7 Peru Adventure Ideas
Tourism in Peru, especially adventure travel, has been growing rapidly over the past 20 years. The country’s topography, which includes dramatic peaks and valleys in the Andes mountains, as well as miles of breaking waves along the Pacific Coast and drifting dunes in the sprawling desert, provide ample terrain for trekking, mountain biking, river rafting and mountaineering. We’ve put together a sample of activities to consider on an adventure trip to Peru.
Ride Horses in the Sacred ValleyA horseback ride is a great way to start a trip to the Sacred Valley, in the Southern Sierra region of Peru, and acclimatize to the high altitude before visiting the area’s breathtaking (literally) Inca sites. The bottom of the valley sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level, which makes altitude sickness and fatigue a real issue for travelers.
A popular 3-hour trek begins in the town of Ollantaytambo in southern Peru, then climbs through the Patacancha River valley to the hilltop ruins of Pumamarca, an ancient citadel. Several outfits offer horseback riding tours in the Sacred Valley and to other mountain cities like Arequipa. Horse enthusiasts may want to look for operators with Peruvian Paso horses, a breed known for its smooth ride.
Climb and Zip Line at the Via FerrataA fairly new entrant to the Sacred Valley adventure circuit is Natura Vive. This group of professional mountaineers has built a system of iron bars drilled and glued into the rock face on a vertical cliff along the Urubamba River between the towns of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba called the Via Feratta (Italian for “iron way”).
The bars provide a climbable path to the top of the cliff for wannabe rock climbers without any technical experience. A series of 5 eye-poppingly fast zip lines take climbers back to the bottom. Visitors can choose from a variety of packages. A 1,500-foot climb and descent lasts about 3 hours and offers spectacular views of the Sacred Valley.
The AmazonThe Amazon is so vast that huge parts of it have yet to be explored or charted. It is host to the world’s most venomous spider, the most dangerous freshwater fish (piranha), the highly unusual electric eel, the pink dolphin and thousands of toxic frogs, ants, plants and trees. Scientists estimate that there are some 50 million species in the Earth’s jungle rainforests, most of which reside here in the Amazon, and a lot of which have yet to be discovered. One scientist found 50 ant species on 1 tree alone in Peru.
Any trek into Peru’s Amazon begins in Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be accessed by road. Everything and everyone comes by boat or plane. In the mid- to late 19th century, Iquitos was one of the centers of the rubber boom. Today, the city is filled with stunning examples of wealthy French and Spanish architecture from that period. The rubber money is long gone but many people are counting on oil for the next boom. The city today has a frontier feel, with prospectors, expats and tourists making their way in this unique jungle outpost.
Visitors should book at least 4 days at one of the many lodges located along the river. Most proprietors will meet you in Iquitos with a boat, the journey down river taking anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. Days consist mostly of boat trips and hikes to see wildlife, as well as to visit villages and fish for piranha.
In the offbeat category: Drug tourism under the guidance of a local “shaman” is increasingly common in the Peruvian Amazon. Ayahuasca, an LSD-like substance distilled from a common vine, is combined with other ingredients to produce a psychedelic trip. One of the sought-after effects is the vomiting it produces (yes, really), because it’s thought to purge and cleanse the body.
Sandboard and Dune-Buggy in NazcaMany companies in the dusty city of Nazca on the southern coast of Peru offer dune-buggy and sandboarding tours to the desert outside of town, where golden mountains of shifting sand are blown into terraced ridges of varying size and verticality. The desert morphs quickly from rock to sand, where the huge dunes become rollercoaster tracks for the buggy drivers.
Sandboarding is tricky for beginners. It’s difficult to stand up snowboard-style because the sand is slow and sticky. Face-first on your stomach is best for first-timers. Make sure skin is covered with long pants and a long-sleeve shirt or a wipe-out will feel like taking an electric sander to your skin. You will return to town with sand in crevices you didn’t know you had.
Experienced sandboarders should head 9 miles east of Nazca to Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, where the ride down takes several hours.
Penguins and Sea Lions at Islas BallestasThanks to the Humboldt Current, a deep, food-filled waterway that sweeps northward along the Peruvian coast, the Ballestas Islands host an incredibly dense number of animals in a small area, including sea lions, Peruvian boobies, Inca terns, cormorants, pelicans, turkey vultures and, if you’re lucky, Humboldt penguins in their most northern habitat.
The scene at the small rocky islands off Paracas is one that pictures and certainly words betray. The smells and sounds of Islas Ballestas are as much a part of the experience as the views. In addition to the briny smell of the sea, the islands smell like ripe, pungent bird poop. The rocks, except where they are washed by the sea, are covered in a thick, white, dry crust so deep you could shovel it. In fact, for a period in the 1800s, before the invention of artificial fertilizers, guano (meaning “dung”) was one Peru’s major exports.
Speed boat tours depart between 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. from the fishing jetty at El Chaco port in the village of Paracas, about 3 hours south of Lima.
SurfingThe Pacific coast of Peru is one of the most consistent regions in the world for quality surf. The country’s arid coastline is never too hot or cold and has some of the longest waves on the planet (counted in miles). Swells are generated from the south and most of the spots get consistent offshore winds. There are waves for everyone, from beginners to advanced longboarders.
The town and beach resort of Máncora on Peru’s northern coast is extremely popular with tourists and locals alike. Another popular place in the area is the port and small coastal town of Chicama, which is famous for having the world's longest left-handed point break, nearly 2.5 miles long. Popular spots south of Lima include Punta Hermosa, La Herradura and Pico Alto (High Peak), where you’ll find the highest waves in Peru. Cabo Blanco in the north is considered the country’s best left-breaking pipe, for advanced surfers only.
Nazca LinesNazca was once home to an ancient civilization active from the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. It disappeared suddenly, possibly due to a catastrophic weather event like El Nino. Artifacts and remains have dehydrated in the Nazca Desert, leaving a good deal of evidence about the people and how they lived.
The most mysterious thing preserved by the desert is hundreds of glyphs -- large-scale line drawings -- carved into the flat sands of the plain. These pictures, which include a dog, monkey, spider and people, are only recognizable from a few hundred feet above them. You’ve seen the shapes, but the Nazca Lines are more than that. In a relatively small region there are upward of 70 bioglyphs (pictures) and 900 geoglyphs (trapezoids, spirals, lines and triangles). Some speculate that they were created to be seen by gods in the sky.
Small planes take off from a small airport outside the town of Nazca. Only a few airlines were granted permission to serve tourists after 13 people died in 2 separate accidents in 2010.
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