Peru is an amazing and wonderful country. There is so much to tell that it won't fit in one article! So here are simply the best parts as judged by yours truly.
If nothing else I say convinces you to spend time in Lima, the ceviche should. Ceviche is a wonderful dish made with raw fish that is chemically "cooked" by the acid in lime juice. In Peru, ceviche is commonly made with ají peppers which are native to the Amazon. These peppers give a wonderful kick that will keep you wanting more.
Each morning, Peruvian fisherman take to the waters of the Pacific before dawn. They bring their prizes to the markets in Lima where the fish is sold to cevicherías all over town. Plan for an early lunch for the best results because most of the respectable cevicherias will not serve it after noon.
I also highly recommend Leche de Tigre which is basically just the juice leftover from marinating the fish along with a splash of milk (sounds weird but it's great, trust me.)
You can find ceviche all over Lima but you have to try at least one "hole-in-the-wall" place that only serves ceviche.
For me, travel is not complete without spending the time to get to know the locals and their traditions. Peru is home to many indigenous communities with customs that date back to before the Spanish colonization of the country. The Quechua people live high in the Andes and still, pretty exclusively, speak their local dialect. They also are proud to still wear their colorful, traditional clothing, not just during cultural festivals, but all the time.
While in the Sacred Valley, we decided to spend a day visiting a nonprofit organization I support, Awamaki. Awamaki helps Andean women artisans start and run their own businesses by investing in their skills and leadership, and then connecting them to global markets for their small businesses. When it can take up to 4 months of daily work to complete a single blanket, its very important that these women fetch a fair price for their wares.
We traveled to Huilloc, a Quechua community in the mountains above Ollantaytambo, where Virginia and several other of the women artisans showed us their weaving techniques that have been passed down generation after generation. They even helped us weave our own bracelets to take home!
Awamaki now offers tours open to the public so you too can have a similar experience!
Lesser Known Inca Ruins
You won't see a travel review of Peru that doesn't recommend the ruins at Machu Picchu, mine included. But if you have time in your trip to visit some lesser known Inca ruins, definitely take it. A lot of the appeal of Machu Picchu is it's mystery, but mysteries don't really make for great tours. There is so much conjecture and speculation about the site, you can't really get a sense of what it was like to be there in it's prime. However, there are much more accurate accounts of other Inca ruins in the sacred valley, which for me, give the context necessary to connect with a place.
The photo above was taken at Wiñay Wayna, a ruin very close to Machu Picchu. It can only be accessed via the Inca Trail but is the first stop on many 2 day treks if you don't have the 4 days for the classic. The name Wiñay Wayna means, "forever young" in Quechua. Get your YOLO on and don't miss this beautiful site on your way to Machu Picchu.
Another favorite of mine was Sacsayhuaman, the Inca military citadel guarding the empire's capitol in Cusco. This site is impeccably preserved compared to other ruins in Cusco and clearly illustrates the power and genius of the Incan civilization. As you walk past stones weighing over 100 tons, you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. Sacsayhuaman also offers beautiful views of Cusco as it sits high atop a hill north of the city. You can get to it by foot from Cusco and the climb is great practice for the Inca trail but you can also cab to Sacsayhuaman (something I really wish I had thought of due to the fever I had the day we made the climb).
There are over 40 thousand species of plants native to the Amazon Rainforest. If you like trying new foods as much as I do, Peru is a dream. Every corner market or street stand is a chance to try something extraordinary. Even fruits and vegetables you would normally recognize like artichokes or watermelon have totally different looks in Peru. We loved just popping into markets and asking to try one of everything. You'll get some funny looks from the vendors but if you politely explain that you have never seen these fruits and would like to try them, they are usually very helpful. For example, we purchased what I now know is a Peruvian passion fruit and we had no idea how to open it or eat it. The woman who owned the stall saw we were very confused so she opened it for us and made a slurping noise letting us know how it is best consumed. DISCLAIMER: some fruit and veggies they sell at the market are not good to eat raw. Please ask a local how best to prepare it before you dive in.
I'd like to take this opportunity to get back on my Lima soap box because the Barranco district is a must see when in Peru. We spent 2 days there and I still wanted more time to wander the streets and take in the beauty and art scene. In Barranco, you are never more than a block away from an incredible mural. You can spend the day photographing the art, strolling along the malecon and shopping at the La Feria arts market Live like a hip Limeño by grabbing a beer at the Barranco Beer Company and going to Jazz Night at La Noche.
These are only some of the highlights of my experience in Peru. I hope you get to experience them too! Let me know if you think I left anything out in the comments.
Go confidently travelers!