Where to Go
Peru has a rich and complicated history; from being the site of the famous Incan empire, to being dominated and conquered by the Spanish, and finally claiming independence in the 19th century, so many different cultures have made their mark on the country.
As a result, the country is littered with archaeological remains and colonial architecture, and every destination is unique. There’s also the incredible Amazon rainforest that dominates the Peruvian landscape.
On a backpacker’s itinerary, this can seem daunting. So, to make it easy, we’ve hunted down the best places to visit if you want to see all that Peru has to offer.
The capital city of Peru, Lima is a must visit destination – even if you only stay for a couple of nights. The city has a wealth of history and culture, having been established during the 16th century, but it’s also currently undergoing a food renaissance. The city has two restaurants that are in the top 10 in the world, but there are also fantastic street food options and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are second to none, and stay true to the Peruvian traditional cuisine.
Once the founding city of the Incan empire, Cusco is the biggest tourist destination in Peru – but it’s still worth a visit. Completely surrounded by ancient ruins and Incan fortresses, the city was built on top of Incan foundations, and is full of beautiful and fascinating colonial architecture.
If you want to see the Incan architectural designs at their best, then Ollantaytambo is the place to visit. Here, the intricate street planning and design that went into creating the cities and towns that dominated the Incan empire. There are narrow cobblestoned streets, and ruins clinging to the cliff edges all creating an otherworld atmosphere so removed from everyday life that it doesn’t quite feel real.
Nestled along the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno is a bustling port city set amongst a striking hillside. Although it looks quaint and charming, Puno is actually made up of a number of different, unfinished modern buildings. Typically, travellers come here to stay as they visit the famous floating islands of Uros, found in the middle of Lake Titicaca.
Famous for being the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by any roads at all, Iquitos gains its visitors exclusively by planes and boat. Somehow, it’s still one of the most popular places to visit across the entirety of Peru, and this is likely because it’s a gateway to explore the ever mysterious and inviting Amazon rainforest. Iquitos is home to a number of tour companies and boat operators that will help backpackers explore the Amazon, with a number of activities that include butterfly farms, protected nature reserves, and animal orphanages.
What to Do
Peru has some of the most incredible historical and cultural sites of any country in the world. from the Incan ruins, to the surf capital of South America, and the spectacular Amazon rainforest, there’s something for everyone.
Hike the Inca Trail
The lost city of Machu Picchu is one of the most visited cities in South America, but arguably the best thing about visiting is the trek over there. The Inca Trail is a 26-mile route that takes multiple days to complete, and has spectacular views of mountains, jungles and more. The exact same hike once taken by Incas travelling to Machu Picchu, it’s hands down a must on any Peru backpacker itinerary.
Visit the Islas Flotantes de los Uros
The Floating Islands of Uros is a number of manmade islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, and they’re the home of the indigenous population of the Uros people. The Uros built their own houses, islands, and boats all using the local tortora reeds which can be found along the banks of the lake.
Found along the northern coast of Honduras, Cayos Cochinos is a small archipelago that has been designated a Marine Biological Reserve. Here, backpackers will find two islands covered in lush forests, with coral cays dotted around the coastline. Plus, the Cayos Cochinos coastline forms part of the second largest barrier reef system, the Meso-American Barrier Reef System.
Surf at Mancora
Mancora is well known as the best town in Peru for amazing beaches – and it’s also the surf capital of the country. Thanks to the reef break along the left side of the coastline, there are constant north swell here that hit the beach just perfectly, all throughout the summer. With waters that are 20 degrees, which means that surfers don’t even have to wear their wetsuits.
Cruise through the Amazon
The Amazon is one of the natural wonders of the world, but the jungle is so immense it’s impossible to explore it all. Instead, take a cruise down the Amazon river, and see all the jungle’s natural glory from the water. Plus, this also gives you the chance to spot the elusive water creatures that call the river their home: such as the Amazonian pink dolphin, which is incredibly rare.
Visit the penguins in Paracas
Found along the southern border of Peru, Paracas is known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos thanks to its impressive variety of wildlife. Of course, any real visitors to the town know that it’s no poor man’s anything; from sea lions, to rare birds, and even penguins, there is no limit to what travellers can spot here in Paracas. Visit the Paracas National Reserve using an organised boat tour, which sails over to the Islas Ballestas.
Read More About Peru
Best Time to Visit Peru
Unlike most places, Peru only has two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season runs the same time as much of the northern hemisphere’s summer, between May through to October, and the wet season is the other half of the year – although it’s at its worst between January and April.
