When I say Peru is a traveller’s dream, I mean it. That’s because the country itself is absolutely huge, and there are heaps of routes for anyone backpacking Peru. Do you like historic ruins and the hikes that lead to them? Peru has those. Do you like hanging out at beaches, getting in some surf? Peru has those, too! What about lively cities packed with culture and nightlife? Check! All of the best places to visit in Peru will leave you with travel memories for years to come.
Parque de la Reserva, in Lima, 📸:@halfhalftravel
How to decide where to visit in Peru
There are a variety of different landscapes and cultures in Peru, so there are lots of cities and areas that could be considered the best places to visit in Peru. There’s the coast, with its cliffs and Pacific shores, there are the Andes Mountains, with their soaring peaks and indigenous people, and there’s the Amazon region and the famous high-up Lake Titicaca. There’s a lot to prepare for, from high altitudes in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, to being surrounded by wildlife deep in the jungle. There’s everything in between, as well as heaps of awesome hostels all over Peru.
I like learning about Peruvian culture – indigenous tribes, ingredients in foods I’d never seen or tasted before (including some of the hottest chili peppers on Earth) and the influence of Spanish colonialism that you can see in the architecture.
Desserts in a Lima bakery, 📸:@halfhalftravel
Check out these top places to visit in Peru if you’re just starting to figure out where to travel during your South America backpacking trip.
Best places to visit in Coastal Peru
1. Centro Historico & Chinatown, Lima
A Buddha in a store window in Lima’s bustling Chinatown, 📸:@halfhalftravel
Travellers might skip over Lima, the cliff-side capital of the country, considering it as a place to fly in and fly out of. But I’m gonna tell you a secret — Lima has a LOT to see and is one of the best cities in Peru to visit! You can spend anywhere between two and four days in Lima.
In Lima, there’s the trendy and revitalised Barranco neighbourhood that’s home to a cluster of new bars and restaurants. A fun thing to do is take a bike tour around the area and admire all the new street art that has popped up in recent years.
You can also visit two places I prefer above all others, the Centro Historico (historic centre) and Barrio Chino (Chinatown). Conveniently they’re next to each other, so you can create your own walking tour to see all the sights in one go. While you’re in Barrio Chino, stop at any eatery for ‘chaufa’ cuisine, which is Peruvian-Chinese fusion.
The best time to go to Lima is from December to April, which is summer in Peru. Starting in August and September, the coast of the country will have a dense fog that hangs in the sky for many months, so you’ll want to avoid this.
How many days: 2-4
2. The Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines are a historic phenomenon and one of the most mysterious places you can visit in Peru. If you’re one of those people who love watching conspiracy videos, you’ll love this spooky spot. They are a series of huge lines drawn in the desert by pre-Columbian indigenous tribes, shaped like animals and themes from nature, and they’ve somehow stood the test of time. They were so advanced for their time that some people believe they were created by aliens!
If you take a “bus hop” with an operator like Peru Hop, you’ll have a quick stop at the Nazca Lines, or you can otherwise choose to spend a night. The best way to see the lines is from above, as they’re not visible from ground-level. You can head to the viewing tower near the highway or splash out on a helicopter ride.
One day is enough to see these puzzling sights, but there are a lot of hostels in Nazca too if you wanna take more time to explore. Travellers have wonderful things to say about Nazca Lodge, a homely retreat that’s a relaxed place to meet other backpackers.
How many days: 1-2
3. Huacachina Desert
When people think “Peru,” they don’t usually think “desert with rolling sand dunes,” but that’s exactly what you’ll find in Huacachina. Adrenaline junkies will love it here. Why? Because the main activity in Huacachina is touring the oasis town and then jumping in a dune buggy! You’ll be driven fast in an open-air buggy, racing over the dunes and then coasting down the slopes. There are adventure sports on offer too. Have you ever sand-boarded? Well this is your chance!
Huacachina is a year-round destination, because its desert location means it’s always hot and dry. Pack your sunscreen and hydrate, because there’s no bad time to go. Most travellers tend to spend one full day in Huacachina, for a dune buggy and sandboard excursion in the desert. If you’d like to take a second day to relax in the sunshine (which is beaming nearly every day) at your hostel pool, that’s a cool idea too.
For me, one of the most memorable parts of staying overnight in Huacachina was waking up and seeing a giant sand dune right outside my hostel. Check out your options from all the hostels in Huacachina. Banana’s Adventure screams all things backpacker, with a large swimming pool, cocktail bar and free brekkie. Woo-hoo!
How many days: 2-3
Las Pocitas, Mancora, 📸:@lorenzonuccipe
Surf’s up! Mancora is one of Peru’s surf hubs, so if you’re a beach-lover looking for a good party, add this to your top places to visit in Peru. The best time to go is between May and November, which covers fall, winter and spring in Peru.
