Peru is home to some of the most stunning and accessible ruins and relics from the pre-European age. From Kuelap and Chan Chan in the north to mystic Machu Picchu in the south, the jungles and deserts of Peru are filled with a seemingly unending supply of artefacts from the Inca, the Mapuche and other lesser-understood peoples.
Without a doubt, the centre of Peru’s tourism is Machu Picchu and the nearby city of Cusco. While it’s a highlight for most visitors, it’s far from the only thing the country has to offer. The coastal cities of the north and jungle-bound communities east of there are fascinating, and house museums and ruins far older, yet just as complex, as the Inca ruins in the south.
Lima, Peru’s capital, has great surf and paragliding within minutes of the centre. Protective police officers will try to encourage tourists away from some areas of the city, while others are reasonably safe, as long as you watch for pickpockets. South of the capital, towns such as Ariquipa and Ica make great bases for hiking, climbing, rafting and sandboarding, with the added bonus that they’re close to Peru’s small wine region, including the first vineyard planted in South America.
Getting to and from Peru
Flights into Peru arrive from almost every South American country, as well as North America and Europe. There are also limited flights from Asian airline Korean Air. Most international flights arrive in Lima, with many tour groups jumping straight onto another flight to Cusco.
The most popular way into Peru is by land border, often on a coach or by taxi. There are land borders with Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile.
If travelling by coach, you may have to disembark to have your baggage checked by customs, or the bus conductor will collect all passports and documents, returning them before departure. If travelling by car (your own or a taxi), you may be able to remain in the vehicle, or may be asked to get out while customs checks your vehicle and bags.
There is a train which runs between Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile in the south. It’s a pretty bumpy ride! Make sure you are at the station at least half an hour before departure, as you’ll have to pass border control and customs at the station on both ends.
Getting around Peru
Peru is easy to navigate by bus, although there are some truly amazing distances involved: some journeys may take longer than 24 hours. When venturing off the Pan American highway or the main routes between Lima and Cusco, you can expect rather rough, windy roads.
While the incidences of hijacking have dropped dramatically since 15 years ago, theft is not unknown. Ask for local advice before choosing a bus company, and don’t assume that a good bus company you used in one part of the country will also be good where you are now. When travelling medium- to long-distance, we advise you choose a company with a good safety record, second driver, and GPS tracking. Read more about bus travel in Peru.
Plane prices within Peru can be reasonable, but there are few options so the average remains quite high. You’ll be looking at at least three times what you’d pay to make the journey by coach, and when that saves you ten hours it might be worthwhile.
The best prices we found were at local travel agencies, mainly priced in US$ with a poor exchange rate.
Car and camper rental
Car hire in Peru is not too difficult, but roads are often unsealed outside of the cities, and can be downright dangerous in the mountains and jungle. Check with your rental agency to see if you’ll need a 4×4 on your trip.
Theft is relatively common; always drive with your doors locked and think twice about camping in remote places overnight. Because of this, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to take hire cars from neighbouring countries into Peru.
Travel by campervan is not common in South America.
Cycling and hiking
Peru has a wide range of cycling tracks and hiking options, the most famous of these being the Inca Trail walk to Machu Picchu. Hiking and mountain biking throughout the Andes range, however, is just as rewarding, if not more so thanks to the lack of such aggressive tourism practises.
People have been known to cycle cross-country or follow the Pan American highway between Chile and Ecuador. Caution is advised, due to road conditions, local driving style and crime. That said, it’s an amazing trip.
While slow and inconvenient, Peru has one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world, the Central Andes Railway, or — as we like to call it — the Andes Mountains adventure train, which travels from Lima to Huancayo.
It’s definitely worth considering as an attraction, rather than as a form of transport!
Top 10 things to do in Peru
- Sandboard in Huacachina. This small oasis town makes its name on the backpacking circuit for amazing sand dunes, perfect for sandboarding and dune buggies.
- Hike in the Andes. You can do the Inca Trail, but getting around other parts of the mountain range is just as enjoyable.
- Visit the Monastery Santa Catalina, Arequipa. Ochre-red walls will guide you through the amazing lives of luxury which were hidden behind these walls for so long. Guide recommended.
- Study Spanish. With one of the clearest of all Spanish accents, Peru is a great — and cheap — place to get to grips with the language.
- Explore the ruins of Kuelap. This ancient hilltop fortress was one of the last strongholds against the Inca’s empirical might. Fascinating fortifications and booby traps await.
- Surf and scoff ceviche in Huanchaco near Trujillo. The coastal township of Huanchaco has reliable waves for beginner surfers and some of the best ceviche in Peru. Traditional fishing boats and the nearby archeological sites provide even more appeal.
- Tour the Huaca de la Luna, Huaca del Sol and Chan Chan complexes. These complexes are all accessible from Trujilo or Huanchaco. Discover more about life in South America before Incan domination, while seeing buildings and complexes easily as stunning as Machu Picchu.
- Eat a guinea pig, or cuy if that sounds nicer. This Andes delicacy can come roasted or flattened and fried … it’s up to you, but watch out for the bones.
- Down a few pisco sours, or drink the spirit straight. You’ll want some of Peru’s national drink after (or perhaps before) you eat that guinea pig. Those sours are very easy drinking.
- And I guess you have to go to Machu Picchu. If you don’t, every conversation you have about Peru will include an argument about why you didn’t.
Peru travel resources
Check out our Peru and Bolivia podcast or browse the articles below.