Peru Holidays

by Kshaunish Jaini

There are plenty of great reasons for planning a Peru holiday. Many will have heard of the amazing ruins of Inca ruins of Machu Picchu reached by the Inca Trail and the Amazon rainforest, but there is so much more to this astonishing country. For hundreds of years, historians and explorers have been travelling to the country in search of El Dorado. The Spanish colony has left their mark in the beautiful architecture including towering cathedrals, best seen in Cuzco. The southern desert is home to the enormous mysterious geoglyphs left by the ancient Nazca civilization.

There are natural wonders here in abundance – Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake, Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest canyons, and the cloud forests are teeming with orchids and hummingbirds.

Adrenaline junkies should head to the highlands. Here it’s possible to go hiking, white-water rafting and mountain biking and there are plenty of excellent tour operators offering day or multi day trips. The Inca Trail gets booked up months in advance, but there are other options which are just a spectacular including the Salkantay and Lares treks. Though they don’t pass as many Inca ruins, trekkers enjoy incredible views over the snow-capped Andes mountains.

On the Salkantay trek in Peru.

On the Salkantay trek in Peru. Photo by Andre

Culture vultures should look beyond Machu Picchu to the Chimu ruins of Chan Chan near Trujillo and Keulap, a cloudforest fortress created by an ancient tribe. There is no shortage of ruins that highlight the layers of cultures over the last few thousand years.

Food tourism is growing, and there is no better place than Peru. Their cuisine is quickly becoming regarded as some of the most interesting and varied. It’s no surprise when you think of the geographically diversity. Be sure to try ceviche, white fish marinated in lime and citrus juices, near the coast. In the highland, tuck into cuy, guinea pig grilled whole over hot coals. It’s also unthinkable to visit Peru and not try a Pisco sour, a strong concoction of a Peruvian liquor, lime juice and egg white.

Highlights of Peru

One of the biggest draws to Peru is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu. This Inca ruin, once the royal holiday palace of an emperor, overlooks the Sacred Valley and Urubamba which meanders below. It’s spectacular. More recently, the citadel has been voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, along with the pyramids in Egypt and Chichen Itza in Mexico. Discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, the site has been renovated to give visitors a look back to the golden age of the Inca civilization.

The best way to get to Machu Picchu is along the four-day classic Inca Trail . This network of trails once stretched from modern day Ecuador all the way down to Santiago in Chile. Accompanied by a guide and porters, trekkers work their way up a challenging trail over three mountain passes, cloudforests and paved Incan trails, staying in spectacular camps along the way. Always remember to plan ahead for the Inca Trail. The Peruvian government only permit 500 hikers along the trail every day, so tour operators get booked up months in advance. It’s closed in February for maintenance. For those who don’t have the time, it’s possible to reach the ruins on one of three train services. Most visitors overnight in the town of Aguas Calientes to maximize their time at the ruins, but it’s technically possible to do it in a day.

Llamas seen en route Machu Picchu in Peru

Llamas seen en route Machu Picchu in Peru. Photo by Eder

If you can’t get tickets for the Inca Trail or you want to try something a little different, there are plenty of other spectacular treks in the Andes. Though the Salkantay and Lares treks don’t pass Inca ruins (although they are almost always combined with a visit to Machu Picchu at the end), they do take guests past some incredible Andean scenery. They are a lot less busy than the Inca Trail which is a bonus. Don’t try and attempt these treks on your own.

Adrenaline junkies should take advantage of the white-water rapids in the Andes. Particularly good around Cuzco, there are plenty of tour operators with well-maintained equipment who can take adventurous travelers on trips down the river. These can either be done in day trips or multi-day adventures, camping along the river. There are also some excellent rapids to ride along Cotahuasi and Colca canyons.

There are plenty of other adventure sports to do in Peru. The country’s Pacific coastline is home to some of the world’s best surf spots. Head to the little town of Huanchaco near the northern city of Trujillo for consistent swells. It’s recently be given one of only five places in the world to have International World Surf status. In the south, in the oasis town of Huacachina, it’s possible to climb the high dunes and come back down on sand boards. It’s take some practice, but when you have the technique licked it’s great fun. Afterwards, head down to the oasis to relax around the waters’ edge.

Culture vultures won’t be disappointed by Peru. The Sacred Valley , sometimes called the bread basket of the Incas, has plenty to do a see. Pisac has some ruins, but it’s mostly visited for the famous Sunday market where locals descend upon the town to sell there colourful wares. Ollantaytambo is one of the last remaining inhabited Inca towns and there are some impressive ruins nearby to explore. Moray is a series of circular terraces used by the Incas for cultivating crops, while Maras has salt terraces that are still in use to this day. Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, has plenty to do and see. Take a tour of the city to see the cathedral in the plaza, the Temple of the Sun and the Saysayhuaman ruins just outside the city which are still used to celebrate the Incan festival of Inti Raymi.

