Peru holidays travel guide

Peru travel guide


2 minute summary

The name "Peru" conjures up images of jagged mountain peaks circled by rare condors, the mysterious Nazca lines, sacred Lake Titicaca and its Aymara-inhabited floating islands, and one of the continent's biggest draws: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. It's easy to view a Peru holiday as a voyage into the lost Inca kingdom of the Andes, whose modern inhabitants - the Quechua - are living descendants of its pre-colonial past.
But don't underestimate Peru's diversity. Over half of the country is blanketed by the Amazon, hosting some extraordinary species-rich environments, and its coastline is a 2,500km desert, with the highest sand dunes on earth. Its cuisine is influenced as much by its coastline as by its native potatoes and quinoa, and its cities are an energetic mix of the modern and the ancient, with Spanish architecture perched on top of Inca stonework, and glass-fronted buildings overlooking colonial plazas.
This epic nation is a South American microcosm - complete with all its most sacred and seductive riches.
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What we rate & what we don't


Our guide to the best & worst of Peru

Underrated

New-look Lima Pearly white Arequipa Slow travel Exotic wildlife

New-look Lima

When a city grows in popularity based on its culinary offerings, you know you're onto a good thing. Overlooked in favour of its Andean counterparts, Lima is an eclectic, modern city which offers colonial architecture alongside surfing, world-class restaurants, craft markets and wild nightlife. Look out for music stores selling charangos (Andean lutes) and quenas (bamboo flutes) - the shopkeeper might be able to give you a quick lesson.

Pearly white Arequipa

It's worth spending a couple of days of your Peru holiday exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site's white rock buildings, majestic archways, vast Santa Catalina convent and the San Camilo Market - all under the shadow of a snow-capped volcano. It's a worthy rival to Cuzco for the nation's colonial crown. It's also the birthplace of many of Peru's best dishes - and its restaurants are suitably superb.

Slow travel

If you rush to tick off Peru's biggest sights you'll miss its magical highlights. Fly straight out of Lima and you miss Peru's most cosmopolitan city. Take the bus right out of Machu Picchu and you miss wandering back the next morning, before the crowds arrive. Take a daytrip to Titicaca's islands and you miss its most spellbinding sight - a golden sunrise over the sacred lake.

Exotic wildlife

Peru's wildlife is much more than condors and llamas. There are 104 known "life zones" on the planet - and thanks to Peru's varied geography it contains a phenomenal 84 of them. Species include giant otters, spectacled bears, pink river dolphins and 1,800 birds - the second highest of any country in the world. Many habitats are endangered - so choose a responsible guide for your Peru holiday and tread lightly.

Rated

Lake Titicaca Taste explosion The Andes Machu Picchu

Lake Titicaca

The highest navigable lake in the world, at a breathtaking 3,800m, Lake Titicaca straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia and once here, you'll realise why the Incas saw it as the birthplace of the sun, moon and the first humans. Its seemingly endless, sapphire waters stretch into the horizon, and the high mountain air is sparklingly clear.

Taste explosion

Influenced by the Andes, Amazon and Pacific, as well as the Spanish, Chinese and Incas, Peru's cuisine deserves its rave reviews. Beyond the much-praised ceviche, there's a cornucopia of treats - from fancy restaurants to streetside stalls selling pasty-style empanadas, fresh tropical fruit juices, spicy aji de gallina, nutty-flavoured quinoa and stir-fried lomo saltado. Always choose local dishes, for freshness and flavour.

The Andes

A mythical world of snow-capped peaks, smoking volcanoes, swirling condors and sacred, hidden valleys, the Andes spark everyone's imagination. The Peruvian section of this mighty mountain chain is particularly special, as it is liberally sprinkled with Inca and pre-Inca ruins, which can be reached by ancient stone paths. As well as superb hiking trails, the mountain biking is some of the world's most technical and exciting.

Machu Picchu

It's an obvious one, but no-one is ever disappointed by the Inca's Lost City, and everyone who emerges through the Sun Gate is just as awestruck as the explorer who rediscovered this mountaintop treasure a century ago. Even the sheer number of tourists fails to dull the impact, and the Inca stonework - cut to perfection and requiring no cement - is mindblowing.

