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.