For many people, Perú is the land of Machu Picchu and not much else. This would be selling the country short by a long ways. Incan ruins and culture are to be explored and appreciated, to be sure, but don’t miss the wonderful trekking available in the south and north of Perú, not to mention the great beaches on the northern coast. Perú is definitely the land of nice buses, which is helpful because you will likely need to take a few overnight ones. Unfortunately, you will pay for this luxury, with bus prices averaging $3-5 USD per hour, depending on the class of ticket. Food is variable and cheap (see Eating Peru), and lodging is inexpensive (about $8 USD pp a night). -August 2014
Arequipa might be our most favorite city in South America. We’re constantly comparing the cleanliness (spotless), colonial-ness (wonderful), architecture (the white stones make s difference), surrounding nature (three huge volcanoes), and central market of Arequipa to each new place we visit. It’s our benchmark for a great city. To put this area over the top, the nearby Colca Canyon was one of our favorite treks of the trip. Staying at the Llahuar Lodge is a must.
CUSCO AND THE SACRED VALLEY
Cusco, the navel of the world, is a pretty special place. The Spanish, Incan and modern architecture exist in harmony, and the surrounding hills are gorgeous. Depending on the season, be prepared for a city overrun with tourists and vendors. There are many ruins close to Cusco which are worth visiting; a tourist ticket for all of the sites is available if this is your thing. The Sacred Valley of the Incas lies just on the other side of the mountains, about 1 hour by bus. Ollantaytambo is almost certainly the crown jewel city. Archaeological sites are plentiful, with variety between places like Moray and Pisac. Don’t miss the Salineras de Maras. Getting to Machu Picchu is a trip unto itself, with options galore. The “official” Inca Trail, alternative trails like Salkantay, paying through the nose for the train, or spending a day on a bus (cheapest option) are all ways to get yourself to the most spectacular ruin of them all. If your looking for alternatives to Machu Picchu, consider Choquequirao.
LIMA AND THE SOUTHERN COAST
If big cities are your thing, try Lima out for a few days. Metropolitan areas like Miraflores and Barranco compare to the best parts of other large South American cities. Parque Kennedy is a must-visit. South of Lima, places like Paracas, Ica and the desert oasis of Huacachina, and Nazca offer worthwhile stops on the way to the Sacred Valley.
HUARAZ AND THE CORDILLERA BLANCA
At an elevation of 3,000 meters, Huaraz will make your heart pump a little faster. You will almost certainly be arriving from sea level, which will make it worse. Don’t rush into any day-hikes or multi-day treks; acclimatizing to the altitude is a must if you want to hang around this area for a while. Huaraz is located near the south end of the Huascaran National Park, which includes a large part of the Cordillera Blanca. Lake Wilkacocha (in the Cordillera Negra), Laguna 69 and Laguna Churup are good warm up hikes. Try the east side of the Cordillera Blanca range for less crowded, multi-day hikes. The Cordillera Huayhuash, south of the Cordillera Blanca, also offers less crowded, but more strenuous hiking.
The northern coast’s largest city is Trujillo. It’s a modern city, but probably doesn’t offer much for the backpacker. Try Huanchaco instead; a small fishing village 20 minutes outside of Trujillo. Depending on the time of year, it could be slammed with tourists, or completely empty (due to garúa). There are nearby ruins to check out (Chan Chan and Huacas del Sol y la Luna) and the surfing is quite good. Máncora is a popular stop along the coast en route to Guayaquil, Ecuador, or travel through Piura if you’re heading to the southern highlands instead.
OTHER PLACES IN PERU
The Wongenbergs didn’t venture into the jungle in Perú, but we heard great things from friends who visited Iquitos (sail down the Amazon to Colombia and/or Brazil), the Manu Biosphere, and Puerto Maldonado. If you haven’t had your fill of ruins, head to the northern colonial town of Cajamarca and then Chachapoyas to visit the extensive site of Kuelap. When crossing from Cusco to the southern coast, consider stops in Ayacucho and Huancayo to break up the journey (otherwise it’s a long, nausea-inducing night bus across the mountains). Take the highest train ride in the world from Huancayo back down to Lima.