Peru, seems to appear in almost all of the top destination lists of countries to visit every year, usually appearing in the top 5. This is surely because of its numerous natural & historic wonders, but mostly it's due to its strong preserved historical roots, archeological sites, cultural heritage and world renowned gastronomy. We would say, that it's thriving culture impacted us the most during our 9 day trip, yet you can do it in about 8 days. This made us feel as if we were truly living amongst the vibrant Inca culture which still feels alive everywhere you go. Of course, then you have Machupicchu, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Ok, this are more than enough reasons for you to start planning your trip to this amazing country. But, before you go off and buy your tickets, we will share our top recommendations of the must see places in about a 8-9 day route, showing you why we loved this country so much, and why Peru has been our #1 destination so far. Hopefully this really inspires you to visit this amazing country that we felt in love with.
LIMA | 2 days
Lima, Peru´s capital is a full on cosmopolitan city and its financial center making it very different from the other cities, yet you still feel the culture very much alive and vibrant as in the rest of the country. Summer is usually sunny, yet spring, fall and winter are usually covered in fog. Don't get frustrated during your visit if you see the sky mostly gray or foggy in the mornings. This is the normal pattern of weather for Lima, usually known as "Lima the Grey". Still, Lima is considered one of the driest cities in the world, with little to no rain year round, so rest assure your stay in Lima is going to be awesome anyway.
The city is divided into two sections, the historic center or old town, declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and the new Lima. Start your day in the center of old town where a tour of the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco de Lima is a must. Here you can visit one of the best preserved catacombs outside of Rome. The tour can last about an hour or so.
Stop by the Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor, the city's main square. In it you can tour the area, enter the Lima Cathedral and visit the National Congress building, the entrance is free. There´s also souvenir shops nearby were you need to buy a few vibrant capes or scarfs. Head just a few blocks away and visit the Plaza San Martin where in the center you will find the statue commemorating Peru´s liberator, General Jose de San Martin. If I had my drone that day, we would have definitely taken an aerial shot of the plaza. Before leaving the plaza, go to the Bolivar Hotel, where locals say the best Pisco sour is served.
Plaza de Armas & nearby conecting street between the San Martin Square
Can't talk about Lima without first referring to its world renowned cuisine. For a really cool night out for dinner we recommend the Barranco district or in English, cliffs district. It’s full of trendy restaurants, serving local dishes as well as lots of hip bars. One could say it’s the bohemian side of Lima. We definitely recommend Tio Mario restaurant, food is amazing, plus the outside terrace provides great views of the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean.
FOOD: In Peru you have to try the Tacu Tacu (mashed beans) & roasted Alpaca; those were our favorites.
Head on to the new Lima and tour the Miraflores district, which is more residential and it's our recommendation for when looking for a hotel or an Airbnb stay in Lima. You can start your day with a stroll around Kennedy Park. In here you can shop around for local art or simply sit by the grass and watch the locals walk by. The ambience is also nice for a morning walk.
The best place to have breakfast is a café called "La Lucha Sangucheria". OMG, the sandwich options there are impressive and so are their fries. Don´t miss their natural made smoothies, the combinations are superb. Try the passion fruit mixed with mango and coconut, and let us know what you think. By the way, potatoes are originally from Peru, Did you know that? We sure didn't! (see the phone pics bellow)
In Miraflores you can tour the Costa Verde or green coast and have some incredible views of the cliffs that border the ocean. Most of the boutiques, shopping malls and hotels are located in this area, as well as trendy restaurants. For shopping we recommend stopping by the Larcomar Mall, an open space modern shopping center with most of the well-known stores and high end boutiques.
It’s easy to get around Lima, Uber is pretty cheap so don´t opt for public transportation, it’s just not worth it. Bear in mind the traffic is hectic and therefore so are the drivers, but don´t get scared, this people are used to this, lol.
