Peru occupies a unique place in the traveler’s imagination. I always thought of Machu Picchu straight away, shrouded in mist, tucked away into a distant corner of the Andes, covered by llamas and alpacas nibbling at the grass slowly taking over the ancient, long-hidden ruins. The site is pretty spectacular, but there’s a lot more to see in Peru. For example, we enjoyed spending a full week exploring Huaraz, just north of Lima. During our time there, we saw our first glacier, visited some of the oldest ruins in Peru, and got altitude sick for the first time. In the south, we spent three days dragging ourselves through the Colca Canyon and even did a home stay with a Quechua-speaking family on Amantani Island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. We also scratched our metropolitan itch in Lima and thoroughly enjoyed going to the movies, getting sushi, and just walking through a big city. There’s a little something for everyone in Peru and it’s easy to travel there. We spent almost two months in Peru, but we feel we barely scratched the surface. We have promised ourselves to come back and see the beaches in the north and the jungle in the east some day.
- Money: The national currency is the Pervuian sol, which trades at 3.22 soles to the USD as of 1/11/18. See updated rates here. Exchange rates are pretty stable.
- Have cash on hand. We used credit card almost exclusively to buy long-distance bus tickets and sometimes used card to pay for groceries or coffee in bigger cities like Lima. Otherwise, we used cash.
- People: Peru has about 31 million people as of July 2017, about 45% of whom are indigenous. 37% has mixed heritage and 15% of the population is white.
- About 79.2% of the population lives in urban areas. Lima is the largest city with about 9.8 million people, followed by Arequipa with 850,000. As in Ecuador, the eastern portion of the country, covered in mountains and rainforest, is very sparsely populated.
- Language: Spanish is the main language, although some indigenous languages are also official. The largest are Quechua (13% of population) and Aymara (1.7%).
- Lima: The capital city is a modern metropolis with a lot of colonial history right on the Pacific coast. Founded by Francisco Pizarro, it’s been one of Peru’s most important cities for centuries. About 1/3 of the country’s population lives there. It’s definitely the easiest place to fly to and acts as a good transportation hub for the rest of the country.
- Cuzco: The ancient capital of the Inca empire is a must-see. There’s a good mix of Inca architecture with modern buildings and it’s a pretty low city with no skyscrapers. There are a lot of beautiful colonial churches in the main city, and many historical Inca sites on the outskirts, like Saksaywaman and the Sacred Valley. The Rainbow Mountains are also just a day trip away. The city is located in the southeast of the country fairly deep into the Andes mountains, so be ready for an altitude change.
- Puno: A beautiful city right on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the south of Peru by the Bolivian border. We spent a few days here doing tours of the lake and seeing the city.
- Arequipa: Peru’s second-largest city is located in the south of the country and serves as a great jumping-off point for tours of the Colca Canyon. Known as the Ciudad Blanca (White City), it has a lot of beautiful 19th-century colonial architecture and it’s great fun to just walk through the Old Town.
- Other Destinations:
- Machu Picchu: By far the most famous destination, Machu Picchu does not disappoint. We had a bit of a tough time getting there due to some protests that shut down the train, but it’s usually a pretty easy place to visit. Be sure to book your entrance tickets far in advance on the official government site.
- Check out this guide for detailed instructions on how to book.
- Iquitos: It’s a bit hard to get here, but lots of backpackers go to get a taste of the jungle. Iquitos is your gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, which covers 60% of the country. Most people fly there from Lima.
- Trujillo: A coastal city north of Lima famous for the beaches and various pre-Inca ruins closeby.
- Paracas: A fun little beach town only a few hours south of Lima, Paracas is a good starting point for visiting the Paracas National Reserve, which is spectacular. We spent one full day barreling through the desert in a private car and admiring the desert by the ocean.
- Huacachina: Located outside the larger city of Ica, Huacachina is a small oasis within a large desert. The most popular thing to do here is do a tour on a dune-buggy and sand board down giant dunes. Definitely worth a day if you’re passing through.
