From Machu Picchu to the Amazon, here is the ultimate beginner’s guide to backpacking in Peru!
One of the most visited countries in South America, Peru retains its appeal thanks to the now emblematic landmark of Machu Picchu.
But there’s far more to this country than trekking along the Inca trail or chowing down on ceviche in the capital city, Lima. Instead, backpacking in Peru is guaranteed to throw up some unexpected delights.
Similar to its next-door neighbour, Bolivia, Peru is a country that oozes traditional South American charm, particularly in the Andean region in the south-east.
Although it might be difficult to traverse at times, stunning scenery and implausibly towering mountains make the effort of backpacking in Peru more than worth the effort.
Table of Contents
- Guide To Backpacking in Peru
- The Five Best Cities To Visit In Peru
- Top Adventure Activities When Backpacking In Peru
- The Salkantay or Lares Treks To Machu Picchu
- The Colca Canyon, Arequpia
- The Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz
- Jungle Tours From Iquitos
- The Ballestas Islands, Paracas
Guide To Backpacking in Peru
Few travellers set on backpacking in South America miss Peru off of their lists. But, there’s far more to this country than the stone terraces of Machu Picchu and the golden sands and party hostels of Mancora.
Get under this country’s skin by understanding more about how the country works, what to expect when it comes to accommodation, food and transport and where to find the best adventure spots in Peru.
General Advice for Backpacking Peru
It helps to have a general idea of what to expect when you’re backpacking Peru. Here are some good tips to hel get you started.
- They speak Spanish here, but in tourist hubs, such as Lima, Arequipa and Cusco, you’ll find broken English in abundance.
- Learning the basics (¿Á cuánto cuesta? (How much does that cost?), ¿Cómo llegas a…? (How do you get to…) will always be useful when backpacking in Peru.
- As with most south American countries, don’t drink the tap water. Instead, invest in a good water filter, boil your water for 5-10 minutes (just remember you need to do this for longer at higher altitudes) or resign yourself to buying lots of bottled water.
- Always have toilet roll and hand sanitiser available. Although there are a lot of public toilets available in urban areas, their cleanliness cannot be relied upon and they often don’t have access to running water.
- Bring Imodium. You will likely get ill at some point.
- Don’t forget travel insurance. If you’re unsure about this, have a read of our “Do I Need Travel Insurance” resource page.
Food and Accommodation
- Peru is renowned for having the best food in South America. That said, if you go to the Andean region, you’ll be struggling to find anything more than alpaca meat with potatoes or rice.
- Their signature dish is ceviche, raw fish cooked in lime juice and accompanied by fat corn kernels, red onion and sweet potato. It really is delicious, but please don’t be like a girl I met in Cusco who ate it from the market each day. It’s raw fish after all, so get it somewhere along the coast where it’s likely to be fresh – and won’t leave you regretting your decisions.
- Markets can be a great way of eating local food, slimming down your food bill and getting chatting with the locals. Make sure you always pick a stall that is busy with other punters and try and go earlier rather than later so that the food hasn’t been sat around all afternoon.
- Street food is also a great way of keeping eating costs down but remember to only buy from stalls that have plenty of trade to avoid spending the rest of the day in the toilet. Try out papas rellenas (mashed potato filled with meat or a hardboiled egg and deep fried), fried yucca (a type of potato that is delicious and deep fried) and empanadas (pastry shells filled with minced meat and vegetables).
- Taxis on the street in Lima and Arequipa aren’t the best idea to flag down; ring a radio cab instead.
- Don’t wander around at night in Miraflores. Although it seems very European in appearance, it has one of the highest incidents of robbery, probably because people are fooled into thinking it’s very safe.
- Buses in Peru require some caution; always be prepared to pay more and book with a reputable company. The best include: Cruz del Sur, which is expensive but comfortable, Peru Hop, which is very reliable, has English speaking guides and drops you off directly at your accommodation.
- Alternatively, you can book your comfortable buses for one-off trips all over the country using Bookaway.
- In Lima, you’ll find the excellent Metropolitano, a bus system that runs on its own line so avoids the city’s infamous traffic. It’s far more expensive than using a colectivo (a normal bus), but is much quicker. You need to buy a prepaid car from one of the stations before you can used it.
- In Lima, the bus system can seem quite complicated, as colectivos aren’t labelled with their destination or stops very clearly. TuRuta is a free new app for Lima and Arequipa that you should find useful.
