Although somewhat unsung, Peru is one of the best trekking destinations in the entire world, rivalling even the Alps and Himalayas with its rugged, high-alpine beauty and dramatic, untouched landscapes. What really sets Peru apart in terms of hiking, though, is the ability to escape all crowds and spend days on a trail without seeing another human being, something that has become wholly impossible in other popular trekking destinations. So much of the Andes remains off the beaten path, completely un-commercialised and un-glamourised, just raw and rough and indescribably magical.
This itinerary is a segment from my most recent trip to Peru, which crammed some of the country’s best hikes into a reasonably short time frame, but with constant consideration for acclimatisation. It is designed for trekkers who are in Peru to see as much of the mountains as possible, have some experience in the backcountry, are able to carry all their gear, and are comfortable backing up treks with very little down-time in between— out of the last 20 days of the trip, I spent 18 days on a trail. If you can hack it, this is a spectacular adventure and possibly the best way to fall in love with the Peruvian Andes and their infinite, mind-boggling beauty. Use this guide to help you plan your own mountain expedition, featuring the Salkantay Trek, Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, Huayhuash Circuit, and some of the best day-hikes out of Cusco and Huaraz.
Check out my other Peru travel itineraries or my detailed Peru travel guide for heaps more information about planning the best trip to Peru:
- PACIFIC COAST PERU: 2-3 WEEK PERU TRAVEL ITINERARY FROM LIMA TO CUSCO
- INCAS & THE AMAZON: 2-3 WEEK PERU TRAVEL ITINERARY FROM LIMA TO MANU NATIONAL PARK
- THE ULTIMATE PERU TRAVEL GUIDE
Planning for your trip
Best time to go
Weather in the Peruvian Andes (and therefore on Salkantay, Ausangate, and Huayhuash) is typically grouped into two seasons: a cool, dry winter (also referred to as the “Andean Summer”) from May to September and a minimally warmer, but much wetter summer from October to April. There really isn’t much difference in terms of temperature throughout the year (nightime lows around -10 to 0C, daytime highs around 20C), but rainfall and cloud cover fluctuates wildly depending on season.
To really get the most out of this itinerary and these amazing treks, I’d recommend planning your trip during the dry season. It’s no guarantee that you won’t still get a bit of rain and snow in the mountains, but you’re far more likely to enjoy clear skies and sprawling views, both in the Cusco region and the Cordillera Huayhuash.
Getting to Peru
For this itinerary (and 99% of all Peru trips), you will fly into Lima through the Jorge Chávez International Airport, situated just 10km (20-30min drive) from the city centre or 18km (40-60min drive) from the popular tourist districts of Miraflores and Barranco. The best way to get to your hostel is with the Airport Express bus; book your ticket in advance online for $8USD or at the counter in Arrivals (next to the car hire companies, right before customs).
Depending on where you’re flying from, you might have a layover in Santiago or Buenos Aires, but Lima is a major hub for Latin America, so flights are typically reasonably priced and fairly direct these days. When I flew to Lima from Sydney in 2014, it cost $2,300 and involved 4 flights, but when I flew in 2019, it was just $1,200 and included only a single stopover in Chile. From the US, flights can be as little as $500 return.
Getting around Peru
Peru actually has one of the best networks of public buses I’ve seen anywhere in the world. All main cities have large bus stations (sometimes several) that service heaps of near and far destinations around the country, buses constantly running throughout the day and night, and dozens of competing companies. RedBus is my favourite site for checking bus times and routes in advance, but I’d specifically recommend taking the Cruz del Sur night bus from Lima to Huaraz. I’d also suggest reading this post for heaps of info about booking bus tickets in Peru.
You’ll need to fly between Lima and Cusco (the 24hr bus ride through the Andes is quite literally torture and I would never, ever recommend it), so look for an inexpensive flight with Latam, Viva Air, Peruvian, or Sky. Other than this, you can get anywhere you need to go on a bus.
Health & safety concerns
The altitude in Cusco (3,400m), along the Salkantay Trek (4,650m), at Rainbow Mountain (5,200m), and on the Huayhuash Circuit (5,090m) will be an issue for some, contributing to headaches, lightheadedness, fatigue, and possibly even altitude sickness. This itinerary is designed to help you acclimatise slowly and therefore minimise the risk of developing altitude sickness on your treks, but it’s still possible you’ll experience minor to moderate symptoms. I wrote a super detailed post about preventing altitude sickness, recognising the symptoms, and appropriate treatment while trekking, so I’d definitely recommend giving that a read.
