Peru is the third largest country in South America after Brazil and Argentina. It’s five times larger than the UK, and its Amazon region alone is twice the size of Germany! Like Ecuador, Peru is divided into three geographic zones; the arid desert which makes up the Pacific coastal strip in the West; the vast Amazon rainforest which covers 50% of the country bordering Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia; divided by the central Andean cordillera, altiplano mountain range with an average of 3,000 m.a.s.l and snow-capped peaks of up to 6,500m.
Arriving from Ecuador in the north, your first stop is Mancora, a small town on the Pacific coast located just at the point where the exuberant vegetation of the Ecuadorian pacific starts to transform into the arid Peruvian desert. Mancora is perfect for spending a few days on the beach, go swimming with marine turtles and beginning your love affair with Peruvian food. Continuing south around 6 hours, you will reach Chiclayo, a small colonial city just half an hour away from the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, which holds one of the most important archeological discoveries in Latin America – the only indigenous tombs that were unlooted.
A few hours along the south coast, you will reach Trujillo, the most important city in Northern Peru, famous for its colourful architecture and nearby pre-Inca ruins. Next, you will find the Peruvian capital of Lima, a beautiful coast city of almost 10 million inhabitants, where you can easily spend 4 or 5 days. The historical centre is well preserved, there is a lovely esplanade, a park that has a light show and incredible food, making Lima a fun city with much to offer.
If you are short on time, you can head straight from Lima to Cusco. However, given the opportunity, you should definitely make stop in Paracas, where you can take a short boat ride to see sea lions and penguins hanging out on the incredible Ballester Islands; and the little desert oasis of Huacachina, about an hour from Ica, where you can go sand-buggying. From Ica, you could stop in Nazca to see the Nazca Lines – if you can afford the flight ride. Otherwise, continue to Cusco – be warned it is an 18 hour bus journey that twists and turns up through the Andes.
Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, sits proudly in the Andean cordillera, over 3000 m.a.s.l. Its architecture tells the combined history two worlds; the impeccable Incan walls served as a based for the development of the Spanish city – houses, convents and churches were constructed upon the remains of what was once the most important city in Latin America. Cusco, is a beautiful city, and is a base not only for Machu Picchu, but for many spectacular sites in the Sacred Valley such as Vinicuna, the Mountain of Seven Colours, the incredible terraced valleys of Maras and Mora, the Inca Temple of Coricancha, the Inca ruins of Saqsaywaman and Pisac.
The surrounding areas of Cusco serve as a perfect build up to the breathtaking Machu Picchu. It is definitely worth doing a trek where you will hike for days, as the Incas did, and experience incredible landscapes away from modern civilisation and people. Many people choose to do the Inca Trail, but the Salkantay and Lares treks are also amazing – and significantly less busy! Salkantay is a longer trek, typically 5D/4N and is considered the most difficult but most beautiful, reaching the highest point at 4630msnm. Lares is the shortest trek at 33km, and is typically a 4D/3N trip. There are many different combinations and types of treks available depending on your level of fitness and what activities you want to do. Although booking in advance is recommended, there are plenty of agencies that don’t have websites where you can rock up and enquire about and will be significantly cheaper than more established businesses Sam Travel Peru is a local tour operator that is completely locally run and limits group sizes to 9 people. I had a fantastic experience with them, and we did not see any other tour groups during our entire trek!
If you decide to do a trek, arriving at Machu Picchu will feel like a much deserved reward for your aching body – there are no words to describe how spectacular Machu Picchu is! With around 4,000 visitors a day, be sure to get there before sunrise to make the most of the morning before it gets too hot and crowded. Visiting Machu Picchu is seriously expensive, especially for foreigners and expect to spend at least $150USD on transport and entrance ticket alone – so make sure you do your research beforehand if you are not doing a trek or tour. Don’t underestimate its size either – there is plenty of see, with options to climb up Montaña Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu for the best views over the ancient city. You can also walk to the sun gate, the original entrance from the Inca Trail. Take your time to explore the magnificence of this ruin – no photo can capture quite how breathtaking it is!
After Cusco, you can dip down to Arequipa, the White City, whose buildings were constructed with white volcanic stone. You can hike the Misti volcano, which stands at 5825m and lies between
Chachani mountain and another volcano Pichu Pichu. You can see Juanita the indreibly well preserved ice-maiden in the Andean Sanctuary Museum. You can go white-water rafting. You can take a tour to Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon. From Arequipa city, is it 3 hours to the nearest village of Cabanaconde via Cruz del Condor.
Around 6 hours from Cusco, also on the Andean cordillera, you’ll find another Peruvian paradise – Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca was formed by the thaw of the snowy summits. It is the largest lake in Latin America and the high navegable lake in the world, sacred to the Incas and central to their cosmology – they believed their founders emerged from its waters. Puno is the closest city to to the lake.
Amantaní and Taquile are two Inca islands where you can find Inca ruins and beautiful views of the surrounding lake – there is little trade and tourism, there are no hotels or hostels, but you can arrange to stay with an indigenous host family. These islands are perfect for disconnecting from everything and experiencing pure tranquility. Whilst Amantaní and Taquile are natural islands, the Floating Islands of the Uros are artificial islands made of reeds, constructed by the indigenous Uros. The Uros community, under the threat of the Incas, abandoned firm, rooted land and created the floating islands. A new layer of reeds must be added every two weeks! Today, the islands are anchored and static, but many continue to live on the island.
Lake Titicaca is geographically spread across both Peru and Bolivia. Puno is just two hours from the border of Bolivia where you can continue your journey through South America.