Peru is one of the most visited countries in Latin America. Why’s that? Well, it’s home to many natural treasures and it has such a huge range of things to do that you are unlikely to get bored.
You’ll find a beautiful coastline, some stunning mountain scenery, the second deepest canyon in the world, the Amazon jungle and the world’s highest navigable body of water.
Did I mention the famous Machu Picchu, all the fresh, delicious ceviche, the cute Alpacas and Llamas and that super colourful culture?
It’s also a very easy country to travel around and it has some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
That’s a lot of reasons to visit Peru right?
So pack your bags and book your flight to Lima! To help you with the planning, here’s a three-week itinerary showcasing the best things you can do in this beautiful country.
Lima ( 2 days)
Most people will start their trip around Peru in its capital, Lima. Lima is not the most exciting place on the planet but there are a few things worth your time there anyway. For example, you can swim with sea lions! You can also eat your weight in fresh ceviche and you can take a few different walking tours to learn more about the coolest neighbourhoods in Lima, such as our favourite, Barranco.
Read on more about Lima here.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Lima:
Paracas (1 day)
Paracas is four hours drive from Lima, past a lot of desert scenery. This small fishing town is the gateway to the Isla Ballestas, also called the poor man’s Galapagos Islands. You can reach them by taking a two-hour tour by speedboat. There, you’ll see Humboldt penguins, more sea lions and many different types of birds.
The Paracas Nature reserve is another place not to miss. You can also sign up on a tour from Paracas to explore this area. The scenery surprised us as we did not expect to see this in Peru. It reminded us of our time in Namibia.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Paracas:
Huacachina (1 day)
Huacachina is a small oasis, only about an hour and a half away from Paracas. It’s a party town, so for us non-party people, one day there was enough. We enjoyed a dune buggy ride at sunset and some sand-boarding, although it was tough on our backs!
We enjoyed, even more, hiking up the dunes in the early morning when everyone else seemed to be nursing their hangovers.
From Huacachina you can also organise a flight over the famous Nazca Lines.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Huacachina:
Arequipa (2 days)
Arequipa is the second biggest city in Peru and it is surrounded by three dormant volcanoes, Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. It’s the gateway to Colca Canyon but you need time to explore the “white city” too.
Arequipa was our favourite town in Peru. It’s got the perfect weather, it’s not super touristy and it’s oh so pretty! Don’t bypass it as many people do. Arequipa is worth the overnight bus ride (you can fly there too).
Read more about Arequipa here.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Arequipa:
Colca Canyon (2 or 3 days)
Forget about the day tour, if you choose to do a sightseeing trip to the Colca Canyon, opt for a two-day tour. The canyon is almost 4 hours drive away from Arequipa so it’s not worth the lengthy bus ride for only a day. If you want to hike the canyon as we did, pick the three-day tour for a more relaxed hike.
Read more about the Colca Canyon here.
Cusco (at least 2 days)
There isn’t too much to do in Cusco itself and one day would be enough to see the town if you didn’t need to adjust to the altitude before doing some great day tours and the Salkantay Trek.
We didn’t struggle with the altitude anywhere else but Cusco was really tough for both of us. Spend at least two days there before attempting any challenging treks. Drink coca tea and enjoy the main square. It’s a great town to sit around and relax in!
However, make sure you also do a bit of exercise during that time, such as exploring some of the places up on the hills overlooking the main square (there are some great restaurants there). The acclimatisation process involves getting your body used to working with less oxygen.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Cusco:
Sacred Valley and Rainbow Mountain (day trips from Cusco – 2 days)
Once you feel a little better, sign up for a tour of the Sacred Valley and the Rainbow Mountain / Red Valley (this last one is a killer!).
If you have more time in Cusco, you can do the Rainbow Mountain trek before your Salkantay one but if you only have a couple of days, I would keep it for afterwards. Rainbow Mountain reaches 5050 metres in altitude and you do need to be properly acclimatised to tackle it. There’s no point doing it if you’re not ready.
Make sure to take a tour of Rainbow Mountain that combines it with the Red Valley. The Red Valley is amazing and no-one seems to do it! We liked it better than Rainbow Mountain itself because it was much quieter.
Read more about Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley here.
Salkantay Trek (4 or 5 days)
Going to Machu Picchu is on everyone’s bucket list for Peru. You can get there by train but if you want a challenge, sign up for the Salkantay Trek.
We chose the four-day trek which was hard enough for us but you can also do a five day one. Both are similar but the five-day trek adds one more extra-long day of hiking.
The hike is incredible and was the highlight of Peru for us. Yes, it’s tough but it’s worth every rocky, uneven footstep you take along the way. The scenery is incredible and you won’t regret it. Just make sure you choose a reputable tour company to do it with.
Read more about our Salkantay trek here.
Lake Titicaca (2 days)
Puno is the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca. Once there, you can take a boat tour around the lake and visit some of the islands.
