In terms of diversity, Peru is second to none— within a relatively small country, you can experience pumping surf beaches, golden deserts, dense cloud forest, incredible high-altitude trekking, 15th century holy sites, and stunning colonial cities. You’ll barely scratch the surface of this Latin American gem in 2-3 weeks, but it’s still possible to see some of the coastal highlights, experience the most popular cities like Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco, and embark on a spiritual journey along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Use this comprehensive itinerary to plan a phenomenal trip to Peru, including everything you need to know about getting there, taking public buses, what to pack, and all the top experiences in each destination.

Check out my other Peru travel itineraries or my detailed Peru travel guide for heaps more information about planning the best trip to Peru:

Planning for your trip

Best time to go

Peru is a phenomenal year-round destination, but there are definitely times that will be better for visiting the coastline, Cusco, and Machu Picchu— unfortunately, these seasons don’t line up very well! Lima is at its sunniest and most beautiful in the winter (December – February), whereas Cusco and Machu Picchu are decidedly more enjoyable during the dry season from June – August. Unsurprisingly, this is also a busier time of year with many North Americans and Europeans taking summer holidays, but the only real impact this has on your trip is the need to reserve things a little bit farther in advance.

During the wet season at the very end/start of the year, you can expect daily cloud cover and torrential rain, particularly at Machu Picch (every February, the Inca Trail closes completely because of heavy rainfall). If this is your only time to travel, you can still have a wonderful trip (I spent a month in Peru in December and loved every wet minute— but the clear sunrise at Machu Picchu and the blue skies in Cusco during my August visit were undoubtedly more picturesque. The good news is that the other destinations along the coast, like Paracas and Huacachina, are relatively nice throughout the year.

Grey day in Miraflores

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.

Hectic traffic in Lima

Getting around Peru

Peru actually has one of the best networks of public buses I’ve seen anywhere in the world and, if you’re following this itinerary, there’s no need to take any internal flights until you’re heading home from Cusco. All main cities in Peru 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, dozens of competing companies, and trips at a fraction of the cost of flying. I’ve taken countless bus journeys around South America and Peru’s buses are definitely among the best in terms of comfort and actually running on time (looking at you, Colombia). RedBus is my favourite site for checking bus times and routes in advance and I’d also recommend reading this post for heaps of info about booking bus tickets in Peru.

With this itinerary, there’s also the option to travel with Peru Hop, a new hop-on/hop-off bus service from Lima to Cusco via all the destinations in this post. It’s more expensive than travelling by public bus, true, but it has some definite draws— added convenience of hostel pick-up/drop-off, cool extra stops along the journey, and a whole bus of fun backpackers to hang out with. After travelling around Peru for several months by public bus and then with Peru Hop, I wrote a super in-depth comparison to help you decide which is better for you! If you’re travelling alone or if it’s your first time in Latin America, I’d absolutely recommend it.

Read more: TRAVELLING WITH PERU HOP VS PUBLIC BUSES: AN HONEST COMPARISON

Bus travel in Peru

Health & safety concerns

It’s impossible to say that any destination is “completely safe”, but Peru would have to be fairly close— I was totally comfortable travelling by myself throughout the country and, taking basic safety precautions, didn’t really feel uncomfortable once. As long as you can speak some Spanish, it’s incredibly easy to get around and the locals are amazingly friendly, always willing to help.

With this particular Peru itinerary, there are very few health concerns you need to be aware of. You’ll want bug spray on the Inca Trail and at Machu Picchu, but there’s no malaria present in these areas, nor is there yellow fever. If you get sick in Peru (I got bronchitis recently), you can also purchase antibiotics over-the-counter at a pharmacy for about S/15, which is fantastic.

However, the altitude in Cusco (3,400m) and along the Inca Trail (4,215m) 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, but it’s still possible you’ll experience minor to moderate symptoms. I’d recommend checking out my post about altitude so you know what to expect, both in Cusco and on the Inca Trail.

Read more: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN SOUTH AMERICA
HIGH-ALTITUDE TREKKING: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO PREVENTING & TREATING ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN THE MOUNTAINS

Rainbow Mountain (near Cusco) at 5,200m

Essential packing list

  • 4x shirts and singlets for warmer afternoons and hiking
  • Fleece (only bring one, because you will definitely buy alpaca jumpers in Arequipa or Cusco)
  • Warm jacket (I’d recommend at least one down jacket because it gets cold in Cusco, regardless of time of year; buy a scarf on arrival)
  • Rain jacket
  • 2x tights or other comfortable pants
  • 2x shorts for hiking and around town
  • Dress/skirt
  • Swimmers
  • Sunnies + hat
  • Sandals
  • 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
  • Warm hat + gloves (can also purchase in Cusco)
  • Sunscreen + bugspray
  • Hygiene: shampoo, tooth brush, razor, etc (leave the make-up and hair straightener at home, everyone travelling Peru is going natural and it’s great)
  • Passport (+ colour photo copies), credit cards
  • Phone with local SIM card (I’d recommend Bitel or Claro)
  • Camera + spare batteries!

