“What’s your favourite country?” I get asked that question a lot, and while I don’t have a clear favourite, Peru is generally my answer. Machu Picchu is the obvious highlight (and it is amazing) but there is so much more to see. The best thing about backpacking in Peru is the sheer variety of landscapes and sights — you’ll see deserts, beaches, jungle, ruins from various civilizations, colonial architecture, great food, glaciers, mountains, floating reed islands and some of the world’s deepest canyons. Exhausted yet? This post has only just begun!
We spent a month in Peru and saw a decent chunk of the country. I’ll give you a quick overview of the places we visited and some Peru travel tips.
We arrived in Mancora on a bus from Ecuador at around 4 am. I was sick for the first day or two but we eventually got out and explored. It’s known as one of Peru’s best beach towns and there is a lot to see. The beaches are nice (especially at sunset) and you might even see some blue footed boobies and sea lions. Mancora is a very laid-back town full of little bars and restaurants. It’s in the far north of Peru, if you’re flying into Lima or Cusco it’s probably not worth the journey, but definitely stop off if travelling overland to or from Ecuador.
FURTHER READING: Mancora Travel Guide: Desert, Beaches and Sunsets
This little colonial city in northern Peru is the gateway to Chan Chan, a set of desert ruins built centuries before the Inca civilization came to power. Not much remains but it is worth seeing if you’re a fan of ruins like we are. You can also visit Huaca Del Sol / Luna, another little group of ruins with some well preserved frescos.
FURTHER READING: Chan Chan and Huaca de la Luna / Huaca del Sol: Desert Ruins in Northern Peru
Generally speaking, most tourists in Peru (who aren’t doing a big South America trip) don’t venture north of Lima. They’re missing out though — the mountains near Huaraz (Huascaran National Park) feature some of the most beautiful Andes scenery imaginable. The 4-5 day Santa Cruz trek looks like the best way to see it, but you can also do some day trips to some very special places, including Pastoruri Glacier and Laguna 69.
FURTHER READING: Pastoruri Glacier / Laguna 69
Peru’s seaside capital mainly attracts tourists of the in and out variety. There are definitely more interesting places to spend your time in Peru, but Lima isn’t an unappealing place. Apparently the food there is really good and there are a few things to see and do, including beaches, old neighbourhoods and Peru’s version of Christ the Redeemer. We only spent a day in Lima so I’m no expert on it!
Paracas / Islas Ballestas
Paracas, a small seaside town a few hours south of Lima, is worth stopping off at to do the boat tour to Islas Ballestas. This tiny group of uninhabited islands is home to heaps of wildlife, including penguins, sea lions and birds. It’s a cheap tour and only takes a couple of hours. You can also see some great coastal / desert scenery near Paracas, including the surreal Playa Roja (Red Beach).
FURTHER READING: Islas Ballestas: A Budget Version of the Galapagos Islands
A desert oasis on the outskirts of a big city, Huacachina is one of the most unique towns I’ve ever visited. The sand dunes surrounding the town are ripe for adventure — make sure to do the dune buggy / sand boarding tour! The town itself is really cool to explore, the focal point being the small oasis lake that the town is built around.
FURTHER READING: Huacachina: Adventures in the Peruvian Desert
You’ll likely spend a day or two in Arequipa if you do the Colca Canyon trek, but you may want to extend your time in this laid-back old city. The whitewashed colonial houses and churches, as well as the sprawling, town-like Santa Catalina Convent, are guarded by El Misti, a large volcano visible from town. It’s the perfect city for walking, relaxing in cafes and plazas and gathering strength for the tough trek ahead (or recovering from it).
FURTHER READING: Two Days in Arequipa. Peru’s Scenic Southern City
The two day trek into (and back out of) Colca Canyon is tough for two reasons. It’s one of the world’s deepest canyons, meaning once you’re at the bottom you’ve got a huge climb to get back out. The altitude is also an issue (the top of the canyon is over 3000 metres above sea level). It’s worth it though, and if you take a tour, which won’t cost much more than taking a bus and going it alone. You’ll see so much along the way, including old churches, alpacas, volcanoes and a viewpoint overlooking a valley packed with agricultural terraces.
