The ultimate guide to backpacking Peru
Peru is one of the most popular South American destinations for backpackers, and for good reason. Home to one of the most intriguing wonders of the world, high-altitude mountains, lush rainforests, plunging coastal cliffs, the best seafood (um hello, they invented ceviche) and a plethora of fluffy llamas to befriend, Peru is a backpacker’s dream. In this backpacker’s guide to Peru, you’ll learn everything you need to know about this incredible country!
Jump straight to:
- Best time to visit Peru
- Peru visa
- Peru backpacking budget
- Peru transport
- Hostels in Peru
- Things to do in Peru
- Peru points of interest
- Peru backpacking routes
- Peruvian food
- Peru culture and customs
- Is Peru safe?
- Peru travel advice
- Backpacking in Peru packing list
Best time to visit Peru
Peru is located just south of the equator, so the seasons are opposite to the northern hemisphere. That said, because it’s so close to the equator, Peru’s weather is not seasonally extreme.
Peru’s winter lasts from May to September. It’s also the dry season, which makes it the best time to visit Peru, particularly if you’ll be trekking or visiting Cusco – which of course you will! Peru’s summer lasts from December through March and is generally much wetter, so bring your rain gear.
In addition to confusing seasons, each area of Peru also experiences vastly different weather. Lima, the coastal capital, is foggy during Peru’s winter (May through September) and feels a bit like San Francisco. The fog and drizzle give way to bright sun and warmth between November and March, which is exactly when the rain is pouring down in the Andes mountains and Amazon jungle to the east.
During our visit in October (when ‘anything goes’ weather-wise) Lima was foggy and cool, Cusco was dry and freezing and nobody knew whether to expect rain during our Inca Trail hike. We had thankfully brought all our rain gear, but we were freezing despite our down jackets and ended up purchasing several warm alpaca sweaters in the local artisan markets. We weren’t the only ones either: alpaca sweaters are the unofficial backpacker’s uniform in Peru!
To cover all bases, bring your rain gear and your cold weather clothes and expect the unexpected.
With a few exceptions, residents of most countries will be thrilled that they do not need to apply in advance for a visa for Peru – this includes UK and US citizens.
Upon entry to Peru, you’ll be asked how long you’re staying. It’s possible to stay up to 183 days on a tourist visa. You’ll then be given an Andean migration card which you’ll need to present when exiting the country – stick it in your passport for safe keeping.
Although a free 6 month visa seems like a blessing to nomads, be warned: if you declare you’ll be staying for the maximum time period ‘just in case’ when you actually only have a 2 month stay planned, you’ll be subjecting yourself to paying a higher tax rate. All foreigners staying more than 59 days in Peru are subject to an 18% tax, which will be added to your bill at most hotels and hostels. If you’re staying for less than 59 days and therefore not subject to the tax, you’ll need to present your Andean migration card and passport as proof of how many days your visa has been approved for. Be sure to keep an eye on your bill if you’re on a tight budget to avoid being overcharged.
That said, if there really is a chance that you’ll extend your stay in Peru, you should request the maximum length of time on arrival as you cannot request an extension on your visa after you enter. In this case, the 18% tax is something you’ll just have to live with.
Peru backpacking budget
The Peruvian currency is called the nuevo sol – sol for short. One sol is worth almost exactly $0.30, or £0.24, which makes for a nice, easy conversion: just divide the price in soles by 3 to convert roughly to USD, or by 4 for GBP.
One giant, flashing, important warning regarding Peruvian sol: watch out for counterfeit money! This is a huge issue in Peru, and fakes can be incredibly convincing. Familiarize yourself with how to spot fake cash in Peru, because no business will accept a counterfeit bill, rendering the money in your pocket completely useless. Similarly, never accept a torn bill from anyone in Peru, because torn bills are a marker of counterfeit money. Even if the bills are real, no business or bank will accept a torn sol.
When it comes to figuring out your Peru backpacking budget, keep in mind that while Peru is generally an inexpensive country, certain destinations and experiences will drive your budget up quite a bit. I’m referring of course to Machu Picchu. Trekking to Machu Picchu will cost around $700 for the classic Inca Trail or a bit less for a different multi-day trek, but that doesn’t include getting to Cusco.