- Nazca Lines: Mysterious geoglyphs carved into the desert between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. Their purpose is still being debated, but you can interpret them for yourself if you book a tourist flight above them for about $130 USD.
- Colca Canyon: One of the world’s deepest canyons, located in southeastern Peru close to Arequipa. You can organize a two or three-day tour through the canyon, but be ready to hike as it’s over 3,000 meters deep. We did the three-day tour and our legs thanked us for it.
- Lake Titicaca: The world’s highest navegable lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Puno, the closest city on the Peruvian side, is easy to get to by bus and has lots of good English-speaking hostels, restaurants, and museums. We did a two-day tour of Lake Titicaca and visited Amantani and Taquile Islands, which we highly recommend. We did a homestay on Amantani Island with Quechua-speaking locals.
- Huaraz: Located about 7 hours north of Lima, Huaraz is a state capital and a great home base if you’re into hiking and sports. We spent 4 days there and did three tours: Chavin de Huantar (Peru’s oldest archaeological site), a glacier tour, and Laguna 69 (a BIG hike to a beautiful aquamarine-blue lake at over 5,000 meters). I definitely recommend you spend a few days acclimating to the altitude and work your way up to the big hikes. Huaraz is at about 3,000 meters above sea level.
Laguna 69 outside Huaraz.
- Tourist Friendliness: Peru was a breeze. We had no problems getting around, found a lot of good information online, and got along well with the people we met. English is widely spoken at hostels and on tours, but not as much at local restaurants, although there are often English menus. The people we met were very friendly and always ready to provide advice and guidance to tourists.
Planning a Visit
On average, we spent about $27.06/person/day. We stayed exclusively in hostels, took only buses and the occasional Uber, and ate most of our meals out during the day.
We only took buses in Peru, although many people do fly to save time winding through the Andes for 24+ hours at a time. Rome2Rio was our starting point for figuring out logistics, but nothing beats going to the bus station, calling up bus companies, or asking locals. We also started using Redbus to make reservations.
Our average long distance bus cost was $27.91 USD/person and the buses were amazing. We did a LOT of 24+ hour journeys (traveling in the Andes takes some serious time), but they were all quite comfortable. All the buses we took had toilets and reclining seats, while many also had included meals, decent WiFi, and entertainment systems.
Some of our favorite meals in Latin America were in Peru. It’s quite well-known for its higher-end food, but the lower end of the spectrum is varied, economic, and delicious as well. We typically stuck to menus, which are the daily specials that almost every restaurant offers for a very low price. Our average meal cost per person was $2.94 USD.
Our favorite cheap Peruvian meals are: lomo saltado, aji de gallina, cuy (guinea pig), pollo a la brasa, and ceviche.
Peru has a great selection of hostels that cater to foreigners. We stayed exclusively in hostels, although there are a lot of hotels and the AirBnb market is very good. Our average cost per night in hostels (mostly private rooms, but a few dorms) was $6.63 USD/person.
Our favorite hostel in Lima is Condor’s House. It’s in Miraflores, a great neighborhood close to parks, theaters, and restaurants. Reasonably priced, good breakfast, and decent WiFi. They have good music, an open courtyard, and the staff are really helpful. We stayed here several times as we used Lima as a home base.
If you use this referral link for Booking.com, we both get $25 USD off!
The CDC recommends you get vaccinations for:
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Hepatitis A and B
- Yellow Fever, malaria, zika, and rabies if you’re visiting certain areas.
When we flew in, no one checked our vaccination records.
Get Out There!
We fell in love with Peru and spent almost two months there in total. We loved the diversity of the country and spent time hanging out in Lima at sea level, seeing Machu Picchu, hiking at over 5,000 meters above sea level in Huaraz, going a kilometer straight down in the Colca Canyon, and cruising along Lake Titicaca. We loved the food, found cheap places to stay, and had no problems getting around, except for the strike that closed the train tracks to Machu Picchu.
I highly recommend Peru to vacationers if you’re willing to fly domestically to cover more ground. For longer-term travelers willing to brave the winding Andean roads, it’s very easy to bus around.
If you’re considering a longer trip through Latin America, check out more of our country guides!