What attracts travellers to Mancora besides its beach is the lively nightlife, where you’re bound to meet other like-minded travellers. For the best backpacker-friendly parties, head to hostels like Loki Del Mar or Wild Rover Mancora for rowdy events on most nights where anyone is welcome. On the beach itself, there are a cluster of four bars that have tunes blasting all evening.
During the day, find options for yoga, cafes, pizza and ceviche in the town. Make sure you’re on the beach for sunset, as those Pacific views can’t be beat.
To get to Mancora, you can easily fly from other domestic airports, like Lima. You can also take a bus, as the country is pretty well connected. You can spend anywhere between one and four days here, depending on your flexibility.
While you catch a wave or two, take your pick of the awesome hostels in Mancora. The Point Mancora Beach Hostel is a solid choice and a solid party. Massive swimming pool? Check. Poolside bar? Check. Cheap beds? Check!
How many days: 1-4
Trujillo is a charming city where you can spend three days and still have things to do. Known as the City of Eternal Spring to the locals, it’s a beautiful coastal city with a rich cultural heritage, where the ocean isn’t far away.
Trujillo will enchant you with its nearby ruins, deep history and seafood cuisine. Delish! Nearby is the surf beach of Huanchaco, where you can test out the waves or relax and watch the world go by. Further out west of the city is Chan Chan, famous for being an endangered UNESCO world heritage archaeological site of Pre-Colombian ruins. Its sandy look is truly one of a kind.
Do you fancy some seafood? This is your time to try fresh delicacies from the Pacific Ocean, Peruvian style. If you’re itching to try ceviche (several times a day if you’re keen), Trujillo will be the spot. Ceviche is made with raw fish that’s marinated in citrus and served with choclo (giant Peruvian corn), camote (sweet potato) and red onion for garnish. Savour the flavours, as this is something you’ll want to remember.
The ideal time to visit Trujillo is from April to November, fall, winter and the cusp of spring in Peru. You can spend anywhere between two and three days in Trujillo, as you’ll want to take some time to hit the beach and see the town.
Looking for a place to stay? Trujillo has lots of awesome hostels with affordable prices that’ll keep your wallet happy.
My Friend Hostel will get you riding those waves in no time thanks to their on-site surf school! Their restaurant will also give you a taste of the region’s delicious cuisine.
How many days: 3-4
Best places to visit in the Highlands (Andes) in Peru
6. Arequipa’s historic streets
Arequipa is one of the best cities in Peru to visit. It’s somewhere I wish I had spent more time, so if you have the flexibility I’d suggest seeing the city for two days and taking another few to have even more adventures in the region. Arequipa is the city of three volcanoes, and this is what makes it so unique. If you’re in the mood for a city with a relaxing vibe, Arequipa is it. Wondering what to do in Arequipa? I recommend the city walking tour, because all the guides are so knowledgeable. Don’t forget to tip! You can spend anywhere between one and three days here, depending if you’ll be side-tripping to Colca Canyon.
To get to Arequipa, you can fly or, if you want to be more eco-friendly, take a bus (there are many) or a shared ride.
I recommend I recommend Wild Rover’s Arequipa hostel, it’s an excellent location close to all the downtown sights and it’s super social, which is great if you’re travelling solo. Explore the other hostels in Arequipa too!
How many days: 2-5
Cusco is on every traveller’s dream Peru backpacking itinerary. It’s undoubtedly one of the top places to visit in Peru, and soon you’ll see why!
Cusco is located at a rather high altitude, so an expert tip I can give is to use your first two days in Cusco to acclimatise. See how you’re doing with your health before going on to Machu Picchu or attempting any physical activities like hiking. You can take historic tours of the architecture in Cusco, or you can see the plazas, churches and other buildings on your own. If you get lucky, you may see a parade or catch the beginning of a festival! Because there’s so many things to do in Cusco, from enjoying the city itself to taking day trips to other locations in the Sacred Valley, you can spend upwards of three days to more than a week.
My favourite attraction in Cusco is a little bit outside the city, but completely accessible on your own or with a short half-day tour. It’s the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, where I first saw the incredible Incan-style stonework that has kept these sites intact for so long. Saqsaywaman is a good way to spend half a day while you’re based in Cusco, as the altitude is not much of a change from the city itself.
While you’re in Cusco, you might notice that the food is unique. Have you ever heard of cuy? This is the Spanish way to say ‘guinea pig’, and while this dish is certainly not for everyone, it’s a local specialty that doesn’t come cheap! If you’ve not yet booked a Machu Picchu trek or day trip, don’t worry. You can book with your hostel or any tour agency in the city once you arrive.
A favourite hostel in Cusco is Loki Cusco. It has a great social scene, a courtyard for hanging out and great staff with lots of tips for travellers. There are some ultra-stylish hostels in Cusco, so take some time to explore them!
