Glaciers swathed in mist, virgin tracts of forest, endless stretches of lunar desert: Peru’s North Coast and Northern Highlands are as geographically diverse as they are stunning. Once passed over by travelers rushing to get to Cusco, these enchanted regions are increasingly attracting attention from adventurers eager to explore their endless opportunities for hiking, trekking, and surfing—as well as the mysterious ancient cultures that once flourished here.
Nature takes pride of place in northern Peru. Here you'll find soaring, 6,000-meter (19,700-foot) peaks streaked with snow in the Cordillera Blanca, as well as shifting sands guarding hidden tombs along the coast. To the east, ancient cloud forests back up onto the darkest jungles of the Amazon, while in the valleys of the northern sierra, emerald hills stand luminous in the blue haze.
All this means northern Peru is a prime place for outdoor activities. Whether you're on muleback, edging along the turquoise lakes of the Callejón de Huaylas, or a surf god riding the swells at Máncora, you'll find yourself fumbling for superlatives as you pit yourself against Peru's northern land- and seascapes. What's more, in recent years an extensive tourist infrastructure has grown up around these pastimes. Renting gear, finding a mountain lodge, or hunkering down at a luxurious coastal resort is a snap in what Peruvians call el norte. And when it's time to refuel, you can do so with rich northern secos (stews) and cebiches, dishes that Peruvians of every stripe count among the country's culinary glories.
Northern Peru exercises your imagination no less than your body. The region was home to a bewildering number of ancient peoples, as one of the few places on Earth that was a cradle of human civilization. These included the Chavín, who originated a terrifying cult of a fanged jaguar-deity in the underground passages at Huántar, as well as the Moche, a race of brilliant artists who drained the blood of conquered peoples in a gory ritual of human sacrifice. When you add in the greatest tomb discovery since Tutankhamun and the stunning, little-known cloud-city of the Chachapoyas people at Kuélap, you have an archaeologist's paradise that brings out the Indiana Jones in even the most modern of travelers.