Welcome to the ultimate guide for backpacking in Peru, your essential companion for exploring this South American jewel brimming with ancient Incan history, incredible landscapes, and cultural richness. Peru is a traveler's paradise offering everything from snow-capped Andean peaks, lush Amazonian rainforest, the vast Pacific coast, to the enigmatic Nazca Lines. As your adventure unfolds, you will experience the gastronomic delights of Lima, immerse yourself in the vibrant local cultures, and marvel at the remnants of powerful ancient civilizations. This guide is designed to help backpacking enthusiasts plan their Peru trip, whether you're considering spending a month in Peru or even longer.
As seasoned travel experts, we're here to help you navigate the unforgettable journey of backpacking in South America, starting with Peru. We've curated a list of 19 must-see destinations, complete with practical budget tips and essential advice for backpacking in Peru.Prepare to embark on an extraordinary adventure that promises memories of a lifetime.
Known as "La Ciudad Blanca" or "The White City," Arequipa is renowned for its colonial buildings constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar. The city is a cultural melting pot, showcasing the finest Peruvian culinary delights, intertwined with an illustrious history that whispers through its cobbled streets.
While in Arequipa, venture into the majestic Santa Catalina Monastery that covers an entire block, reflecting a city within a city. Marvel at the intricate architectural designs of the Arequipa Cathedral, standing tall on the city's main plaza, Plaza de Armas. Don't miss out on the Museo Santuarios Andinos, where you'll find the famous Inca ice maiden, 'Juanita.'
Outdoor enthusiasts can visit the nearby Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, offering breathtaking treks. Enjoy the local delicacy, 'rocoto relleno,' a stuffed pepper dish, epitomizing the city's exquisite gastronomy.
Immerse yourself in the timeless splendors of Peru while backpacking. North of Lima, in the Supe Valley, you'll find the city of Caral, one of the world's oldest civilizations. Dating back to 2600 BC, Caral is a testament to Peru's rich historical landscape, serving as an engrossing window into a mature, ancient urban settlement.
Caral is known for its multitude of pyramids, with the Pirámide Mayor standing out as the most awe-inspiring. This towering structure offers a panoramic view of the complete complex, leaving you marveling at the architectural prowess of this ancient civilization. The sunken plazas, amphitheaters, and residential spaces within Caral give an intricate insight into the social structure and lifestyle of the ancient inhabitants.
In 2009, UNESCO recognized the immense historical significance of Caral, designating it a World Heritage site. Backpacking in Peru offers this unparalleled opportunity to step into the origins of human civilization and admire the architectural brilliance of our ancestors.
3. Chan Chan
As you embark on your journey of backpacking in Peru, near the contemporary city of Trujillo, you'll encounter Chan Chan - the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. This ancient cityscape served as the core of the Chimu Empire, which prospered along the northern coast of Peru from 850 to 1470 AD. Crafted entirely from adobe brick, Chan Chan stands as a remarkable symbol of the Chimu people's architectural ingenuity.
Touring Chan Chan immerses you in the depths of Peru's archaeological heritage. The city's structure mirrors a highly systematized, hierarchical society, complete with segregated areas for administrative duties, residential districts, burial grounds, and ceremonial spaces.
The Tschudi Complex, one of the nine citadels or palaces within Chan Chan, is accessible to the public. Here, you can marvel at the detailed friezes representing marine life, showcasing the Chimu's profound ties to the sea. The El Brujo archaeological complex and the Lady of Cao Museum further extend the insight into the Moche culture, the predecessors of the Chimu. These historical attractions form a significant part of the backpacking in Peru experience.
4. Colca Canyon
Unearth the awe-inspiring beauty of the Colca Canyon, reputed as one of the world's deepest canyons, nestled in southern Peru near Arequipa, while backpacking in Peru. This geological masterpiece delivers some of the most striking panoramas across the country, serving as an idyllic retreat for backpacking enthusiasts.
Colca Canyon stands as an embodiment of nature's majesty, with a depth that is twice that of the United States' Grand Canyon. As you navigate its expanse, you'll discover remote traditional villages, soothing hot springs, pre-Incan terraces carved into the canyon walls, and a wide array of wildlife.
The Cruz del Condor viewpoint is an unmissable stop on your backpacking in Peru journey. This spot offers a sweeping view of the canyon and an opportunity to witness the splendid Andean condors in flight. The sight of these majestic birds, boasting their grand wingspans, gliding against the backdrop of the vast canyon, is an experience you'll hold dear forever.
A visit to Peru would be incomplete without exploring Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire and the gateway to the world-famous Machu Picchu. Nestled in the Andean highlands, Cusco is a city where history, culture, and architecture converge, creating an enthralling experience for travelers.
Once the heart of the Incan Empire, Cusco's Plaza de Armas is home to the city's most notable landmarks: the Cusco Cathedral and the Church of La Compañía de Jesús. The plaza, with its beautiful gardens and fountains, is a perfect place to sit back, relax, and take in the city's vibrant atmosphere.
