Peru is a magical destination, deserving of its place on anyone’s bucket list. Most people come to see one of the new wonders of the world – Machu Picchu – but Peru is much more than Machu Picchu. Backpacking Peru is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, so prepare yourself for one hell of a ride.
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Backpacking Peru Travel Guide
Vital Information for Peru
Currency: Peruvian Sol (check the exchange rate here)
Capital City: Lima
Population: Approximately 32 million people
Language: Spanish, Quechua and Aymara
Entry Requirements: Americans, Australians, Canadians, and British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Peru as a tourist. Be sure to check with the Peruvian consulate in your area for the exact requirements and processes to apply for a visa if your country requires one.
On arrival you are usually given permission to stay for up to 183 days, and you may be asked for proof of onward travel, which is more likely if you fly in. Check the time you have been granted on your arrival stamp, if you overstay you will have to pay a fine, and may be detained. See also the vaccination requirements below.
British travellers should use this website for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions when planning to go backpacking in Peru.
Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for “(country name) gov travel advice” should bring up the relevant information for your country.
If you need to arrange any visas, Embassy Pages has a list of all the embassies and consulates for countries around the world.
Vaccinations: A Yellow Fever certificate may be required for some travellers to Peru, especially those who have travelled to a country with a risk of Yellow Fever transmission such as Brazil. Please see this website for further information, and consult with your doctor or health professional to check current recommendations. All travellers should ensure their routine vaccinations and boosters are up to date, including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccine. Hepatitis A and tetanus are also recommended for most travellers, and other vaccinations such as rabies, and typhoid are also recommended in some cases. There is also a risk of Zika in some parts of Peru, so speak to your doctor before travelling if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.
If you plan to visit the Amazon in Peru, you should ask your doctor or medical clinic about malaria prevention.
Is Peru safe?
Generally speaking, yes Peru is safe for tourists. However, as with any destination, there are certain precautions you should take to reduce any risks, especially in major cities like Lima and Cusco. Avoid walking around alone at night, don’t carry large amounts of cash, and only use cash machines during the day. There have been issues with fake taxis and ‘express kidnappings’ where taxis drive tourists to a cash point and force them to take out all their money. Be careful when you arrive at the airport or in any destination, and choose official taxis where you can. Ask for advice from fellow travellers, and from your hostel about where is safe to go, and where is best to avoid.
Rural and isolated areas have their own dangers associated with them, so if you do any activities there such as ziplining, rafting or hiking, make sure you go with an authorised tour operator, that their equipment is in a good condition, and that your travel insurance covers such activities. If you have an accident in a remote area it can take a while to get medical assistance to you, and that includes the Inca Trail and trek to Machu Picchu.
Heavy rain is common during the rainy season from November to April, and in 2017 there was flooding and landslides in the northern areas of Peru around Tumbes, Trujillo, Piura and Lima. If possible, visit northern Peru during the dry season or keep a close eye on weather reports.
Where is Peru?
Peru is on the west coast of South America, bordering Ecuador to the north, Bolivia to the south-east, Chile to the south, and Brazil to the east. Peru’s coastline stretches along the Pacific, and Eastern Peru is bordered by the Amazon Rainforest. Peru is much larger than I realised, and travelling between cities can take a long time by bus. Most visitors fly into Lima or cross the land borders from Ecuador or Bolivia and continue their journey backpacking in South America.
Why go Backpacking in Peru:
Due to the popularity of Machu Picchu, Peru is actually one of the most tourist-friendly countries in South America. There is a good infrastructure around Lima and Cusco, so is a great starting point for backpackers who might be a little nervous about backpacking in South America for the first time. Machu Picchu is still one of the highlights of three years of travel for me and really is worth the trip. The food, people, history and culture of Peru all combine to make any Peruvian backpacking adventure absolutely unforgettable.
Nature and Scenery in Peru
Peru is a country of contrasts. Miles of sandy desert border the coastline, and cover a large part of southern Peru. The expanses of ‘nothing’ are spectacular in themselves, especially if you go sandboarding! Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, and Colca Canyon is nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, so Peru is not to be underestimated. And let’s not forget the Amazon, where you can stay in a jungle lodge, go pirana fishing and spot incredible wildlife.
Altitude in Peru
There are areas in Peru which are at high altitude, including Cusco, Puno, the Colca Canyon and Kuelap. If you are flying into Cusco with the intent of hiking to Machu Picchu, make sure you allow yourself a few days to acclimatize to the high altitude. Machu Picchu itself is at a lower altitude than Cusco, but if you are trekking to Machu Picchu, you may reach heights of 4000 metres above sea level. Remember that in that case, you will also need to make sure your travel insurance covers you for hiking at high altitudes. Altitude sickness can be extremely serious; a headache and tiredness are common symptoms, drink plenty of water and take paracetamol to help with a headache. If you feel sick, nauseous or disorientated, seek medical attention immediately.
Food in Peru
Peruvian cuisine is one of the best in the world. Ceviche is a classic Peruvian dish made with raw fish marinated in lime juice, served with sweet potato, sliced red onion and crunchy corn. Avocados are served with many dishes here, and rice and chips (fries) accompany practically every meal. Fusion cuisine is also big here, lomo salteado is a delicious dish of stir-fried steak pieces with vegetables, served on top of a bed of chips. Chifa is also popular here, where Chinese immigrants brought their own style of cooking and combined it with local flavours to create Chinese-Peruvian food like fried rice. Street food is a great way to eat well and cheaply, you can find snacks, drinks and fruit all over the place.
