Peru is one of those magical places that ever since I was a child I’ve been completely fascinated by. I can’t believe it’s taken me until the age of 29 to get there but we finally I made it and it certainly lived up to all my expectations. We came into Peru via a slightly unusual route, rather than taking the traditional backpacker trail from Colombia through Ecuador and down into northern Peru, we arrived by boat to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. We then flew to Lima and travelled down from there before entering Bolivia.
We’ve put together a guide on how to spend a month travelling around, which is more than enough time to see some of the major highlights. Unfortunately, we never made it up to the northern beaches or to Huaraz for hiking, but that just means we will have to come back another time…
Iquitos (three nights)
Iquitos is a strange place. Some people we have met have completely fallen in love with its tropical Amazonian charm but we weren’t so sure. We had just been to Leticia and Puerto Narino in the Colombian Amazon and absolutely loved them and so Iquitos was a bit of a let down. There are tuk tuks flying everywhere, the streets are quite dirty and everyone wants to sell you something. But, saying that, we absolutely loved using it as a base to explore more of the Amazon and see some incredible wildlife, such as pink dolphins, sloths, lizards and much more.
Highlights – As we had already spent a week in the Amazon on the Colombian side we decided we just wanted to do a day trip rather than two or three days, which can be booked through your hostel and does sound amazing. A friend of ours recommended a local guide called Wilson and introduced us on Facebook. He took us on a private day trip and listened to exactly what we wanted. He took us out on a little boat to go pink river dolphin spotting, swimming and also to on a walk through the jungle to some local villages.
It is also well worth visiting Belem street market, but take appropriate footwear as it’s filthy underfoot! It is a fascinating place, complete with Shaman’s Alley, which sells traditional Amazonian medicine and magic. It is definitely worth having a local guide show you around, but be prepared to see all sorts of endangered animals lying dead on the counters and ready to eat.
Where to eat – There are lots of nice restaurants along the water front. We really liked Dawn on the Amazon Cafe, with a nice selection of food and pretty good wifi. If you are planning to do an Ayahuasca retreat, most of the restaurants offer special menus for your pre-detox.
Where to stay – Flying Dog Hostel. A centrally located hostel, right on the waterfront, with a good-sized kitchen and communal areas. We stayed in a comfortable dorm room with ensuite bathroom. We didn’t find it the most sociable hostel but it was fine for a few days and seemed to be a good place to meet people doing Ayahuasca retreats.
Onward travel – There are no roads leading to Iquitos, so your only options when it comes to leaving are to take a very long boat journey or fly. We found relatively cheap flights to Lima with StarPeru, which cost around £120 per person.
Lima (three nights)
Peru’s capital city has probably the best food scene in the whole of South America. We had some incredible meals and loved exploring Mira Flores, the touristy part of town. One thing to be prepared for is the insane traffic everywhere, it is relentless!
Highlights – The night bus tour was a really great way to see different parts of the city and it also takes you to the light show in Parque de la Reserva. It sounds a bit naff but we actually really enjoyed it and thought the whole experience was very well done.
Where to eat – We had a few amazing meals in Lima and there are great places for all budgets. Here are three must-visit places if you love food as much as us! La Mar, El Veridico de Fidel (for the leche con tigre) and La Lucha sandwich bar. You can read more about where to eat and what to do in our Live Like a Local in Lima interview.
Onward travel – From Lima we took a Cruz del Sur bus to Paracas, they depart daily, take about four hours and can be booked on Busbud.
Paracas (two nights)
Paracas is a funny little town perched right on the edge of the Pacific. Its neighbour Pisco is undoubtedly more famous, but owing to an earthquake in 2006, Pisco was abandoned in favour of Paracas by passing backpackers. There’s not much to it, other than a rather impressive bus station on the outskirts of town, a main drag and various hostels. What draws people to the area though is the beautiful national park outside it and the Islas Ballestas (sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos) just off the coast.
Highlights – The national park is worth visiting to see the otherworldly sand dunes, marvel at the red beaches and to gaze at the flamingos off in the distance. The Islas Ballestas islands are home to thousands of birds of numerous species and a sizable population of sea lions, who seem to spend most of their time basking in the sun and pulling humorous faces. Day tours can be booked through your hostel.
Where to eat – Fruzion, for excellent burgers and milkshakes. Kokopelli hostel also has an excellent bbq/restaurant that offers a couple of interesting dishes every night.
Where to stay – Kokopelli. This huge and very well set out hostel is fantastic. It’s clean, sociable and well positioned just off the main drag. It’s also well placed to sort out trips to both the national park and Islas Ballestas and has an excellent bar and happy hour.
Onward travel – Take a bus with either Oltursa or Cruz del Sur to Arequipa or Puno (depending on which order you want to do them in), they’re both about 10/12 hours and both go via Ica, where the bus stops briefly to pick people up.
Additional Places to visit
We didn’t actually visit Huacachina or Nazca due to time and money restrictions but these two destinations are well established on the tourist trail and we’ve included some information below.
Huacachina (two nights)
Famous for its sand boarding, this tiny desert oasis is a haven for adventure seeking backpackers. It is located just west of Ica and at the heart of the village lies the Huacachina lagoon, its green waters surrounded by palm trees and sand dunes. It is a beautiful stop over for a night or two and travellers can do a dune buggy and sand boarding tour.