On all of these treks, constantly-changing weather and unpredictable trail conditions can also make for a challenging trip. Under no circumstances should you set out independently without a well-stocked first aid kit, a good knowledge of mountain survival, and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). Particularly in the remote Andes where you can go days without seeing other humans, carrying a PLB could be the difference between life and death. We carried an InReach, but there are cheaper options with fewer features that will do an equally effective job in an emergency. Just make sure your model works in Peru— AND that you have good travel insurance that covers medical evacuation.
This itinerary includes 2 guided treks (Salkantay and Ausangate/Rainbow Mountain) to act as acclimatisation trips for 10 days solo along the Huayhuash Circuit— having much of the heavy camping gear carried for you, meals prepared, and a guide to make sure everything goes smoothly on these first 2 treks will allow you to focus your energy on adjusting to the altitude. By the time you’re alone in the remote Cordillera Huayhuash, you will be more than ready to tackle high passes without assistance!
Essential packing list
- 4x shirts and singlets
- Fleece (only bring one, because you will definitely buy alpaca jumpers in Cusco)
- Warm jacket with synthetic insulation for trekking
- Down jacket
- Rain jacket
- 2x tights or other comfortable pants
- 2x shorts for hiking and around town
- Sunnies + hat
- Comfortable shoes for walking around (runners or converse)
- Sturdy hiking boots + wool socks
- Trekking poles (also possible to purchase in Cusco or hire from the trekking company)
- 25-35L day pack
- 50-65L backpack
- Filter water bottle
- Hiking gear: tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, pillow, stove, cookware, dehydrated food, etc (see specific packing list here)
- Warm hat + gloves (can also purchase in Cusco)
- Hygiene: compact shampoo, tooth brush, etc
- Passport (+ colour photo copies), credit cards
- Phone with local SIM card (I’d recommend Bitel or Claro)
- Camera + spare batteries!
For detailed packing lists specific to the Salkantay Trek, Ausangate/Rainbow Mountain trek, and Huayhuash Circuit, check out these posts:
- SAVAGE MOUNTAIN TO MACHU PICCHU: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO HIKING THE SALKANTAY TREK IN PERU
- A GUIDE TO TREKKING AUSANGATE & RAINBOW MOUNTAIN IN PERU
- SOLO HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK FOR 10 DAYS WITHOUT A GUIDE
*Overview: recommended itinerary
- Lima (1-2 days)
- Cusco (3-4 days)
- Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu (3-5 days)
- Ausangate Circuit/Rainbow Mountain Trek (2 days)
- Huaraz (2-4 days)
- Huayhuash Circuit (9-12 days)
Begin your Peru trip in Lima la gris, Peru’s notoriously grey and oft-overlooked capital city— but don’t think there’s nothing to see here! Although you won’t find Cusco’s colonial charm and it’s pretty rare to get a “beach day” even if the city is right on the Pacific Ocean, Lima is truly the culinary epicentre of Peru, making for the perfect introduction to all the delicious local cuisine you’ll be enjoying over the next few weeks. Sample flavourful dishes at one of the world’s best restaurants, Central, or learn to prepare ceviche yourself by joining a Peruvian cooking class.
Spend most of your time hanging out in Miraflores, a cool coastal neighbourhood with heaps of parks, great ocean views, and plenty of delicious things to do (it’s all about the food, people), but make sure you also venture into the chaotic city centre. Downtown Lima is dirtier, busier, and far less safe than the coast, but it’s exactly this loud and colourful insanity that will make your visit so fun. No where is the booming population (10 million!) more obvious than in the backseat of an Uber— you haven’t seen crazy driving until you’ve driven around Lima, where a typical trip includes merging across 8 lanes of traffic inside a roundabout, nearly hitting several pedestrians, becoming stuck between two buses, and your driver honking about 500 times to a chorus of other horns. Somehow, there’s a method to the madness, though, so try to unclench and enjoy the bustle of the city. It took me 3 visits to really like Lima, but now I’m a staunch advocate for incorporating at least a few days in the capital into any Peru itinerary.
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Highlights: Incredible Peruvian cuisine in this foodie capital; Parque Kennedy and its resident cats; Huaca Pucllana ruins; trendy coastal neighbourhoods Miraflores and Barranco, with beautiful sites like Parque del Amor and the Miraflores Lighthouse
Getting there: Fly into Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport and then take the super convenient Airport Express bus all the way to Miraflores without hassling with a taxi or a public transport. Book your ticket in advance online for $8USD or at the counter in Arrivals (next to the car hire companies, right before customs).