We recommend an overnight stay on Amantani Island. We found the Uros Islands to be too touristy for our liking but we did enjoy our time with a local family on Amantani. Finding out about their way of life and practising our Spanish with them was a great experience. Amantani is also a much quieter island and the hike to the temples offers some splendid views of the lake and some great sunsets if the weather is on your side!
Read more on Lake Titicaca here.
You can use HotelsCombined to find your accommodation in Puno:
When is the best time to visit Peru?
Winter (from May to September) is the dry season and therefore the best time of year to visit Peru, especially if you’re planning a visit to Machu Picchu and hiking the Salkantay or Inca Trail. However, expect it to be cold, so rug up accordingly.
Summer (from December to March) is warmer but being the wet season, expect frequent heavy showers which can be a pain when hiking or visiting sights like Machu Picchu.
We visited in September and still found the days to be mostly warm everywhere but the nights to be very, very cold (especially in Cusco and on the treks).
How to get around Peru?
There are a few options to get around and the cheapest is of course by bus. However, since Peru is a very big country, if you choose that option you need to understand that it will take some time away from your vacation. You might want to take a few overnight buses to keep your days free for sightseeing.
There are many bus companies available and the buses in South America are generally ok, many with reclining seats. Cruz del Sur is a reputable company that we heard good things about.
Peru Hop, a hop-on-hop-off bus service
If you worry a bit about safety, don’t speak very good Spanish or don’t want to spend time in bus stations organising your trip, Peru Hop is another great option.
Peru Hop is a bus company that offers hop-on-hop-off bus services around the country. They offer drop-offs at all of Peru’s main attractions and you can choose from their many different passes, depending on what you want to see and how much time you have available.
Peru Hop also joins up with Bolivia Hop if you want to end your trip in Bolivia. Their buses are very nice and have toilets and reclining seats. There are English-speaking tour guides onboard who will help you book any tours or accommodation at your next drop off point.
Your Peru Hop pass also includes a fair few extras, such as discounts at restaurants and bars, viewing the Nasca lines from the towers and a trip into the Paracas Natural Reserve. We used Peru Hop’s service and after having to organise our buses all over Colombia, we found Peru Hop to be so much easier.
Another thing we liked about Peru Hop was not having to worry about our belongings while on board. After almost having our laptops stolen on a local bus in Ecuador, we are very paranoid about bus theft! Peru Hop is pricier than a normal bus but we think it’s worth it for what you get.
If you are short on time, you’ll need to fly because this is by far the fastest option. Flying in South America is not cheap but we heard from other travellers that some domestic flights in Peru aren’t that expensive. Of course, it helps if you plan and book your tickets early. You might find some good deals if you do.
Some of the domestic airlines in Peru are LATAM, Avianca, Viva Air, Peruvian and LC Peru.
Things to know about Peru
Peru uses the Peruvian Sol but some places also accept US dollars, especially in the larger cities such as Lima, Cusco and Arequipa. Much like in Ecuador, a lot of places only accept cash. If they do accept cards, many will charge a fee, so always ask before using your card.
Peruvians mostly speak Spanish and Quechua. However, unlike in Ecuador and Colombia, we found that a lot of people also know a little English. A lot of waiters in restaurants spoke decent English and many hostels had staff who spoke a little English as well.
But don’t rely on it; try and learn a little Spanish. It’s always nice to know a little of the local language and the locals do appreciate it if you make the effort. If you plan on getting off the beaten track, you will certainly need to speak some Spanish anyway.
Heating is not common in Peru
The biggest shock to me was having no heating, although we had grown accustomed to that in Ecuador which also had no heating in most hostals.
I am not talking about 5-star resorts here, those probably have heating but normal hostals or hostels don’t seem to use a heating system. I don’t understand why they don’t when it’s that cold outside. So be prepared to be rather chilly in your room in the morning. They do love those big Alpaca wool blankets though and even I was warm in bed with those. Some hostels offered a portable heater for an extra cost.
The food is awesome
That’s right, Peruvian food is so good. After almost 3 months in Ecuador and Colombia where the food was ok but not fabulous, Peru was a real delight. Fresh ceviche, Lomo Saltado, Aji de Gallina, Causa and so much more. You are going to be very impressed with Peruvian food because it’s not all about the Guinea Pigs. No, we didn’t eat any of those; I used to have them as pets so there was no way I’d eat one. Don’t even mention the Alpacas, they’re way too cute to eat!
The Llamas/Alpacas are super cute
I love them both, especially the Alpacas! So much so that I told Simon we were getting one as a pet when we eventually return to Australia. They have the biggest eyes, the softest fur and the sweetest face. I really, really, want one!
Is Peru safe?
Like pretty much all countries in South America, Peru has some issues and any traveller to Peru needs to be more careful than you would be in more developed countries.
However, it is still relatively safe to travel to Peru if you keep your wits about you. Don’t flash your wealth around, don’t get involved with drugs, don’t walk around alone at night. Use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.
If you listen to locals on which areas to avoid, you will likely be just fine. Most of the places mentioned in this article are relatively safe and the only people you’ll need to be wary of are the pickpockets. To be fair, you’ll find them anywhere in the world where there are tourists with flashy cameras and phones.