Peru Travel Guide

Machu Picchu

​Why Go To Peru: What is There To See and Do There

We LOVE Peru, and find it to be one of our favorite travel destinations anywhere. Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in South America, and it is a great place to visit for a week, a month, or even more.  Many people go to Peru to see Machu Picchu, which is well worth the visit, but there is much more to Peru than just its most famous landmark. 

Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, as well as many other destinations, are filled with interesting Inca and Pre-Inca ruins, as well as living cultures of the mountain people who are direct descendants of the Inca and who still live a very traditional lifestyle. 

Besides Inca and pre-Inca culture and ruins, Peru is home to spectacular high mountains, some of the best wildlife viewing in the Amazon Basin, the world's highest navigable lake in Lake Titicaca, condors flying over the world's second deepest canyon, the Colca Canyon, and much more. ​

​Peru is well-known for its incredible world-class mountain and cultural treks, the most famous of which is the Inca Trail. Peru also has incredible whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, surfing, and wildlife viewing. Less active cultural trips are also possible, and all are likely to be some of your  favorite travel memories for life.

How Long Should I Spend in Peru?

​The shortest possible Peru trip just to see Machu Picchu is 3 days (Day 1 arrive Lima, continue to Cusco and take train to Machu Picchu Pueblo; Day 2 explore Machu Picchu, then return to Cuso; Day 3 fly to Lima and depart). This is NOT RECOMMENDED as it is way too fast to really experience the majesty and wonder of Peru's Inca heritage. At the very least we suggest you add one more day to see a bit of Cusco or the Sacred Valley. Check out this itinerary for a 5-day trip that explores Cusco, goes rafting on the Urubamba River and visits a traditional home and farm, ziplines through the cloud forest, and then visits Machu Picchu: Back Door to Machu Picchu.

A much better option for seeing Machu Picchu would be ​6-7 days, with a couple of days each in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. You can also do a great trek, and visit Machu Picchu in about the same time. Just keep in mind that due to altitude you will want to have at least two nights in Cusco (or similar altitude) before beginning your trek. 

If you have more time, the perfect 10 day to 2 week trip in Peru spends a week or so in the Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu area, then visits the Amazon region near Puerto Maldonado for four to 6 days.

If you have still more time (or just aren't interested in the Amazon Basin) consider visiting the White City of Arequipa and the deep, majestic Colca Canyon to see a charming colonial city, great museums, and to watch condors soaring over the Colca. Another option would be to go to Lake Titicaca to see indigenous cultures and even experience a homestay on one of the remote islands. 

Major Travel Destinations in Peru

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Windows to the World

Machu Picchu Stonework and Window to the World

Most people have Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel high on a mountain over the cloud forest, on their travel bucket list, and it is not to be missed. Often called the “Lost City of the Incas,” Machu Picchu is a well-preserved pre-Columbian Inca ruin site located on a high mountain ridge about 44 miles (70 km) northwest of Cusco at an altitude of 7,970 feet.

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  • Cusco is the launching off spot for all Machu Picchu trips. If coming from Lima, most people will choose to fly to Cusco (there are flights every hour during the day) as the bus ride is long and not very interesting.
  • From Cusco, most people will travel to Ollantaytambo in either a bus or a van as part of their tour, then take the 2 hour train ride to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly called Aguas Calientes), which sits along the Urubamba River below Machu Picchu itself. From town you will take a short bus ride up a series of switchbacks to the entrance to Machu Picchu.
  • Alternatively, if you wish to arrive into Machu Picchu on foot you can hike the permitted Inca Trail from the Sacred Valley. This is the only way to arrive into Machu Picchu on foot via a trail. Please note that Inca Trail permits can sell out 6 months or more in advance.
  • When visiting Machu Picchu it is a great idea to start with a guided tour to explore the whole ruin and to understand the significance of the various parts of the site.
  • Following the tour it is great to have extra time to wander around on your own. You can either revisit your favorite spots or hike to the Sun Gate or elsewhere for spectacular views of Machu Picchu.
  • We highly recommend climbing Huayna Picchu (the steep mountain in the back of most Machu Picchu photos) or Machu Picchu Mountain as part of your Machu Picchu experience. Both have fantastic views but Huayna Picchu is a shorter and steeper climb (some find it scary), and Machu Picchu Mountain is longer and higher, but not so scary. To climb either you need a special entrance ticket to the site of Machu Picchu, so you need to know if you plan to climb either of these at the time your Machu Picchu entrance is purchased, or you will have to purchase an entire new entrance ticket including the hike of your choice. Please note that Huayna Picchu will be closed from April 1-15, 2016 and Machu Picchu Mountain will be closed April 16-30 for maintenance. 
  • If you just want to see the ruin, you can do the trip in one day taking the train there in the morning and the return train in the late afternoon. While this is enough time to see the entire site, it is quite fast. Machu Picchu is a spectacular site, and one you should visit, but it isn’t overly large. You can see all of it in half a day.
  • We recommend taking an afternoon train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, spending the night there, then heading to the ruin the next morning. Please note that whatever you have heard it is not possible to arrive to Machu Picchu for sunrise. This schedule gives you time for a guided tour and free time to explore on your own or to climb Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain before returning to Cusco or the Sacred Valley on the late afternoon train.