Nazca (two nights)
Also deep in the Peruvian desert lie the mysterious Nasca Lines. Their purpose is still unclear but everything from crazy conspiracy theories about landing strips for aliens, to the more rational copying constellations have been suggested. Really the only way to see them is via a short and not cheap flight. Be wary of cheaper options as they don’t have the best safety track record.
Arequipa (four nights)
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and well known for its glistening white buildings made from sillar, a white volcanic rock, giving it its name ‘La Cuidad Blanca’ or ‘The White City’. We both completely fell in love with its colonial charm, temperate climate and great food scene. It is also a very convenient place to start your acclimatisation for heading on to Cusco and the Inca Trail.
The Nunnery – Santa Catalina Nunnery is a beautiful 16th century monastery right in the heart of the town and is the perfect place to seek shelter from the warm Peruvian sun, soak up some culture and explore the nooks and crannies of this old world-style building.
Colca Canyon – A stunning canyon is a short distance from Arequipa and a must-visit for the area. You can do one day, two day, or three day trips to the canyon and if you have the time, the longer you can spend the better. The day trip is really just a minibus tour, with no hiking at all and even the two day one we’ve heard wasn’t much more. The area is beautiful though and great for spotting the Andean condor; the world’s second largest bird. That said, we did see them many more times further south in Patagonia, so if you’re heading that way, don’t worry if you don’t see one!
Antonia also treated herself to a massage at Abigail’s Spa, and says it was probably one of the best massages she’s ever had (and she’s had a lot of massages!)
Where to eat – There is a really great food market called Mercado San Camilo where you can stock up and take food back to the hostel to cook.
Where to stay – Arequipay Backpackers. A great hostel, a short walk from the centre of town and very well kitted out with nice dorms, private rooms and two kitchens. It also has a great garden area, complete with ping pong table, tv rooms and lots and lots of hammocks and lounging areas.
Onward travel – We took the bus on to Cusco with Oltursa, which is a ten hour journey and one worth doing overnight.
Cusco (ten nights including a three night trek)
Cusco, in the Peruvian Andes, was once the capital of the Inca Empire and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in South America. It is a beautiful city will fascinating archaeological remains and Spanish architecture, and surrounded by breath taking landscapes and incredible trekking opportunities. As we spent quite a long time exploring Cusco (about ten nights in total) we have written about our top eats and top things to do in separate blog posts.
Highlights – In addition to what is mentioned in our ‘top things to do post’ linked above, we also spent two nights at Eco Quechua Lodge, in Santa Teresa. It is a beautiful spot to unwind after completing the Inca Trek or something similar and you can read more about it and how to get there from Cusco here.
Where to stay – As we spent so long in Cusco, we stayed in three different places located all over town:
Pariwana Hostel – Based in one of Cusco’s old buildings, Pariwana is a great mix of party and chilled. It also offers a tasty buffet breakfast and is in a good location, just a short walk from the main square
Wild Rover Hostel – A quintessential party hostel, Wild Rover is raucous, lively and goes all night. It’s also perched on a hill right at the top of town, so prepare your legs for the walk, but the big benefit of the location is the fantastic views out over the city. Well worth staying here if you’re in town for Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve as the view is second to none for the fireworks and the Christmas Dinner they put on is good fun.
El Mariscal Hotel – If you’re looking for a bit of a break from the backpacker world, this little hotel on the other side of town from the hostels, but still easy walking distance from the town centre, is perfect. It’s cosy, very reasonably priced and does a good breakfast.
Onward travel – From Cusco we did a really interesting day bus to Puno with Inka Expedition with stop-offs at historic sites. We actually ended up doing it only because the other bus on the day we wanted to travel was booked up, but we are very glad we ended up on this one. It’s not much more expensive and you get to see some really interesting Inca sites along the way.
Puno (three nights including one night on Lake Titicaca)
Puno was our final stop in Peru and is located on the famous Lake Titicaca; the largest lake in South America and second largest freshwater lake in the world.
Highlights – The one and only thing to do in Puno is to visit Lake Titicaca. We decided to do a two-day trip as it was so cheap and we had the time, it was a really enjoyable couple of days. Just be prepared for it being overly touristy, but roll with it, it’s quite fun really. You’ll spend the first day visiting the floating reed islands and then on to one of the other, non-floating islands where you’ll meet the family that’ll be hosting you for the night and then spend the evening walking up to the top of the island to watch the sun go down before taking part in some traditional dancing.
Where to eat – Mojsa restaurant. A nice restaurant on the main square offering tasty pizzas.
Where to stay – Posada del Qolla. Nothing to write home about, we found this little hotel on Booking.com. It was cheap, clean and had a nice breakfast. Not a bad place to base yourself at for a couple of days.
Onward travel – From Puno we travelled around Lake Titicaca to the Bolivian side of the lake and on to Copacabana. Buses leave from the terminal all the time and are fairly cheap. Be prepared for typical South American approach to things though – they’d clearly overbooked our bus, so we were put on a minivan for the journey instead of the big coach we’d been promised. Still, it’s a pretty short journey (three hours) and so didn’t really matter. There is usually a bit of a wait at the border crossing and then you need to hop on another mini bus to go the short distance to Copacabana.