Skip the trek and take the train and you could save several hundred dollars. Cut Machu Picchu out entirely and you’ll save quite a bit, but let’s be honest – why would you visit Peru and not see Machu Picchu? Don’t do that. If you are physically able to complete it, the trek is a rewarding once in a lifetime experience that justifies splurging on. Swallow that backpacker frugality and accept that Machu Picchu is an expensive but justifiable cost when visiting Peru.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to budget around $35 a day per person – including Machu Picchu. Food can easily be found for around $5 a meal and hostels will be under $10 for a dorm bed. Your biggest expenses will be experiences and transport. If you’re guilty of being a terrible saver, read our baller’s guide on how to save money to get that trip booked sooner!
Peru Rail is a stunning, comfortable, luxury train service that you’ll probably only take once: it’s the primary way to get to Machu Picchu if you’re not trekking, and you’ll pay around $50. They have other routes which look wonderful, but frankly they’re not accessible on a typical backpacking budget.
Thankfully, you can take buses all over Peru and they’re generally of a good standard. You can book them online with companies like Cruz del Sur. Most of the seats are wide and comfortable, with pillows, blankets and a footrest provided.
Most buses in Peru are overnight buses. You’ll likely be driving in complete darkness through windy mountain roads at high speeds – a recipe for nausea and an awful night’s sleep! But hey, it’s all part of the fun. I highly recommend bringing sleeping pills, anti-nausea meds, a sleeping mask, earbuds, and several layers of warm clothing to help make your bus experience as comfortable as possible.
There is a private hop-on-hop-off bus service which offers guided buses throughout Peru. We didn’t take them ourselves because the cost is roughly double the price of buying bus tickets individually, but the service was highly recommended by fellow travelers. If you prioritise ease over cost, it might be a good option. Just ask your hostel to point you in the right direction if this is something that interests you.
Getting from Lima to Machu Picchu
Lima and Machu Picchu are on opposite sides of the country and separated by a giant mountain range. But you came this far, and gosh darn it, you’re going to see Machu Picchu before you leave Peru!
If you’re under a time constraint, you’ll need to fly from Lima to Cusco, which costs around $100 each way. Taking an overnight bus will save you a bit of cash (maybe around $30) but after doing it twice we don’t know if the saving is worth the 20 long, nauseous hours! If you do opt for the bus, break up your trip with a few stops on the way, like Arequipa, Nazca, or Ica.
Hostels in Peru
Like any backpacker destination that’s worth its salt, Peru has many fantastic hostels. From party hostels in Lima, to laid-back digs in Cusco and beach front properties in Paracas, it couldn’t be easier to find awesome places to stay when you’re in Peru. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Frog’s Chillhouse – Huanchaco: A surf hostel with chill vibes and incredible views overlooking the ocean.
- Kokopelli Hostel – Paracas: Beach front hostel with a swimming pool and super cosy pod beds.
- Arequipay Backpackers – Arequipa: Comfortable and quiet. No parties here, just a great social vibe and an adorable dog. Her name is Kaila and she’s a boxer.
- Supertramp Hostel – Aguas Calientes: One of the only places to stay in Aguas Calientes, right outside of Machu Picchu, that isn’t a luxury hotel! They serve their complimentary breakfast early enough to accommodate those taking the first bus to Machu Picchu, which we recommend.
Kokopelli Hostel, Paracas
Things to do in Peru
Here are the best things to do and must-see attractions in Peru that shouldn’t be missed!
- Hiking and trekking: Peru is renowned for some of the most stunning hikes in the world. Of course, the Inca Trail is the most famous, but there are many great routes through the Sacred Valley, such as the Salkantay Trek or the Lares Trek. We recommend booking Alpaca Expeditions as your guide for either. Other popular multi-day adventures include the Colca Canyon trek near Arequipa and the Santa Cruz trek up north in Huaraz. Not quite up for a multi-day hike? Rainbow Mountain and Laguna 69 are two of the most popular day hikes in Peru! Note that you’ll need a guide to complete any of these hikes – independent hiking in Peru is not recommended.
