One of the most diverse and incredible countries to explore on the continent, Peru has long been one of the highlights on most travel South America itineraries.
From the legendary Machu Picchu and towering canyons to mysterious jungles and captivating waterfalls, Peru has pretty much everything to satisfy all tastes.
In this guide, we’ll explore everything you’ll need to know for planning your own road trip to Peru. This includes all of the best destinations to visit, what to expect on a road trip here, the best time to visit as well as our own tips based on our time spent here.
Why Visit Peru?
Peru has long been one of the best backpacking destinations on Earth, with Machu Picchu rightfully making everyone’s must-see travel bucket list.
However, this diverse country is home to many more breath-taking gems, such as the towering dunes of the Ica Desert as well as many important Incan ruins located along the Sacred Valley.
In fact, Peru has pretty much everything here from bustling cities and incredible national parks to its stunning Pacific beaches. Later in this guide, we’ll go through the very best of these.
The popular South American country is also known for its varied cultures, which can be best seen in the assortment of foods here. Peru has had a long history linking to many countries in Europe and Asia, and as a result, has many exciting dishes that must be tried when here.
Ceviche is hands-down the best known, with the lime-infused seafood dish originating from Peru. Chaufa is another popular, yet cheap dish that has its roots in Asia and consists of fried rice and vegetables.
Another attractive reason to visit Peru is how inexpensive daily costs are, with a big range of local foods and accommodation options. Getting around Peru is also quite cheap and easy, with lots of bus companies covering everything from the extreme north to the south of the country.
You can also get around quicker with domestic flights however these are generally more expensive. As well as this, Lima is one of the best-connected airports in all of Latin America, with dozens of daily international flights arriving from all over the World.
10 Unmissable Destinations in a Peru Road Trip
The capital of the country is a melting hotpot of cultures, and this is well reflected in the diverse foods and cultures found here. You’ll most likely start your trip here, with the bustling Miraflores and bohemian Barranco districts the best to stay in.
When here be sure to visit the eloquent San Francisco Church, which is also home to the spooky subterranean Catacombs which are filled with human skulls and bones.
Other gems to visit here include the Plaza de Armas in the historic center, the Costa Verde with its beaches as well as the Morro de Sillar mountain in the south of the city.
Next up is this stunning oasis town located in the middle of the Ica Desert. So small that it can be walked around in 20 minutes, it’s the stunning backdrop of huge sand dunes that make this area one of the most visually stunning to visit in Peru.
Many come to visit these towering dunes (which are known to be the tallest in South America), as you can rent a board and ride all the way down! Another must-do whist here is to go on a sand-buggy tour, where you’ll be strapped in and fly around the dunes in a sturdy 4×4 (definitely not one of the faint of heart!).
Located roughly 3 hours south of Lima, this small port town is extremely popular with nature lovers and extreme-sport enthusiasts alike.
The absolute must-see here is the Ballestas Islands, which are just off the coast of Paracas.
Known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, these islands are full of an array of wildlife which includes penguins, seals, and a large variety of birds.
Jump on a tour here and you’ll witness all, including some mesmerizing flight displays with flocks of birds forming straight lines that stretch far out into the distant horizon. The waves of Paracas make the area a great spot for kite-surfing and wind-surfing, and here you can also visit the Paracas National Park.
Peru’s second-largest city is also one of the most popular to visit in the country. Surrounded by looming volcanoes, Arequipa is one of the most architecturally stunning, with lots of white buildings made from the volcanic “Sillar” rocks.
Inside the city, be sure to visit the beautiful Plaza de Armas as well as the Juanita Museum, which houses a mummy of a young girl with a pretty gruesome past. Arequipa is also close to the infamous Colca Canyon, which is known to be one of the deepest canyons in the World. Here you’ll ascend to the mirador where you can spot Condors soaring through the Andean peaks.
Other great day trips from Arequipa include hiking the nearby volcanoes of El Misti and Chachani, as well as a visit to the Sillar Valley.
This small city is located on the banks of the legendary Lake Titicaca, which at 12,470ft, is known as the highest navigable lake on Earth. Puno is one of the best places to base yourself when visiting the lake, as there are lots of cheap accommodation options as well as its bus station that connects well with the rest of the country.
The Uros islands are an absolute must-see if visiting here, with the floating islands famous for being man-made out of totora reed, and housing over 4,000 people! Other places to visit here include Taquile Island, the Puno Cathedral as well as the Arco Deustua.
Easily the most popular destination on this list, especially with the more adventurous traveler who is backpacking South America for the first time. Cusco certainly does not disappoint any of its visitors.
Known for its proximity and as a jumping-off point to Machu Picchu, this city is located very close to the Sacred Valley and is close to many other spectacular ancient Incan sites such as Ollantaytambo and Moray.
The Plaza de Armas here is one of the best to see in the country as it’s surrounded by many beautiful, colonial buildings including the Cathedral and the Chapel of Triumph.
Other must-sees include the Mirador of San Blas for views over Cusco, as well as a tour to the Ausangate National Park which is famous for its seven brightly colored lakes.