CUSCO | 2 days
The capital of the ancient Inca Empire, considered the greatest empire in the history of the America´s. Btw, a fun fact we learned, this city was made by the Inca´s in the shape of a Puma, with the head of the puma formed by the nearby ruins of Sacsahuaman. Here is a diagram from Google showing the puma shape. (right)
One thing to consider when traveling to Cusco is the high altitude and sickness usually associated with visiting this city. Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,399 m or (11,152 ft)
above sea level. We highly recommend that you buy coca leaf or drink coca tea, trust me it will account for a big difference during your stay. We even bought coca tea in the Lima airport to start acclimating our body before we left on our flight to Cusco. At least for me (Sam), as soon as I stepped out of the plane my feet felt really heavy, but actually aside from that, and the occasional out of breath feeling when walking on the Sacred Valley, I didn't feel anything weird during my stay in the city. Of course I always bought coca tea and chewed coca leaves so it could help me with the altitude situation.
Cusco for us was the place in which we actually felt the highest presence of the heritage and vibrant living Inca culture of the past. It is evident in every corner of the city and it can be easily seen in the facial traits and expressions of the locals. Such a beautiful and remarkable experience. Your first stop in Cuzco should be the Plaza de Armas. There you can visit the cathedral and walk around the square. You will instantly feel the colonial roots on its streets and buildings of when the Spanish conquered the city and build their houses, churches etc. The original ruins of Cusco are beneath all what you see today. Even though, you still have temples and tombs in the city from the time of the Inca's, this makes for a nice merge between Andean and Hispanic architecture.
In the afternoon we took a city tour to some of the Inca ruins within Cusco. The first stop was the ruins of the temple Coricancha, the most important temple in the Inca Empire. Here you can see the perfect symmetry of the rocks used by the Inca´s to build their structures. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish and original stonework provided the foundation for their Santo Domingo church and convent inside the Coricancha archeological site.
Next stop was Sacsahuaman, here you can see massive stones that make up this impressive fortress complex. As mentioned earlier, this complex makes up the head of the puma figure of the city of Cusco. (see pictures bellow)
After that we visited the ruins of Tambomachay, which were used as a worship center of water. The Incas asked the gods that the rains arrive for their crops and these become fertile; this is why this center is known by some as “The Temple of Fertility”. The interesting thing about this place is that even though time has passed, there is still clear water flowing through the original aqueduct systems. Ps. This was the first time we came really close to the LLAMAS, look how cute they are.
Ok, so more food advice: Cusco has very famous dishes, they serve fried or roasted alpaca beef, which is really good and their specialty called Cuy. This dish is made of some kind of guinea pig. I know it may sound disgusting and you may feel pity for the cute little animal, but if you’re in Cusco, you can’t miss this great authentic dish. It´s usually served roasted and stuffed with some vegetables and with a side of potatoes. It may look weird or funny, but it’s a must try dish in Cusco.
THE INCA SACRED VALLEY | 1 day
Another must do activity when visiting the Cusco region and before you jump over to Machupicchu, is to take a tour of the Inca Sacred Valley. This will give you access to a more complete perspective of the heritage and the traditions of the Inca that still are preserved in the villages within the region. Tours usually starts with a 7am pick up time in the Cusco main square. The route stops in many villages, first up was the village of Chinchero.
Here you will get the chance to receive a lecture of local rug and art craftsmanship for about 30 minutes, while seeing the ladies actually working on making the rugs. Then you will have time to do some shopping if you like. We recommend not going crazy shopping here, as this is the usual tourist trap and you will find the same merchandise at a much cheaper price on the other villages.
You will arrive and see a deep hole that looks to be shaped like an amphitheater. The Incas used this as agricultural laboratories for them to breed, test and acclimatize their crops for human consumption. The cool thing about it, is that each terrace has its unique “micro ecosystem” different temperature and moisture etc. Once the crops were ready, they moved them to another terrace so they could get used to the different environments; how neat is that!! Take advantage of the cool photo ops here.