- Taste pisco: Pisco is the national drink of Peru, so you absolutely must taste a Pisco Sour on your travels – they’re delicious. You can also visit pisco wineries (yes, pisco is made from grapes) and taste pisco straight from the barrel in either Pisco or Ica.
- Explore ancient ruins: Peru’s history and culture is legendary, and you can’t help but feel the power of the ancient Incas when exploring their well-preserved ruins. Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the most beautiful and famous of Peru’s ancient sites, but it’s by no means the only one worth exploring! Take a look at Chan Chan near Huanchaco, Pisac near Cusco, or the ruins of Ollantaytambo, which were the last Inca stronghold against the Spanish Conquistadors. Or hike to Choquequirao, which looks similar to Machu Picchu but without the crowds (or entrance fee).
Peru points of interest
Peru has so many points of interest that it can be hard to narrow down your itinerary! We spent a full two months backpacking the country and still didn’t manage to see everything. Here are some of the best Peruvian points of interest and destinations to include on your Peru backpacking route.
The biggest city in Peru and the best jumping-off point for your travels. No, literally – the coastal city of Lima is the perfect place to try paragliding! You’ll see paragliders soaring over the Miraflores neighborhood and Parque del Amor.
Lima is best explored by foot … and by food. Spend a day exploring Lima on a self-guided walking tour and eating your way through its many famous restaurants, such as Central, Maido, Astrid y Gaston, and El Pan de Chola. Lima is also known for its incredible specialty coffee.
Oh, and don’t forget to stop by Kennedy Park – it’s full of friendly cats!
Cusco & Machu Picchu
You’ll need some time to acclimatise to Cusco’s altitude, especially if you plan to hike the Inca Trail. Spend at least a day exploring the city and browsing the handicraft markets. If you’re up for a day hike, Rainbow Mountain is one of Peru’s most famous points of interest. And of course, no trip to Cusco – or to Peru, for that matter – is complete without a visit to the incredible Machu Picchu!
Several hours north of Lima on Peru’s coast lies Huanchaco, a tiny fishing and surfing town. It’s best known for its iconic ‘caballito de totora’ boats, which fisherman have woven from reeds for over 3,000 years. They’re credited as being one of the first surfing vessels in the world. In addition to fantastic surf, Huanchaco is also home to the best ceviche in Peru (at least, in my opinion) and the ancient ruins of Chan Chan. Huanchaco isn’t on the typical gringo trail, but it’s home to one of my favourite hostels in Peru (Frog’s Chillhouse) and well worth a trip for a relaxing surf getaway.
Laguna 69, Huaraz
Huaraz is a high-altitude town tucked into the Cordillera Blanca mountain range – you’ll see their snowy peaks rising above the city to the east. Huaraz is best known for ice climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and winter sports like snowboarding. It’s also home to Huascarán National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site encapsulating the world’s highest tropical mountains. Don’t let the world tropical throw you off – there’s plenty of snow on top of these peaks.
Huaraz attracts outdoor enthusiasts who want to conquer its incredible treks, such as the multi-day Santa Cruz trek or the Huayhuash Circuit, an epic 11-day hiking adventure. If you opt for these hikes, you’ll want to pack plenty of hiking gear and do some research to find a reputable Peru backpacking tour operator.
But if you’re not quite up for high-altitude multi-day trekking, try the Laguna 69 hike instead. It’s a guided day hike to a stunning glacial lake, sitting at 15,000 feet of elevation and surrounded by glaciers and gushing, icy waterfalls. It’s an incredible site to behold and accessible for most hikers – just be sure to spend a couple of days acclimatizing to the altitude in Huaraz before attempting the hike!
Colca Canyon, Arequipa
If you opt to take the bus between Lima and Cusco, chances are you’ll want to stop in Arequipa to break up your trip. The city itself is beautiful and its historic, colonial downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site. But its most famous point of interest is nearby Colca Canyon: the world’s deepest canyon, and one of the only places in the world to see giant condors, the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere.
You can opt to explore Colca Canyon on foot with a 4-day trek, or rise early to take a day trip, stopping along the way in villages to learn about Peruvian culture. Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to watch the condors in all their glory.