The view from Huayna Picchu

*Overview: recommended itinerary

  • Lima (1-3 days)
  • Paracas (2 days)
  • Huacachina (2 days)
  • Arequipa & Nazca (3-4 days)
  • Cusco (3-6 days)
  • Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (4 days)

Busy streets in downtown Lima


Make sure to try some fresh fruit in Lima!

Lima

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: 1-3 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).

Read more: WHAT TO DO IN LIMA: 10 AWESOME ACTIVITIES IN THE PERUVIAN CAPITAL

Paracas Nature Reserve


Adorable sea lion on the Ballestas Islands

Paracas

Travelling south down Peru’s Pacific Coast, it’s only a few hours by bus to reach the tiny town of Paracas, beloved for its stunning coastal scenery, incredible abundance of native wildlife, and two main natural attractions. The Islas Ballestas, often billed as “the poor man’s Galápagos”, are home to a booming population of sea lions, aquatic birds, and adorable little penguins, all easily viewed on an inexpensive boat tour from town. The second of Paracas’ main draws is the Nature Reserve, an incredible stretch of golden desert bordering red sand beaches and bright blue waves. Hire a bike to explore the best lookouts and beaches or join an inexpensive bus tour to take it all in.

The town of Paracas and its lacklustre grey beach may not be spectacular on their own, but there are so many beautiful things to see in this area that it is well worth dedicating 2 days to exploring. For more cool things to do in Paracas and some of my restaurant recommendations, check out this post.


Recommended time: 2 days

Highlights: Animals on the Islas Ballestas, the “poor man’s Galapagos”; colourful Paracas Nature Reserve; fresh seafood served at beachfront restaurants

Getting there: PerúBus, Oltursa, and Cruz del Sur operate inexpensive buses (around S/50) between Lima and Paracas, typically a quick 4hr journey. Alternatively, you can get from Lima to Paracas with Peru Hop. Two different buses operate daily out to Paracas: the first is a 4hr express bus leaving at 6am, but the second is a 6.5hr journey leaving at 7am that includes several interesting detours, the most worthwhile of which is a free guided tour of secret slave tunnels at the San Jose Hacienda. 

Where to stay: Kokopelli Backpackers Hostel is one of my very favourite hostel chains in South America! They have a wonderful pool, great onsite food, and the pod-style dorm beds are the best I’ve ever stayed in. Dorm beds from S/39 (discounted to S/33 if you are travelling with Peru Hop).

Read more: A COMPLETE TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARACAS, PERU: ISLAS BALLESTAS, PARACAS NATURE RESERVE & MORE

Huacachina oasis


Climbing up the Huacachina sand dunes

Huacachina

Surrounded by golden sand dunes and bathed in perpetual sun, the tiny town of Huacachina is located just 1hr from Paracas, making for a quick journey to your next destination. Don’t be put off by the fact that Huacachina has become an incredibly popular stop along the Gringo Trail— it’s popular for a reason, and what it lacks in authentic Peruvian culture, it more than makes up for in beautiful views and laid-back vibes.

The town itself is little more than a few blocks, but the oasis around which it’s built is incredibly picturesque and there are heaps of adrenaline-inducing activities to fill your days— cruise through the dunes on a sandboarding and buggy tour (S/50), soar over the oasis on a tandem paraglide, or just climb up the dunes yourself for an aerial view of South America’s only oasis.


Recommended time: 2 days

Highlights: Dune buggies and sandboarding in the desert; watch the sunset over the golden sand; climb the dunes for an insane view of the oasis.

Getting there: Take a 1-2hr bus to the nearby town of Ica from Paracas (Cruz del Sur, Oltursa, and PerúBus) and then grab a taxi up the road to Huacachina (15min). Peru Hop also offers a direct bus to Huacachina on their passes, which is a great way to save time and get straight to the oasis. The Peru Hop bus from Paracas arrives into Huacachina in the afternoon (around 2pm) and departs for Nazca the following afternoon (around 1pm, with buses running every day), which leaves plenty of time to go sandboarding, climb the dunes for sunrise, walk around town, and relax in the hostel pool. 

Where to stay: Wild Rover Huacachina is raucous party hostel primarily aimed at people who want to spend every day hungover and every night back on the sauce. If you can tolerate the noise, though, their pod-style dorm rooms are super comfortable, they have a great on-site bar and restaurant, and the pool is incredible on a hot afternoon. Dorms start at S/26 per night.

Read more: 8 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN HUACACHINA, PERU

Condors in the Colca Canyon


Nazca Lines

Arequipa & Nazca

Said to be Peru’s most beautiful city, Arequipa is dominated by brilliant white colonial churches, vibrant palms, and volcano views in every direction. The city itself is absolutely enchanting, but the main draw for adventure travellers is nearby Colca Canyon, the world’s largest canyon and the site of one of Peru’s classic treks.

