Although Peru is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site and wonder of the ancient world, Machu Picchu, this mountainous land of the Incas, has plenty of other destinations filled with treks for travelers who prefer to venture off the beaten path.
Peru’s more obscure archeological and geographical sites tend to draw fewer crowds and offer an opportunity to check out cultural relics without the congestion and commercialization of a place like Machu Picchu. From the Incan archeological site of Ollantaytambo to Colca Canyon, these treks and hikes highlight the best of Peru’s varied landscape and historical ruins.
Ollantaytambo is an Incan archeological site and small city located in Peru’s Sacred Valley, between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Although it’s one of the primary stops on the road to Machu Picchu, most trekkers don’t give this town the attention it deserves. Even during the busy season between May and August, there aren’t too many crowds. And those who go during the off-time might even have the ruins all to themselves.
Ollantaytambo is about an hour and a half car ride from Cusco, so many people leave early and do the ruins in one day. Those who want to spend a few days there will find plenty of budget-friendly hostels right in the center of town. Since it’s walkable, any hostel is just a few minutes away from the base of the ruins.
Mini-busses regularly leave from Cusco’s main square and should cost roughly $3 for a one-way journey. Similarly, they depart from Ollantaytambo en route to Cusco daily, although it’s essential to check when the last bus departs to avoid getting stranded.
There are multiple trekking options available in Ollantaytambo. The most popular are the royal ruins to the left side of the town, which feature exquisite Incan stonework and Peru’s trademark terraces. The climb up is steep but reasonably well-traversed and offers a phenomenal view of Ollantaytambo from the top. Prior to ascent, visitors need to pay for a tourist ticket, which includes many other archeological sites in the Sacred Valley. There are English-speaking guides available too, for those who want them.
The Pinkuylluna ruins to the right of the city are a steeper, more challenging climb with superb views. Since fewer people visit the Pinkuylluna side, trekkers often climb solo or with the company of one of Ollantaytambo’s famous friendly stray dogs.
If you’re doing both the royal residence and Pinkuylluna, set aside at least three hours for the climbs and more to explore Ollantaytambo itself. The high season is between May and August when the weather is temperate and the precipitation is low, but the weather is also fine during October or November.
Amantani Island is in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,500 feet above sea level. Both Peru and Bolivia share the lake, and it’s home to plenty of Incan lore and history. Lake Titicaca is next to the Peruvian town of Puno, accessible by minibus from any of Peru’s hotspots like Cusco or Lima. It’s also a stop on Peru Hop, an on and off bus that travels through Peru and parts of Bolivia.
The best time to visit Amantani Island is between May and October; however, those who travel to Puno in early February can check out the lake as well as their Candelaria festival — a multi-day event that combines Catholic and Andean tradition in a celebration of the Virgin of Candelaria. Lake Titicaca is most famous for its floating Uros Islands, but Amantani Island is where the best trekking and local culture is.
Amantani Island is a three-hour boat ride from Puno and home to a few thousand people. Most people spend the night on Amantani Island, staying with local host families and trekking around the island itself. It’s an experience that fully supports the local economy and gives visitors a chance to climb one of the region’s most sacred mountains, Pachatata. Pachatata is 13,340 feet high and accessible by a winding, relatively smooth path. Although the climb is not steep, the altitude makes it tricky, and most trekkers need to take at least a few hours to make their way up.
Pachatata’s peak offers a magnificent view of Lake Titicaca and is especially impressive at sunset. Most visitors find that Amantani Island and the Pachatata trek are two of the highlights of their visit to Puno. You can book the trip to Amantani Island from virtually any hostel or travel agent in Puno.
In the southern part of Peru, Colca Canyon is famous for its impressive size and flocks of condors. At 10,725 feet, it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Colca Canyon is about three and a half hours away from Arequipa, and trekkers can do the rim of the canyon as a day trip or make the journey to the bottom over several days. Both options are available through any hostel or agency in Arequipa and generally range between $25 to $50.
It’s advisable to book some type of tour since transportation to the canyon is spotty, and most options leave Arequipa at 3:00 AM. Those who go solo should be sure that their Spanish skills are up to par and that they know where to catch both the local bus and the minivans to Cabanconde, the town right outside Colca Canyon.
Condors are the biggest draw of Colca Canyon. These massive animals congregate there and fly low over its rim, especially between March and June. Since Peru’s rainy season wraps up at the beginning of March, the end of the month is one of the ideal times to make the trek to see more condors and enjoy a smoother trail down.
Multi-day treks vary, so it’s a good idea to check with your tour company of choice to see if you’re responsible for carrying your pack to the bottom (and up on the return journey). Alternatively, individual guides are available. The trek to the canyon’s bottom takes at least five or six hours, and the hike up takes at seven or eight. There are modest accommodations at the bottom, and of course, the bragging rights of having conquered the mighty Colca Canyon.
As Colca Canyon is 16,100 feet at its highest level, altitude sickness and temperature variations are a major concern. Altitude sickness is a serious and sometimes life-threatening concern in Peru. Don’t attempt Colca Canyon immediately after landing in Peru. It’s essential to acclimatize for at least a few days, hydrate properly, and enjoy coca tea at your discretion. Dressing in layers is crucial, as pre-dawn temperatures at the canyon are frosty and turn hotter as the day goes on. Light layers, sunscreen, sunglasses, and plenty of water are must-haves for this trek.
Palccoyo is about four hours away from Cusco and an excellent alternative to the more popular Rainbow Mountain. Trekkers can avoid the crowds of influencers and still see the stunning patterns of the Andes. The best time to go to see the brightest and clearest colors is between April and October. Those who go at an alternate time during the year could find the mountain clouded in rain, mist, or snow.
Palccoyo is almost 21,000 feet, and although most trekkers won’t be ascending to the peak itself, they will still have to deal with extreme altitude, blazing sun, and unpredictable temperatures. Dress in plenty of layers, don’t forget SPF and bring water or coca tea to hydrate. It’s also a good idea to carry a small day pack for snacks and as a place to store extra layers.
Most tours of Palccoyo last about two hours after arriving, making it a total 10 to 11-hour day trip from Cusco. Many tours also offer lunch, so plan to leave early and get back late. Although most of Palccoyo’s trail is flat, the altitude can make it difficult. To conserve energy and air, it’s best to go at a leisurely pace and take in the Palccoyo’s colorful variations and the nearby Ausangate glacier. There’s also usually local vicuna, alpaca, and llamas grazing nearby.
Tours run regularly from Cusco, although visitors need to specify that they want to go to Palccoyo, not Vinicunca, which is the more popular rainbow mountain. Alternately, solo trekkers can take a public bus from Cusco to Cusipata, then a minibus to Pampachiri, where one of Palccoyo’s trailheads starts.