans were mostly responsible for building the churches and palaces in this style. They incorporated elements from their own religions and the local flora and fauna into the carved stone façades and interiors.
22. Peruvian Textiles
Peru is famous for producing beautifully patterned fabrics and woolen garments, which provide the livelihood of many indigenous communities across the country. Whereas alpaca fiber is stunning and easy to come upon, those looking for a very exclusive outfit will find it in the vicuña wool. Its unprocessed kilo costs between $400 and $600, compared to $75 to $85 for cashmere, and $5 or $6 for good-ole wool.
23. Chicha (the Music)
Despite not being among the many traditional genres that Peru introduced to the world, chicha is the one that resonates the most with contemporary audiences. Created in the 1960s as a fusion between local folk music, cumbia, and psychedelic rock, it became the soundtrack to the massive phenomenon of rural-urban migration that the country experienced at the time. After decades of declining popularity, it has gone through a major revival for the last 15 years or so, triggering the appearance of compilation albums and tribute acts.
24. The Literature of Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa was already a household name of Latin American literature when he ran for President of Peru (and lost) in the pivotal 1990 elections. His winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 cemented his status as a literary genius whose novels challenge genre conventions. Highlights by this Peruvian national treasure include “The Time of the Hero” (1963), “Conversation in the Cathedral” (1969), and “The War of the End of the World” (1981).
Traveling to Peru makes for a truly unforgettable experience to our five senses. Peru is known for its warm people who will show you their magical land with a smile on their face. Hopefully with this list I did my bit to make you fall in love with this gem of a country as intensely as I did back in 2016. What are you waiting for to pack up and discover it by yourself?
And while you plan your next South American vacay, dig into our post about the most original souvenirs that you can get in Brazil. Peru’s tropical neighbor is another must-see in the region!