Having completed the southern circuit of Peru, we’ll now head into the less explored northern Peru. Trujillo is a large coastal city located about 490km north of Lima. The best area to stay here is Huanchaco, which is a more sleepy district just outside of the city famous for its beaches, surfing, and markets.
The best things to see here are the Chan Chan and Huacas ruins, which were the most iconic sites of the Chimú civilization at their peak. Another cool thing to do is to take a Reed Boat tour. Many fishermen still use these extremely narrowboats today to glide through the waves to catch lunch and dinner.
For anyone who loves beaches, the northern region of Piura is your place! Máncora is the most popular beachside destination to visit here and is well built up for tourists with many cheap accommodation options and plenty of restaurants and bars.
The best beaches to visit here are Vichayito and Punta Sal, which are both a little away from town.
Los Órganos is a town located a little more south and is the best place to spot humpback whales. You can head on a tour here between the months of July and October for the best chance of spotting them.
From the coast, we now head into the mountains of Peru. Chachapoyas is a small city that is a lot less visited than most of the others on this list, however, the region is home to an abundance of incredible sights.
Gocta Waterfalls is certainly the most popular, with the crashing falls one of the best photo ops in all of Peru. Yumbilla falls is a much lesser-known yet great alternative, and at 2938ft is actually the tallest in the country.
For those who love ancient history and culture, then Kuelap Ruins is a must-visit for you, with the imposing fortress located on the edge of a mountain.
Last on our trip is the hidden jungle city of Iquitos. Located deep into the Amazon, the only way to get here is to fly from Lima. The Amazon River is located just a stone’s throw away in the small nearby town of Nanay.
Head here to take a boat trip down the river, where you will meet the indigenous Bora tribe as well as many exotic animals such as snakes, alligators, piranhas, and a stunning butterfly sanctuary.
For the more daring, Iquitos (and the Amazon in general) are well known for their plant medicines such as Ayahuasca and Kambo. Here you can find local shamans who help guide you through these experiences. Just be sure to do your research to find a reputable shaman before going all-in.
Tips for Planning your Peru Road Trip
As with any backpacking trip, preparation before heading out goes a long way. Below we’ll list a few of our top tips based on our own experience. If you’re thinking of visiting Peru as part of a larger trip while backpacking South America it is a good start to have a few destinations in mind, however, you’ll also want to consider how you will get around.
Buses are cheap and reach all major destinations in Peru (bar Iquitos in the Amazon), and are overall the best way of getting around. You can also find cheap regional flights, however, all go through Lima first which can sometimes be quite time-consuming.
Peru tends to surprise many travelers as it’s quite a large country, and therefore distances can be huge. Having traveled here ourselves, we recommend looking at the country in two different parts – the north and south. Assuming you will start your trip in Lima, you can follow the following itineraries which highlight the very best of Peru.
The south will take you through Ica and Arequipa, to Lake Titicaca and Cusco. This route is definitely the most popular, and as a result, there are lots of cheap hostels and accommodation options already set up.
There are also lots more tour operators with affordable prices, although Machu Picchu will be the most expensive regardless of how you arrive.
The north (with the exception of Máncora) is the true Peru, where it’s a lot less touristy and better for off-the-beaten-path travel. Starting from Lima you can head up to Huaraz, Trujillo, Máncora and then inland to Cajamarca, Chachapoyas and Tarapoto.
Getting between areas here will be a little more difficult (for example there are only 1 or 2 daily buses from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas), however, these areas will definitely reward travelers who want a more authentic Peruvian experience.
Read also: How to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling
The Best Time to Visit Peru
Peru is home to many different microclimates, which can all vary depending on the time of year. This makes it a little more complicated, but there are still some good pointers to follow depending on what experience you want.
The Summer season is generally the best to visit Peru. It tends to be a lot hotter all over the country, which runs from November until April.
Areas like Chiclayo and Piura will be hot regardless year-round, but visiting in the Summer is definitely the best for areas such as Lima and further south, where skies are a lot clearer and temperatures warmer. It also makes higher altitude destinations such as Puno and Cusco more tolerable when the chilly nighttime arrives.
The Winter season, which is from May until October, is generally cooler. Again the north will be great to visit during this time, however, it will get bitterly cold in the more mountainous areas, especially during the night and early morning.
It is, however, the best time for hiking as many mountains will be covered in snow for some truly incredible scenery. Again the best season really depends on you and what you want from your trip.
Read next: Hiking South America – 14 Trails you can’t miss
As one of the most exciting destinations in South America, Peru is full of incredible destinations that often make most people’s travel bucket lists. From Machu Picchu and Colca Canyon to the Amazon, you could easily spend months exploring Peru.
As well as having looked at each destination and why you should visit, we’ve covered the best time to visit Peru as well as our own tips based on our extensive experience here.
Dan and George are two seasoned backpackers with extensive knowledge of Latin America who write no-nonsense backpacking guides for travelers who wish to go deeper when exploring Central and South America.