  • Cusco! Because Machu Picchu trips begin and end in Cusco, it is a perfect place to spend some time to explore more Inca architecture and structures, see beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, and do some shopping and eating. Most people will enjoy at least a couple of days here (see Cusco section below).
  •  The Sacred Valley. Again, you will pass through this area on your way to Machu Picchu, and it is worth a day or more to explore the colorful markets, Inca ruins, and beautiful views. There are also fantastic treks in and around the Sacred Valley that are great options when Inca Trail permits are sold out.
  • If you have at least 3, and ideally 4-6 more days, you should consider a visit to the Amazon Basin near Puerto Maldonado, as it is a 30 minute flight from Cusco. This area has some of the best wildlife viewing in the entire Amazon basin, and adding it makes for a very complete, and unique, trip to Peru.
  • Additionally it is easy to visit Lake Titicaca or Arequipa and the Colca Canyon to round out your trip to Peru.

  • You like archeology or history, or just want to experience one of the most magical spots in South America, or anywhere.
  • Pretty much everybody who visits Machu Picchu likes it, so just go!

  • You really hate crowds and only seek the most remote places to visit.
  • You are a curmudgeon who doesn’t believe in enjoying the best experiences in the world, or who thinks it is fun to tell young children that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are not real.

Examples of some trips to Machu Picchu you might want to consider:
Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu Multisport
Inca Highlights: Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, and Cusco

Cusco

The Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru

Cusco is the jumping off spot for visits to Machu Picchu, but it is also a very interesting site on its own. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and it is full of Inca stonework, colonial architecture, great restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops, markets and shops selling Alpaca clothing, and colorfully dressed indigenous people.


