Peru is South America’s historic gem, and home to Inca ruins, colonial buildings and contrasting landscapes of lakes, sand dunes and snowcapped mountains.
You’ll probably arrive in Lima, Peru’s capital city. Get your dose of history by visiting one of the many archaeological museums, e.g. Museo de la Nación or Museo Larco. Also head to the Plazas de Armas and the Huaca Huallamarca, a restored Maranga pyramid built in AD 500. With more time to spare, join a cycling tour to the Inca ruins at Pachacamac or hit the beaches in summer (January to March). But overall, Lima will likely be your least interesting stop in all of Peru (unless you get stranded in tiny Chala, as we did). So keep your backs packed and leave soon.
A short trip away from Lima are the Islas Bellestas, which have been described as the poor man’s Galapágos. The islands are visited on a 90 minute boat tour, on which you will see lots of sea lions, penguins, boobies, pelicans and other birds. Try to visit the Islas Bellestas en-route from Lima to Ica, so you avoid a stop in Pisco.
Further south is one of Peru’s most unusual sights, the Huacachina oasis. There is only one thing to see here - the oasis and the antique buildings around it. But it is worth going. If you want some action, rent a sandboard and surf down the dunes. Happy carrying! You can also sample piscos (great!) and Peruvian wines (so-so) at bodegas near Ica and Guadalupe, a few kilometers away from Huacachina.
Next, head to Nazca if only for the ancient Nazca Lines that spread across the plateau - they’re really a sight to behold! The lines were made by removing sun-darkened stones from the desert surface to expose the lighter soil below, and form a network of geometric figures and biomorphs (e.g. a monkey and a spider). We highly recommend you take a scenic flight over the area, as you need to see the lines from a height, and the watchtower is just not high enough. Who created the lines and why, well, that remains a mystery trying to be solved every other week on Geographic Channel (or so we have the impression whenever we zip through their program).
After these rather short stops, set base in Arequipa and explore the “White City”, as the locals call it. As usual, start at the Plaza de Armas and visit the cathedral. Also check out the colonial mansions, e.g. La Casa de Moral and Casa Ricketts. Then book a trip to the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest. Trek through the region and observe the village life along the way. We recommend the 2-day trip, as the longer tours are just slower versions of the same trip.
Puno on the Lake Titicaca is your next stop. Visit Lake Titicaca’s man-made floating islands, made by the Uros people from totora reeds. Then head to Sillustani and take a few great photos of the ancient funerary towers (called chullpas). Time permitting, also check out Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca. From Puno, you can catch a bus to Copacabana and La Paz in Bolivia.
Now it’s time to go to Cuzco, the former Inca capital and – together with Machu Picchu - the highlight of your trip. We recommend you take the bus from Puno, because the train is much slower and too touristy. In Cuzco and around, admire the Inca walls and ruins, and imagine the craftsmanship required for their construction. Also have a look at the Cuzco cathedral on the site of Inca Viracocha’s palace. While the Spanish do not fail to impress, the Inca constructions were much better suited to withstand the frequent earthquakes. Then take daytrips to the Inca sites of Saqsaywamán and Q’enqo as well as to Pisac and Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. For some action in Cuzco, try white-water rafting down the Rio Urubamba.
Then take the train to Machu Picchu, a must-see. This is the most spectacular archaeological site of the continent – or at least, debatably so. Go up to the Sacred Plaza where you’ll find a great view of the Urubamba valley and the Cordillera Vilcabamba. Instead of taking the train, try the 4-day Inca Trail to reach Machu Pichu from Cuzco - like millions of backpackers before you. If booked out as usual or too much on the beaten track, go by train and once you arrive, climb the slopes of Wayna Picchu mountain for stunning views; arrive early because only 400 climbers are permitted per day.
For many people Machu Picchu is the last stop before flying back home via Lima. However, if you are going north to Ecuador, backtrack your way to Huaraz, located north of Lima. Trek along the Cordillera Blanca, especially in Parque Nacional Huascarán, or go rock climbing and mountain biking. Visit the two lakes at Lagunas Llanganuco for great views.
Your final destination in Peru will be the ancient cultural center of Trujillo. The city was founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1534 and named after his hometown town in Spain. Visit the mystical ruins of Chan Chan and gaze at its crumbling mud walls – can you believe this once was the largest city in South America? Also visit the pyramid-like Moche temples of Las Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. Las Huacas del Sol is Peru’s largest pre-Columbian structure, built with 140 million adobe bricks. If you have time, check out the pottery and other - sometimes exquisite - archaeological artifacts in the tiny but stunning Museo Cassinelli in Trujillo. The museum shares the building with a petrol station!
And then board the bus to Ecuador.
(This itinerary is based on our Peru Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)