1. Huacachina

No, it’s not a mirage, but you will probably think it is. This marvel of a desert oasis is exactly as you would picture it in a dream – a splash of a tropical paradise surrounded by smooth, sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The velvety, rolling dunes change colors with the light and bring with them a plethora of outdoor adventures that include sandboarding, dune buggy rides, and the oh so graceful attempts at handstands in the sand.


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*Important Note: A small townish sort of setting has developed around the lake. It is made up entirely of restaurants, local goods (which includes incredible jewelry), and places to stay. The places are affordable, but not what many would call five star establishments. The beds were hard and small and there was a communal bathroom just a few feet away. Bring a roll of toilet paper! Don’t let this deter you. Many of the buildings had stairs to the roof for great star gazing, there’s a pool, and lots of good eats to be found. The “town” surrounding the lake is almost like a gated off community of sorts and it was recommended to us to stay within that area as the “real” town outside of it was known for safety issues and pickpocketing.

2. Cajamarca

Is a small city located in the foothills of the Andes. It is a surprising gem of a place that will quickly become the best place you’ve never heard of. It is surrounded by stellar hiking and filled with an interesting, yet heart wrenching history. The last Incan king, Atahualpa, was executed here after being betrayed by the Spanish. After his capture, the king noticed the Spaniards’ intense love of gold and promised to fill a room with gold then twice over with silver for his release. Although his ransom was delivered, the Spaniards still executed the king whom many of them had even come to like. Visitors can still see the room the Incas filled with treasure.

The city has much more to offer besides this dark story. Be sure to hike the Cumbe Mayo to see an ancient Inca aqueduct, climb through caves, and see the beautiful countryside. The area is famous for its dairy products so be sure to visit one of the cheese farms for some tasters and even a cheese sculpture museum!


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*Important Note: This was my first trip out of Lima while I was studying abroad. I was alone and barely spoke any Spanish, but had an absolutely wonderful time. The city is very visitor friendly. You can easily walk to all of the main attractions including a long staircase to an awesome overlook. Plus, it is a great place to try the slightly infamous Peruvian dish cuy, or guinea pig. It’s prepared in a variety of ways, but for a first try go for fried with papas puras (mashed potatoes). Be prepared to make eye contact with your meal when it arrives.

3. Machu Picchu

That’s right, this can be a weekend trip. Depending on your interests, this may not be the ideal way to do it, but if long, hard hikes aren’t really your thing or you’re crunched for time this is perfect. There is a bus that runs from Aguas Calientes, the town nearest Machu Picchu, that can drop you almost directly at the entrance of the ancient wonder in less than 20 minutes. Aguas Calientes is barely more than a mile from the ruins, but that mile is straight up a mountainside so there is some major zigzagging in between that adds time. Hiking takes an hour and if you leave your room at about 4:30 am you’re sure to catch sunrise. Part of the beauty of this little watering hole/pre-ancient ruin pitstop is that it isn’t connected to the outside world by roads. Your two options are by train or by your own two feet. You can take a taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, a town in the Sacred Valley, then a train to Aguas or a train straight from Cusco to Aguas. The details of arranging this can be slightly convoluted because trains don’t actually depart directly from Cusco so be sure to research your options at the time.


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*Important Notes: There are three train lines available with the Hiram Bingham line being the most luxurious and well known. The train is designed after the trains of the 1920s and passengers feel like they have done a little time travel amongst its elegant interior. However, the train is pricey and holds less than 90 passengers. The other lines are comfortable, more economical, and offer just as good of views.

Climb the Nose! There is a limited amount of people that can actually climb Huayna Picchu, the giant mountain behind the ruins. It is what makes the nose in the famous man’s face that creates the backdrop of Machu Picchu. Never heard of it? Google it right now or turn a Machu Picchu postcard on its side.

4. Volunteer … Anywhere

Peru is one of the most popular countries for international volunteer programs. You may be a little tired of teaching English, but there are plenty of other opportunities in the cities, rural areas, and shantytowns. The shantytowns are housing areas on the outskirts of Lima. Many popped up literally overnight as people flooded in from rural areas in past decades. GoAbroad lists over 230 volunteer opportunities in Peru and you can search by type, location, and duration to find a project that fits your needs and interests. Opportunities are available for working with children, community development, healthcare, and others. Volunteer in a new location and it will feel like a trip each time.

*Important Note: The people are endlessly generous and will likely try and give you something almost every time you visit. I volunteered in a school in the shantytown El Salvador and although they were struggling they always insisted on feeding us a warm meal.

El Salvador is about 40 minutes from the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima. Miraflores, to put it bluntly, it is where all the “white kids” live. Literally every study abroad student I met lived in this beautiful, upper class neighborhood. Volunteering will give you the opportunity to explore Peru in a new way and add diversity to your time there.

5. Islas Ballestas

Thousands flock to the Galapagos Islands every year to see Darwin’s Dragons and other creatures. This was an original intention for me, but the islands were far away and extremely expensive to visit. Turns out there is an alternative! Islas Ballestas have been affectionately coined the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” and it’s true. The islands are filled with diversity you wouldn’t expect to see including thousands of sea lions, penguins, and birds. Dolphins skirted along the top of the water alongside our boat on the way to the islands.


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*Important Note: The islands are near the town of Paracas located within the Paracas National Reserve. The reserve is a tropical desert that is full of stunning yellow cliffs, dark sands, and white tipped ocean waves. It protects the marine species that live there as well as the Paracas culture. The Islas Ballestas will only take about half of day so be sure to explore the reserve and visit the Catedral rock formation. One more important thing! Bring some layers. The boat journey to the islas and the reserve are both windy and can result in a few ocean splashes.

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