- Internal flights aren’t the cheapest in Peru but you can get a bargain if you can book a few months in advance. You can get flights between Lima and Cusco that cost the same as the bus journey and save you 24 hours!
The Five Best Cities To Visit In Peru
When you say the word “Peru”, Cusco is the city that most likely pops into your head. Historic and very comfortable by South American backpacking standards, this city is where many travellers find themselves spending more time than they bargained for.
San Blas, the narrow streets up the hill beyond the Plaza de Armas is the prettiest and most relaxed part of town where the majority of reasonably priced – and tasty – restaurants are located.
In Cusco, you’ll find plenty of tour agencies (with decent levels of English) keen to take you into the mountains and South America’s crown jewel: Machu Picchu.
Don’t forget, there are plenty of other awe-inspiring ruins dotted around the nearby Sacred Valley and in Cusco itself.
Check out the catacombs and the Last Supper Painting (with a Peruvian twist) in the Convento de San Francisco and pop into La Catedral on the main Plaza de Armas to check out its chapels that are decked out with gold.
Unfortunately, neither are included on the boleto turistico (the tourist ticket), so you have to pay individual entrance fees. La Catedral is included in the boleto religisoso along with three other sites at a cost of $15 USD.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Cusco
Green Point, Carmen Bajo
Cusco was one of the few places that I ever found decent vegetarian and vegan restaurants and this is one of the best and a welcome reprieve from the meat and rice dishes you normally find when backpacking in Peru.
Get the menu of the day (soup, main and a drink) for 12 soles ($4) and be reminded that vegetables do actually exist in the Andes.
Creperia and Backpacker La Boheme, Carmen Alto
Ok so this is definitely not Peruvian food, but the French crepes served by these guys are legendary amongst those who live in Cusco.
They do a set lunch menu and also have backpacker accommodation for 35 soles ($10 USD) for a four-bed dorm – and you even get crepes for breakfast! This place books up early so make sure you make your reservation in advance.
Intro Hostels, Cuesta de Santa Ana
Another super comfortable and well-located hostel, you can’t go wrong here with a dorm bed for 27 soles ($8 USD) with breakfast included.
Make sure you check out the delicious fried papas rellenas at the shop on the road leading to the Plaza de Armas. Book it on Hostelworld.
Mercado San Pedro, Calle Santa Clara
Make sure you check out Cusco’s main market, San Pedro where you can wander through stalls selling a multitude of llama jumpers and artisanal goods, grab a milkshake (just don’t get one with water in it) and even eat at one of the hundreds of tiny stalls at the far end.
The country’s most beautiful city, backpacking in Peru isn’t complete without a few days spent wandering the glorious white streets of Ciudad Blanca (the White City), Arequipa.
Similar to Cusco, Arequipa is the jumping off point for plenty of trekking activities – symbolised by the jutting figure of Volcano Misti that presides over the city.
It’s also a great place to relax and see some of the city’s stunning churches and white-washed colonial buildings.
One of the strangest yet most fascinating things to see in Arequipa is in Museo Santurios Andinos where the perfectly preserved mummy of a 12-year old girl, who was sacrificed to the mountain gods and frozen into the ice at the top of Ampato Volcano over 500 years ago, is on display. The whole exhibition is weird but seriously cool.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Arequipa
El Albergue Espanol, Peral
A small hostel, this place doesn’t include breakfast but does have a rooftop terrace with a kitchen and offers four bed mixed dorms for the price of 16 soles ($4.5 USD). It’s also very close to the centre of town. Book it on Hostelworld.
Terraza Arequpia Suits Plaza Hotel, Plaza de Armas
I wouldn’t recommend the food here, but it’s worth going up in the evening for the views across the Cathedral and the lights of the city. Order a beer and enjoy the view; they’ve also got ponchos to put on when it gets cold.
Museo de Pisco, Moral
The cocktails aren’t the cheapest but if you really want to experience Peru’s signature alcohol, this place is a must. The food’s pretty tasty too.
Few capital cities in South America divide opinion as much as Lima. For some, the European comfort and the selection of bars and trendy clubs of Miraflores (the locals here have a lot of money), is exactly what they’re been missing after a few months of backpacking in Peru, whereas for others, it feels a little bit fake and shallow.