More unusual Peruvian dishes to try include anticuchos, barbecued beef heart skewers, alpaca and llama steaks, and guinea pig. Guinea pigs are a cheap, sustainable meat source in rural communities, and although we may cringe at eating family pets, spit-roasted guinea pigs make for interesting photographs if nothing else!
Pisco is the Peruvian spirit, made by fermenting grapes – you haven’t been to Peru until you’ve tried a pisco sour made with pisco, lime juice and egg white.
Transport in Peru
The size of Peru makes internal flights useful if you a short on time, particularly between Lima and Cusco. However, if you have more time to explore Peru, there is plenty to see between Lima and Cusco, including Nazca, Arequipa, and Lake Titicaca. The other place you might want to take a flight is in Nazca, to see the mysterious lines in the desert. Be aware that these are small 5 or 6 seater planes, which turn sharply in the air, so if you suffer from motion sickness you may wish to avoid the flight. There have also been safety issues with the planes in the past, so choose your flight company carefully.
Peru is well connected by buses all over the country (except in the Amazon region), and bus travel is cheap and convenient. There have been some safety concerns with buses in the past, both in terms of hijacking and accidents, but travel with a reputable company to reduce the risk of problems. Cruz del Sur bus company has the best reputation in Peru, and the buses are comfortable, and safe as passports or ID are required to buy tickets and board the bus. I also travelled with other companies such as Oltursa and Civa with no problem. One challenge with buses in Peru is that each bus company has its own bus station, so you have to check journey times in advance, you can’t just turn up and hop on the next available bus.
Peru Hop is a more expensive tourist bus service which runs from Cusco to Lima and back, and offers various short trips from Lima. They offer a hop on hop off service, and stop at all the key destinations between Lima and Cusco, including Huacachina, Paracas, Pisco, Nazca, Arequipa, and Lake Titicaca (on some routes) The Peru Hop buses have guides which travel with the buses who will help you to book hostels and tours at each destination, and offer special guided tours at certain stops which you wouldn’t get with other companies. Peru Hop is a great option for first-time travellers who are nervous backpacking in Peru, or for those who would like a little more help in organising their trip.
Taxis are useful to take in busy cities, but be wary of flagging down fake taxis. If possible, ask your hostel or hotel to call a taxi for you, or you can also use Uber.
Accommodation in Peru
If you are backpacking in Peru it is easy to find hostels in the main tourist areas, although the quality can vary greatly. Check reviews for recommendations from other travellers, and choose carefully as you would in any destination. Budget hotels, homestays and Airbnbs are also found here, and Hostelworld has a good choice to book hostels and to see what options are available. In busy times and public holidays, it is advisable to book ahead, especially in popular destinations like Cusco.
What to do in Peru
Peru has something to satisfy every taste. Foodies will love sampling Peruvian cuisine from street food to Michelin starred restaurants in Lima. History buffs can visit dozens of archaeological sites to learn about indigenous cultures in Peru including the Inca, and much earlier civilisations. If you like extreme sports, hiking, biking, sand-boarding, white water rafting and paragliding are just some of the activities you can do to get your adrenaline fix. If you are backpacking Peru on a budget, simply wandering the streets and soaking up the sites and smells is a fascinating way to pass the time.
Volunteering in Peru
Volunteering in Peru is a great way to contribute to the community, and practise your Spanish skills. Cusco is a popular place to volunteer, given its location close to Machu Picchu, and high number of indigenous people, who are often most in need of such assistance. Maximo Nivel arranges various volunteer programs in and around Cusco, including working with children, teaching English, helping with conservation, animal shelters and construction work.
Where to Go in Peru
Machu Picchu is essential for anyone backpacking in Peru, or indeed anyone visiting Peru. Even if you choose not to trek to Machu Picchu, there are other options to take the train to Machu Picchu, or through a combination of bus and walking, depending on your budget and time constraints. Spend some time exploring the rest of the Sacred Valley too, for more Inca ruins, local markets and indigenous culture. Lake Titicaca is another bucket list item for many people; although Puno wasn’t my favourite destination, here you can visit the Uros Islands, floating reed beds where the Uros culture is maintained (mainly for tourists’ benefit), although it is touristy some people love it, I found it a little too fake personally. From here it is easy to cross the border to Bolivia.
Further south, Arequipa is a beautiful city with plenty to do, including hiking volcanos and taking a trip to the nearby Colca Canyon to see Andean Condors fly in the wild. Along the coast up towards Lima, you find evidence of another ancient civilisation at the Nazca Lines, mysterious lines in the desert. Paracas nature reserve is known as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ where you can take a boat trip to see sealions and birds such as the blue-footed booby and frigate birds. Further north, try some pisco at a local winery or go sand boarding at Huacachina, an oasis in the desert close to Ica. Lima is the capital city of Peru, and although many people choose to skip it, spend a couple of days here to see the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, admire the street art in Barranco and eat at some of the world-renowned restaurants in the city. Further north, the seaside towns of Huanchaco and Mancora offer great surfing, and the pre-Incan ruins at Chan Chan and close to Trujillo make a fascinating stop. Further inland, head to Huaraz for hiking in the magnificent Cordillera Blanca, from day treks to Laguna 69 or multi-day hikes to the Cordillera Huayhuash. In the Amazonas region, don’t miss Chachapoyas where you can visit yet more pre-Inca ruins in the mountains at Kuelap, and see the highest waterfall in Peru at Gocta. Take an adventure into the Amazon at Iquitos, the gateway to Colombia and Brazil down the Amazon River.
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