Where to stay: Central Lima is incredibly hectic, and while it’s part of what makes the city so fun to explore, I would recommend staying outside of the pandemonium in trendier and safer (if more touristy) Miraflores of Barranco, both of which are on the coast. I love Hostel Kokopelli Miraflores (S/30 per bed).
Next up on your itinerary is, quite possibly, the best city in the entire world! Once considered the spiritual and political heart of the vast Inca empire, Cusco (meaning “centre of the universe” in Quechua) is still one of the most vibrant and historically significant cities in Latin America. Its close proximity to Machu Picchu and some of the country’s best high-altitude trekking have made this enchanting city the centrepiece of nearly every Peru itinerary, and it’s honestly impossible not to fall in love. With its intriguing mix of ancient Incan spiritualism, Spanish colonial architecture, and modern Andean culture, just walking down the lively, cobbled lanes of Cusco is like stepping through history.
I’ve spent over a month in and around Cusco and I still feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this incredible place, so there’s truly no shortage of amazing things to do. Make the most of your time here, but also don’t be afraid to take it easy when you first arrive, as the altitude can be quite a shock for some.
Within walking distance of Cusco city, a number of impressive and lesser-known ruins provide the perfect opportunity to explore Incan history beyond Machu Picchu (and get outside for a bit of acclimatisation). Perhaps the best thing about Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Sacsahuamán is that they are easily accessible entirely on your own, no guide or tour bus necessary— take a break from all the organised tours and instead hit the road yourself on this excellent DIY adventure. Other fantastic day trips include via ferrata climbing and ziplining in the Sacred Valley, quad biking to the Salineras de Maras, and hiking to Palccoyo.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
Highlights: Charming blend of Incan and colonial Spanish architecture; incredible history and many significant sites; ruins just outside the city; lively San Pedro Market and countless artisan markets; an endless variety of day trips, like via ferrata climbing, quad biking in the Sacred Valley, or hiking Palccoyo.
Getting there: The 24hr bus ride from Lima to Cusco through the Andes is beyond terrible (the serpentine mountain roads, the rising elevation, the fact that it takes 24 HOURS…), so instead look for an inexpensive flight with Latam, Viva Air, Peruvian, or Sky. Depending on time of year and how far in advance you book, flights can be $30 up to $100+.
Where to stay: The very best areas to stay in Cusco are either San Blas or the Centro Histórico. My favourite hostel in Cusco is Kokopelli, which is slightly more expensive than other dorm rooms, but worth every sol. They offer pod-style dorm beds (S/50) that make it feel like you’re in a private room, a great free breakfast (or free packed lunch if you’re departing on an early morning tour), on-site tour booking, and a lively bar and restaurant with surprisingly reasonable prices.
Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
There are a number of treks to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail being the most popular, but arguably the most spectacular in terms of scenery is the Salkantay Trek. This hike navigates 70km of trail from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes, traversing high mountain passes and sweeping valley views over 5 days. However, a number of modifications can be made to this trek thanks to nearby roads/trains, which cuts out the penultimate day for a shortened 4-day trek or a challenging 3-day trek. This is preferable for the current itinerary, since there are still a lot of treks to come (and I also didn’t feel that the scenery missed on the 4th day was a terrible loss).
As mysterious as it is breathtaking, Machu Picchu is quite possibly the best preserved Incan archaeological site in all of South America, but certainly the most beloved. This is one of those rare places that actually exceeds all expectations, far more magical in person than even perfectly timed and heavily edited Instagram photos can convey. And even though it’s probably been on your mind since the first moment you contemplated a trip to Peru, experiencing it at the end of the Salkantay Trek is a dramatic, slow reveal that only magnifies the beauty. And make sure to climb Huayna Picchu for even more spectacular views of the site!
Recommended time: 3-5 days
Getting there & away: Trekking tours depart Cusco and include return transport by way of train and shuttle back to town. It’s also possible to do the Salkantay Trek independently, but guided tours are incredibly inexpensive ($400 including entrance to Machu Picchu) and a better way to ease into the acclimatisation for this particular itinerary.
Where to stay: Camping along the trail!
Ausangate Circuit/Rainbow Mountain Trek
After getting your first taste of high-altitude trekking on the Salkantay Trek (and hopefully becoming somewhat acclimatised), it’s time to take things even higher. The Ausangate Circuit is a spectacular and very off-the-beaten-path 70km trek around Nevado Ausangate (pronounced OW-san-got-eh), typically taking 4-5 days for a complete loop. For this itinerary, I’d instead recommend an abridged version of the Ausangate hike that incorporates the best of the main trail and a visit to the famous Rainbow Mountain.