Huacachina Desert Oasis
One of the most exciting day trips in Peru is exploring the massive dunes surrounding Huacachina, a tiny desert oasis and one of the most beautiful places in Peru. The dune buggy ride is half the fun, but the sandboarding is EPIC. Not for the faint-hearted! Huacachina is also located close to Ica, home of pisco and chocotejas.
Ballestas Islands, Paracas
On the coast a few hours south of Lima lies a small chain of islands with an abundance of wildlife: the guanay guano bird, the blue-footed booby, Humboldt penguins, seals, sea lions, and more. If you’ve never been to the Galapagos Islands, the Ballestas Islands are one of the few other places in the world that compare. Stay at the Kokopelli hostel in the beachy, coastal town of Paracas (the hostel is actually on the beach) and take a day trip to view the island.
Paracas is also a good place to base yourself to explore the Ica region (including Huacachina) only an hour away. It’s also close to the mysterious Nazca Lines just 3 hours away.
Lake Titicaca, Puno
Puno is a small city located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a high altitude lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It’s said to be the ‘Capital folklórica del Perú’ (folkloric capital of Peru) and is a fantastic place to explore traditional art, culture, and dance. Visit Puno and you’ll get a chance to see one of the most unique places in the world: a floating city made of reeds, inhabited by the Aymara people who have lived here for centuries.
By the way, be sure to give yourself time to adjust to the altitude here: at 12,500 feet of elevation, Puno is even higher than Cusco!
The Amazon Rainforest
There are two entry points to the Amazon Rainforest in Peru: Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. Iquitos is the largest city in the Amazon, and only accessible by plane or boat, while Puerto Maldonado is accessible by road. However, Iquitos has more to offer travelers than Puerto Maldonado, which is typically used only as a jumping-off point to explore the Amazon. From Iquitos, you also have the option to take Amazon river cruises in addition to staying in lodges within the forest. So, although Iquitos is less accessible, it’s a better destination for backpackers looking to explore the Amazon.
Just be sure that regardless of how you choose to explore the Amazon, you are careful to book with a tour company that practices ecotourism and is respectful of wild animals. Remember that you should NEVER touch, feed, or interact with any wild animal, so run from anyone promising you a photo holding an animal! This kind of practice is incredibly harmful to the animals and is quickly becoming all too common in Peru.
Peru Backpacking Routes
Most Peru backpacking routes wind southwards from Lima, hooking around the mountains and heading up north towards the Sacred Valley. Typical stops along the way include Huacachina, Arequipa, Paracas, Puno, and Cusco. More unusual backpacking routes venture north of Lima to explore Huanchaco or Huaraz, or head east to explore the Amazon rainforest. No matter your route, you’ll likely be flying into Lima as your starting point.
Peru backpacking itinerary 2 weeks
2 weeks is a good amount of time to experience the highlights of Peru, allowing for a 4-day Inca Trail hike with a couple of days for acclimatisation. Here’s a 2-week Peru backpacking itinerary that includes the hike to Machu Picchu. You’ll take buses in between each destination and fly back from Cusco to Lima after your hike.
- 2 Days in Lima
- 2 Days in Paracas, including day trips to Huacachina, Nazca or Pisco
- 2 Days in Puno & Lake Titicaca
- 2 Days in Cusco
- 4 Day to Trek to Machu Picchu
- Fly back to Lima for final day
Peru backpacking itinerary 4 weeks
In 4 weeks, you can go beneath the surface and get to know more of the real Peru, as well as having ample time to conquer Peru’s best treks!
- 4 days in Lima
- 4 days trekking in Huaraz
- 4-5 days in Iquitos and exploring the Amazon
- 2 days in Cusco
- 4 days to trek to Machu Pichu
- 2-3 days in Puno & Lake Titicaca
- 2 days in Arrequipa
- 1 day stopover in Nazca
- 3 days in Paracas & Huachina
Peruvian food is unique and excellent. The best food in Peru is found in Lima, where you can splurge on a meal at several of the best restaurants in the world or enjoy some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste. If you’ve never tried octopus, this is the best place to do it: head to Surquillo Mercado #1 in Lima and look for Don Cevichero. Order the ‘pulpo parrillero’. You can thank us later.
