Cultural Experiences in Peru You Shouldn’t Miss

Exuberant festivals, ancient civilizations, and local customs – our insider Fiona shares her insights on Peruvian culture.

Travelers gravitate towards Peru for wildlife, trekking, and other outdoor pursuits, but it’s not just an adventure destination. In every part of this varied country, you’ll find remnants of the past, archaeological secrets, and some of the best cultural festivals in South America.

Top Archaeological Destinations

Peru has preserved much of its ancient history to astound visitors. If you’re fascinated by the achievements of centuries-old civilizations, these sites should be on your itinerary.

Machu Picchu

Long regarded as the cultural stop in Peru, and indeed South America, the ancient city of Machu Picchu is almost too popular. In recent years, limits have been set on the number of visitors who can explore the ruins in an effort to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage site. Nonetheless, it’s a magical place and one of the world’s most iconic destinations.

Caral

Peru’s most ancient site is located 124mi (200km) from Lima in the Peruvian desert. Covering over 1,546 acres (626 hectares), this site features pyramid-shaped structures and circular courts. At 5,000 years old it’s the oldest center of civilization in the Americas.

Caral, the "Oldest City in the New World." Photo credit: iStock


Kuelap

Located at an elevation of 10,000ft (3,050m) in the cloud forests of northern Peru, this fortified citadel was built by the Chachapoyas people. Roundhouses, battlements, and steep staircases are hidden inside the walls of this impressive structure thought to have once been home to 3,000 inhabitants


Carajía

In the Utcubamba Valley, about 30mi (50km) from Chachapoyas, Carajía is the site of impressive sarcophagi. These giant coffins, standing eight feet tall, are located above a river gorge and are remarkably well preserved.

Sarcophagi at Carajía. Photo credit: iStock


Nazca Lines

Located between the provinces of Nazca and Palpa, this unusual ancient cultural highlight is best seen from the air. The enormous geoglyphs were left in the desert over an area of 193 mi2 (500 km2) by the Nazca civilization. The hundreds of designs feature human and animal depictions and geometric patterns which were made over 1,500 years ago.

Cultural Festivals

Although much of Peru's history is found in its ancient settlements, many cultural festivals are still held today and are well worth experiencing.

Otherwise known as the “Celebration of the Sun,” Inti Raymi takes place in the Fortress of Sacsayhuaman above Cusco on June 24th each year. Actors recreate the historical significance of praising the sun and lead a procession to the fortress where offerings are made.

Ayacucho in the south-central Andes is the setting for an annual, weekend-long Carnaval Ayacuchano in February/March, which features a parade of dancers and musicians in traditional costumes marching to the Plaza de Armas.

Across the country, the Fiesta de la Cruz (festival of the cross) features folk music, processions with decorated crucifixes, and dancing – most notably the Scissors Dance, which used to be performed perilously on top of church bell towers!

For a week in November, Puno is the most festive place to be. Follow the procession from Lake Titicaca as Peruvians celebrate the first Inca emperor with music and dancing.

Scissors Dance performer. Photo credit: iStock

Social Etiquette and Local Customs in Peru

Peruvians are rightly proud of their culture. Drinking coca tea or chewing the leaves of the coca plant is an important tradition and not akin to recreational drug use, so speak about this practice with reverence.

You’ll likely take lots of photos during your trip, but it’s always polite to request permission when you have people as subjects in your pictures – a tip is sometimes appreciated.

Refusing a dinner invitation is also regarded as bad manners. With all the delicious flavors of Peruvian cuisine, this is an easy custom to respect.

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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