When asked what they know about Peru many people jump straight to Machu Picchu (not literally, it’s quite a long hike). Some
conspiracy theorists history buffs may also talk of the amazing and still genuinely mysterious lines at Nazca. Other than these, Peru’s highlights are discussed in roughly the same manner that astrophysics is at STA Towers…briefly and with very little actual knowledge.
With this in mind, we’ve drawn from our own journeys and the experiences of our Travel Experts to pull together a guide to the wonders of Peru. This itinerary can be followed point by point, mixed up, added to, subtracted from or discarded entirely. But it’s pretty good. We promise.
The Perfect Peru Itinerary
Peru’s often-overlooked capital may not have the historical majesty of the Incan interior or the natural beauty of the Amazon, but there’s still enough to occupy you for… well..at least a day or so! Wander around the Old Town and Plaza Mayor for some beautiful architecture and try to find time to discover Huaca Pucllana, an ancient clay pyramid hidden in the backstreets of the affluent suburb of Miraflores.
On this Peruvian run down we’re heading south first and, on your way down the coast, be sure to stop at the town of Ica and nearby oasis of Huacachina.
Brilliant for sandboarding and other dune related sports, the area is pretty well known nowadays. Expect the normal trappings of a backpacker hotspot with dorms, parties and hammocks to sleep away the days.
Just over 5 hours from Lima down the Pan American Highway, the site of the Nazca lines is, to some, a historical pilgrimage on a par with The Pyramids or Angkor Wat. Even if your interest in the past extends no further than Timehop, the mildly terrifying 1 hour flight over the lines in a tiny 4 seater plane should at least appeal to the daredevil in you.
AREQUIPA & THE COLCA CANYON
Watched over by the El Misti Volcano (which is an amazing two day climb – take a guide) the second most populous city in Peru is, honestly, a bit of a bore. The Old Town and Convento de Santa Catalina are undoubtedly beautiful and, if you’re planning a longer stay in the region to learn Spanish, it’s a very pleasant city to spend time in. Other than that though, chill for a day or so and move on.*
The same can definitely not be said for the Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the puny “Grand” Canyon and teeming with condors, make sure you set aside a couple of days to hike the valley and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
PUNO & LAKE TITICACA
The highest navigable lake in the world is certainly a beautiful sight. The main tourist draws here have traditionally been the Uros islands, floating platforms made from reeds on which communities still live, work and go to school. Don’t expect an “authentic” experience here though, most of the tours from the mainland take in a couple of show islands specially set up for tourist visits.
Though technically in Bolivia, no account of the lake would be complete without mentioning the Isla del Sol (island of the sun). It’s beautiful, rugged and covered with fascinating Inca ruins, small local guesthouses and amazing views. The trek along the spine of the island is well worth your time, but be aware that the altitude is similar to the highest point on the Inca Trail (4100m) and can cause shortness of breath at best and altitude sickness at worst.
CUZCO & THE SACRED VALLEY
It’s time to head to the heart of the Andes and the atmospheric city of Cusco. There are some must-dos here; the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy-women”…if you like), the Plaza de Armas (brilliant for a night out hopping from club to club) and the ancient site of Qurikancha should all be on your list, as well as some time to chill out in the many cafés and bars that line the terracotta streets.
Outside of Cusco, the Sacred Valley consists of the settlements of Chinchero, Urubamba, Pisac, the weird alien landing-like site of Moray and the excellently named Ollantaytambo. While all are worth a visit, Pisac is famous for its huge market and Chinchero for the weaving cooperative that has revived ancient skills amongst the local women.
Ollantaytambo (feature picture) is by far the most spectacular Inca site in the valley with towering where giant stone blocks push through the mountain side to form ancient terraces. It also happens to be the most popular jumping off point for…
THE INCA TRAIL & MACHU PICCHU
It’s not particularly cheap or easy to get to and thus the jungle is often left off Peruvian itineraries. However, if you can make it to either the northern outpost of Iquitos or the southern city of Puerto Maldonado you’re in for a genuine treat. From either hub take a canoe up the river and stay at a lodge in the middle of nowhere to experience the ridiculously loud noise of the animals proclaiming their territory every morning and evening, canopy expeditions to view stunning parrots in their natural habitat, mildly unsettling night walks, and so much more.
A normal length of stay is a few days but, if you’d like to stay a little longer, your best bet is to look for an ecological site that takes volunteers in return for help with surveying and conservation work.
TRUJILLO AND THE NORTH
After flying from the Amazon back to Lima (or taking the 30+ hour bus…honestly if you can, fly) don’t head straight to the airport. The north of Peru isn’t as popular or as peppered with incredible sites as the south, but its beauty, laid-back vibe and relative quiet makes it a brilliant addition.
From Trujillo take a trip to Chan Chan – an ancient and amazingly preserved mud city (more spectacular than it sounds). The surf town of Mancora is particularly popular with backpackers and the hot springs at Cajamarca are great for unwinding.
Phew, what a journey! We reckon this takes in most of Peru’s highlights but we’re always ready to be corrected. Gently. Leave us a comment and let is know what we’ve missed.
See Peru for yourself with cheap flights to Lima, explore more on an Adventure Tour and check out the many, many options for the Inca Trail
*Ducks to avoid incoming missiles from Arequipa enthusiasts.