Peru – the country instantly conjures up the image of misty views overlooking the iconic lost city of Machu Picchu. And why shouldn’t it? This ancient citadel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and named one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in 2007. Historians also claim that this remarkable Inca city was one of the only places not to be destroyed by the Spanish conquest, making it the most well-preserved archaeological site in the country, and highly worth a visit. But, if you look deeper with one of our expert local guides, you’ll quickly realise that Machu Picchu is just one of the many cultural gems to discover on a trip to Peru. So, join us as we cover 5 must-see places that will give you a real insight into Peruvian culture.

5 must-see places in Peru that doesn’t include Machu Picchu

1. The Reed Islands on Lake Titicaca

A visit to the Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca is a visit that will stick in your memory for years to come. So, why are they so unique? The fact that these man-made floating islets are made entirely out of layers of reeds and totora roots stacked on top of each other, makes them arguably one of the most innovative feats of Peruvian engineering. What began as a necessity to escape the persecution of the invading Incan Empire and Spanish conquest 500 years ago has now become the preferred way of living for the indigenous Uru people who have made these reed islands their home.

On our Essential Peru trip, you’ll get to take a boat to one of the floating reed islands, Uros, after a traditional homestay experience on Amantani Island. Here, the chief will meet you and explain how these fascinating islets work. The process of stacking totora roots and reeds can take a year and a half to build, but once completed a man-made island can last up to 50 years. In recent times, they’ve swapped candle-lit stoves for electric stoves using solar panels to generate electricity, which helps to stave off island fires. But on the whole, they still embrace their traditional roots. On Uros, they have continued making hand-made puma boats, known affectionately as “lovers’ boats”, who transport young women on the islands to the mainland city of Puno to find suitable husbands.

5 must-see places in Peru that doesn’t include Machu Picchu

2. The mysterious Nazca Lines

There’s no doubt that the Nazca lines remain one of the country’s biggest mysteries.  Key historians and anthropologists believe that these lines were made by a pre-Inca civilisation somewhere between AD 450 and 600. Covering 450 square kilometres of the Pampa Colorada region, there are hundreds of geoglyphs (geometric figures) and biomorphs (animal/plant drawings), and surprisingly more are still being uncovered by leading Peruvian archaeologist, Luis Jaime Castillo, and his team. Luis contends that the Nazca Lines are still the “most outstanding group of geoglyphs anywhere in the world” – and even suggests that new discoveries may outnumber older ones, “We’ve registered maybe just 5% of what there is,” to be found.

So why not bask in the beauty of these intricate geoglyphs and biomorphs for yourself on our Essential Peru trip? On this adventure, you not only have the opportunity to view the lines from the 43-foot viewing tower where you can see the “Arbol” (tree), the toad (or Manos Hands) and the Lizard, but you can also get an even better view from above by taking an optional scenic flight. Exodus customer and former hang glider, Phil Moran and his wife Brenda, who decided to take the flight explained, “It was excellent. Not only did we get clear visibility of the geoglyphs and the Andes from a bird’s eye view, but we also got to hear about the legends behind the lines from our pilot.”

5 must-see places in Peru that doesn’t include Machu Picchu

3. The Ballestas Islands

Many may not know, but the highest concentration of marine birds in the world can be found in the Ballestas Islands, a little-known gem off the coast of Paracas, three hours south of Lima. Nicknamed by the locals as the “Galapagos of Peru”, you can spot Sea lions, Humboldt penguins, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies and even Dolphins on a guided speedboat trip around the islands.

On day 2 of our Essential Peru adventure, your expert local guide will take you on a tour of these magical islands. Some islands may even look like they’re moving from far away, but only when your boat comes closer will you realise it’s the movement of birds huddling together, perching seemingly on every piece of land the eye can see. On clear days, you may also be able to see what the locals have nicknamed, “the Candelabra of the Andes” a prehistoric geoglyph carved into the northern face of the Paracas Peninsula. Some say this 181-metre-tall geoglyph was drawn to guide the way for sailors in choppy storms on their way back to the mainland.

5 must-see places in Peru that doesn’t include Machu Picchu

4. The Colca Canyon

Another equally impressive place to visit in Peru is the breathtaking Colca Canyon located 161 kilometres northwest of Arequipa. Twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in America, the Colca Canyon is estimated to reach an astonishing 3,400m at its deepest point. Aside from its depth, an additional feature of the Colca Canyon that should be admired is its ancient terraced farmland of Yanque and Chivay which predates the arrival of the Incas and was said to be invented by the Collaguas and Cabanas. But, one of the main reasons locals and travellers come to visit the Colca Canyon is for the chance of viewing the Andean condor in flight.

Colca Canyon is one of the best places to spot Andean condors in the wild, as they like to live on the edge, literally, by making their nests on the near-vertical cliffsides. Possibly one of the world’s most magnificent birds, the Andean condor’s wingspan can reach over three metres wide and are capable of travelling more than 100 miles without flapping its wings once. And the probability of seeing these incredible birds on our Essentia Peru trip is high when your group enjoys a reasonably flat, slow-paced hour walk to the different viewpoints in Colca Canyon on day 12.

5 must-see places in Peru that doesn’t include Machu Picchu

5. The sunset bar overlooking the Cathedral of Arequipa

Towards the end of the trip, there’s nothing like soaking up the views in a sunset bar and enjoying a refreshing pisco sour with your group – and our expert local guides know just where to take you for a perfect send-off. You could say this isn’t a cultural gem but trust us the views alone are worth making a pitstop for on your last day or two in Peru.

The third-story terrace of the Terraza Arequipa Suits Plaza Hotel is arguably one of the best places to catch one last epic sunset in Peru. From their rooftop bar, you can admire uninterrupted volcano views of El Misti and the stunning Basilica Cathedral in Arequipa as you see the streetlights start to appear, illuminating the Plaza de Armas.

If these places have sparked your interest to discover Peru, take a look at our Essential Peru trip here, or browse our collection of adventures in Peru.