Peru is one of the most popular countries for backpacking in South America, and with good reason. It gets its popularity badge because of Machu Picchu, but it’s also got a huge amount of other incredible things to see and do: the food scene in Lima, hiking in the Andes, learning to surf on Pacific coast beaches and sandboarding down giant sand dunes.
We spent exactly one month in Peru and we felt that it was the perfect amount of time to travel at a relaxed pace, seeing the main things we wanted to without rushing. If you’re looking for a shorter or longer itinerary for your backpacking trip to Peru, scroll to the end of the post. We’ve made out some great itineraries for two, three, four and six-week trips (you’re welcome – you can buy us a drink later).
There’s also advice on how to go about planning your trip, tips for crossing borders and a budget breakdown so you’ll have everything you need before you travel.
But for now, here’s how we spent our month in Peru.
How we spent one month backpacking in Peru
Mancora – 2 days
We arrived to Peru from Guayaquil in Ecuador and our first stop was Mancora, the party beach town in the very north-west of Peru. We’d made a last minute decision to get to Peru for New Years’ but had nothing booked, so we arrived into Mancora at four in the morning, searching for some accommodation.
The best we could find was a tent at a hippy beachfront hostel called Misfits. They let us in in the middle of the night and gave us blankets so that we could get some sleep in the hammocks before everyone else got up.
Our plan was to stay in Mancora for two or three nights and then head south once we’d finished ringing in the New Year. But our plans changed pretty quickly on our first day there.
From walking around town, we thought it was busy, dirty and grimy. The main activities to do are surfing (which we weren’t fussed about) or boat tours to see sea turtles. We were just back from the Galapagos islands where we basically lived with turtles for two weeks, so we were happy to skip this too.
We ended up spending just one night in Mancora, but we had two full days since we arrived in Mancora off a night bus and needed to leave on a night bus (get used to this in Peru, the distances are huge). This was enough time to chill out on the beach, see an incredible sunset over the Pacific, check out the crazy Loki party hostel for a drink and eat some good food in the town’s tourist restaurants.
A whistlestop first night in Peru, next off to Huanchaco!
Huanchaco – 3 days
Huanchaco’s another beach town and it’s about twelve hours south of Mancora. To get here, you get the bus from Mancora (or Lima if you’re coming up from the south) to Trujillo, which is a bigger town twenty minutes from Huanchacho. Once you arrive, ask at the bus station and they’ll point you to the street a block away, where you can catch a bus or colectivo (shared local taxi) to Huanchaco. We were a bit unsure about how easy it would be, but it’s totally fine.
We much preferred Huanchacho to Mancora. The beach in Mancora is nicer but in Huanchacho the town is spotless and the vibe is relaxed. It’s hugely popular with surfers – it felt like we were the only non-surfers on a planet dedicated to surfing. We spent two nights in Huanchacho in Punta Huanchaco hostel, a new, locally run hostel that’s spotlessly clean. They also have about ten cats.
It’s possible that we liked Huanchaco so much because we ate great food there. I mean, there’s nothing we love more than great food. Chocolate Cafe is incredible for breakfast and we had some of the best falafel of the trip at Otra Cosa (thanks to our friends Alan and Tash for those recommendations). There’s also an excellent market in town if you want to cook – we bought lots of different types of tropical fruit, yoghurt and the cheapest quinoa we’ve ever seen. I guess it should be cheap in Peru, they produce ninety percent of the world’s quinoa!
We spent New Year’s Eve going out to a beach party with some great people we met in our hostel, which made up for the underwhelming band that actually forgot to stop and countdown for the New Year.
You had one job, guys…
Huaraz – 8 days
Huaraz, home of hiking. This was my favourite place in all of Peru. Set high up in the Andes, the town’s at 3,052-metres above sea level and the mountainous peaks loom thousands of metres higher again.