  • If coming from Lima, most people will choose to fly to Cusco (there are flights every hour during the day) as the bus ride is long and not very interesting.
  • Between Cusco and Puno (on the shores of Lake Titicaca), there is a fantastic train journey that shouldn’t be missed, although it doesn’t operate every day. Alternatively, there is a very pleasant tourist bus between Puno and Cusco that stops to explore ruins along the way.
  • If coming from Arequipa, there are flights daily that take about 45 minutes. Buses are an ok option and take 12 hours or more (in the rainy season). It is possible to make this trip overnight to maximize your daylight time in either destinations. 
  • If you have just arrived at altitude, we recommend taking it easy on your first day in Cusco to allow your body time to adjust to the thin air at 11,000 feet. Spend your first day resting, strolling around the Plaza de Armas and nearby streets, and enjoy a meal
  • Cusco is a hub for adventure travel, and it is the place to begin many of Peru’s famous treks including The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. From Cusco you can also experience world class activities such as whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding. ​These activities can be day trips or multi-day journeys that start and end in Cusco. 
  • Some of the don’t miss cultural sites and ruins in and around Cusco include the main Plaza de Armas and the old town, the ruins of Sacsaywaman, the Quoricancha (Temple of the Sun), and the Spanish Cathedral of Santo Domingo. Many of these sites are best seen on an organized day tour of 1/2 to 1 day. 
  • Shop, eat, drink, relax. Cusco has great shopping for hand-made jewelry as well as alpaca sweaters and other woven goods, interesting artisanal goods, and more. Cusco also is home to fantastic restaurants, both local and more fancy Peruvian restaurants, as well as cuisine from around the world. Coffee shops, bars, and even discos round out the many offerings in Cusco.  
  • Plan to spend a little more time than you think you need as we’ve never heard anyone say “I spent too much time in Cusco,” but we do often hear “I wish I would have had more time in Cusco.” 
  • Spend at least one day in Cusco to visit the cultural sites and do some shopping/exploring on your own.
  • Better would be a day to rest when you arrive, another day to explore the sights, and a third day free to explore on your own.
  • Add even more time if you want to hike, bike, raft, or horseback ride. 
  • You can visit the Sacred Valley as a day trip from Cusco as well. 
  • Machu Picchu! Most people get to Cusco because they are going to Machu Picchu, so this should be obvious.
  •  The Sacred Valley. While it is possible, and easy, to visit the Sacred Valley as a day trip to explore the colorful markets, Inca ruins, and beautiful views, it is also great to spend a few days there out of the hustle and bustle of Cusco. There are also fantastic treks in and around the Sacred Valley that are great options when Inca Trail permits are sold out.
  • If you have at least 3, and ideally 4-6, more days you should consider a visit to the Amazon Basin near Puerto Maldonado, as it is a 30 minute flight from Cusco. This area has some of the best wildlife viewing in the entire Amazon basin, and adding it makes for a very complete, and unique, trip to Peru.
  • Additionally it is easy to visit Lake Titicaca or Arequipa and the Colca Canyon to round out your trip to Peru.
  • You are interested in the culture and 
  • You like archeology or history, or just want to experience one of the most magical spots in South America, or anywhere.
  • Pretty much everybody who visits Machu Picchu likes it, so just go!
  • You really hate crowds and only seek the most remote places to visit.
  • You are a curmudgeon who doesn’t believe in enjoying the best experiences in the world, or who thinks it is fun to tell young children that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are not real.

Examples of some Cusco trips you might want to explore:
Cusco and the Inca Trail

The Sacred Valley of the Incas

Boy in Ollantaytambo, Peru

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is the modern name for the Urubamba River Valley that sits between Cusco and Machu Picchu, and it once was the heartland of the Inca Empire. The area was, and is, a fertile valley providing food for the residents of Cusco, and it is filled with Inca terraces, stonework, and villages. Many of the more popular visits are the colorful local market in Pisac, the amazing stone streets and aqueducts of Ollantaytambo, and the Quechua village of Chinchero.

  • ​The altitude in the Sacred Valley is much lower than Cusco, making it a great place to spend your first night(s) in the Cusco/Machu Picchu area after flying into the airport in Cusco.
  • Ollantaytambo is a very interesting quiet town with fabulous ruins, and it is the starting point for many trains to Machu Picchu.
  • There are many great treks in and around the Sacred Valley, most notably the less-visited but culturally rich Lares Valley.

The Amazon Basin

The Tambopata River, Peru

No trip to Peru is complete without visiting the Amazon Basin, in particular the Tambopata and Manu National Park areas near Puerto Maldonado (a short 30 minute flight from Cusco). This region has some of the most remaining pristine areas of the Amazon, and due to the hilly topography it has more biodiversity than virtually anywhere on earth.  

  • Puerto Maldonado has flights from Lima and Cusco, making it easy to do a trip starts and ends in Lima and visits Cusco (and Machu Picchu) and the Amazon in a triangular journey.
  • Jungle lodges can require from 30 minutes to 8 + hours of travel time to reach, but the journey is part of the experience.

Colca Canyon and Arequipa

The Colca Canyon, Peru

The city of Arequipa's historical center is a World Heritage Site, famous for the colonial architecture of "The White City," so named because much of it is built with white volcanic stone. The city has a beautiful Plaza de Armas (central square) and it is less touristy than Cusco. The Museo Santuarios is home of the Ice Maiden, a mummified Inca girl thought to have been sacrificed in the late 1400's. 

The Colca Canyon is the world's second deepest canyon, and it is a great destination for viewing giant condors and visiting volcanic hot springs.