FURTHER READING: The Two Day Colca Canyon Trek
Cusco, the seat of power for the once powerful Inca civilization, was forever changed when the Spanish conquered it in 1533. They destroyed most of it to make way for churches and villas, but some Inca relics remain, including the city walls and Coricancha, an important temple. Sitting above town is Saqsaywaman, an Inca citadel / fort. There is plenty to see in Cusco and it’s well set up for tourists, with lots of markets, restaurants, bars and museums.
FURTHER READING: Spanish Style and Inca Ruins in Cusco
Many people pass through Ollantaytambo on the way to Machu Picchu, but it’s worth stopping for a day or two to explore the mix of history on offer. The highlight is the set of fortress ruins above town, as well as the mix of Inca and Spanish influence in the town itself. There are also some other (free) ruins on another hill above town.
FURTHER READING: Ollantaytambo: Inca Ruins Above One of Peru’s Nicest Small Towns
Machu Picchu invariably comes to mind when you think about backpacking in Peru. It definitely lives up to the hype. That typical Machu Picchu view is even more magical in person, and the ruins themselves are fun to walk around. Get there early and you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds. There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu, including the train, a bus / train track walk combo or a multi-day trek. You need to book Inca Trail months in advance but the Salkantay Trek (and other routes) can be organised in Cusco.
FURTHER READING: The Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
There is a lot to see in the Sacred Valley outside of Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo. People often do day tours but you can also do it independently. Highlights include the salt terraces in Maras, the circular terraces of Moray and the Pisac ruins and market. You could spend days exploring this area — if you only have a short time in Peru (a week or less) it’s worth flying straight to Cusco and spending your time in solely in the Sacred Valley.
FURTHER READING: A Day Trip to Moray and Salinas de Maras / Pisac: The Other Must-See Ruins in the Sacred Valley
The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is more interesting, but the Peruvian side has its charms. The Uros floating reed islands are pretty cool to see, but if you want to see the best of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, head to Isla del Sol in Bolivia. It’s close to the border, so if you have a few extra days and you want to do one of the best day hikes in South America you should consider it.
FURTHER READING: Hiking Isla del Sol, Bolivia: Ruins, Beaches and Mountains
Places we didn’t visit
Peru is a massive country and you won’t be able to see it all in one trip. We didn’t go to the Amazon as we did that in Ecuador, but I’ve heard Peru is also a good place to do it. We also missed some ruins (Kuélap looks really cool) and the Rainbow Mountain near Cusco.
Backpacking in Peru FAQs
- What’s the best way to travel around Peru? In our experience, uses in Peru were comfortable, reliable and safe. Night buses are popular in Peru; consider taking a few if you’re short on time or money. We worked with Peru Hop during part of our trip and it was a good way to see the country. It’s a hop on hop off bus starting in Lima. It stops off at heaps of places and you’re guaranteed to meet other travellers. It’s also good if you’re in a hurry, as you can see quite a lot of places (Paracas, Huacachina, Arequipa, Cusco and Lake Titicaca) in a short period of time.
- How much does it cost to travel in Peru? Peru is a pretty cheap country to travel in (if you want it to be). We usually paid 40 – 50 soles ($12 – 15 USD) for decent double rooms. Meals are cheap (10 soles will get you a good meal, but you can definitely go cheaper). Buses add up, and chances are you’ll want to do some tours, so that’s where your budget might suffer.
- Is Peru safe? To us, Peru seemed like a very safe country, but bad things to do happen there so it pays to be safe (it is still Latin America after all). Try and avoid walking down quiet streets at night and don’t flash your valuables too often in cities.
- Is altitude a problem? Parts of Peru sit at very high altitude — Pastoruri Glacier is over 5000 metres above sea level! If you fly straight to Cusco (2,500 m.a.s.l) you’ll want to spend a day or two getting used to it before exploring the Sacred Valley. Altitude makes hiking a lot harder but you’ll eventually get used to it.
Are you dreaming of going backpacking in Peru? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I worked with Peru Hop during my trip to Peru. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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