We’ll do a separate post on Huaraz, so I’ll keep things on a need-to-know basis for now. Huaraz is an easy night bus from Trujillo or Lima. It’s also the cheapest place we came across in Peru. The town is noisy and bustling, busy with locals in indigenous dress shopping at the open air markets. We stayed in a cheap hostel and ate five (yes, five) fantastic curries for dinner in Paulino’s Indian restaurant. It was the nicest food we’d had in months, so we’re not apologising.
But you’re not going to Huaraz to see the town, you’re going for the hiking. The peaks are jagged and domineering and the lakes are a surreal shade of crystal blue that I’ve never seen before. We began with a self-guided acclimatisation hike to Wilcacocha, then did a day trek to Laguna 69 and also the four-day Santa Cruz trek. Every hike was spectacular, but the Santa Cruz in particular felt solitary, isolated and like we were truly getting off the grid.
Get to Huaraz and do these hikes before it gets as busy as Cusco!
Lima – 3 days
After hiking intensely for over a week in Huaraz, there’s a chance we may have slimmed down a little.
Lima rectified all of that. And more.
The country’s capital is renowned as a gastronomical delight, and it’s got three of the top 50 restaurants in the world. We spent our time in Lima exploring the Miraflores area, which was sunny, clean and a welcome burst of modernity and capitalism after being off the grid.
Not wanting to miss out on any new food, we concocted one of our self-guided food tours (like the one we first did in Mexico City). We spent a whole day walking (then practically rolling) around, going to eight different stops and trying so much food, coffee and pisco.
It was a good day. We’re just polishing off a post on it and we’ll link it here when it’s ready.
As if that wasn’t enough food, we decided to spend big and book into one of the famed top 50 restaurants. Lunch at Astrid y Gaston was like nothing I’ve ever experienced; fancy as hell, with a menu curated to reflect the country’s varied climate and altitude. We ate cuy arepas (guinea pig!), beef fillet, tuna, quinoa and ice cream macaroons, and washed it all down with delicious Peruvian wine.
If you’re a foodie like us and have some wiggle room in your budget, we definitely recommend going here.
Check out this article for a detailed Lima guide!
Huacachina – 3 days
Next up on our Peru itinerary was Huacachina. To get here, we took a bus to Ica and then a ten-minute taxi from the station to Huacachina. Huacachina draws tourists because of its miles and miles of rolling sand dunes that surround the little desert oasis town.
Sand-buggy and sand-boarding tours leave town several times a day. We’d heard about the sand-boarding (like tobogganing down the sand) but weren’t prepared for the thrilling, rollercoaster-like ride around the dunes in the neon sand-buggy. It’s mental, and so much fun.
Huacachina was the first place in Peru where we felt the high levels of tourism influence prices – it’s expensive. Banana hostel has a party vibe and they run their own dune tours and Upcycled is a short walk outside town, chilled and easygoing.
We spent a couple of nights here relaxing, but one night is plenty of time to do the tour and walk around the sand dunes yourself (they’re amazing at sunrise and sunset).
Arequipa – 4 days
Arequipa is often called the prettiest city in Peru and it’s easy to understand why. The UNESCO World Heritage site has a unique architectural style with European influences, but the unusual part is what was used to construct the buildings: ashlar. The white volcanic rock, plentiful after so much volcanic activity and earthquakes, makes the colonial city shine.
It’s the perfect city to spend a few days relaxing, traipsing between coffee shops, chocolate-making stores and restaurants. We stayed in Arequipay backpacker’s hostel and it was everything we needed: central, clean, good breakfast and they run great tours.
The most popular excursion to do from Arequipa is Colca Canyon. Condors glide over the world’s second largest canyon that descends to 3,270-metres, with little villages dotted throughout the canyon. The two most common tours are a single day, viewpoint-based tour two-day day hike into the canyon.
‘Intrepid’ (read: stupid) backpackers that we now are, we decided to go without a tour. It was a mistake. We emailed our subscribers about it, read the story here.
