When we planned our trip to Peru, hiking the Inca Trail was on our itinerary, as well as exploring the cities of Cusco and Arequipa, a foray into the Amazon Jungle, some sand boarding in the desert oasis of Huacachina, and a bit of island hopping on Lake Titicaca. These are the destinations that appear on most travellers’ hit lists, and with good reason: they offer visitors an excellent selection of the country’s diverse and unique landscapes, and its beautiful, colonial architecture.
But, away from the ‘Gringo Trail’ there is so much more to discover in this spectacular country.
Getting off the beaten path is not always easy though: destinations that see few tourists do not have the same tourist infrastructure as their more popular counterparts, the transport between such destinations is less frequent and often unreliable, English is barely spoken or understood, wifi connection can be sketchy (if it exists at all), and the quality of food and accommodation can vary wildly.
Yet in spite of the challenges you may find yourself facing, taking the path less trodden can also be incredibly rewarding.
There’s no better feeling than exploring, photographing, and writing about somewhere that’s rarely visited by other tourists or written about by other travel bloggers.
You’ll also find that where a place makes little money from tourism, the people who live there are less likely to see travellers as a source of income for them, and more likely to see them as individuals. So there are more chances to connect with, and build a rapport with, local residents.
Stu and I spent three months in Peru earlier this year, and whilst there were places we visited that we wish we could have spent longer exploring (if I’d been able to add an extra month to our itinerary it still would not have been long enough), I think we achieved a good balance of popular tourist attractions, and lesser-known sites within the country.
Here’s my pick of the best places to get off the beaten track in Peru:
Cajamarca is situated in the northern highlands of Peru, 2720 metres above sea level, in a fertile valley surrounded by tall mountains. It’s most historically notable as the place where the Incan Empire came to an end, yet despite having an attractive historical centre lined with cobbled streets, majestic churches, and graceful colonial architecture, Cajamarca sees relatively few tourists. As you stroll through Cajamarca’s streets, you’ll see campesinos (countryside dwellers) bundled in brightly-coloured scarfs and wearing tall wide-brimmed hats, more than you will other travellers.
Don’t miss: Iglesia de San Francisco, La Catedral, Cerro Santa Apolonia (viewpoint), El Complejo de Belén, and Sudado de Trucha (a regional fish stew) at Don Paco
Located in the valley of the Utcubamba river, and with a population of just 1100, Leymebamba manages to retain its traditional customs (horses are still used as a major form of transport) and laid back charm as a result of its relative isolation – the nearest big city is still many hours away by dirt roads.
There’s not a lot to do here but the town is surrounded by some beautiful, lush mountain scenery, and its museum alone makes a visit here worthwhile.
Don’t miss: Museo de Leymebamba (contains hundreds of artefacts from a nearby burial site that was only uncovered as recently as 1996. Also houses 210 of the 219 mummies discovered there), and Kenticafe – for the only wifi in town and the unusual hummingbird sightings.
Probably the largest, most isolated city in Peru, Ayacucho is many hours – along bad mountain roads – from civilisation in either direction, and for that reason it’s difficult to incorporate it into your travel itinerary, especially if you’re short on time.
BUT, don’t that that discourage you. Ayacucho is a destination with a long (remains of human settlements more than 15,000 years old have been found in nearby Pikimachay) and colourful history, delightfully un-commercialised streets, and beautiful, well-preserved colonial buildings and churches. Its Plaza de Armas is one of the most attractive in Peru, and one which – if you arrive early enough – you can have almost completely to yourself.
Don’t miss: Its 33 churches (the city is famous for them; one for every year of Jesus’s life), Mirador de Carmen Alto for a spectacular view of the city, the Wari ruins, 22 kilometres north-east of the city, and Via Via – for the amazing food and killer views from its plaza-facing balcony.
Situated 147 kilometres south of Huancayo, Huancavelica is located in the central highlands of Peru, and is surrounded by a rugged terrain of valleys, deep gorges, high mountains, and winding roads.
The town – which once flourished as a result of the abundance of its mercury deposits – is now one of the poorest in Peru, with the majority of its residents surviving off the practice of subsistence agriculture. However in spite of this, its residents are friendly and welcoming, and its small historic centre is decorated with charming plazas, and an abundance of beautiful churches, crumbling colonial architecture, and fascinating stonework.
Don’t miss: A tour of the surrounding mines and deserted mining hamlets (organised through the tourist information office), the traditional village of Saccsamarca, mineral springs at Saccsachaca.
The Ruined Citadel of Kuélap
Constructed between AD 500 and 1493 (therefore pre-dating the Incas) by the Chachapoyans (known as the Cloud People), and rediscovered in 1843, Kuélap sits at 3100 metres above sea level and is situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru.
From Chachapoyas it’s a hard 2-3 drive along rough, unpaved roads that meander their way up into the mountains, however Kuélap’s isolated position means that it’s not over-run with tourists. What’s more, due to its elevated position, the views from up here are nothing short of spectacular.
Don’t miss: Bodies were buried inside the walls of some of the structures; if you shine a torch inside you can still see the bones. Also look out for llamas roaming amidst the grounds, and also a selection of unusual and colourful orchids.
Trekking the Colca Canyon Independently
The Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon, just a smidgen shallower than its Peruvian neighbour, Cotahuasi – which incidentally is only half as deep as the infinitely more famous Grand Canyon.
Those who’ve trekked the Colca Canyon as part of a tour may argue that this cannot be classed as an off the beaten track experience, but hike this area independently, and take some of the trails away from those the standard tour groups choose, and you’ll find yourself – for the most part – completely alone.
The easiest way to get to the Colca Canyon, located around 160 kilometres from Arequipa, is to hop on a local bus and jump off at Chivay, or Cabanaconde. Most villages here will have at least a few basic hospedajes (guesthouses) to accommodate travellers, and meals are cooked on-site.
Don’t miss: A chance to see the majestic Andean Condor at Cruz del Cóndor (but do avoid early mornings between 8 and 10am unless you want to be joined by hundreds of other tourists), an overnight stop in Tapay, pizza cooked in the clay oven at Pachamama Backpacker Hostal.
So those are my recommendations for 6 of the best places to get off the beaten track in Peru. Obviously the list is not exhaustive, as – although I spent 3 months exploring the country – there are still many more towns and villages that, for me, remain undiscovered.
Are there any destinations or sites that you would add to the list? Or any unique and fulfilling experiences that you’d like to share?