Snow-capped mountains, dense jungles, thousands of miles of beautiful ocean coastline, delicious food, and hordes of alpacas. Peru is one of my favorite countries. Of all my backpacking trips, my time spent in Peru still ranks at the top. Backpacking in Peru is fantastic not only because of how incredible the country is, but also how smooth and stress-free it can be to take on the massive country without a plan. It is truly a backpacker’s paradise.
I flew to Lima on a whim. I had just finished a quick trip to Colombia and made a few friends who said they were planning on doing Machu Picchu in a few weeks. I flew home to the U.S. because of a prior commitment and almost immediately flew to Peru without having done any planning. No plan, no problem.
While you will need to book months in advance if you are dead set on doing the Inca Trail, little else requires much planning in Peru. Regardless, it is nice knowing a little bit about a country before going so I’ve compiled the basics that I think backpackers need to know before going to Peru.
How To Budget for Peru
Compared to Western countries, Peru is very cheap. The exchange rate is about 3 nuevo sols to every US dollar. Depending on where you are, those dollars can go a long way. Going to a bustling market and sitting at one of the “restaurants” can get you a solid meal for 5 soles. Not going to lie, you’ll have to be willing to sacrifice comfort and hygiene. My stomach didn’t have a problem with Peruvian street food but use your best judgment.
When it comes to lodging, hostels can be anywhere from 20 to 50 nuevo soles. It varies by location or fanciness or whatever but it is easy to find affordable lodging. Even private hotel rooms can cost below $20 USD per night if you’re willing to rough it a little.
I’ve found a lot of Peruvian cities to be extremely walkable but taxis and tuk-tuks are also cheap if you are looking to save time. The public transport in Lima is also easy to figure out and very cheap.
Overall, you should be looking to spend no more than 100 soles ($30) a day when you are in Peru, not including activities or treks of course.
Must-See Destinations in Peru
Machu Picchu, of course. If you’re going to Peru, you can’t miss Machu Picchu. If you can’t get the Inca Trail booked, I highly recommend the Salkantay Trek. It is a 5-day, 4-night excursion that takes you through breathtaking (literally) trails running through mountains, jungles, and vast valleys. It is an unforgettable experience. It only costs about $250 USD for an all-inclusive package. That takes into account the $60 entrance to Machu Picchu and the $70 train back to Cusco. Check out my Salkantay Trek video below to get a preview of what the journey is like.
There are a lot of other treks in Peru to go over, but the one to Laguna 69 is one that sticks out in my mind as one of the more beautiful destinations.
Rainbow Mountain is another hike you can do in the Cusco area and it is one of the most unbelievable sights you will see. The hike is tough and you really need to be acclimatized to the altitude beforehand, but it is also one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. The final destination is stunning, but the views you get to see on the way there are equally gorgeous.
Seeing the Nazca Lines, while pretty expensive, can be an amazing experience for those who are truly interested in the different cultures that inhabited Peru throughout its history. The lines are mysterious, and their origins are still unknown. I like attributing things to aliens, so if you want to see some cool alien carvings, look no further.
Peru shares Lake Titicaca with Bolivia, but on the Peru side, you can visit the floating islands. These “islands” are actually made by the Uru people that live on them. There are forty-two of these reed islands and you can actually go on these islands. Aside from that, Lake Titicaca is just a great and beautiful place to relax for a few days.
Popular Cities in Peru for Tourists
Lima is the capital city of Peru, and by far its largest. When it comes to food and nightlife, it can’t be topped. Lima is one of the food and gastronomy capitals of the world, believe it or not. With a variety of unique districts, Lima has something different for everyone. The bustling city can be skipped for adventurers who are looking for outdoor excitement. While the city does offer paragliding, surfing, and other water sports, it also is far from the best you will find in Peru.
Arequipa was supposed to be a quick stop for me, but I ended up spending a lot more time there than I had originally planned. It is a really relaxed and beautiful city that also has a surprising amount of activity and excitement. You can go hiking, mountain biking, or camping at any of the three volcanos that surrounding Arequipa.
Arequipa is also a popular kickoff point for the Colca Canyon trek. This canyon is the deepest in the world. It is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in some parts. Aside from trekking, Arequipa also offers great food and nightlife. While I was there, I got to witness Arequipeño chefs set the Guinness world record for the largest plate of stuffed peppers. The nightlife is also surprisingly fantastic, with a wide selection of nightclubs and bars. The Peruvian people know how to party.
Cusco is a backpacker’s paradise but very full of tourists. The city is stunning and the mix of cultures makes for one hell of a historical experience. Architecture ranging from Incan to colonial Spanish makes this entire city pretty much a unique historical artifact, but one that is vibrant with life. Quechua women in traditional garb roam the streets with their dressed up alpacas and little children. While this is undeniably a money grab, it is as adorable and colorful a money grab as you can find.
Cusco is possibly my favorite city in all of South America. The sheer amount of things to do in Cusco is mindblowing. I could spend months in Cusco and never run out of amazement thanks to the diversity in the activities and scenery.
Iquitos is a unique city because it is impossible to get to by road. I did not go, but you can go via air or river travel. If you are wanting to go see the Amazon while you are in Peru, then Iquitos is where you want to be.
Smaller cities in Peru that I recommend going to would be Paracas, Ica, Mancora, and Puno. Paracas is right on the Pacific Coastline of Peru, and offer a cool wildlife experience by going to the Islas Ballestas where you can see penguins, sea lions, and other animals. While the city of Ica itself is not particularly exciting, it is your entryway to the stunning desert oasis of Huacachina where you can go sand-boarding and dune buggying. It is also close to the Nazca Lines, a mysterious set of drawings carved into the ground. These carvings are so massive you can only see the full extent of their size from the air. Mancora is a small but exciting beach party town in Northern Peru where you can relax for a few days before the inevitable treks that will follow shortly. Puno is where the floating islands are, a unique experience that lets you experience one of the world’s most unique cultures firsthand.
Peru is unlike any other country in South America, or the world for that matter. I hope this guide helped even a little bit. If you need even more excitement for your Peru trip, check out my post on why you should just book that flight to Peru right now.
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