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! Either way, 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.
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.
- Peruvian buses are really comfortable, however, the topography makes the distances large and journeys long – be prepared to spend many hours on the bus. It’s probably worth spending a little extra for the most comfortable buses – the extra legroom and reclinibility make all the difference in the world.
- The bus journey from Ica – Cusco is 18 hours, winding through the mountains. If you get travel sick, this is awful, so be prepared and take travel sickness tablets with you!
- The food is Peru is incredible (arguably the best in South America!), not only in fancy restaurants but you will find great homemade local food. Marketplaces are a great option to eat delicious and cheap.
- Peru is so much more than Machu Picchu. Although, it is clearly the star of the show, don’t let it steal the show completely – Peru has much more to offer and it’s worth taking the opportunity to explore the country.
- Cusco and Lake Titicaca are 3000 m.a.s.l so it is better to take your time and allow your body to acclimatise. Cocoa tea is said to help with altitude sickness!