Cusco & Salkantay – 10 days
Cusco is everyone’s base for visiting Machu Picchu, making it the most tourist-trodden town in Peru. Amazingly, it’s still charming, quaint and beautiful and isn’t a town tired by tourists.
We spent plenty of time here, you should plan to do the same. It’s difficult to choose a hostel because they’re all so highly rated. We stayed in Kokopelli; it’s clean, central, has free secure luggage storage, good breakfast and a party vibe without being too crazy. But we’ve heard that the same can be said for Pariwana and lots of others, too.
Cusco is an ideal base for exploring the Sacred Valley, Rainbow Mountain and day-tripping or hiking to Machu Picchu. We spent three nights in Cusco, then four on the Salkantay trek followed by another three in Cusco. Aside from the surrounding activities, the town itself is so easy to get lost in.
You can spend hours in coffee shops, take in the views from the San Blas neighbourhood, get budget food and amazing juices at the San Blas market. The cobbled streets give Cusco a lovely old-town feel and it’s the perfect end for any trip to Peru.
Puno – 1 day
After having the best time in Cusco, our last stop in Peru was a bit of a let-down. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world – 3000m above sea level – and it spans across the Peru/Bolivia border. Puno’s the lakeside town on the Peruvian side, and Copacabana is on the Bolivian side.
Puno was totally missable. It’s a big town, strangely has about five dental clinics on every street, and there’s not much to do (except get a dental checkup, I guess?). We just needed to stop in Puno to change buses on our way to Copacabana.
We didn’t mind our lacklustre final stop, and spent our last evening in Peru sipping on our final (sigh) Pisco sours before making our way to Bolivia, where they’re just not the same.
Other cool places we didn’t get to
Unlike our time in Ecuador (read about that here), in Peru we felt like we saw everything we wanted to. But there’s always places you’ll miss. Here are a few other places that we’ve heard great things about.
- Iquitos is the main spot to see the Amazon from Peru. We did it in Ecuador, so didn’t need to do it again.
- Paracas is often called the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’. One hour boat tours zip past a few islands where you’ll see penguins and maybe blue-footed boobies.
- We also chose against going to see the Nazca Lines. Unless you’re getting an expensive plane ride, you won’t see much from the viewing tower.
Onward travel: Peru to Bolivia
How to travel from Peru – Bolivia
You have a few options, depending on where you finish in Peru. Overland crossing by bus is very easy and comfortable.
Remember, if you’re from the USA, you need to pre-organise a visa for Bolivia.
Cusco or Arequipa, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia
- You will need to go via Puno in Peru. Book your tickets online on busbud in advance.
- You can save on accommodation by getting the night bus that gets in at 4:30 AM and get on the first bus (6 AM) to Copacabana.
- Or you could do what we did and get a day bus to Puno, stay overnight and get your transfer bus to Copacabana the next morning.
- If you’re doing this in reverse and going from Bolivia to Peru, you don’t need to stop in Puno. The Titicaca bus company organise direct buses from Copacabana to Cusco and Arequipa.
How to travel from Peru – Ecuador
We wrote about this in a lot of detail in our Ecuador itinerary post for going from Ecuador to Peru. The same will apply in reverse for going from Peru to Ecuador.
Tips for planning a backpacking trip in Peru
Travel by bus
I won’t dwell on this because I wrote about bus travel in the previous section but in case it didn’t sink in – travel by bus in Peru. The buses are a novelty and more comfy than any you’ll every experience.
Venture north of Lima
I feel like Peru was split into two different sections. The off-track, less touristy area north of Lima and then the tourist circle: Lima, Huacachina, Arequipa, Cusco. By skipping out on everything north of Lima, you’re missing the best hiking in Peru, deserted beaches and lots of culture. It’s worth the trip north if you have time.
Plan your route around the altitude
The altitude changes are serious in Peru. Don’t underestimate them, especially if you haven’t spent any time at high altitudes recently. You’ll likely be going from sea level (in Lima, Huacachina, Mancora) to high altitude (Arequipa, Cusco, Huaraz) so factor in a couple of days to acclimatise.
