Soaring over the Nasca Lines
One of South America's great enigmas, these ancient, baffling lines are etched into the desert sands along Peru's southern coast. There are giant trapezoids and triangles, the identifiable shapes of animal and plant figures, and more than 10,000 lines that can only really be seen from the air. Variously thought to be signs from the gods, agricultural and astronomical calendars, or even extraterrestrial airports, the Nasca Lines were constructed between 300 B.C. and A.D. 700. Small-craft overflights dip and glide, and passengers strain their necks against the window to see mysterious figures such as "the Astronaut."
Gazing at Machu Picchu
However you get to it -- whether you hike the fabled Inca Trail or hop aboard one of the prettiest train rides in South America -- Machu Picchu more than lives up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular sites on earth. The ruins of the legendary "lost city of the Incas" sit majestically among the massive Andes, swathed in clouds. The ceremonial and agricultural center, never discovered or looted by the Spaniards, dates to the mid-1400s but seems even more ancient. Despite its enormous popularity, exploring the site remains a thrilling experience, especially at sunrise, when dramatic rays of light creep over the mountaintops. For the classic, panoramic postcard views, see the ruins from the Sun Gate or the top of Huayna Picchu.
Hiking the Inca Trail
The legendary trail to Machu Picchu, the Camino del Inca, is one of the world's most rewarding ecoadventures. The arduous 4-day trek leads across astonishing Andean mountain passes and through some of the greatest attractions in Peru, including dozens of Inca ruins, dense cloud forest, and breathtaking mountain scenery. The trek has a superlative payoff: a sunset arrival at the glorious ruins of Machu Picchu, shrouded in mist at your feet. The Inca Trail has become extraordinarily popular and heavily regulated, however; for those looking for more off-the-beaten-track and perhaps more "authentic" ruins treks, Choquequirao, Salcantay, and other alternatives to the Inca Trail await, as do new luxury versions of the trail (that still wind up at Machu Picchu).
Floating on Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable body of water, straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. To locals, it is a mysterious and sacred place. An hour's boat ride from Puno takes you to the Uros floating islands, where communities dwell upon soft patches of reeds. Visitors have a rare opportunity to experience the ancient cultures of two inhabited natural islands, Amantaní and Taquile, by staying with a local family. The views of the oceanlike lake, at more than 3,600m (12,000 ft.) above sea level, and the star-littered night sky are worth the trip. Even better for those with an adventuresome spirit and extra time are kayaking on Titicaca and spending the night on private Suasi Island.
Marveling as Condors Soar over Colca Canyon
The world's second-deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), Colca is the best place in South America to see giant Andean condors, majestic birds with wingspans of up to 3.5m (11 ft.). From a stunning lookout point nearly 1,200m (4,000 ft.) above the canyon river, you can watch as the condors appear, slowly circle, and gradually gain altitude with each pass until they soar silently above your head and journey down the river. A truly spine-tingling spectacle, the flight of the big birds might make you feel quite small and insignificant -- and certainly less graceful.
Plunging Deep into the Jungle
However you do it, and in whichever part of the Amazon-basin rainforest you do it, Peru's massive tracts of jungle are not to be missed. The northern jungle is most accessible from Iquitos, and the southern Amazon, which features two phenomenal national reserves, Manu and Tambopata, is approachable from Cusco and Puerto Maldonado. You can take a river cruise, stay at a rustic jungle lodge, or lose yourself with a private guide, making camp and catching dinner along the way.
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