  • There are direct flights into Arequipa from Lima.
  •  Many people travel by bus between Arequipa and Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, making these two destinations easy to combine together.
  • You need at least 2 days / 1 night to enjoy the Colca Canyon.

Lake Titicaca​ and Puno

Totora Reed Boat, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Lake Titicaca is considered the highest navigable (meaning large) lake in the world, and it is high at 12,507 feet above sea level. The lake straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. In Peru, people generally stay in the town of Puno.

  • ​There is an airport with flights from Lima and Cusco daily in the nearby town of Juliana, approximately 45 minutes away from Puno by bus or car.
  • There is tourist bus and train service between Puno and Cusco, both of which offer pleasant sightseeing and transportation.
  • Good long-distance buses connect with Arequipa.
  • Most visitors will take a tour on Lake Titicaca, most often stopping to visit the Uros Indians who live on floating reed islands. The islands are very touristy but still interesting.
  • Homesteads and longer day tours are available to Taquile and Amantani Islands to visit indigenous communities of weavers and herders.

Lima​

Lima, Peru

Lima is where most travelers will arrive into Peru, and for many people it is just a place to pass through on your way to where you want to go next. The city is large and has quite a bit of traffic congestion, making it difficult to get around. That said,

  • Lima has world-class restaurants, some fantastic museums, and very interesting bohemian neighborhoods. Many people find Miraflores and Barranco neighborhoods to be worth a few days visit for the nightlife, food, and interesting culture. It also has some very interesting museums such as the Gold Museum with numerous Inca and pre-Inca artifacts made of gold.
  • If you want to bypass Lima to get straight to Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, or the Amazon, you can schedule your flights so you arrive early in the morning and continue on to your next destination the same day, or you can arrive in Lima late at night and overnight at the airport hotel before moving on in the morning

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca

Mountain Climbing in the Cordillera Blanca

The Cordillera Blanca is a bit off the beaten path, but it is a spectacular destination for trekking and climbing in Peru. The mountains are high (many over 20,000 feet) and glaciated, and resemble the Himalaya, and the valleys are dotted with glimmering turquoise lakes. In addition, there are also Inca and pre-Inca ruins ​and rich local culture.

Best Ways to Experience Peru: Types of Trips 

​Treks

Sunset on a Peru Trek

Peru is famous for it's amazing treks, most famous of which is The Inca Trail. There are high-mountain treks with scenery similar to Nepal, more cultural treks passing through indigenous villages, and treks that encounter numerous Inca ruins.

  • ​The Inca Trail is the most famous trek in South America, and it is the only way to arrive in Machu Picchu on foot. Permits sell out months in advance.
  • Many other treks in Peru are also on Inca trails, as there are thousands of miles of trails used by the Inca in Peru and elsewhere.
  • Many of the best treks, such as the Lares Valley or Choquequirao, are less well known and thus uncrowded.
  • There are fantastic lodge to lodge treks available in the Lares Valley and Machu Picchu areas.

Related Articles: 
Can My Kids Come? What Is The Minimum Age For Hiking The Inca Trail?
What Is The Best Time Of Year To Do The Inca Trail Trek?
Is The Inca Trail Open All Year?
What Are The Differences Between the 4 and 5-Day Inca Trail Treks?  
Why Do I Need a Permit For The Inca Trail?

Multisport and Adventure Trips

Mountain Biking Maras Moray in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru

While rightfully famous for its treks, Peru is also home to fantastic adventure trips of all sorts due to its mountainous topography and lack of roads. 

  • World Class mountain biking, particularly downhill, is available near Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Trips range from one day to 15-days, and can be tailored from experts to less-experienced riders.
  • Horseback riding is popular in the Cusco area, often on the famous Peruvian Paso horses. These horses are known world-wide for their smooth ride.
  • Rafting trips on the Apurimac, Tambopata, and  Colca Rivers are incredible multiple day excursions, and day trips are also offered on the Urubamba and Apurimac Rivers.
  • Day hikes are also a fantastic way to explore off the beaten path sites such as Inca ruins or spectacular mountain lakes.

Cultural Trips

Peruvian locals with their llamas.