Maras Salt Mines
Our favorite spot on the tour was the Salt Mines of Mara. You arrive and you see lots of cream colored pools made of salt. The view is very beautiful and the story behind the mines is very unique. This salt mines have been used for the collection of minerals and medicinal salt by the Moray community for more than 5 centuries. The cool thing about them is that each family of the community owns one of the pools, so it’s a total town tradition, still preserved today. This place offers some amazing photo opportunities, just try to pick your spot away from the crowds. Head over to their souvenir shop in case you want to purchase mineral salt from the Maras pools.
Our last stop on the Inca Sacred Valley tour. This town served as a fortress and a layover/resting place of travelers on their way from Cusco to the city of Machupicchu. You have to climb lots of stairs in order to see the great view of the town from the top. After that, we recommend shopping on to the local town shops where you can bargain for better prices than in the other villages. After almost 2hrs visit, we hoped on our train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is the last town and entry point to Machupicchu.
THE TOWN OF AGUAS CALIENTES & MACHUPICCHU | 1 day
In order to reach Machupichu, you have to get first to the town of Aguas Calientes. The only way to get there is by train. There´s two train options: Inca Rail or Peru Rail. We took Inca Rail, since it offered better seating and jungle viewing options in their cars. Peru Rail is good as well, but it´s usually used by the locals, whereas Inca Rail is used more frequently by travelers and tourists.
The town feels like a backpacker’s dream, right in the middle of the jungle, while a river stream flows crossing the town. Is famous for being the last stop before reaching Machupicchu, for their massages and for the baths of the hot streams that flow through the town, hence the name, "Aguas Calientes". We recommend asking your tour guide to finish the Inca Valley tour here, and spend the night in one of the hotels, instead of going back to Cusco. Trust us, you will have to wake up at about 12am, to catch the train from Cusco and arrive at 5 or 6am at Aguas Calientes. Then take the bus or hike to Machupicchu, and you don´t want to start your exploring day all tired so early. Instead, spend the night in town, eat, relax, catch a good night sleep and then wake up early to be the first ones in line for the bus up to Machupicchu. There´s two visiting hours: morning and afternoon. We decided to book ours in the afternoon, that way we had time to explore the town, explore Machupicchu and end the day with a sunset view of the citadel with little to no crowds.
We finally reached the best part of our trip, visiting and exploring Machupicchu. Of course, this was our main reason for visiting Peru and we are pretty sure it´s everyone else´s main reason. This place just feels so different from anywhere else we have been to. Once you enter the archeological complex, one can´t describe that instant feeling you get, well if an explanation is needed then I, had the feeling of being on a constant computer screen saver or poster. You just can´t get your eyes drawn away from the view, it’s simply magical and indescribable.
The site tour which is included in your ticket takes about 2-3hrs to complete. It’s very interesting, since you get to learn all about this wonder of the world. Everywhere you walk is a great photo opportunity, try your best to find your spot and enjoy the marvelous views. By the way, the famous mountain you see in all of the pictures is not Machupicchu, it’s actually called Huaynapicchu. If you have time and strength, you can pre arrange ahead of time and pay the extra entrance fee to go up to the top, explore the other ruins and have amazing views of Machupicchu. There´s lots of Llamas laying around the site, have some fun taking photos of them, they make the funniest sounds.
Even though the peak of this civilization was about 500 years ago, you still get to witness the splendor, their architecture and how technologically advanced where the people who inhabited this city. This truly was a life rewarding moment anyone should have the chance to experience. Oh by the way, before you leave make sure you get yur passport stamped with this world wonder.
