I moved to Cusco a few years ago to explore some of the best kept secrets and hidden gems of Peru. I’m originally from Lima and prior to moving to Cusco I worked for a bank for five years. I grew tired of working for the bank and yearned to discover more of my own country. One day I decided to become a full-time traveler: leaving my home, friends and work behind.
Peru is a place that never ceases to amaze me. I love the culture and the biodiversity of climates – from the coast to the Andes to the Amazon. Each department has something exciting to offer. Peru is also a country where you can eat delicious food and backpack around getting to know each tourist attraction on your own. Transport is cheap (whether you go by bus or plane) and you can enjoy a quality meal from less than a dollar.
My favorite place in all of Peru has to be the Nevado Salkantay in Cusco. It’s one of the most beautiful mountains in South America. The Salkantay Trek is special because you have stunning landscapes everywhere such as Laguna Humantay, the foot of the Nevado Salkantay, jungles where coffee is produced and of course the final destination of Machu Picchu.
Peru is well known as a tourism destination for popular places like Machu Picchu, Lima, Cusco, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, etc. but in between these packed out spots are hidden gems which can show you more of the real Peruvian culture. It’s in these places where you can immerse yourself more in the culture and meet locals who will be happy to show you around.
10 Hidden Gems of Peru
1. Gocta Waterfall, Chachapoyas
Gocta Waterfall was such a hidden gem prior to 2005 that no one apart from the farmers of Chachapoyas knew about it. That all changed when a German explorer named Stefan Ziemendorff discovered the falls and measured it at around 770 meters – making it one of the highest waterfalls not only in South America but the entire world. Gocta truly is spectacular!
There are a couple of ways you can explore Gocta: one is from San Pablo village where you take a hiking trail for two hours and get to see views of the upper falls, while the other way is from Cocachimba. Again, you would need to hike from Cocachimba and it’s a little longer this way at three hours of hiking. But the landscape on this route is better as you head through a cloud forest full of orchids, hummingbirds and monkeys.
2. Kuelap, Chachapoyas
Kuelap is a stone structure built by the pre-Hispanic Chachapoyas culture dating back to the 6th century AD. This archaeological site is perched on the top of a mountain and is surrounded by a 20-meter outer wall, standing at 3,000 meters above sea level. It looks out over the Utcubamba Valley. It’s amazing to think that Chachapoyas people literally climbed this hill everyday, with various stones and equipment, to build the citadel.
Historians believe that between 2,000 and 3,000 people lived at Kuelap during its heyday, mainly the elite of the Chachapoyas culture resided here. This secretive citadel thrived up until the 16th century when the Spanish Empire eventually conquered Peru. It remained forgotten until the 19th century when it was rediscovered on accident by a local Chachapoya man.
There are two ways you can access the site. The best way is by foot because you get an appreciation of what people went through many centuries ago as they went to and from the citadel. Another way is to take a cable car that leaves from Nuevo Tingo. Either way, the ruins and history will impress you!
3. El Nuro Bay, Piura
If swimming with turtles is on your bucket list and you thought you might miss out on this activity in South America then think again! El Nuro Bay is located 7km from Los Organos on the coast and it’s home to majestic sea turtles who call the harbor their home. In El Nuro you can find a little fishing village offering great food and beaches with crystal-clear water.
4. Blue Lagoon, Tarapoto
Blue Lagoon is situated near Tarapoto and it’s a paradise for water-based activities. Here tourists can rent a canoe, jump on a sailboat, try their hand at water skiing or go fishing as there are plenty of fish species to catch. Surrounding the lagoon is an abundance of rich flora, part of the reason why the lagoon is known as “Lake Willow” due to the medicinal plant called willow found on the banks. Definitely one of the best hidden gems of Peru!
5. Laguna Paron, Ancash
Laguna Paron is becoming more popular these days but not long ago it was a hidden gem. This lake, the largest in the Cordillera Blanca, has a turquoise color and offers fantastic vantage points in the surrounding areas – all accessible on easy hiking trails. The lake sits majestically at the foot of a couple of peaks: the Cordillera Blanca and the Nevado Artesonraju.
The best place to base yourself for the hike to Laguna Paron is Huaraz. Although the road from Huaraz to the start of the trail is a bit bumpy (to put it mildly), the reward at Laguna Paron makes the journey well worth it. Another option is staying in Caraz or going camping near the laguna. A camping experience would be more suited for serious hikers.
6. Laguna de Salinas, Arequipa
You don’t have to travel all the way to southern Bolivia to experience salt flats in South America! Just head to Arequipa and then join a tour out of the city to Laguna de Salinas – home to beautiful white salt flats which are dry during May to December every year. From January to May, the rains come in and so do the flamingos and other Andean waterbirds. This is an epic place to take a day trip or overnight trip and take some cool photos.
