Flying to Lima and Cusco: What to Expect

Inca Trail Trek
It takes a few flights to get to Cusco, but it's worth it!
It takes a few flights to get to Cusco, but it’s worth it!

After you’ve been seduced by photos of giant snow-capped Andean peaks, harrowing accounts of rafting rivers with Class IV-V rapids, your office mate’s endless tales about how seeing Machu Picchu changed his life, and you’ve booked yourself an awesome, sustainable trip to Peru with a reputable local operator. Now it’s time to look into booking your flight(s) to Southern Peru.  Seems easy enough, but there are a few things to consider and we can walk you through it easily.

INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS

As far as itineraries are concerned, most international flights from the US are pretty similar. Basically:

From the US, generally, you’ll arrive super late at night or perhaps around the crack of dawn.  If you arrive late at night, you’ll need to stay the night in Lima (see the Logistics & Hotels section below). Regardless if you arrive late at night or at the crack of dawn, you should catch a morning flight to Cusco.  Make sure to leave at least 4 hours in between the international flight arrival and your domestic flight departure. You want to give yourself plenty of time to get through customs, and to check in to your flight to Cusco.

Flying back to the US from Cusco will generally be a flight from Cusco to Lima in the early afternoon, followed by a red-eye flight to the US. Be sure to allow yourself at least 3 hours at the Lima Airport, which is required for all flights to the US. PRO-TIP: Do not book the last flight from Cusco to Lima on the day you fly home. Weather in the mountains is variable, and it gets worse in the late afternoon. It’s not uncommon for the last flight to Lima to be cancelled.

Lima isn’t exactly an amazing place to visit. The city has great food, and it’s nice to wander around the Miraflores or Barranco neighborhoods. So you can really just treat it as a hub en route to more interesting places in Peru. Or you can give yourself a long layover there (See the Logistics & Hotels section below).

DOMESTIC FLIGHTS WITHIN PERU

The flight from Lima to Cusco takes about an hour and 15 minutes. The earliest flight leaves around 6am and the latest ones are in the mid-afternoon. There are NO EVENING OR NIGHTTIME FLIGHTS IN BETWEEN LIMA AND CUSCO. Or vice versa. There are actually very few evening or nighttime flights between any destinations in Peru.  Plus, you should keep in mind that the late afternoon flights are very frequently cancelled, so try not to book the latest possible flight of the day.

There are 4 airlines that provide Lima to Cusco and return flight service: LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, and Peruvian Airlines.  We’ve found that only LAN and Avianca are reliable; Star and Peruvian Airlines should be avoided. Flight rates can vary greatly from airline to airline, and even from day to day.  My best advice is to either do some solid internet research or call your tour operator for fare quotes (If you’re booking with Detour, we can hook you up with some exclusive flight deals so ask us for more details on that).

If you’re not booking your flights with Detour, if you find a good fare (less than $350 per person roundtrip) from a reputable airline, jump on it. And, beware, on LAN’s website they offer what seem like dirt cheap fares – but these fares are only available to Peruvians (the small print says so, in Spanish). If you purchase one of these flights you will be made to pay the remainder of the price for tourists.

The Cusco airport is pretty teensy and manageable on your own. Still, it always helps to have a transfer driver waiting for you (included in nearly every one of Detour’s adventure tours) so you don’t have to negotiate getting a taxi after long hours on a place and operating on very little sleep. The airport is very close to town so the drive to your hotel will be pretty quick. Lots of tours will actually pick you up at the airport and drive you to the Sacred Valley which is at a lower altitude, therefore easier for acclimatization; this drive is typically an hour and 15 minutes.

The flight in between Lima and Cusco is absolutely breathtaking as you soar over snow-capped Andean peaks so this is not the time for napping!

Elsewhere in Southern Peru, the flights are all pretty similar in terms of flight duration and departure times.  Juliaca is the nearest airport to Lake Titicaca, but it’s about a 45 minute drive from the lake.  Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to the Tambopata and Manu National Parks; you’ll typically be picked up here and whisked away to your lodge, so you won’t spend any time in Puerto Maldonado. Arequipa’s airport is only a few miles out of town and there are loads of hotels to choose from in the city center. You’ll probably have to stay a night here before and/or after any tour to the Colca Canyon; fortunately, Arequipa is an outstanding city in it’s own right and well worth a few days of exploration.

LOGISTICS & HOTELS

Either upon arrival or before you depart Peru, you are more than likely going to spend some overnight hours in Lima. Unless you have a 8+ hour layover in Lima, I recommend staying at the Ramada Inn attached to the airport (less than a 5 minute walk from the arrival terminal). The airport itself can be fairly crowded even in the wee small hours of the morning and it will likely take you at least an hour or two to navigate your way through customs.

Immigration and customs can take foooooooreeeeeever . . . there is nothing we can do to make this better.  Just wear comfy shoes and be prepared for a wait.

The Lima Airport Ramada Inn is pricey, but it’s nice to not have to go any further or wait any longer to get to your bed. There are a handful of other hotels near the airport, but these require a short taxi ride. If you’re just spending a quick overnight in Lima, look for a hotel that’s within a 10 minute drive from the airport. It’s not worth it to go any further.

If you have a longer time to stay in Lima, there are some great neighborhoods and places to stay in the city. Getting to a hotel can be a 45 minutes drive or longer (Lima traffic is horrible). We recommend staying in Miraflores, San Isidro, Barranco (the artsy section of town and my personal favorite), or Lima Centro (mostly basic backpacker hostels).

If you don’t want to spring for the admittedly pricey airport hotel, as much as it sucks, stick it out at the Starbucks or in the main food court taking advantage of the free wi-fi to look at more pictures of snow-capped mountains.

At the end of your trip, you’ll most likely arrive in Lima in the early afternoon and have to kick around the airport for a pretty long layover until your flight later that night.  Some people like to store their luggage at the airport for small fee (this service is located just outside the domestic luggage claim area on the right), then take a taxi to eat at one of the awesome restaurants in the city or just hop over to the Ramada Inn across the street for some spa time. I’ve personally enjoyed wandering around the Barranco area to stop in artsy cafés or checking out the museums and architecture in Lima Centro. If you have lots of time, the Gold Museum is the absolute best attraction in all of Lima and should be visited by even museum-haters.

My other piece of advice, learned from wrestling a bike box from Portland, Oregon to Cusco, is: pack light. There are no motorized walkways or inter-terminal carts to flag down in Lima.

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Detour Makes Peru Trip Planning a Breeze!  Check out all our amazing Peru adventures here and give us a shout if you need some recommendations.

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