Peru is one of those countries that is impossible for me to get tired of. It seems like the more time I spend there, the less I feel I have actually done. I’ve visited Peru four times already, and each time has felt far too short for the multitude of things to do there. I accidentally over-stayed my 3-month visa once. Even then, I came back a month later to visit some of the places that I missed. It is crazy just how diverse of a country Peru is.
Despite its renown as an international destination, most of that fame is due to Machu Picchu and Cusco. The south of Peru gets a lot of love. Some would argue too much love, especially travelers looking for something more off the beaten path. What if I told you that there is a country out there with all of the wonders of Southern Peru, and then some? A place where tourists are few and far between? What if I told you that place is just on the other side of Lima? The Amazon Rainforest, vast stretches of mountain ranges, well-preserved ruins, and all the surf and sun you could ask for can all be found in the north.
I visited the north of Peru for the first time in September 2019 along a journey from the north of the continent all the way to the southern tips. My original itinerary placed me in Patagonia by year’s-end. I only made it to Bolivia. I was captivated by northern Peru. I stayed in the region for nearly two months. Northern Peru had no shortage of incredible gems. It often felt like you were visiting entirely different continents instead of just different parts of the same country.
As we rode in from the Ecuador border at La Balsa, the hordes of tuk-tuks and rice fields teleported us to South East Asia. The landscapes quickly changed as we entered an inhospitable stretch of desert akin to what you’ll find in the imagery of iconic Western flicks. Eventually, the landscapes grew lush again, and I had my first brush with the Amazon Rainforest as we made our way through the Amazonas. It took us almost two full days to drive from Ecuador to our first stop in Chachapoyas. It was the only city that seemed to have any tourist infrastructure to house us. In almost two days of driving, we passed through breathtaking landmarks and scenery that Google Maps didn’t even have a name for.
Northern Peru is as off-the-beaten-path as you could hope for. One could spend months here, but I understand most people don’t have months to spare. This itinerary is comprehensive when it comes to the basics, but only scratches the surface of what northern Peru has to offer. There are dozens of villages and attractions that can suck up more of your time.
One thing to note about northern Peru is that the distances are vast and the roads are awful. What may look like a close distance on a map could easily be a 12-hour bus ride or longer. I’ll add a bit of information to each stop about travel time and distances but keep that in mind when sketching out your own northern Peru adventure.
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Table of Contents
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Lima: 2 Days
Lima is where most adventures in Peru kick off. Lima serves as the main hub for flights in and out, so it is a good place to start off this itinerary. If you are traveling by bus and coming in through Ecuador, just read the itinerary backwards. Well, from bottom to top since backwards probably wouldn’t make too much sense.
Highlights of Lima:
While most people view Lima as just a mandatory stop, there is a lot to love about Peru’s bustling capital city. It doesn’t have the mind-blowing natural attractions like the rest of Peru has, so it might feel like just another big Latin American city. However, I’ve grown to love Lima for what it excels in. Food, arts, culture, and of course, nightlife.
- Experience the Gastronomy Scene of Lima
That’s the fanciest way I could come up with for saying “eat lots of food”. The restaurant scene in Lima has to be one of the best in all of South America, right up there with Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. With Lima being a huge global hub, you will be able to find whatever cuisine your heart desires. All with a dash of Peruvian flare. Incredible vegan restaurants, all you can eat sushi buffets, all you can eat Mexican food, and of course, traditional Peruvian dishes can be found throughout the sprawling metropolis of Lima. You won’t find food in Peru as good as what you will find in Lima. Take advantage of it.
- Parque del Amor
This park located along the coast in Miraflores is a beautiful Gaudi-esque area with a beautiful view. The coastal part of Lima is an amazing area, and you can walk for miles and miles along the various parks and malecons both cliffside and oceanside.
- Go Surfing in Lima
While not world-class by any means, the swell is there in Lima for those looking for it.
- Roam Through Barranco
Barranco is Lima’s up-and-coming arts neighborhood that is quickly becoming a tourist favorite. You can roam through the endless displays of street art and pop in to any number of little galleries, thrift shops, organic stores, and experimental restaurants as your heart desires. Barranco also has some of Lima’s most famous nightlife spots, so a night out here is just as warranted as one in Miraflores.