July and August are the busiest months in terms of tourists, so if you plan on visiting then you should definitely book ahead for accommodation. However, May and September are the best months, as there are fewer tourists but the weather is still fantastic.
The best time to go trekking in the mountain and test out the Inca Trail is September, with clear and sunny days – but pack for colder nights. Plus, this is the season with the fewest mosquitoes, and therefore the best time to see the Amazon rainforest without being eaten alive.
In terms of events and festivals, the traditional Yawa Fiesta, otherwise known as the Festival of Blood, happens in July, while September sees the interesting and unique Mistura Culinary Festival.
How Much Does it Cost
Peru can be really cheap, and that’s part of what makes it so great. A lot of the activities you don’t need to book in advance, which means you can haggle with the seller on the day, and the local transportation system is actually pretty great.
The things that tend to hike up the budget are tours along the Inca Trail, museum admissions, and alcohol – which can quickly add up.
A typical budget would be between $30-50 a day, if you’re staying in a shared hostel room, eating at the cheap, local restaurants, and using public transport.
Typical costs while backpacking across Peru:
There are a number of ways to keep costs down while backpacking through Peru, not least being to make sure you use public transport, and eat in the smaller, local restaurants where you can – that’s where you’ll find the best food anyway.
Staying at hospedajes will save you a few pennies as well. These are family run hotels, and they’re the cheapest forms of accommodation outside of hostels – which aren’t always free to rent a room last minute.
Other tips include taking the collective buses, travelling off-season (when you’ll also be able to avoid the crowds), taking advantage of the free walking tours, and booking tours last minute and haggling with the sellers.
What to Pack
With 90 different micro-climates across the country, it can be daunting to try and work out what to pack for a trip to Peru. You’ll need different things whether you’re visiting a beach, trekking through a wet Amazon rainforest, or strolling through the streets of the cities.
The best way to pack is to think practical. It’s easy to buy or rent certain things while you’re out there, especially specific trekking items, so it’s not necessary to bring these along with you and carry them everywhere you go. In addition, check if you’re staying somewhere with laundry facilities, and that way you can bring less clothes and wash them every so often.
The musts for any trip, however, include a good pair of walking and hiking books, socks, underwear, a pair of jeans, leggings, shorts (you’ll only need them for the beaches, so only bring one pair), t-shirts, a dress or two, a hoodie, warm jacket, poncho, and a swimming costume.
You could also bring a camera for the memories, although it’s easy to just use your phone for that nowadays, a portable charger, general toiletry essentials (including sun cream!!), a Peru power adapter, mosquito repellent – spray or bracelets – and a first aid kit.
One of the best things about Peru is that it has a fantastic range of hostels – the dream accommodation for any budding backpacker. Plus, these range from the chilled out, cheap shared rooms, to all out party pads for anyone looking to rave the night away. And you don’t even have to book in advance – although you will find cheap deals if you do.
While the safe and sturdy hostel is the preferred choice for most travellers, Airbnb is quickly catching on as a cheap but fancy way to spend the night, with the added bonus of being a private room – sometimes even a whole apartment.
There’s also couch surfing, which is free – or, at least, very cheap – is a great way to meet other backpackers, and is the best chance you’ll get to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Food and Drink
Food in Peru is second to none – and it’s all so unique. With numerous different influences, and an incredibly diverse country, it’s no surprise that there are some really quirky things on the menu when backpacking through the country.
The staple of any Peruvian menu has to be ceviche; essentially raw fish cured in lemon juice, which uses the acidity of the lemons to cook the fish. Typically, ceviche will be served with red onion, aji pepper, and sweet potato.
Other dishes that should be on your menu are cuy, which are guinea pigs that have been cooked over a fire, BBQ style, and alpaca, typically considered one of the healthiest meats in the world.
In terms of getting your drink on, there’s nothing better than a Pisco sour, a brand of roughly 70% proof mixed with lemon juice, syrup, egg whites, and ice – meaning it’s just sweet enough that you don’t realise how strong it is. Don’t worry though, there’s the strong, organic Peruvian coffee to perk you back up again the next morning.
Not everything about preparing for a trip is about knowing what to pack and planning your itinerary, it’s also about knowing the country you’re travelling to and learning about their culture. People all over the world have different ways of living their daily lives, so it’s good to read up on it and make sure you don’t accidentally offend anyone you meet.