A short walk from the plaza will lead you to the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas, known for its narrow, steep streets, colonial houses, and artist studios. It's a perfect spot to pick up unique, hand-crafted souvenirs and to experience the city's local arts scene.
One of the most significant sites in Cusco is Qorikancha, the most important temple in the Incan Empire. Today, the Santo Domingo Convent sits atop the original Incan stonework, providing a visible record of Peru's layered history. The blending of Incan and Spanish architecture at this site is a unique sight, underscoring the city's cultural richness and diversity.
For a change of scenery, head over to Huacachina, a desert oasis in the southwestern Ica region of Peru. This village, surrounded by towering sand dunes, offers a unique landscape and a range of exciting activities for adventure seekers.
At the heart of Huacachina is a small, tranquil natural lake lined with lush palm trees, providing a stark contrast to the surrounding golden sand dunes. Here, you can soak in the sun, relax on the sandy shores, and even take a leisurely paddleboat ride.
For those seeking a thrill, the vast dunes around Huacachina are perfect for sandboarding and dune buggy rides. These activities offer an adrenaline rush like no other and provide stunning views of the desert landscape. As the day winds down, don't miss the opportunity to climb the dunes and witness a magical desert sunset, a sight that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
7. Humantay Lake
Nestled high in the Andean mountains near Cusco, Humantay Lake is a breathtaking turquoise glacial lake. The lake is surrounded by the dramatic peaks of Humantay and Salkantay, providing some of the most spectacular views in Peru.
Reaching Humantay Lake requires a moderately strenuous hike, starting from the village of Soraypampa. As you ascend, the trail reveals stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Despite the effort, the sight that awaits at the top is well worth it.
Upon reaching the lake, you'll be rewarded with stunning views of the turquoise waters set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. This sight, combined with the tranquility of the location, creates a truly magical experience. Whether you're a seasoned hiker or a casual traveler, a visit to Humantay Lake is a must on your Peru trip.
Embark on a journey to Iquitos, the world's largest city that cannot be reached by road. Nestled in the heart of the Amazon, Iquitos is accessible only by boat or plane, offering a unique gateway for exploring the Peruvian Amazon and the mighty Amazon River.
A boat tour on the Amazon from Iquitos is an unmissable experience, offering a chance to witness the immense biodiversity of the rainforest. You'll get to see a variety of wildlife, from colorful macaws and slow-moving sloths to playful pink river dolphins and howler monkeys.
Aside from nature tours, Iquitos itself is a city full of character. Its vibrant street life, rustic charm, and floating markets are all worth exploring. The city's unique architectural style, especially the iron house designed by Gustave Eiffel, and the historic buildings that harken back to the rubber boom era, add to its allure.
Known as the 'Machu Picchu of the North,' Kuelap is an imposing ancient fortress built by the Chachapoyas civilization. Perched on a mountaintop in northern Peru, it offers an unforgettable journey into Peru's rich and varied past.
The fortress of Kuelap features over 400 round stone houses, many of them decorated with symbolic friezes. These structures, along with the colossal stone walls, attest to the architectural prowess of the Chachapoyas people.
The journey to Kuelap is as thrilling as the destination itself. You can take a cable car that offers panoramic views of the lush landscape, or for more adventurous souls, a hike along the old footpath is an excellent option. Upon reaching the top, the views across the surrounding mountains and valleys are breathtaking.
Welcome to Lima, the capital of Peru, and one of South America's most vibrant cities. Often referred to as the 'City of Kings,' Lima is a bustling metropolis that beautifully merges the past with the present.
The city's Historic Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features an array of colonial architecture, from the Presidential Palace to the Lima Cathedral. Exploring these structures provides a fascinating insight into Peru's colonial history.
One of the most significant sites in Lima is the Larco Museum. It hosts an extensive pre-Columbian collection that chronicles 5,000 years of Peru's vibrant history. This museum is not only known for its impressive exhibits but also for its beautiful gardens.
Lima is also the heart of Peru's thriving food scene. It's often dubbed the 'Gastronomic Capital of the Americas,' and a visit to one of its world-renowned restaurants is an experience not to be missed.
11. Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, the iconic Inca city, is arguably the highlight of any trip to Peru. Nestled high in the Andes, its impressive stone structures and stunning setting are a sight to behold.
Reaching Machu Picchu is an adventure in itself. The Inca Trail, one of the world's best-known hikes, is a popular way to reach the site. This 4-day journey takes you through a diverse array of landscapes, from high mountain passes to cloud forests, culminating in the unforgettable first sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate at dawn.
Once at Machu Picchu, you can explore the numerous structures, including the Temple of the Sun, the Intihuatana stone, and the Room of the Three Windows. Each of these offers a glimpse into the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Inca civilization.
Mancora is a bustling beach town on Peru's northern coast and a popular destination for sun-seekers and surfers alike. It boasts some of the best beaches in Peru, complete with warm, turquoise waters, perfect for swimming and surfing.
The town is a hub of activity, with a plethora of bars, restaurants, and shops. It's also known for its vibrant nightlife, making it a great place to relax and socialize after a day on the beach.