What is now one of Peru’s most popular natural wonders, Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) wasn’t on anyone’s radar until mid-2015, when a massive thaw revealed a rainbow-striped mountain that had been hidden for centuries beneath the ice. Dangerous warning of climate change aside, Rainbow Mountain is one of the most impressive displays of Peru’s geological diversity— and thankfully it links up perfectly with the equally amazing Ausangate Circuit for an incredible 2-day (31km) adventure.
Recommended time: 2 days
Getting there & away: Guided tours of this 2-day Ausangate Circuit/Rainbow Mountain trek will include return transport from Cusco to the trailhead. We went with Flashpacker Connect, which was pretty expensive at $350USD, but offered a really remote and spectacular route (we didn’t see another soul on day 1 and were among the first half-dozen people at Rainbow Mountain on day 2).
Where to stay: Camping along the trail!
The so-called “trekking capital of Peru“, Huaraz is a moderate-sized town in the Ancash region north of Lima, best loved for its proximity to the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash. Both of these mountain ranges are simply spectacular, home to some of Peru’s tallest and most breathtaking peaks, so it’s no surprise that you’ll be making your way to Huaraz for the final leg of this itinerary.
With a few free days before setting out on the Huayhuash Circuit, I’d recommend at least one day-hike in the surrounding mountains— Laguna Parón and the scramble to Huandoy Viewpoint is particularly special! The town itself really isn’t much to comment on, but take the opportunity to stock up on any last-minute trekking gear (it’s also possible to rent most anything) and get your packs all sorted for an early morning departure.
Recommended time: 2-4 days
Highlights: Explore Peru’s trekking capital and go on fantastic acclimatisation hikes in the surrounding Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash, like Laguna Parón, Laguna 69, Pastoruri Glacier.
Getting there & away: There’s a regular Cruz del Sur bus running between Lima and Huaraz (you’ll need to fly from Cusco back to Lima first) several times throughout the day and night, and it’s really simple to reserve this online in advance. I’d recommend getting first-floor VIP seats (for only a couple soles more) on the night bus, which departs from Lima’s Plaza Norte— there are multiple stations in Lima, so just make sure you go to the right one. This bus, like most buses in Peru, is crazy comfortable and you’ll even be served hot drinks and a sandwich, given a blanket and pillow, and have a personal entertainment system in your seat-back.
Where to stay: I had the most incredible stay at La Casa de Maruja in Huaraz (S/50 for a single room). Not only are the rooms comfortable and reasonably priced, but the couple that owns the hotel is beyond wonderful. Gilf is a professional mountain guide who can help with any route planning or last-minute questions about your trek and his wife Maruja is insanely sweet— she delivered me tea in bed when she heard I was feeling sick, brewing up a special local remedy for my stomach bug. They will also store any bags you aren’t taking on the trek until you return!
And finally, the main event of this itinerary, the solo trek you’ve been working towards… the Huayhuash Circuit is a remote and impossibly scenic high-altitude route in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced why-wash). The trail circles some of the tallest and most impressive mountains in the Andes, offering surreal vistas of jagged snow-capped peaks, turquoise lakes, and even steamy hot springs as it crosses 12 mountain passes over 4,500m. And it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the best, if not the best, alpine treks in the entire world.
Perhaps one of the greatest things about the Huayhuash Circuit, on top of the simply surreal scenery, is the feeling of being off-the-beaten-path. In a region perhaps best known as the setting of Joe Simpson’s epic survival following a mountaineering accident on Siula Grande (6,344m), there are still surprisingly few trekkers setting out on the trail, and far fewer setting out independently. True, it’s a definite challenge hauling yourself and 10 days worth of food and gear up impossibly steep scree slopes, but experiencing these landscapes and magical vistas in complete solitude is actually indescribable. This is as good as it gets.
Read these posts to help plan your independent adventure:
- THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO INDEPENDENT & SOLO HIKING THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT IN PERU
- SOLO HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK FOR 10 DAYS WITHOUT A GUIDE
- HIGHLIGHTS FROM 10 DAYS ON THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT
Recommended time: 9-12 days
Highlights: The most spectacular trek in the entire world; high mountain passes and expansive valleys; wild camping beneath tumbling glaciers and towering peaks; complete serenity on this remote, rugged trail.
Getting there & away: To avoid an entire day of public buses and walking on the road, start instead at the first campsite in Quartelhuain by booking a private shuttle through High Summit Peru for $150USD. The owner of the company, Marco Reyes, is an incredibly experienced mountaineering guide— you might even see him out on the trail leading a trekking group like we did!— and his driver Jaime is the sweetest.
Where to stay: Camping along the trail! All the details about campsites and the best wild camping spots in this post.