Either way, for safety purposes, seaside Barranco and Miraflores are the best places to stay; some backpackers choose the cheaper hostels in the central area of the city but I’ve heard of a lot of stories of robberies happening there at night time.
Whichever part of town you do end up using as your base, make sure you take a trip over to Plaza Mayor, Lima’s UNESCO World Heritage main square, where you can ogle beautiful buildings, such as the Cathedral and the spectacular Palacio del Gobierno.
The Museo de la Iglesia and Convento San Francisco a block or two north-east is also worth a visit – check out the incredible catacombs which contain the bones of over seventy thousand people.
In Barranco, just spend an afternoon wandering alongside the sea or checking out this bohemian corner of the city’s street art.
And if you like cats, go to Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, where the city’s abandoned felines live and are cared for by a local charity.
The cats are so friendly – and mostly without fleas – that you can pass an afternoon cuddling up to a whole host of new friends
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Lima
Punto Azul, Calle San Martin (Miraflores)
One of the best cervicerias in Miraflores, Peru’s signature dish is to die for here. Book or get there early for lunch, otherwise you’ll be queueing for a long time. It’s not cheap but it’s worth the splurge.
Barranco’s Backpackers Inn, Malecón Castilla (Barranco)
For 37 soles ($11 USD) per night you can get a bed in a six-person dorm in this comfortable hostel in the Barranco district, Lima’s most up-and-coming (and my favourite) place.
It’s within walking distance of plenty of pubs and restaurants and feels safer than further into town. Book it on Hostelworld.
One of the most famous jungle cities in all of South America, Iquitos is a necessary stop-off when backpacking in Peru. Not accessible by road, most visitors arrive by plane or the distinctly more adventurous – and fun – method: river boat.
Sling up your hammock on a passenger boat from Yurimaguas in the north-east of the country and enjoy a few days cruising leisurely upriver, spotting tiny jungle side communities and glimpsing elusive rainforest animals, including the pink river dolphin, one of nature’s strangest creations.
In Iquitos itself, there’s a range of things to do, from exploring the twenty block Belan Market, where mountains of fresh, gutted fish rub shoulders with raw chickens and you might even – unfortunately – spot a turtle or two.
Although it might be tempting to buy some of the products made from exotic animals found here, backpackers with a conscious can demonstrate their support for protecting of the Amazon rainforest by not doing this.
Instead, visit Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage to visit an NGO that is working hard to rehabilitate trafficked animals.
Recommendations for places to stay and eat in Iquitos
Backpacker’s Hostel Iquitos, Amunategui
Super close to the beach and with excellent rooftop views, this is a very friendly hostel perfect for socialising or kicking back. It’s got a huge kitchen and a 10-bed dorm will set you back 40 soles ($12 USD).
If you’re feeling brave, head to the main market and pick up a menú del día (daily menu) of the catch of the day for around 3 soles ($1 USD).
Peru’s beach haven, Mancora is a tranquil oasis of calm and relaxation for those who’ve spent the past few weeks backpacking in Peru and enjoying the country’s more intense activities.
That said, the nightlife in Mancora is notorious so it’s easy to spend your time here avoiding actually seeing any daylight.
If you can make it out of bed, the beaches in Mancora get pretty busy during summer, so instead head for the beaches a bit further north towards Tumbes which are more chilled and offer calmer, quieter sands.
In Mancora itself, make the most of the region’s famed seas by enjoying the surfing, particularly during December and January when the waves are at their best.
Reputed to have some of the best conditions for kite surfing, you can definitely spend a few days learning how to do it, or if you’re less keen on getting in the water, you can watch the professionals with one of the many international and national kite surfing competitions held here.
Recommendations for places to stay and eat in Mancora
Misfit Hotel, Avenida Playa el Amor
A short distance from the centre of town and right on the beach, Misfit Hotel is a great little hostel with beautiful views. You pay 27 soles ($8 USD) and get a bed in a dorm room with breakfast – just be aware, the showers are salt water! Book it on Hostelworld.
Mercado, Av Piura and Av Prolongación Grau
Find cheap meals in the market in the north of the town.
Top Adventure Activities When Backpacking In Peru
Peru has come a long way in the past decade with its adventure offerings and how easy it is to explore the most beautiful parts of this incredible country.
When you’re backpacking through Peru you’ll never be short of a whole load of treks to historic ruins and through glorious mountain landscapes to keep you busy.
