I’ve had the pleasure and fortune of spending almost two months in Peru visiting destinations that most tourists don’t see. Many of these are in rural parts of Peru, several hours from hub cities, though some are close to hubs and other popular destinations, but are simply overlooked. I’ve been in all types of terrain, from valleys to desert, to dramatic mountain ranges. I’ve dined on street corners, in local families’ homes, and even in a few fancy restaurants. While Peru is physically, culturally, and gastronomically diverse, its one consistency has been that it impresses and thrills me every day. Following are my top five non-conventional trips and destinations in Peru.

Lima, Peru, Junin

Yauyos

Top Five Non-Conventional Destinations in Peru:

5. Yauyos: This was the first Peace Corps volunteer’s (PCV) site that I visited and also my first experience with the Andes mountains. We arrived at night and I remember seeing the valley for the first time in the morning and being totally blown away. I then hiked to the top of one of the surrounding mountains and saw my first ruins in Peru. Their preservation impressed me but the view of the Andes was what caught my breath. I would go on to see many parts of the Andes, but this first look left a lasting impression.

My First Hike in the Andes:

4. Colca Valley: The Colca Canyon is a pretty conventional destination in the south of Peru, but thanks to several PCVs in the area, I got an unusual, insider look at some of the communities that tourists usually pass through or miss altogether. I thoroughly enjoyed the ruins between Yanque and Coporaque, as well as the trip out to and local feel of Sibayo. Wherever I went in the valley, there were fantastic views, tasty food, and friendly people.

Arequipa, Peru

The Colca Valley

3. Gold Mine: My friend and current PCV, Tasha’s host father is co-owner of a gold mine outside of Rio Grande, Ica and we got to tag along for his visit and take a tour of the mine. One of his partners guided the tour, showing us where and how to extract gold from the wall and how to dig deeper without blowing yourself up or poisoning yourself with dynamite fumes. We also got to see the process of extracting gold from piles of dirt. Check out the whole process in this video:

2. Archaeologist Dig: I met a real-life archaeologist in a coffee shop and two days later took an extremely unexpected trip to an active excavation site in the mountains of Ancash (aka “Trekking Capital of the World”). I had already seen so many ruins on my Peru trip, but consistently knew nothing about them – talking with the archaeologists gave me an entirely new perspective on ruins and archeology and museums and it was thrilling exploring a recently excavated tomb that literally no other tourists had visited. (Stay tune for information on how to go to this same dig site)

Ancash, Peru

The valley before Lake Akilpo

1. Akilpo: My friend Tasha and I joined a married couple that lives in the mountains of Ancash for a two day hike to a glacier-fed lake. The hike was challenging and almost ridiculously scenic, passing through a valley with dramatic cliffs dropping on either side of us and a forest full of red, peeling trees. We camped for the night at over 14,000 feet and the next morning peaked 15,000 to reach the glacial lake. Between the visual awe, the physical challenge, and the total lack of other travelers en route, hiking to Lake Akilpo has to be my number one non-conventional highlight from Peru. Read more about it here.

I can safely say that a trip to Peru of any length is definitely worth it. That said, I highly encourage any and all visitors to be bold and visit at least one unconventional destination (i.e. outside of Cusco and Machu Picchu) during their trip. Even just one foray into a local community will give you a much more thorough understanding and appreciation for Peru, its people, its food, and its relentless beauty.