Apart from the beach and the surf, Mancora also offers opportunities for whale watching. Between August and October, you can spot humpback whales as they migrate along the coast.
Nazca is home to one of Peru's most intriguing mysteries: the Nazca Lines. These enormous geoglyphs etched into the desert floor have baffled scientists and explorers for decades.
The lines form hundreds of figures, ranging from simple lines and geometric shapes to intricate representations of animals and humans. The sheer scale and precision of these designs, which are best viewed from the air, are truly astounding.
In addition to the lines, Nazca offers other archaeological sites, such as the ancient aqueducts of Cantalloc and the Cahuachi Pyramids, an important ceremonial center of the Nazca culture.
Set on the Pacific coast, Paracas is a small town with big offerings. It's the starting point for visiting the Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands, both known for their abundant wildlife.
The Paracas National Reserve is a marvel of biodiversity and stunning landscapes, spanning desert, ocean, islands, and cliffs. Its pristine beaches are perfect for a relaxing getaway, and its waters are teeming with marine life.
The Ballestas Islands, also known as the 'Poor Man's Galapagos,' offer an affordable way to witness Peru's rich marine biodiversity. From sea lions basking on the rocks to Humboldt penguins waddling along the shore, the islands offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting.
Located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno is a city steeped in rich culture and history. It's the gateway to the Uros Floating Islands, a unique attraction that showcases the Uros people's centuries-old way of life.
Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake, is a sight to behold. A boat tour on the lake provides stunning views of the surrounding Andean peaks and visits to its many islands, each with their unique charm and traditions.
The Uros Floating Islands are man-made islands constructed from totora reeds, which grow abundantly along the shores of the lake. Here, the Uros people maintain their traditional lifestyle, living in reed houses and navigating the lake with reed boats.
16. Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, is a natural wonder that's become a must-see for those backpacking in Peru. Known for its vibrant, rainbow-striped slopes, it's a striking sight that's worth the strenuous hike to reach it.
The journey to Rainbow Mountain is a challenging one, taking you through remote Andean landscapes at high altitude. Along the way, you'll pass through traditional Quechua communities, herds of alpacas, and stunning mountain vistas.
The reward at the end of the hike is the panoramic view of the Rainbow Mountain's multi-colored peaks. It's a mesmerizing sight, with stripes of lavender, gold, turquoise, and maroon, formed by different mineral deposits over millions of years.
17. Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, located between Cusco and Machu Picchu, is a region of fertile farmland, traditional Andean villages, and remarkable Incan ruins. The valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, offers a stunning landscape that captures the heart of Peru's history and culture.
Explore the archaeological sites of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray, and visit the traditional market in the town of Chinchero. The valley is also a hub for outdoor activities, such as trekking, mountain biking, and river rafting.
For those who seek adventure and an alternative route to Machu Picchu, the Salkantay trek is a fantastic option. This trail, named among the 25 best treks in the world by National Geographic, offers a diverse and stunning scenery.
The trek traverses different ecosystems, from lush cloud forests to rocky mountain passes, and provides breathtaking views of Salkantay, the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range. The final reward, of course, is the unforgettable sight of Machu Picchu.
Trujillo, located on Peru's northern coast, is a vibrant city known for its colonial architecture and nearby archaeological sites. Its historic center is home to beautifully preserved colonial buildings painted in vibrant colors, offering a glimpse into the city's past.
Just outside Trujillo, you'll find the ancient city of Chan Chan, once the largest city in pre-Columbian America. The city's extensive adobe structures, intricate carvings, and complex network of passages are a testament to the Chimú culture's architectural prowess.
Also nearby is the ancient site of Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the Sun and the Moon), which features impressive Moche pyramids and intricate murals.
Peru on a Budget: Top Tips for Backpacking
Peru offers an enriching experience that doesn't have to break the bank. Here are a few tips to help you save money while backpacking in Peru:
- Accommodation: Look for budget accommodations like hostels, guesthouses, or budget hotels. These places often offer a social atmosphere perfect for meeting fellow travelers.
- Transport: Use public transport as much as possible. Long-distance bus companies like Peru Hop provide safe and affordable travel options. For short distances within cities, colectivos (shared taxis) are an inexpensive choice.
- Food: Try local food from markets and street food stalls, which is usually much cheaper (and tastier!) than restaurants.
- Activities: Take advantage of the numerous free or low-cost activities available, like hiking, visiting local markets, or exploring city neighborhoods.
Best Time to Visit Peru
The best time to visit Peru depends on the region and the activities you're interested in. Generally, May to September is the dry season and the best time for hiking and visiting Machu Picchu. However, this is also the busiest period, so be prepared for crowds. For a less crowded experience and lower prices, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of April to June and September to November.
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Peru, with its rich history, diverse landscapes, and vibrant culture, offers a wealth of experiences for every type of traveler. Whether you're a history buff, a nature lover, an adventure enthusiast, or a foodie, backpacking in Peru is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories. So pack your bags, and get ready to explore the wonders of Peru!