PARACAS, BALLESTAS ISLANDS & HUACACHINA OASIS | 2 days
About a 4hrs drive south of Lima, there is a coastal town where the desert and the beach mix blend up to make a very picturesque site. Paracas consist of a village, beach town, bay and a Pre-Inca culture and National Reserve. The weather is mostly sunny year round and it’s a perfect spot for nature loves, bird watchers and hiker fans all together. There are some nice hotels in the area, from budget to luxury beach front hotels for everyone´s preference. Head on to the town for great seafood and local cuisine, plus it´s extremely cheap and most of the restaurants showcase their fresh fish right in front of the restaurants so you can choose your own meal. LOVE IT!
One of the main attractions of Paracas is to head over to the Chaco pier and catch a 2hr boat tour to the Ballestas Islands, sometimes referred as the Galapagos Islands of Peru. This inhabited, rocky islands showcase a spectacular panorama of wild sea life in the Pacific Ocean. Boats cruise along the 3 islands that make up the Paracas Natural reserve only inhabited by sea lions, penguins, pelicans, flamencos and thousands of piquero birds. Basically it´s a guano heaven, lol. There is a time of the year in which people come to the island every day for as long as 3 months just to collect guano and then sell it on the main land. On your way back, the boats will make a near stop along the cliff borders back in the mainland so people can see the famous three-pronged Candelabra geoglyph, carved into the sand with a similar technique to the Nazca Lines.
HUACACHINA DESERT OASIS
Huacachina is a desert oasis in Southern Peru, located approximately 5 hours south of Lima. It´s just about 1hr away from Paracas on your way back to Lima. This place is very famous due to the beautiful lagoon that makes up for a movie like scene of a desert oasis, in this case a real one. The small lagoon is surrounded by palm trees, a few houses and some resorts topped with gigantic sand dunes. The coolest thing to do here is to go on a 4 wheel drive sand boogie tour over the huge dunes. It is super fun and very intense. The tour takes about 1hr, but make sure to ask your driver to go crazy fast and climb the dunes so you have extra fun. At the near end of the tour, your driver will stop at the top of the dunes so you can then try your luck on some sand boarding action. If your new to this like me, my first try was laying down on the board and the rest were knee boarding. If you have snowboarded before or something similar, then straight standing up is the way to go. At the end, the driver stops on a big dune overlooking the lagoon, so you can get the best view of the oasis. A well 2-3hrs stop before going back to Peru.
We returned back to Lima after a great week on different regions of Peru. We spent our last night on the district of San Isidro which is a residential upscale neighborhood which has some nice shopping malls, beautiful parks and it´s also were the vast majority of Embassies are located at. The next morning we had our last breakfast once again in La Lucha Sangucheria because we definitely loved the place. After that, it was time for our ride back to the airport.
By the way, Peru has 2 interesting features, the highest lake in the world called Lake Titicaca and the driest desert in the world called the Atacama Desert. Sadly we didn't had time to visit both of these interesting places. Surely, next time we definitely will. If you sincerely have more time, I recommend taking a day trip to the Rainbow Mountain, spending one night in Lake Titicaca and also taking at least 2 days to visit Arequipa in the south. We just didn't have that much time for our trip.
Peru has a very extreme diverse landscape consisting of desert, mountain region, year round glaciers, coast and the jungle. Its divided into 3 regions: "La Costa", which is mostly desert stretching from 1,500 miles, "La Sierra", which is the Peruvian portion of the Andes, and "La Selva", the Amazon portion of the country which covers about 60% of Peru. Knowing this makes anyone think that Peru could easily be considered a continent all by itself. Well joking’s aside, this means that there's lots to see, and depending on how much of the country you want to experience, you could plan for a month's visit, or at least 2 weeks. In our case, we were limited to just 9 days. But, honestly we made the best of the days we had as we prioritized on the places we wanted to visit the most, considering the amount of time we had. Our best recommendation is that you prioritize the places you want to visit and then, plan ahead for the time you want to spend in Peru. Either way, you will definitely fall in love with Peru as much as we did.
Let us know if we missed a few places or your thought on the guide, Share with your friends and with whom you would love to go to PERU.