The Salkantay or Lares Treks To Machu Picchu
While most visitors to Cusco book themselves onto the classic trek to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail hike, if you want a quieter, more remote adventure then the Salkantay is more up your street.
Moving from high altitude passes to lush jungle valleys, this trail is one of the most outstanding you will find in all of South America – and you’ll be sharing it with far fewer other hikers.
An even more adventurous alternative is the Lares Trail, which even includes hot springs for relaxing tired muscles and can be extended to hike to Machu Picchu as well.
This is one of the least known hiking options in the area around Cusco and is only for the most adventurous.
How to visit Machu Picchu with the Salkantay or Lares Treks
You can walk the Salkantay alone, but unless you have full camping equipment and are prepared to carry food for four to five days, then it’s better to go with an agency.
One of my favourites is American Inca Trail who offer the Salkantay from $270 USD and the Lares (including Machu Picchu) from $485.
The Colca Canyon, Arequpia
About three hours by bus from Arequipa, the Colca Canyon holds the title as the world’s deepest – surprisingly deeper than the more famous Grand Canyon.
At the top, expect to see soaring Andean condors being buffeted by hot air streams and down below, enjoy the gleaming waters of the river that flows right through the basin, as the dusty, cacti-spotted landscape transitions into vibrant flowers and swimming pools lined with coconut and banana trees.
The most challenging part is the walk back out of the canyon which involves a 1km nearly vertical climb, but backpacking in Peru is all about adventuring, so sling on your boots and get hiking!
How to visit the Colca Canyon
Most backpackers go with tour agencies from Arequipa, which include transport to the canyon, a guide and your night’s accommodation at the bottom of the canyon, but it’s easy enough to take a bus from Arequipa to Chivay and the following morning take a bus to the start of the two-day hike.
Just make sure you leave your accommodation in the oasis at the bottom of the canyon for the hike out as early as possible – it’s not so much fun in the burning sun.
The Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz
The Cordillera Blanca is the best destination in Peru for hiking and is accessed from Huaraz in the north of the country.
This UNESCO designated Natural Heritage and Biosphere Reserve attracts a lot of intrepid adventurers to its large number of 6,000m peaks and green, glacial lakes.
One of the most popular hikes is to Laguna 69. 4,600m above sea level, this lake epitomises the exceptional beauty of those found in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with its turquoise water and snow-capped backdrop.
The 6km return trek to the lake is easy enough to do alone and requires you to take public transport to Yungay and then on to the national park.
How to visit Laguna 69 and the Cordillera Blanca
If you’d prefer to go with a tour, you can organise this in Huaraz and it’ll cost in the region of $45 USD.
There are plenty of other self-guided hikes in and around the national park, just make sure you acclimatize to the 3,090m altitude before you begin.
Jungle Tours From Iquitos
Although it’s possible to visit the Amazon Jungle from any one of the nine nations that have access to it, with prices reasonable and huge swathes of accessible jungle all along the eastern edge of the country, Peru is one of the most popular places to do so for backpackers.
When exploring the strange, wild depths of the Amazon, expect to stay in lodges in the middle of the jungle, hike through dense jungle to see monkeys, sloths, caiman and anacondas and even have the chance to visit communities and tribes set deep in the forest.
How to visit the Amazon Jungle from Iquitos
Help to support local, sustainable tourism when backpacking in Peru by doing your research to make sure that the operator you’re using is following responsible practices and paying their guides well.
Also, say no to anyone offering you a tour on the street as this is often a scam; instead, make sure you visit the official offices of tour companies and take advice from other travellers about their experiences.
The Ballestas Islands, Paracas
Referred to as the “poor man’s Galapagos”, the Ballestas Island near Pisco can’t even compete with Ecuador’s most famous archipelago.
But for those on a budget and with a penchant for penguins, sea lions, pelicans and the smell of freshly laid guano, these are right up your street. You might even get to spot some breaching whales as we were lucky enough to do.
How to visit the Ballestas Islands
Tours from Pisco or Paracas can be arranged cheaply and easily for around 60 soles ($18 USD) (we booked ours with a tour operator recommended in our accommodation in Pisco) or you can organize your visit directly from the boat terminal in Paracas for around 40 soles ($12 USD). Remember to bring your telephoto lens and some sunscreen!