7. Monkey Island, Iquitos
Monkey Island is one of the biggest highlights of the Iquitos region. Located 30km from Iquitos City, this island is home to eight different kinds of monkeys as well as sloths, birds and other wildlife. As the name suggests, Monkey Island is a Monkey Nature Reserve where tourists can visit to see monkeys living freely and also visit the recovery center where injured monkeys recuperate to full health before being released back into the wild.
There are various boat trips and tours that you can book in order to visit Monkey Island. Many of these tours include ethical watching, feeding and playing opportunities with the monkeys – as well as swimming in the Amazon River and going for hikes through the jungle landscape.
8. Thermal Baths & Quiswarani Waterfall, Lares
The Lares Trek is one of the best alternative hikes in the Cusco region for reaching Machu Picchu. It takes about two or three days to complete and takes you across parts of the Sacred Valley. Make sure you pack your swimsuit for this hike as the Lares Thermal Baths are a fantastic way to relax and take a break along the way. There are six pools to soak in, all with different mineral elements that have various health benefits.
The Quiswarani Waterfall is normally reached before the thermal baths. The Lares Trek takes you to lakes, mountain passes and Inca stone paths before stumbling upon the Quiswarani waterfall – a cascading waterfall with seven different drops. This is a wonderful spot to take some photos and admire the views before continuing on for a few more days to finish the Lares Trek.
9. Millpu Natural Pools, Ayacucho
Millpu is one of the best hidden gems of Peru but it won’t stay that way for long! This destination is becoming more popular with tourists, so I advise visiting before it’s overrun. Millpu is a mountain situated in the Andes in the town of Circamarca. This town is home to the Quechua people and culture. At the natural pools themselves you will get the chance to go swimming, hike to viewpoints and take plenty of photos!
10. Laguna Sandoval, Puerto Maldonado
Many Peruvians regard Laguna Sandoval as the most beautiful place in the Peruvian jungle. This lake is situated in the Tambopata National Reserve which is home to 3,000 square kilometers of rich flora and fauna. Laguna Sandoval only takes up a small section of the reserve but what it lacks in size it makes up for in natural beauty! The waters, aguaje palm trees and various fish species (around 6,500) make it a nature-lovers paradise!
The best things to do in Laguna Sandoval include taking a boat trip, hiking (even during the nighttime) and just relaxing in a lodge accommodation or cabin with a hammock. On many of the boat rides it’s not uncommon to see black alligators and turtles swimming around you. Going on a hike will allow you to truly immerse yourself in the charm of the Amazon. All of these activities are best experienced with a guide for safety reasons.
More Hidden Gems of Peru – The Food!
Peruvian food has an extensive menu and it’s impossible not to gain weight eating the food here! Some of the best dishes are ceviche, lomo saltado, quinoa soup and chili chicken. For hidden gems of Peruvian cuisine you can try chicken broth, pachamanca, timpu and pickled chicken. If you would like more food recommendations feel free to write to me!
Tips for Visiting the Hidden Gems of Peru
If you want to experience the best hidden gems of Peru and get to experience the real essence of this country, then I would suggest traveling here for at least one month if not two. Peru is a country rich in culture, customs and beautiful places. Another option, if you are shorter on time, would be to just explore the southern regions such as Lima, Ica, Cusco, Arequipa and Puno. How much time you spend in Peru is totally up to you.
Once you have decided on how long to stay, the next task will be planning your transport. This depends on which areas you are visiting such as the coast, the Andes or the Amazon. There are departments which can be traveled to by bus that take a maximum of eight hours. If you need to take a bus, I suggest an overnight one. For long distances you should go by plane. Book early to secure cheap flights! Below are a few final tips:
- The climate varies significantly in each region of Peru. On the coast, between January and March, the season is summertime while in the Andes and the Jungle during the same months it’s the rainy season.
- The Andes mountains are high altitude and if you are not accustomed to these heights you may suffer from altitude sickness. Anything over 3,000 meters can bring on altitude sickness, so the best strategy is to slowly make your way up to higher altitudes. If you do get struck down by illness, some rest and coca tea will nurse you back to health.
- Bring decent hiking boots/shoes and a backpack with the right gear.
- Plan your itinerary in advance so you can book your accommodation. No matter what type of accommodation you prefer – be it backpackers, hotels, resorts, etc. – booking in advance gives you more options.
- If you are heading to Machu Picchu (which you should) then buy your tickets before you go. Remember there is a lot of demand between June and September. Also, I recommend either doing the Salkantay Trek or Lares Trek for Machu Picchu. Both of these are unique treks.
- Most tours in Cusco start early at around 4am so get plenty of rest!
- If you would like more tips on traveling to Peru please message me 🙂