Peru highlights & itineraries
Make the most of your time
As well as frequent internal flights, Peru has an excellent bus network, and its trains can be one of the most impressive ways of cruising through the Andes. In the Amazon, of course, the only way around is by boat. Don't spread yourself too thinly - traveling is even more exhausting at altitude, and it's better to allow extra time in your Peru itinerary to enjoy the surrounding villages and markets rather than just ticking off big sights such as Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon or the floating islands.
Peru is well placed for onward travel as Lima is a regional flight hub - so you can continue to Ecuador and the Galapagos. Alternatively, cross the border into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca.
Below are three of our top Peru itineraries, incorporating our favourite Peru highlights. Click on the blue map points for more information about each location.
Now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town's proximity to Peru's main draw has turned it into a fully-fledged tourist hub. Attractions include a botanical garden; Putucusi Peak - which has incredible views of Machu Picchu; and Quechua handcraft markets. Be sure to book your hotel in advance - with 1,500 visitors a day, this little pueblo fills up fast.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a worthy challenger to Cuzco's architectural crown - but without the crowds. Overlooked by a snow-capped, conical volcano and built largely of pearl-coloured volcanic stone, Arequipa is absolutely beautiful, and its historic centre has Inca, colonial and 19th century influences. Modern Arequipa is also a lot of fun for nightlife and dining.
Usually included as an optional excursion from Paracas, these rock formations are marine sanctuaries for blue-footed boobies, sea lions and even Humboldt penguins. They are certainly not "the poor man's Galapagos", as they are sometimes called, but they are an unusual addition to the well-trodden Peru tours.
Plunging over 4km into an Andean valley, Colca is one of the world's deepest canyons. Its also one of Peru's most popular tourists attractions thanks to its famous residents - the enormous condors, usually viewed riding the thermals from the Cruz del Condor platform. Do more than a daytrip: trek the remote canyon base, or stay with the Quechua locals in nearby Cabanaconde.
Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire, but for modern tourists, it may as well be the capital of Peru. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, sitting at a cool 3,400m, is the gateway to the Inca Trail, colourful Quechua culture and snow-sprinkled peaks. The colonial architecture of this cobblestoned city is beautifully preserved, and it's a great place to adjust to the altitude before setting off to explore the riches of the Andes.
This high-altitude hike takes brave trekkers through extraordinary Andean scenery, with mountain passes, Quechua villages, Alpine tundra and humid cloud forests. There are several routes to choose from; the 43km classic route is usually completed in four or five days. Most of the trail follows original Incan stone paths, and leads to the "Sun Gate" - the most dramatic entry point to Machu Picchu.
Iquitos embodies the idea of the "urban jungle" - a city of 422,000 people with no access by road, its sweltering streets buzz with motorbikes and scooters. So you have to fly in, before embarking on a boat into the deep Amazon - cruising past dugout canoes and the floating homes and market of Belén - and into indigenous territory and thick, wildlife-rich jungle.
At 3,800m, Puno is the gateway to the immense Lake Titicaca. The dust-coloured buildings fading into the surrounding mountains contrast with the colourful, traditional dress of local residents. There are llama farms, artisan markets and scenic viewpoints. Take a daytrip or overnight tour to the peaceful Aymara-inhabited islands of Amantani and Taquile, or to the famous floating Uros Islands, made of reeds.
Too often written off by visitors as modern and dangerous, Lima is a vast city of 8.5 million people, and there's plenty to discover if you stay long enough to scratch the surface. Founded in 1535, the Centro Historico still boasts some gorgeous pre-Hispanic and colonial architecture. Lima, with 220,000 restaurants and cafes, is also the best place to sample Peru's diverse cuisine - and its lively nightlife.
Rediscovered a century ago, the "Lost City of the Incas" has not lost its ability to astonish, thanks to its phenomenal position atop a mountain peak, with panoramic Andean views. Whether you complete the gruelling four-day hike or hop on the luxury train, Machu Picchu will literally be a high point of your Peru vacation. Just remember that it's a lot more crowded than the photos lead you to believe!
Manú National Park
Manú's inaccessibility has no doubt been responsible for its pristine state - and its status as one of the planet's most biodiverse parks. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protects land stretching from the dense Amazon rainforest up to the high Andes, and pumas, sloths, tapirs, howler monkeys and spectacled bears are among the 222 species of mammals found within its forests. It is also home to the Machiguenga tribe.
One of the world's most famous unexplained mysteries, the Nazca Lines are thought to have been created almost 1,000 years before the Inca walked this high plateau. As well as the vast geometric shapes - measuring over 200 metres across - there are over 70 animal, birds and human designs, though all explanations to their meaning are mere speculation, especially given the difficulty of viewing them.
Paracas National Reserve
This reserve protects two vastly distinct ecosystems: the arid coastal desert and the wildlife-rich ocean, as well as the rocky Ballestas Islands. There are tiny fishing villages where you might be treated to the catch of the day, clifftop miradors, fur seal colonies, coral-coloured flamingos and wild beaches. There is also a family-friendly visitors' centre with ecology exhibits.
Landing in this chaotic little jungle town straight from the elegance of the highlands will come as a shock. Aside from stifling heat and humidity, the scruffy streets are buzzing with three-wheeled mototaxis, mud and mosquitos, and it's a sweltering, sensory overload. It's also the gateway to the most easily accessible regions of the Peruvian Amazon. Climb up the 8-storey "Obelisk" for panoramic jungle views.
Sacred Valley / Ollantaytambo
After Cuzco fell to the Spanish, the native Inca fled to the nearby Sacred Valley. The little town of Ollantaytambo sits in the picturesque surroundings of the valley, and it has some impressive Inca ruins - including a temple, working fountains, stone operating table and underground water systems. There are lovely hikes of varying difficulty, wonderful views and a brilliant community weaving cooperative.
This biodiversity hotspot has an abundance of lodges, though those who want to discover the culture of the rainforest should try out a homestay - or travel with an indigenous Ese Ejja guide. Highlights include clay licks which attract flocks of primary-coloured macaws; and the endangered giant otter. But with 632 species of birds and 169 mammals, you're bound to discover your own favourite species.
Peru highlights: 21 days
Lima ► Paracas ► Nazca ► Arequipa ► Colca Canyon ► Puno, Lake Titicaca & islands ► Cuzco ► Sacred Valley/Ollantaytambo
► Inca Trail & Machu Picchu ► Puerto ► Maldonado ► Lima
Inca walking tour: 15 days
Lima ► Puno ► Lake Titicaca ► Islands ► Cuzco ► Inca Trail ► Machu Picchu ► Nazca ► Paracas ► Ballestas Islands
Inca & Amazon: 10 days
Cuzco ► Sacred Valley/Ollanatytambo ► Inca Trail ► Machu Picchu ► Aguas Calientes ► Puerto Maldonado ► Tambopata Reserve ► Cuzco
Peru travel times
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving, train and flight times between the main Peru highlights.
- Cuzco - Ollantaytambo:: 2 hours by car
- Lima - Paracas: 3.5 hours by car
- Lima - Nazca: 6.5 hours by car
- Cuzco - Puno: 6.5 hours by car
- Cuzco - Arequipa: 9.5 hoursby car
- Cuzco - Puerto Maldonado: 12 hours by car
- Sacred Valley - Machu Picchu: 1.5 hours by train
- Cuzco - Machu Picchu: 3 hours 15 mins by train
- Cuzco - Puno: 10 hours by train
- Cuzco - Puerto Maldonado: 50 mins by plane
- Lima - Cuzco: 1 hour 10 mins by plane
- Lima - Puerto Maldonado: 1.5 hours by plane