Lots of people get sick by taking the bus from Huacachina to Cusco – there’s over 3,000m difference between the two towns and the road is windy. You’ll also be susceptible if you fly directly into a city at altitude. All of the pharmacies sell altitude sickness pills over the counter. Drink lots of water, avoid coffee and alcohol and don’t try to do any hikes if you’re suffering from altitude sickness.
PeruHop is a tourist bus service that connects the ‘main’ stops on the tourist trail. You buy an open ticket and can hop on and off the bus, spending as many nights as you like at each stop. It’s not quite as cheap as taking regular buses, but it’s still good value. The general loop includes Lima, Nazca, Paracas, Huacachina, Arequipa and Cusco.
We didn’t use the company as we tend to shy away from unnecessary expense and organised tours but we’d highly recommend travelling with them if you’re in Peru on a short holiday (vacation if you’re from the US) rather than a longer trip.
Side note: I do find it funny that their tagline is ‘Don’t be a typical tourist’ when that’s exactly the experience they offer.
Best time of the year for backpacking in Peru
(High) May to September: Dry season, sunniest weather. Big crowds. Make reservations in advance.
(Low) December to March: Rainy season (worst is Jan and Feb). Lower crowds. Don’t let the rainy season stop you, it didn’t stop us!
When’s the best time to visit Peru? Well, the weather is best from May to September. The crowds are also highest then. The weather is at its worst during the rainy season from December to March, with January and February generally being the worst months.
We were there in January. It was fine.
Sure, it rained a little each day on the Salkantay trek but we had dry spells and sunshine every single day, too. Don’t let the weather turn you off – outside of peak tourist season, things will be cheaper and you won’t need to worry about making reservations months in advance.
Budget for backpacking in Peru
To give you an idea of what to budget, here’s what a variety of things cost us in Peru in January 2019. All of the prices are listed in Peruvian soles, Euros and US dollars – we converted currencies using the XE currency converter.
The prices are totally different in the north of the country. Once you hit Lima and start going east, everything’s a lot more expensive, so I’ve clarified that in the breakdown.
- Hostel dorm bed (north of Lima): s/25 | €7 | US$7.50
- Hostel dorm bed (south/east of Lima): s/45 | €12 | US$ 13.50
- Cheap, local lunch: s/25 | €7 | US$7.50
- Mid-range restaurant dinner (north of Lima): s/20 | €5 | US$6
- Mid-range restaurant dinner (south/east of Lima): s/30 | €8 | US$9
- Local beer in supermarket: s/5 | €1.30 | US$2.50
- Coffee in a cafe: s/10 | €2.60 | US$1.50
- 12-hour overnight bus: s/80 | €21 | US$24
- Salkantay trek Machu Picchu: US$200
- Inca trail Machu Picchu: US$500
How to get around in Peru
Buses in Peru
Peru is big. Like eighteen times the size of Ireland big. But the bus companies in Peru are fantastic, the best in all of South America. Overnight buses do not mean losing a night’s sleep, if you know which one to book. Here’s what we learned while we were in Peru:
- Check bus schedules online and buy your tickets on busbud. Their app is very handy and easy to use (check out all of the handy travel apps we use here).
- Each company runs different class buses – think economy vs. business class on a flight. You want to be on ‘business class’ buses for longer journeys.
- ‘Cama’ means full-bed and the seats will recline to almost 180 degrees. These seats are usually downstairs. ‘Semi-cama’ seats recline about halfway but you do have a slanted leg rest, too. These seats are usually upstairs.
- Cruz del Sur is generally regarded as the best company, but we had better experiences by going with CIVA. Exclu-CIVA is the sub-class that you want to look for. We preferred CIVA because the fancier seats with Cruz del Sur were a lot more expensive (meaning we couldn’t afford them so we got economy seats) than the fancy seats with CIVA (which we could afford).
- If you’re getting a bus during the day, don’t worry about class. The economy bus will be perfectly comfortable.
