While the prospect of lounging on Rio de Janeiro's sandy beaches or tangoing through the tony streets of Buenos Aires might lure the bulk of visitors to South America, travelers should not overlook the spectacular sights of Peru.

A visit to Lima, Cuzco and the country's crown jewel -- the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu -- rewards travelers with a fascinating mix of history, unmatched natural beauty and fabulous food, hotels and shopping. And compared with the cringe-inducing exchange rates in Europe, Peru is a relative bargain.

The high tourist season is June to August, which is the best time to visit the Peruvian Andes, according to Julia Mehrer, who leads small-group tours to the region through her company

New World Journeys. In addition to favorable weather, there are many festivals during this time.

Summer in Peru is December through March, and while it can be pretty on the coast (Lima), it is the rainy season in the Andes, which can disrupt train travel between Cuzco and Machu Picchu and muck up the Inca trail.

Unlocking Lima

Start your journey with a brief visit to Lima, the capital. Founded in 1535 by Spaniard Francisco Pizarro, this busy behemoth is not the most picturesque city, but it does offer a good introduction to Peruvian history. Mehrer recommends visitors check out the Museo de la Nacion for information on the diverse cultures of Peru, and the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology for information on pre-Incan and Incan civilizations.

The Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor), the city square, borders the Palacio de Gobierno, home of Peru's president, and a massive 17th-century cathedral. Nearby is the San Francisco monastery and church, which houses a beautiful old library, a religious art collection and creepy catacombs. Tours of the underground graves are available in English.

Tourists generally choose to stay in Miraflores, near the city's sprawling coastline. There are nice cafes and plenty of restaurants, and surfing is popular at la Playa Costa Verde. Take a stroll around the Parque del Amor and admire decorative mosaic walls and the panoramic ocean view, or go for a

paraglide off the cliff. For upscale accommodations, Mehrer recommends the

Miraflores Park Hotel; in nearby San Isidro, try the

Swissotel Lima or

Country Club.

Also in the Miraflores district, the Mercado del Indios is one of the many markets selling Peruvian crafts like silver jewelry, embroidered wall hangings, pottery and alpaca sweaters. For a lively bar and club scene, the bohemian and artistic community of Barranco is your best bet.

Next Stop, Cuzco

A short flight away is the lovely city of Cuzco, tucked into the Andean range and the ancient center of the Incan Empire. The city's Incan stone walls and buildings are interspersed with Spanish colonial architecture. Its twisted cobblestone streets are ideal for strolling, which is essential, as the high altitude forces tourists to walk at a meandering pace.

Colonial churches, restaurants, bars and shops line the Plaza de Armas in the center of Cuzco. There are numerous archeological sights, so the best thing to do is buy a

boleto turistico

, which covers many of the entrance fees for Cuzco's museums and the Incan ruins outside the city.

The ruins that dot the Sacred Valley, El Valle Sagrado, are easily accessible by bus; alternately, tour companies and some hotels organize day trips to the sites. The Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman") sits on a hill above the city, and is the site of the popular festival of the sun, Inti Raymi, in June.

The fanciest place to stay in town is the

Hotel Monasterio, a former monastery, but there are lovely, less expensive options as well. The friendly and charming

Amaru Hostal was only $25 a night for two people, including breakfast.

Bring altitude-sickness medication (you can buy it in Peru if you forget) for your stay in Cuzco; it will take a day or so to adjust. Regularly tromping up and down the hills of San Francisco had no effect on how fast I acclimated in Cuzco; a brief walk up a short cobblestone street was enough to leave me panting at the front door of the hotel. Eat and drink sparingly and factor in a nap for the first day.

Top of the World

Easily the best-known archeological site in South America, Machu Picchu is essential viewing for any visitor to Peru. You can either opt for the four-day hike on the Inca trail, where you can see several ruins, or take a train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), the small town below the ruin site.

If you choose to do the hike, the

South American Explorers Club can provide recommendations on reputable tour companies, or you can refer to a guidebook for a list. Typically, you'll be part of a group with guides, porters and a cook.

The government limits the number of people allowed on the trail, and wandering on your own is not permitted in order to prevent damage to the terrain.

If the rails call to you, the train ride between Cuzco and Machu Picchu winds through beautiful Andean countryside, the Sacred Valley and alongside the raging Urubamba River.

For the best view, book a ticket for the pricier Vistadome train on

PeruRail. The Vistadome has cozier seats and more expansive windows than the backpacker train, and you even get some snacks during the ride.

Buses up to Machu Picchu leave from the small town of Aguas Calientes. It's about 10 minutes up to the park. The anticipation builds as the bus navigates each switchback, but it's the first glimpse of the citadel itself -- surrounded by the majestic Andean range -- that will really make you gasp in wonder.

It's a magnificent sight. The ruins -- thought to be a country retreat for the Incan upper class -- are a maze of stone buildings, baths, temples and farming terraces.

You'll marvel at how the Incans constructed these stone buildings with such precision atop cliffs hundreds of feet in the air.

It's also a thrill to see llamas wander freely around the site, chewing on grass and looking nonchalantly at the gaggles of tourists snapping their photos. You might even see curious chinchillas zipping in and out of their holes.

Visitors can hike up to the top of Huayna Picchu, the tall cliff behind the ruins in all the typical Machu Picchu photos. When you reach the summit, with your head literally in the clouds, it feels like the top of the world.

The only hotel at Machu Picchu itself is the

Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which costs a pretty penny in comparison with hotels in Aguas Calientes. Some of the rooms have views of the ruins.

Other parts of Peru worth exploring include South America's largest lake, Lake Titicaca and its floating islands; the city of Arequipa and nearby El Misti volcano; and a flight over the Nazca Lines, mysterious geometric and animal designs drawn in the desert sand.

Traveling Tips

Mehrer recommends knowing a little Spanish before you go. Bust out the old college textbook for a refresher or sign up for a class. For an introduction to Machu Picchu, pick up a copy of Hiram Bingham's book,

The Lost City of the Incas

, written by the explorer credited with uncovering the forgotten city in 1911.

Peruvian food is probably not what you'd expect. The country has a diverse mix of cuisines and is known for its ceviches; also, guinea pig (

cuy

) is a delicacy. There are plenty of pizza joints, pub grub, Italian and Chinese (

Chifa

) restaurants, in addition to traditional Peruvian fare.

Quaff a few local drinks while you're there. The neon yellow, bubble-gum-flavored Inca Kola is better than it sounds, especially on a hot day. Try

Cerveza Cusquena (the malta beer is tastier than the light) or the country's signature cocktail, a pisco sour. I also picked up some hot chocolate, with cinnamon, at the grocery store. It's a nice treat on cool nights, and a great reminder of my visit.