Overrated

Fake Peruvian culture Aguas Calientes The "poor man Nazca lines

Fake Peruvian culture

Any successful tourist attraction runs the risk of losing its spirit once it becomes popular - and Quechua culture is an unfortunate example of this. While there are still many genuine markets, communities and traditions, the sad fact is that those located along the Gringo trail - particularly the floating Uros Islands - are likely to be merely tourist shows: mass-produced, inauthentic and exploitative of both locals and visitors.

Aguas Calientes

Originally a remote railroad town without electricity, Aguas Calientes now receives over 1,500 visitors a day thanks to its proximity to Machu Picchu. While this is great in terms of local employment, it also means inflated costs all round - for the hotels, restaurants and crafts - without the high quality to justify it.

The "poor man

The Ballestas Islands are rather wonderful, with basking fur seals, penguins and blue-footed boobies. However, whoever nicknamed them "the poor man's Galapagos" has unfortunately built up an unreasonable expectation of these scraggy little rocks, and one that they simply can't live up to. Appreciate them for what they are, and contribute to their much-needed conservation during your holiday to Peru - but if you want the Galapagos, go to Ecuador.

Nazca lines

One reason the creation of these vast glyphs remains a mystery is that they can only be properly viewed and appreciated from the air. Unfortunately for the modern traveller on holiday in Peru, that means an exceptionally environmentally unfriendly flight; a large fee for 30 minutes in the air; and a high chance of sickness as the plane banks left and right to allow views out of both sides.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local with our Peru travel guide

Eating & drinking in Peru


Try a tangy Pisco Sour, made with Pisco, lemon juice and egg white.
Quinoa is a tasty, protein-packed grain. The staple, sacred food of the Incas, it is native to the Andes.
Ceviche is Peru's most famous dish. Fresh, raw fish is marinated in lime juice and spiced with chilli and onions. Don't make the Gringo mistake of having it for dinner - true Peruvians only eat this at lunchtime.
Cuy is a Peruvian staple that may be less appetising to visitors - it's guinea pig. And it's usually served whole.
The humble potato originated in Peru - hence the local expression of national pride: 'I'm more Peruvian than the potato!'

People & language


Peruvian culture varies by altitude. The highlands are the stronghold of the Quechua - descendents of the Inca - while the lowland forests have many smaller native groups. Peru's official languages are Spanish, Quechua and Aymara, but at least a dozen more languages are spoken in the Amazon.
If you knock on a Quechua door, you may hear "Haykuykuy!" - Come in!
You'll see the word "Inti" a lot. It means 'sun' or 'Sun God' in Quechua.
Lateness is a national trait - to try and encourage punctuality, emphasise the "hora inglesa" - 'English time'!

Gifts & shopping


Alpaca wool hats, jumpers, scarves, ponchos and blankets are ubiquitous in Peru. Knitted items here are high quality and wonderfully warm, but you get what you pay for - a "bargain" may well be fake.
Colourful textiles handwoven on traditional backstrap looms capture the vibrant spirit of Peru's indigenous people. Try and buy direct from craft cooperatives. Cheaper items on markets will be mass-produced, and possibly imported.
Peru's jewellers use intricate filigree techniques, weaving and soldering thin gold and silver threads to create beautifully detailed earrings, bracelets and necklaces.

Fast facts



The great Inca Empire was actually a mere blip on the continent's 5000-year cultural history - their empire lasted barely 100 years.

How much does it cost?


Budget train journey from Machu Pichu to Cuzco: £34
A whole, roasted guinea pig: £10.50
Ceviche in a market: £2.60
Bottle of Cuzqueña beer: £1.10
Real alpaca shawl or jumper: From £40
Photo credits: [Lima: Paul Brockmeyer] [Lake Titicaca: Vicki Brown] [Lake Titicaca: Christian Haugen] [Lake Titicaca: Christian Haugen] [Ceviche: Christian Haugen] [Peruvian culture: Bruce Tuten] [Aguas Calientes: ShashiBellamkonda] [Ballestas Islands: Lisa Weichel] [Nazca lines: Christian Haugen] [Women weaving: mokomoko663] [Bracelet: Tikanchay handcrafted jewelry from Peru] [Andes: McKay Savage]
Written by Vicki Brown
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