A few things to bear in mind when backpacking through Peru:
- Peru is a modest country, and most people will cover their body while they’re out and about – so don’t wear revealing clothes
- People kiss on one cheek when they’re greeting
- Personal space is less of an issue in Peru, so people will lean in and stand closer to you
- Don’t take photos without asking
- It’s okay to haggle, but make sure you haggle to a fair price – don’t take advantage
The main language of Peru is Spanish, followed by Quechua, Aymara, and a number of different indigenous languages. Typically, locals won’t be able to speak English, but travellers will be able to get by on beginner’s Spanish phrases.
- Buenos dias / tardes / noches
- Como estás?
- Una cerveza y una tapa
- Por favor
- Sin bolsa de plastic
- No entiendo
- Me puedes ayudar, por favour?
- Good day / evening / night
- How are you
- One beer with a tapa
- No plastic bag
- Excuse me
- I don’t understand
- Can you help me, please?
The capital city of Peru, Lima, has recently invested in brand new, inter-city buses, so getting around the capital is exceptionally easy – and cheap. A single ride costs as little as 15 cents.
There are also micro buses which are typically cheaper overall – they will never cost more than $1, but they’re very hectic. Best to learn the way of the city first, and then try to tackle these buses. Alternatively, in Lima hop in a taxi from as little as $21 for your trip.
The bus transport system is great all over the country, and even a 10-hour journey won’t cost more than $12. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you want to take a bus across country, then getting through the mountains will be a very slow trek. For instance getting from Lima to Cusco will take over 21 hours.
Backpackers can also take advantage of the 5 different international airports around Peru – Lima, Arequipa, Cuzco, Iquitos, and Piura – and the 18 domestic airports that operate flights all over the country. It’s not the cheapest option, but if you have it in your budget to stretch to a ticket then it’s well worth the extra cost as it will get you around the country in a fraction of the time.
Typically, travellers can get into Peru without a visa and stay for up to 183 days- with the exception of a few countries. Some can only visit for up to 90 days at a time, such as Russian tourists. Travellers will, however, need a passport that has at least 6 months left before it need renewing, and at least 2 free pages in the visa section.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the tourist visa can’t be extended once you’re in Peru. However, the overstay fine – according to rumours – is only $1 a day, so if you want to stay up to 30 days over your visa it will only cost $30. An option many backpackers choose to take.
Is It Safe?
Overall, Peru is a fairly safe place to backpack. Like most countries, the biggest threat is petty theft, such as pickpocketing, so to stay safe just use your initiative and don’t flaunt any expensive valuables you might have on your person – and that includes your phone.
It’s also a good idea not to engage with any drugs, at all – not even recreationally. The police and authorities here treat drug use very seriously, and police officers are more likely to be corrupt here than a lot of places so the chances of being mistreated are higher if you get mixed up with the law.
Essentially, Peru is safe if you follow one easy rule: if you wouldn’t do it at home, then you shouldn’t do it here. Other than that, you don’t need to take any serious measures to stay safe.
A Brief History
For thousands of years Peru was inhabited by indigenous people, and various different tribes each vying for overall authority against the others. Then, at some point during the 1100s the tribe of Killkes led by Manco Capac formed the small city state of Cuzco, which is known as the start of the Inca Empire, one of the most famous and awe-inspiring empires to ever exist.
The Inca Empire spanned hundreds of years, conquering Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and northern Chile, continuing to develop and expand until the Spanish discovered the continent in 1531. In 1533, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and captured Cuzco in order to mine the gold and silver that was discovered in the Andes Mountains.
In 1535, the city of Lima was established, becoming the capital of the country, and it was in 1821 that Peru was able to defeat the Spanish and gain its independence, with the help of South American liberation heroes Jose de San Martina.
- Peru is home to the highest sand dune in the world: the Cerro Blanco sand dune that is 3,860 feet high
- Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World
- Peru holds the world records for the maximum number of birds sighted in one place, and the greatest number ever seen in one day
- Peru’s national drink is the Pisco Sour, a Peruvian grape brandy mixed with lemons, sugar water, egg whites and bitters
- The traditional, pre-Incan method for mining salt, which sees families heading to the salt pools in Maras and sifting the water for salt. Each family has their own pool, and it’s been passed down for hundreds of years
- There are 90 different micro-climates in Peru
- Guinea Pigs are a delicacy to eat in Peru, especially during important festivals
If you really want to make the most of your time in Peru, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.
- Links incoming