​Archeology trips, gastronomy trips, and other cultural experiences are offered throughout Peru, making this a fantastic destination for those who prefer less adrenaline in their travels.

  • ​Northern Peru has fabulous pre-Inca ruins such as Kuelap, Chan Chan and Sipan.
  • As the center of the Inca Empire, Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are incredible cultural destinations.

Jungle Lodges

Macaws at a claylick, Peru

When visiting the Tambopata and Manu areas near Puerto Maldonado, almost all trips base out of a jungle lodge (sometimes combing two or more lodges in one trip). ​

  • Lodge trips range from luxurious to very rustic, and cater to all sorts of people.​
  • Most lodges involve flying into a town, Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos, then traveling by boat for 30 minutes to 8+ hours to reach the lodge.
  • Activities at lodges range from birdwatching, climbing canopy towers to spot wildlife, to naturalist led hikes to look for monkeys, peccary, jaguars, and other jungle animals.
  • One of the largest parrot and macaw clay licks in the world (and one of the best to see large numbers of macaws and parrots) is on the Tambopata River near the Tambopata Research Center.

Jungle Cruises​

Aqua Amazon Cruise, Peru

Jungle cruises are also a great way to experience the Amazon, as you stay in comfort on a boat and move around to different sites to explore each day.

  • ​Jungle cruises in Peru start and finish in Iquitos, on the banks of the Amazon River.
  • Many jungle cruises are quite luxurious, making this the most comfortable way to experience the Amazon Basin. 

How To Get There and Get Around

Getting to Peru

By Air​

Most international travelers to Peru will arrive by air into Lima, which is the capital and largest city in Peru.

Flights from the USA to Lima arrive either late at night, or very early in the morning. If arriving late at night you will need to overnight in Lima before heading on to your next destination. There is a nice hotel at the airport, or else you will want to travel into the city to stay in a hotel in a nicer neighborhood such as Miraflores or Barranco. This makes more sense if you are going to stay in Lima for a day or more, but if just overnighting before departing for Cusco or elsewhere in the morning it makes more sense to stay at the airport hotel. 

​From North America there are direct flights to Lima from New York - Newark, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and And Toronto

From Europe there are direct flights to Lima from Madrid, Paris, and Amsterdam.

From Latin America there are direct flights from many cities, including, Bogota, Buenos Aires, ​Caracas, Guayaquil, Havana, La Paz, Mexico City, Panama City, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Sao Paulo, San Jose, Santo Domingo, Rosario, and Iguazu. 

Overland

​From Bolivia, many people cross the Peruvian border by traveling along the shore of Lake Titicaca. Adventurous travelers can take a bus from Chile through the Atacama Desert to arrive in Southern Peru or from Ecuador to arrive in Northern Peru.

Getting Around Peru

Although there are very good long-distance buses in Peru, most (non-backpacker) travelers will opt to fly from Lima to their next destination, especially to areas like Cusco, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, or the Amazon. This is because the buses take a long time and the trips are not overly interesting compared to what you can see and do in the highlands or other areas, and most people don't want to give up the time it takes for this travel. 

There are good buses for trips between Arequipa and Lake Titicaca, and there is a highly recommended train, the Orient Express, between Cusco and Lake Titicaca. ​

Weather and When to Visit

​The busiest tourist season in Peru is during the South American winter (June through August), which is also the dry season. The temperatures are pleasant and the climate is drier in the Andes and the Amazon during this time. Keep in mind that in the Andes and Amazon, there is always a good chance for rain and sun each day, no matter what the season.

The wet season lasts from December to April, creating overcast skies and muddy trekking. It’s certainly still possible to visit both the Andes and Amazon during this time, though some trips won’t be available. Read "Just How Rainy Is Rainy Season in Cusco?" In order to avoid both the crowds and rainy weather, traveling during the shoulder seasons (May, September, October and early November) is your best bet. These wet and dry seasons are flipped on the desert coast.

Another consideration is the hugely popular Inti Raymi festival in June when tourists flock to Cusco to witness the week long celebration. While it’s a worthwhile event to see, if you’re planning a last-minute trip or trying to save some cash, this is not the time to visit Cusco.​