- Downtown Lima District
Most travelers will find that Lima doesn’t quite feel like Latin America. Once you make it out of Barranco and Miraflores, you’ll discover a side of Lima that most travelers miss out on. The bustling historical center is Latin America at its purest, reminding me a little of Mexico City’s own Zocalo district.
- Experience the Nightlife in Miraflores District
For a good time, there really is no better place to go than Miraflores. This is where you’ll find the widest variety of nightlife options, from cozy speakeasies to sports bars to booming nightclubs, like my own personal favorite, Bisarro.
Huaraz: 10 Days
For avid hikers, Huaraz and the surrounding region will quickly become one of your favorites in the world. I anticipated that I would spend a lot of time in Huaraz, but even with trekking nearly every day, I found that a month was too little time to spend in Huaraz. Located near the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash, Huaraz serves as an excellent home base for exploring this vast, remote, and mind-bogglingly beautiful region.
I cannot speak highly enough about Huaraz. While the city itself might be lacking, you didn’t come here for the city. You came here for arguably the best trekking in South America, perhaps the only worthy rival to Patagonia. I’ve written dozens of posts over Huaraz and the things to do there, so for more info on each activity, just click the guide I’ve linked to below each image.
Highlights of Huaraz:
- 4-Day Santa Cruz Trek
- 8-Day Cordillera Huayhuash Trek
If you have the time to do this, do it. This is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
- Nevado Pastoruri and the Pastoruri Glacier
- Trek Up To Laguna 69: A massive challenge well worth the views
- Laguna Paron: One of Peru’s most iconic views
- Laguna Churup: A mystical laguna among the mountains
- Summit Nevado San Mateo: 5,150 meters above sea level
- Chavin de Huantar: 3,500-year-old archaeological site
Huanchaco/Trujillo: 4 Days
There is no better place to relax after a difficult stretch of trekking than the quiet surf and yoga town of Huanchaco. Located about 45 minutes from the much larger city of Trujillo, you can catch a bus to Trujillo then a colectivo or taxi to Huanchaco. Huanchaco is considered to be the birthplace of surf in South America, and there is no shortage of surf spots in and around the area.
To break up surf sessions, there are an abundance of ruins and archaeological sites in the area as well. The most famous is Chan Chan, which is only about 20 minutes away from Huanchaco. Huaca de la Luna y del Sol are two marvelous temples that frankly deserve much more renown than they are given.
Highlights of Huanchaco:
- Surf at the birthplace of surf
- Chan Chan Ruins
- Huaca de la Luna y Del Sol
- Yoga and Relaxing By The Beach
- Visit Trujillo’s Colonial City Center
Cajamarca: 3 Days
I initially intended for Cajamarca to be a quick stop. Its location was perfect halfway-point to break up a 24-hour journey from the Amazonas to the coast. I could hardly find anything about it online, so I figured spending a day or two here would give me a good glimpse into a part of Peru that often goes overlooked. I ended up spending close to a week here. I’ll admit, a big factor was that my hostel had a thermal bath the size of a swimming pool. Cajamarca and the neighboring village of Baños del Inca are popular amongst Peruvian travelers but not among international travelers. That means they know something we don’t.
Cajamarca was a perfect local destination. It is as authentic as they come. Many of Peru’s larger cities feel just like any other big Latin American city but Cajamarca is a beautiful melting pot of cultures and peoples. The Quechua people are still thriving in this city. It isn’t like Cusco and the Sacred Valley where they have abandoned most of their traditional ways of life to start catering to tourists, either. Cajamarca can feel like you’ve been transported to another time period.
Cajamarca is also known for being where the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire began. The last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, was held for ransom and killed in Cajamarca. Remnants of the empire and early colonial buildings can still be found all over Cajamarca. Museums and churches are home to hundreds of artifacts from various civilizations.
Outside of the city, you can find ruins and archaeological sites that will make you scratch your head. Cajamarca might be one of the best places for history-lovers. Many of the archaeological sites are one-of-a-kind, such as the Ventanillas del Otuzco. Most are still a puzzle to modern-day archaeologists due to just how little we know about the cultures and peoples who built and inhabited these places.