In Peru’s southern desert, the enormous geoglyphs of animals including jaguars, monkeys, llamas, birds and humans adorn the hillsides. Made from a mysterious civilization over a thousand years ago, the best way to see these huge drawings is onboard one of the small airlines offering hour-long flights. A cheaper option is to see the Nazca Lines is from a viewing platform, but it’s not the same.

Just outside Trujillo, there are some impressive ruins of a citadel called Chan Chan. Created by the pre-Columbian Chimu civilization, the city is very well preserved due to the dry desert temperatures. At its peak, the city was home to an estimated 60,000 people, protected by solid walls around the 20 square kilometres. The Chimu were most likely conquered by the fierce Incas during the 15th century.

A visit to Peru, is not complete without a visit to Lake Titicaca. Staying on the edges of the lake, take day trips to the reed islands of Uros. These floating reed platforms have reed homes, furniture and decorated reed boats moored to the side of them. The story goes that the people of this region fled onto the lake to defend themselves from the Incan military. Further onto the lake is Taquile Island, home to 2,000 residents known for their fine weaving and textile. The garment work is so sought after, it's now protected by UNESCO. Friendly villagers take you on a tour of the island, offer lunch and even open their homes to those who want to overnight. Lake Titicaca is best reached from Cuzco on board the luxury Andean Explorer train. The journey takes around eight hours and guests enjoy a three-course meal, an observation car and a saloon car.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca. Photo by Vlad

The ‘white city’ of Arequipa is an interesting place to visit, but the highlight is most certainly the old convent of Santa Catalina This colourful 15th century monastery is over 20,000 square metres big and was once home to over 450 nuns. It’s well worth a wander for the afternoon.

For wildlife lovers, Peru has much to offer. The Amazon river flows down through from its source in the Peruvian Andes, past cloudforest teeming with orchids and hummingbirds into the Amazon rainforest proper. Visitors can stay in one of the rustic lodges and spend days hiking and canoeing in search of giant otters, jaguars, tapirs, snakes, caiman and capybara. An early morning visit to one of the clay licks is a must. Hundreds of macaws and parrots descend upon the banks to peak at the clay, a technique scientists think neutralizes the toxins from their Amazon diet. Some lodges have canopy towers and walkways which offer close encounters to monkeys, sloths and colourful birds.

Another excellent spot for wildlife spotting is in Colca, a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon. In the early morning thermals, condors can be seen gliding in the canyon and circling above. Another even deeper canyon called Cotahuasi has recently opened to the public and is a lot less busy than the Colca Canyon. This area is also great for hiking, horse riding, white water rafting and natural hot springs.

Off the southern Pacific coast lies the Ballestas Islands and is sometimes referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. The island is a sanctuary for wildlife including the blue-footed booby, Humboldt penguins, sea lions, fur seals and much more. It’s possible to do a day trip to the islands from the Paracas National Reserve and is best combined with a visit to the nearby Nazca Lines.

Peruvian food is some of the best in the world. Ingredients sourced from Peru’s very distinct regions (the desert coast, the mountains and the Amazon), have created a varied cuisine. On the coastline, zingy fresh ceviche is the order of the day. Raw white fish like sea bass is marinated in lime juice, onions, chillies until it ‘cooks’ and is served with sliced sweet potato and giant corn. Aji de Gallina is another mouth-watering dish of chicken, potatoes, egg and black olives, covered in a slightly spiced sauce made from milk, bread, nuts and aji chillies. It may not sound appealing, but whole guinea pig roasted over the coals is delicious and an Andean specialty.  Arguably, the most popular dish is lomo saltado. Chinese immigrants brought their techniques during the 20th century and fused it with Peruvian ingredients to create this unique dish made from stir fried sliced beef, onions, chillies, French fries and soy sauce. Antichuchos are marinated grilled meat found being cooked on street corners across the country. The most popular is the grilled beef hearts served with salsa.

Best time to visit Peru

When to visit Peru very much depends on the activities you want to take part in, the weather and the public holidays and festivities. The three main geographically regions of Peru (the coast, mountains and Amazon rainforest) have considerably different weather conditions. The summer months in Lima and the coastline is between November and March. The weather can be hot and sticky around this time, but the beaches so enjoy a cooling sea breeze. The rest of the year on the coast, the beaches and cities can be a little overcast and gloomy with a thick fog descending most mornings.