The strenuous 2-3 day journey from the high-altitude rim of the Colca Canyon takes you down to the valley floor and back up again, all while enormous condors circle overhead and dramatic mountains stretch out around you. There are few better places to experience the incredible mysticism that the ancient Incas associated with mountains.

En route to Arequipa, more than 300 enormous geoglyphs are carved into the desert sands around Nazca in southern Peru, primarily animals and plants whose origins continue to inspire wild theories of alien invasion and paranormal activity. If you’re travelling with Peru Hop, you can stop off and see the Nazca Lines for free; otherwise, it’s a good way to break up the large journey from Ica to Arequipa.


Recommended time: 3-4 days

Highlights: Trekking and spotting enormous condors in one of the world’s largest canyons, the Colca Canyon; beautiful architecture and historic buildings; lookouts over Volcan Misti; bustling San Camilo Market

Getting there: Take a taxi from Huacachina to the bus station in nearby Ica, from where you can catch a public bus to Arequipa for S/50-70 (12hrs). If your budget allows, though, the best option is to travel to Arequipa with Peru Hop. Their buses depart directly from Huacachina, stop off for a Pisco tasting and to see the Nazca Lines, and then continue on to Arequipa by morning.

Where to stay: Dragonfly Hostel is centrally located and provides inexpensive dorm beds (S/24) with a relaxed vibe. Staff here will also happily look after your bags while you’re off hiking in the Colca Canyon.

La Catedral de Cusco


Overlooking Plaza San Blas


Via ferrata climbing in Peru’s Sacred Valley

Cusco

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. Get outdoors on some of the best high-altitude treks in the world like Salkantay or Rainbow Mountain, explore the Sacred Valley, shop for alpaca souvenirs, learn about ancient Incan history, and enjoy every single second in magical Cusco. If time allows, it’s also easy to embark on multi-day trips to the Amazon— Puerto Maldonado and Manu National Park are both within a reasonable distance— or get involved in local volunteer projects. As both a destination and a launch pad to other adventures, there is no better place than Cusco.


Recommended time: 3-6 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 Rainbow Mountain, via ferrata climbing, quad biking in the Sacred Valley; amazing trekking, like Salkantay, Ausangate Circuit, and Palccoyo.

Getting there: From Arequipa, buses are well-timed so that you can depart after dinner and arrive to Cusco first thing in the morning (10hrs, S/40-80). Peru Hop also drives the route from Arequipa to Cusco, including a few interesting stops and some much-needed stretch breaks over the 12hr journey.

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.

Read more: THE ULTIMATE CUSCO TRAVEL GUIDE: 25 AMAZING THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO, PERU

Dead Woman’s Pass, the high point of the Inca Trail


Machu Picchu bathed in golden early morning light

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

“Re-discovered” by archaeologist Hiram Bingham on his famous 1911 expedition, the Inca Trail is only a small section of some 20,000km of trails that were created and traversed by the ancient Incas in the 15th century. This particular trail is thought to have been a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu, along which walkers performed religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals to honour the towering Apus (mountain gods). Today, it’s still the most popular trekking route to Machu Picchu and undoubtedly one of the most famous hikes in the entire world— so it’s the absolute perfect way to wrap up your trip to Peru!

Over 43km, hikers struggle up impossibly steep mountain passes, descend through lush, seemingly impenetrable jungle, discover lesser-known Incan ruins, and experience the undeniable mysticism of the Peruvian Andes en route to one of the world’s most spectacular ancient wonders. By the time you arrive at Machu Picchu on day 4, the citadel will be so much more than a photo op.

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 Inca Trail is as good as it gets, a slow reveal of a truly otherworldly marvel.


Recommended time: 4 days

Highlights: Trek along an original Incan-built trail; see the sunrise at Machu Picchu; climb Huayna Picchu for even more spectacular views of the citadel

Getting there & away: All hikers along the Inca Trail are required to be accompanied by a guide, so you will need to book a tour departing from Cusco. These trips include return transport by way of train and shuttle back to Cusco, and then if this is the end of your trip, I’d recommend a flight back to Lima over the 24hr bus (no kidding).

Where to stay: Camping along the trail!

Read more: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING MACHU PICCHU (& NEW 2019 REGULATIONS)

View from Iglesia San Cristobal

Read more about Peru

WHAT TO DO IN LIMA: 10 AWESOME ACTIVITIES IN THE PERUVIAN CAPITAL

A COMPLETE TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARACAS, PERU: ISLAS BALLESTAS, PARACAS NATURE RESERVE & MORE

8 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN HUACACHINA, PERU

ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING MACHU PICCHU (& NEW 2019 REGULATIONS)

HIGHLIGHTS FROM 10 DAYS ON THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO INDEPENDENT & SOLO HIKING THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT IN PERU

THE ULTIMATE PERU TRAVEL GUIDE