Highlights of Cajamarca:
- Cumbemayo Archaeological Site and Rock Forest
- Ventanillas de Otuzco Archaeological Site
- Immerse Yourself in the History of the Inca and Spanish Conquest
- Kuntur Wasi (House of the Condor)
Chachapoyas: 3 Days
One of Peru’s most remote destinations is Chachapoyas. Located in the Amazonas region of the country, it is tucked away deep in the jungle. The few international travelers that make it here are greeted with some one-of-a-kind adventures. Boasting attractions like the world’s tallest waterfalls, ruins that rival Machu Picchu, and otherworldly archaeological sites, Chachapoyas is full of mind-blowing hidden gems.
Highlights of Chachapoyas
- Kuelap Archaeological Site
Often called the “Machu Picchu of the North”, Kuelap will inevitably build a well-deserved reputation for itself soon. These ruins are also situated atop a mountain, although can be accessed by cable car without much of a struggle. From Chachapoyas, a full-day guided tour to Kuelap will take about 8 hours. As of September 2019, the entire thing cost only 85 soles for everything, about $25 USD.
- Gocta Falls (Cataratas de Gocta)
The Cataratas de Gocta are the most famous waterfalls in the region, maybe even all of Peru. When they were discovered, they were measured to be the 3rd tallest waterfalls in the world. Gocta Falls has since fallen to 15th, but that doesn’t take anything away from the beauty and marvel that they possess. It also doesn’t stop local tour operators from still advertising them as the third tallest in the world. Gocta Falls is one of my favorite day hikes in Peru. While you can see the waterfalls right from the trailhead, there is nothing quite like reaching the basin and witnessing firsthand this wonder of nature.
- Yumbilla Falls
Despite Gocta Falls being the most advertised waterfalls in Chachapoyas, it isn’t even the tallest. Yumbilla Falls takes that title. These waterfalls are just over an hour away from Chachapoyas and they rank 5th in the world in height. Yumbilla Falls are a full 125 meters taller than Gocta Falls. From Chachapoyas, you will have to go to the town of Cuispes. From there, it is a two hour hike on foot to witness this incredible hidden gem.
- Sarcofago de Karajia
- Cavernas de Quiocta
Iquitos: 5 Days
Iquitos is one of Peru’s most unique destinations. It is one of the largest cities in the world that is inaccessible by land. One can only reach Iquitos by boat or plane. That makes it one of the best destinations for those looking for an authentic Amazon experience.
I never thought I would be someone that liked the jungle, and I’ll be honest, it was never a priority of mine. I only ended up visiting the Amazon Rainforest at first because after spending nearly a year traveling through South America, it felt wrong to have avoided it for so long. Once my flight landed, I immediately regretted having already booked a return flight. Despite the heat and discomfort of the jungle, it was unlike anything I had experienced before.
From Iquitos, you can take tours of the Amazon of varying lengths and itineraries. I’d recommend spending at least three or four days in the Amazon. Throw in a day in Iquitos to prepare or wind down afterwards. For people looking for a more adventurous way to get into Iquitos, getting in by boat takes three days. You will sleep in a hammock on the deck of the ship for two nights, so be ready for some discomfort. Hey, that’s what adventure is all about.
Mancora: 3 Days
Mancora is a great way to wrap up your time in northern Peru. This beach and surf destination is popular among backpackers looking to party, relax, and let loose. If you aren’t into the party scene, then you can spend a few extra days in some of the other destinations listed above. It is a vacation after all, so there is no harm in chilling out by the beach for a bit.
That’s the name of the game in Mancora. Catch some waves then catch some sunsets and you’re good. Trust me, you won’t mind doing a bit of nothing after the epic adventures that Northern Peru has in store for you.
Bus Or Flight Back To Lima
Unless you are moving up north through Ecuador, then you’ll likely have to head back down to Lima to fly home or continue through to the destinations in the south. A bus ride from Mancora is a grueling 24 hours. You can usually find flights within Peru for cheap, so you might want to check those if you don’t feel like putting up with a lengthy bus ride.
More on Peru
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The Backpacker’s Guide to…
The Best Things To Do In…
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Attraction and Destination Guides
- Cordillera Huayhuash
- Salkantay Trek
- Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
- Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
- Laguna 69
- Colca Canyon
- Floating Islands of Puno
- Pisac Archaeological Site