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Peru is a land of jaw-dropping desert, mountain and rainforest landscapes, dotted with some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the Americas. The food is fabulous, the people friendly and travel is great value; though roads can be rough and distances long.
The country’s west – where the Nazca lines are found – is dune-rolling desert; the centre rises to glacier-covered Andean peaks with fabulous hiking. To the east, the mountains drop into lush foothills teeming with wildlife – this is where Machu Picchu and the ruins of the Inca Empire are situated. Beyond is the giant Amazon rainforest.
Visits inevitably pass through Peru’s capital and international travel hub, Lima which has some fascinating Spanish colonial buildings and some of the best restaurants in Latin America.
International flights arrive in Lima, the country’s sprawling, foggy capital on the central desert coast. From there, you’ll likely head off to one of six other main towns or regions depending on what you want to see and do: Arequipa, Cusco, Ica, Iquitos, Puerto Maldonado and Puno.
Sprawling along cliffs into untidy suburbs, and swathed in a seemingly perpetual sea mist, Lima isn’t a city that inspires love at first sight. But all international flights land here, and under that ugly surface, there’s plenty worth exploring – the old Spanish centre with its giant Earthquake-proof cathedral and eerie catacombs, the Peruvian restaurants of Miraflores which have the best fine dining in South America and the pre-Colombian ruins that dot the desert to the city’s north and south.
Huddling under the fuming cone of Misti Volcano, on the edge of high mountains and dry, gorge-cut desert and replete with fabulous Spanish-baroque buildings, Arequipa is Peru’s southern capital. It’s the jump-off point for the condor-soared Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world.
Built in the shape of a giant Puma and sitting at the heart of an old ruined Empire, Cuzco is unmissable. There are fabulous Inca (and Spanish) buildings in the city itself – old palaces, massive forts and dozens within a day trip, including Machu Picchu – reachable on a glass-roofed train or on the Inca Trail; one of the world’s most magical long treks.
Set on a narrow ribbon of river in bone-dry desert, Ica is the hub city for visits to the Huacachina Oasis – a lake and village ringed by rolling dunes; for the Nazca Lines and for the wild, windswept coast and islands around Paracas, whose bird and sealife is protected in a string of national reserves.
Capital of the Northern Peruvian Amazon, this old rubber-boom city with opulent mansions and an art nouveau iron market designed by Gustave Eiffel, sits sultry on the banks of the giant river just as it enters Brazil. Close to a string of protected areas with genuine wilderness, it’s a hub for wildlife tourism and is easily reached from Lima by plane.
Capital of the Southern Amazon, this tiny town is the airport hub for the jungle lodges on the Tambopata River; one of the most biodiverse locations on Earth. This is where the Andes meets the Amazon and where wildlife documentaries – particularly those focusing on birds are filmed. The further upstream you go from Puerto, the wilder it gets.
Untidy, down-at-heel and sitting in rarefied air that will have you gasping, Puno town is no beauty; but you have to come here – by train or plane – to visit the islands and floating villages of Lake Titicaca. Boats and vans leave from the town to lodges and hotels in and around the lake.
Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers
Min age: 0
Rating 4.43 / 5 [102 ratings]
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Rating 4.82 / 5 [17 ratings]
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Rating 4.91 / 5 [12 ratings]
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Rating 4.71 / 5 [7 ratings]
The peak travel season is June to August, when the weather is clearest in the Andes. The shoulder seasons (April-May, September-October) are less crowded, though there may be occasional rain. June to August (the dry season) is also best for travel to the Amazon, as it’s the optimal time to see wildlife.
The coast comes to life in summer (late November-early March). Note that the Inca Trail shuts down for the entire month of February.
The main international airport – Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez – is in Lima. From here, there are domestic flights to Arequipa, Cuzco (for visits to Machu Picchu), Puno (for Lake Titicaca) and Puerto Maldonado (for the southern Amazon) among other destinations.
To avoid hours or even days on a bus you will need to fly pretty much everywhere except Trujillo from Lima. Planes and buses (around 6 hrs) connect Cuzco to Arequipa. Trains connect Cuzco to Machu Picchu and Puno (overnight). To reach either Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado you will need to fly from either Lima or Cusco.
Private river transfers to jungle lodges are included in their room prices and lodge staff will meet you at the airport. It is possible to continue from either Amazon city into Brazil by boat or (from Puerto Maldonado) by bus.
In Lima, the best places to stay are the well-heeled, contiguous neighbourhoods of San Isidro and Miraflores. These areas are safe, have plentiful restaurants and are convenient for the city’s main sights.
In Cuzco and Arequipa, the historic city centres have an array of charming hotel options that lie within walking distance of most major attractions.
If visiting Lake Titicaca, the most peaceful hotels are the ones that lie outside of Puno outskirts, on the shores of the lake or on islands.
Amazon travellers should plan on spending a few nights at an all-inclusive rainforest lodge. It’s often the only way to access the reserves, and the lodges offer a complement of jungle tours and activities.
Other guides relevant to this destination
Peru’s capital, while not the most appealing of cities, does offer stately colonial architecture, fascinating museums of Peru’s empirical; history and world-class dining.
The heart of the old Inca empire has a wealth of Inca ruins, Spanish treasures and historic architecture to explore.
Earth’s largest and most spectacular tropical wilderness is a landscape of huge waterfalls tumbling off table-top mountains, vast, coloured rivers, and fragrant cloud forests. All filled with astonishing, endemic wildlife.