The best food in Peru is ceviche. It was invented in Peru and we’ve never had it anywhere else in the world that can compare! Ceviche consists of fish in an acidic sauce known as tiger’s milk. It’s salty, crunchy, fresh, tangy and absolutely incredible. The best ceviche that we ate was in Huanchaco, a surfing town just north of Lima.
Chinese food is common in Peru. It’s called ‘chifa’ and isn’t exactly what we’re used to as Americans; rather a unique blend of Peruvian and Chinese cuisines. If you’re craving some fried rice and stir-fry, it hits the spot. One of the most famous dishes that perfectly captures that Peru/Asian food fusion is ‘lomo saltado’, a beef stir fry with a rich, flavorful sauce. Peruvians eat it for all 3 meals, and we were tempted to as well.
Chicharrones are everywhere on every menu, and they’re so good – and no, they’re not those pork rinds that come in a bag! They’re deep fried nuggets of meaty deliciousness. We tried chicken, fish, and pork chicharrones, and they were all super tasty.
‘Cuy’ is a national delicacy in Peru. It’s guinea pig. And yes, it looks like someone just fried up your childhood pet. You’ll see them all over Peru, strung up in mercados and on the menu at fancy restaurants. We couldn’t bring ourselves to try it, but we hear it’s a bit like eating a very small, greasy fried chicken with a lot of bones. Yum…
Chicha is a fermented corn drink that’s served with most set lunches. I know it sounds gross, but it’s not! It’s sweet, a little corny, and delicious both hot or cold. It comes in purple and yellow varieties (from purple and yellow corn) and is included with almuerzo at loads of typical Peruvian restaurants.
Chocotejas, or tejas, are delicious chocolatey treats. They are made only near Ica and Huacachina, so you’ll see them sold everywhere in that region. They consist of delicious manjar blanco – a version of dulce de leche, similar to caramel – pecans, and chocolate. We’ve also seen versions with raisins, pisco soaked raisins, fig, lime, and more. They’re so incredibly good; do not miss out if you travel to Ica or Huacachina!
Peru culture and customs
Peruvian culture is a rich, fascinating blend of many different influences and groups of people. Long before the Spanish Conquistadors invaded Peru, the powerful Inca Empire ruled – the largest in the pre-Columbian Americas. They conquered and encompassed vast swathes of the country.
To this day, there are many native and indigenous Peruvian people. 4.5 million Peruvians identify as Quechua and speak Quechua in addition to or instead of Spanish. You’ll find the Aymara people on Lake Titicaca in Puno. Yes, ON the lake: they’ve lived there for countless centuries on floating islands made from reeds – a lifestyle so unique and inaccessible that even the Incas didn’t attack them.
Each part of Peru has its own customs and traditions that are still practiced today. You’ll see Peruvian people in varying styles of traditional dress. You’ll learn about Pachamama – Mother Earth, the fertility goddess – on a trip to the Sacred Valley. You can even participate in a spiritual ayahuasca journey near Cusco, which involves shamans, hallucinations, and a mysterious liquid.
Peruvian people and culture have been affected over the years by outside influences. The Spanish Conquistadors brought devastating change to much of South America, and were quickly followed by Chinese laborers and opportunists, as well as boats of enslaved Africans. You’ll notice this Chinese influence in ‘chifa’, the Peruvian-Chinese fusion food. You’ll even see African and Asian influence in criollo, a word meaning ‘creole’ and referring to Spanish descendants, describing anything from music and dance to food.
Today, the mix of cultures is both fascinating and at times a little confusing. Peru is a Latin country, so it’s primarily Spanish speaking and 90% Catholic. It’s post-colonial, so you’ll see a mixture of European buildings with the Chinese and African influences that came later. But before Peru was colonised by Spain, it was a powerful hub of the Inca civilization. It’s home to a rich indigenous heritage, much of which is still intact.
It’s this incredible mix of cultures, heritage and people that makes Peru one of the most fascinating and rewarding places to travel in South America.
Is Peru safe?
