Peru has long topped my list of places to adventure, so when I had the opportunity in May to go, I readily jumped on it. I’d spent so long dreaming about visiting that I had an extensive list of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
Map it please
- Bring cash! Most of the restaurants and vendors in Peru do not take credit cards, especially outside of bigger cities. Peruvian soles can be obtained easily and with good exchange rates at the airport and from any ATM.
- In larger cities (Arequipa, Cusco, etc.) there are dedicated tourist police who are fluent in English and handle all tourist-related crimes. While I had no official interactions with them, they were all quite friendly in passing.
- With minimal Spanish, I found I was able to communicate reasonably well with people, so don’t worry if your language skills are lacking!
- Try to plan your trip for a shoulder season, as this will be the most opportune time for you to see less crowded sites and have more options for traveling between cities.
Where I Went
I left Seattle May 18th and returned June 5th for a total of 18 days on vacation; 16 of which were usable for actual sightseeing, adventuring, and general tourist fun. Since I wanted to see at least 5 different places and had a veritable laundry list of sites to see (many of them separated by 8-12 hour drives) I had to be careful about how I planned.
Here's how it broke down:
Peru: Up Close and Personal
Top Three List
With three separate major climate zones creating unique and distinct ecosystems and vistas, it is hard not to be completely awed by the entire country. You’ll see some truly incredible views and experience regionally unique foods, traditions, and history.
Here is a list of my favorite Peruvian experiences:
Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail
For me, getting away from the crowds to enjoy the jungle climate of the Andean cloud forest was the ideal way to arrive at the jewel of the Incan empire. Rather than trek with hundreds of other tourist on the Inca trail, I chose to do a 4-day trek via the Salkantay Trail.
The journey passed over rugged, sparse mountain terrain—taking us as high as 4630m—and into a dense and lush forest, finally spitting us out at Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. Along the way we got to know the local flora and fauna, and ate fantastic local food prepared by our excellent trail-chef.
If you opt for this trek, be sure to do some laps on stairs before you go, as it is physically demanding.
Pro tip Many tour companies operate out of Cusco. To protect locals from tourism exploitation, find one with a reputation for fair treatment of its employees and animals. I used United Mice and had an exceptional experience.
Chivay and the Colca Canyon
One often overlooked, but exceptional side trip, is staying in the town of Chivay.
Forego the dinner your tour agency plans in favor of catching the show at the Planetarium & Observatory. This remarkable gem is discreetly located across the Puente Inca near the Hotel Pozo del Cielo and offers both Spanish and English showings.
Not only did I get to hold a meteorite in my hands, and watch an English-language presentation about the southern hemisphere constellations; the fine curator (Dante) spent an hour showing me the planets, stars and moon through the two high-powered telescopes offered. Would you believe I saw three moons of Jupiter and separate bodies of a binary star while standing in a small town in Peru? TRULY spectacular.
However, the main draw of the Colca Cayon (which astonishingly plummets to twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) is the giant Andean condor which makes its nest in the sheer cliff faces. This massive bird, which can reach upwards of 3 meters in wingspan, flies on thermals to rise up and out to hunt carrion. This provides enough predictability to draw large crowds at the Cruz del Condor viewing point—and for good reason! It is utterly breathtaking to watch how graceful these giant birds are.
Pro tip Going with a guide will be a small cost, but well worth it, as the guides are knowledgeable about both the birds and the ecosystem.
As the second largest city in Peru, Arequipa offers a lot in terms of food, culture, and social activities. I loved being here, and wished I had allowed for more time in the city. Not only did I eat the best ceviche I have ever tasted and got to explore some incredibly unique historic sites, I also made some wonderful friends in this city—by far the most outgoing of the places we visited.
Locals and tourists alike were approachable and friendly. If you only have a few days in Arequipa, be sure not to miss the incredible Santa Catalina Monastery and the Recoleta—which boasts a 30,000+ volume library of ancient books, the majority of which are thought to be the only remaining copies left.
Pro tip For the best view of the sunset, walk along the southeast side of the Plaza de Armas, just past Sonesta Posada Arequipa and look for an open door leading up a series of staircases. Take all four staircases to the very top, and you will find yourself at a hidden jewel of a bar overlooking the historic plaza.
The sunset will ignite the Basilica, and watching the day change to night while enjoying a Pisco Sour above it all is truly lovely. Expert move: invite your new friends from the hostel!
While I had all my major stops and sleeping arrangements pre-planned, Peru is an easy country to navigate and make last-minute decisions in if you are willing/able to be flexible and patient. I am not easily ruffled and found the entire experience both rewarding and culturally enriching.
Currently planning a trip?
That's what this site is about - try planning a trip and see how Trip of Trips make planning fun by adding some intelligence to your trip. In two minutes you can even see how much it'd cost (your trip, Trip of Trips is allllll free).