A thick fog is common in the Andes in the mornings

A thick fog is common in the Andes in the mornings. Photo by Sergio

The Andes Mountains is best visited between April and November. The dry seasons sees warm sunny days with clear skies, though the night is often cold. Though you can go hiking all year-round, the rainy season can make it more difficult, with some trails closed due to flooding. It’s best to bring warm clothes at any time of the year in the highlands, as the temperatures can quickly plummet. The Inca Trail gets booked up months in advance, particularly between April and November, so grab your tickets early to avoid disappointment.

Though the Amazon technically has two different seasons, they are no so different. The temperature never really drops below 30C, even at night and the rains differ very little throughout the year. The main difference is the rains that hit the river in the mountains run down and make the lakes and creeks swell between November and April. This means that exploration is mainly done on board canoes. Mosquitoes are also more prevalent around this time. The rest of the year, the lakes and rivers subside, so hiking the trails is possible.  During this time, you are almost guaranteed to catch a fish if you go piranha fishing.

The other thing to remember before you book up your tour of Peru is the public holidays, events and festivities that go on across the country. During these times, domestic tourism is huge so not only is accommodation and transport booked up well in advance, it also tends to be more expensive. If budget is not a problem, it can be one of the most satisfying time to visit – full of colourful parades, dancing, music and feasting. Around these times, much of the infrastructure like banks and post offices close down during this time. Being a Catholic nation, it’s no surprise that Easter and Christmas are two of the most expensive and busy times to visit Peru.

Costs of travelling to Peru

The cost of travelling in Peru varies depending on the time of year, and tastes. Flying to Peru on economy class from the USA or Europe costs anywhere between US $750 and US $1250, though this can be even higher over Easter, Christmas or New Year. Flights from Asia, Australia and New Zealand can be very expensive and limited, so budget around US $2,000.

Peru has a range of accommodation options from dorm hostels to luxury resorts. Backpackers should budget around US $15 - $20 per day for dormitory accommodation, while high-end resorts and lodges can be up to US $150 or more for a double room. Out of the high season, accommodation options can be very good value, particularly if you book last minute.

There are plenty of food options to suit all budgets. Cheap street food and local restaurants around US $5 to $10 for a decent lunch. Like everywhere else, seafood is more expensive but still reasonable value. High-end fine dining, particularly in the capital Lima is of excellent quality but can be expensive. Count on paying US $50 or more including wine for a top-end restaurant.

Entrance fees to sites range anywhere between a couple of dollars up to US $35 to visit Machu Picchu. When you start adding on guide fees, the prices creep up quickly, but it’s still good value compared to much of the rest of Latin America.

Flying to Peru

The busiest season, outside of Easter and Christmas, is the dry season between May and October. This increased demand can drive up the prices of transport, accommodation, activities and flying. If you plan to visit in this time, be sure to book your flights well in advance. Outside of these hours, though the weather along the coast is not so great, prices can be very reasonable, and with tourist number reduced, you can enjoy much of Peru in peace.

There are many options to visit Peru in all budget ranges

There are many options to visit Peru in all budget ranges. Photo by Frank

When booking your flights, cheaper seats tend to be booked up first. The more expensive tickets nearer to departure usually have less restrictions and can usually be changed for a fee. These are your best bet should you be travelling to the country for a long time and are unsure about when you want to return. Another option to think about is an open-jaw return which allows you to book a flight into one city and out of another. A good option for those exploring other parts of Latin America.

Peru receives almost 5 million visitors every year and this is only growing. The main airport and hub is Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima. From the USA it’s possible to get direct flights from New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas-Fort-Worth, Atlanta and Los Angeles. These main hubs serve the rest of the country and beyond, so it’s possible to fly into Lima indirectly from almost anywhere. LAN airlines have direct flights from Toronto, though it’s not much more expensive to fly form Montreal or Vancouver.

UK citizens make up much of the tourist numbers that visit Peru, however it was only in 2015 that a direct flight served by British Aires was reinstated after a 25-year hiatus. There are also direct flights from Madrid, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. There are many flight routes using these four hubs or flying via the United States. 

Flying from Australia or New Zealand is a little more difficult. Aerolineas Argentinas have a flight route from Sydney to Buenos Aires via Auckland, from which it’s possible to fly up to Peru. Alternatively, you can fly from each of these countries to Los Angeles and fly south from there.

At the time of writing, Asia currently does not have any direct flight routes to Peru. Flights from the major hubs of Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Beijing to Los Angeles and south from there is the quickest.

South America doesn’t have any low-cost airlines like Europe’s Ryanair, however there is a good network of flights. It’s possible to fly from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, Quito and Bogota to Lima, and more routes from places like Iguazu Falls are planned for the future.

More information on Peru:

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