Flying internally in Peru
Flying internally is a popular option if you’re short on time. We never considered it because the buses are so comfortable and you save on a night’s accommodation so – even though the flights are cheap – they end up costing more once you add on luggage and factor in that you will also need to pay for accommodation that night.
If you do need to take flights due to time constraints, book online at least two weeks in advance to get the best fares. Popular routes are between Lima, Cusco and Arequipa.
Taking taxis in Peru
Uber is a good option for getting around in Lima. In Cusco, there are so many taxis on the street. They’re safe and cheap and good for travelling after dark. Other than that, we didn’t use taxis much. The bus stations in each location are very central, meaning we didn’t need to rely on taxis too much.
Suggested Peru Backpacking Itineraries
Maybe you’re planning a shorter visit to Peru as part of your holidays from work, or maybe you want to spend longer and see more than we did. Here are four different itineraries to choose from.
Note: When we say ‘3 days’, we usually mean three nights’ accommodation in that place. In Peru, you will end up taking some night buses, so we’ve tacked those onto the place you’ll depart from. For example, if you’re spending one night in Mancora and getting a night bus the next night, it’ll just say: Mancora (2 days)
Backpacking in Peru: Two Week Itinerary – The Tourist Trail
This trail is well-trodden in Peru. It encompasses the main highlights that everyone wants to see: Machu Picchu, Cusco, crazy sand dunes, a colonial city and the capital.
|Lima (2 days) – Huacachina (2 days) – Arequipa (3 days) – Cusco & Salkantay or Inca (7 days)|
Backpacking in Peru & Bolivia: Three Week Itinerary – The Combo Tourist Trail
This itinerary builds on the previous two-week Peru one by adding a week in Bolivia to see its highlights. Seeing some of the top sights in South America (Machu Picchu and the Salt Flats) in your three-week holiday from work? This is a great itinerary to get bang for your buck.
|Lima (2 days) – Huacachina (2 days) – Arequipa (3 days) – Cusco & Salkantay or Inca (7 days) – Puno (1 day) – Copacabana & Lake Titicaca (2 days) – La Paz (2 days) – Salar de Uyuni tour (3 days)|
Backpacking in Peru: One Month (Four Week) Itinerary – Beaches in the North, Hiking in the Andes, Lima and the Tourist Trail
This is our exact itinerary so it was an easy one to write out!
I’ve counted it up and realised it’s actually 34 days so it’s a little over a month. You could spend a day or two less in both Huaraz and Cusco if you need to stick to one month.
|Mancora (2 days) – Huanchaco (3 days) – Huaraz (8 days) – Lima (3 days) – Huacachina (3 days) – Arequipa (4 days) – Cusco, Salkantay & Machu Picchu (10 days) – Puno (1 day)|
Backpacking in Peru: Six Week Itinerary – The Ultimate Peru Trip
This itinerary builds on what we did in Peru, spending more time in the North, adding in Iquitos for the Amazon and also Paracas and the Nazca lines in the south.
In six weeks, you’ll see more than you could wish for in Peru.
|Mancora (3 days) – Chachapoyas (2 days) – Trujillo (2 days) – Huanchaco (3 days) – Huaraz (7 days) – Lima (3 days) – Iquitos (4 days) – Paracas (2 days) – Huacachina (3 days) – Nazca (2 days) Arequipa (4 days) – Cusco, Salkantay & Machu Picchu (8 days) – Puno (1 day)|
Peru was everything we had hoped for, and more. Travelling through such a varied country offers something new and exciting at every turn. We soaked up the high-end capitalism in Lima, scaled the dizzying heights of the Andes in Huaraz and chilled on Pacific Coast beaches. And from there, we followed the tourist trail that’s well-trodden because it’s undeniably spectacular, culminating at Machu Picchu, one of the greatest wonders of the world.
Backpacking in Peru will surprise and amaze you. You’ll learn about culture, geography and so much more.
Book your trip. You won’t regret it.