How many days: 3-8
8. Machu Picchu
You’ve probably seen thousands of photos of the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s really a breathtaking place and is often the main inspiration behind travellers planning a Peru backpacking trip in the first place! To get to Machu Picchu, you can take a train to Aguascalientes (the base town), or you can trek from Cusco. Many travellers choose the adventurous option, but both are scenic in their own ways. The best tip for those wanting to go to Machu Picchu is to consider the time of year. Between January and April, the Andean region is rather rainy. Machu Picchu is not a good idea at all in February, when the Inca Trail closes due to poor conditions. The best months to visit are from April until October, when you’re likely to have a sunny view and the best photo opportunities.
To see Machu Picchu itself, you only need one day. I recommend going with a guide rather than completely on your own, because this historic site has many intricate details that the expert local guides can explain best. My guide was memorable and awesome, making my visit to Machu Picchu much more unique than if I had taken myself around without any knowledge of the place. Within the designated park zone, there are two very steep hikes to take for an upper view of the ancient structures. My hike of choice was ‘Machu Picchu Mountain’, and against the rain, mist and altitude I had to work hard to get to the top. From the peak of this mountain within the national park, you can see even more of your surroundings, presuming you have ideal weather.
For a night’s sleep while visiting Machu Picchu, you’ll want to stay at the town of Aguascalientes. Take a look at the hostels in Aguas Calientes to get inspired.
How many days: 1-2
9. Colca Canyon (Cañon de Colca)
Indigenous woman selling textiles in Colca Canyon, 📸:@halfhalftravel
Colca Canyon doesn’t seem to grab the same attention as Machu Picchu, which is peculiar, because it’s a magnificent natural wonder that’s just waiting to be explored! This canyon, several hours outside Arequipa, is said to be deeper than the Grand Canyon of the USA. Many travellers opt to spend time in the larger cities and skip over this fantastic scenery, so take a dive and check it out. What’s beautiful about the canyon is its colours, deep ridges and wildlife. You can go for a multi-day trek with any operator referred by your hostel in Arequipa, or just opt for a day trip. Going for a single day will be tiring, as the day trip operators leave Arequipa in the dark at around 3am and arrive by morning to the canyon. You’ll have the daytime to see the canyon and some markets along the way when stopping for meals, then by late afternoon you’ll be heading back.
How many days: 1 (4+ if hiking)
Best places to visit in the Peruvian Amazon
Prepare for Amazonia! Iquitos is the original entry city for travellers going in to the Amazon from Peru, so there are several different hostels to choose from. From Iquitos, you can explore the northern region of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, which is the main reason to go. There are so many trips you can arrange from Iquitos! Usually, your hostel will help you or will recommend preferred tour operators. You can choose adventures like spotting manatees, ziplining or visiting rare and threatened wildlife in designated natural reserves. I suggest spending between three and five days, if you have the time in your itinerary.
How many days: 3-5
11. Puerto Maldonado
Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to the southern Amazon region in Peru. Think of Peru like a letter “C,” with Puerto Maldonado being at the lower end of the curve. If you’re looking for a quieter place to explore Peru over the hotspots of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, this region is for you. It’s newer to the backpacker scene than Iquitos, so you can be the one to spread the word amongst your friends!
Puerto Maldonado isn’t exactly a destination in itself, as it’s the starting point for the other adventures to have in the Amazon rainforest. You’ll have a great chance of seeing local wildlife, including monkeys and capybaras. Keep in mind that life in Puerto Maldonado focuses around the river, so a cruise is a must-do!
You can arrive by bus or flight from various domestic airports. The best time to go is during May to September. You can spend between two and four days, depending how many activities you decide to engage in.
How many days: 2-4
For a town not known by the typical traveller, Tarapoto packs in quite a surprise. It’s less famed than Iquitos and hostelling is much newer to Tarapoto than to other places. So, why is it worth a visit?
Tarapoto is called Peru’s “jungle paradise”, because it’s a hub for Amazon exploring. It might also be your way into the Amazon region, or the way out. If you love nature, you’ll enjoy visiting the nearby Ahuashiyacu Waterfalls, going bird-watching, or rafting in the Mayo River. Visit during May to September for the driest weather. If you like being based in a jungle town and if wildlife is your vibe, you’ll want to spend anywhere between two and three days here.
How many days: 2-3
What did you think of these top places to go in Peru?
I’d love to know what you thought of my ideas for the best places to travel in Peru, as this country is massive with different experiences for every kind of traveller. If you’re still deciding where to visit in Peru, think about the types of activities you like doing, whether it’s hiking, camping or seeing historic ruins, and start there.
About the author:
Becca Siegel is a travel writer based in Brooklyn, NY, USA. She runs the @halfhalftravel travel website and Instagram with her boyfriend and travel partner, Dan. Becca has spent some serious time abroad, from living in China and Hong Kong for 2.5 years, to working remotely in Europe and Latin America more recently. Favorite place on earth: Hong Kong. Favorite hostel: Hostel Mamallena, Boquete, Panama Follow me on Instagram: @halfhalftravel