Peru is one of the most popular South American destinations, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel with caution. Guerilla war in Peru ended less than 20 years ago, leaving some areas of the country in poverty and with a growing drug and counterfeit money trade. The country is also currently experiencing protests against a government widely viewed as corrupt. There’s no question that Peru is a great place for backpackers to explore, but when it comes to safety it’s important to be aware.
Thanks to the sensitive political situation and harsh poverty, being a tourist can leave you feeling somewhat exposed. That said, whenever we were around other backpackers in popular travel spots, we felt perfectly at ease. Hopping from hostel to hostel will ensure that you stay on a well-trodden path. Do some research before you book tours or experiences if you’re not going through a hostel to make sure you aren’t being ripped off.
Take precautions when traveling through Peru to protect yourself and your belongings: keep your valuables hidden away on your person (better yet, leave them at home), use locks on your bags and always keep your eye on them, avoid wandering around late at night alone. Do not go in search of drugs or other illegal activities – this is incredibly dangerous and generally a terrible idea. Don’t attempt hikes or other adventurous activities without a reputable tour operator.
If you’re planning on backpacking Peru alone, I’d recommend sticking to the standard backpacker trail. If you’re staying in hostels with plenty of other backpackers, look for a buddy to take an overnight bus, explore after dark with, or recommend a tour operator.
Peru travel advice
Before backpacking Peru, you’ll have to get hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations and perhaps an MMR booster, all of which are available for free on the NHS in the UK. Most travelers won’t need to worry about yellow fever or even malaria unless visiting the Amazon. You should always check the requirements for your trip before you travel here and book an appointment with your GP well in advance to discuss travel health.
If you are planning to visit the Amazon, you will need to prepare for malaria. Discuss anti-malarial tablets with your doctor, pack lots of long clothing to cover your arms and legs and bring along plenty of quality insect repellent with a high DEET percentage.
There is a high risk of Zika virus in Peru. Currently there is no vaccination against the Zika virus, however the illness itself is mild and only tends to cause concern when pregnant women are at risk. Women who will be pregnant at the time of travel to Peru should seek advice from their GP well in advance.
Altitude is probably the biggest challenge you’ll face while traveling in Peru, so before your trip be sure to stock up on altitude sickness medication. If you get motion sickness, you’ll also want to bring along meds for every bus ride and taxi journey that you take.
Once you arrive in Peru, the best local solution for altitude sickness or nausea is coca tea. The tea isn’t particularly tasty, but it’s incredibly soothing. It’s made from the same plant as cocaine but won’t give you any kind of ‘high’, it just helps settle your stomach. Rumour has it though that it can show up on a drugs test, so steer clear if that’s a concern!
Backpacking in Peru packing list
There are some essentials that you should include for your Peru backpacking trip.
First and foremost, you’ll want to bring a device to filter your water. I recommend doing this instead of purchasing bottled water multiple times per day because recycling isn’t common in Peru, but piles of trash unfortunately are. Spare the earth unnecessary plastic waste! Filtering your own water is a much more environmentally friendly solution, and there are many devices on the market at a decent price. You’ll also save heaps on buying water every day!
If you’re planning to embark on one of Peru’s many incredible treks, be sure to bring hiking gear. Also pack a hydration pack – you’ll need more water than usual if you’re hiking at a high altitude. A pair of trekking poles will come in handy. Many of Peru’s hikes involve difficult terrain, like the slippery shale of the Laguna 69 hike or the massive stairs on the Inca Trail. Trekking poles will help protect your knees – not to mention assist you in staying upright during your hikes!
Another must-pack item is a warm jacket. Cusco and other high-altitude cities are COLD! Bring along a packable down jacket to minimize space in your pack and maximize warmth and comfort. Don’t forget to leave a little bit of room in your bag for a cozy alpaca sweater, too. You won’t want to go home without one!
About the author
Lia is a travel blogger at Practical Wanderlust, an off-beat couple’s travel blog which has been featured in Travel & Leisure, Forbes, the Washington Post, and other impressive sounding publications. When she’s not travelling, she lives in Oakland, California with her husband Jeremy. Follow along with their travel disasters – er, adventures – on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest!