Peru is a traveller’s dream, blessed with diverse landscapes from verdant jungles to arid deserts and snow-capped mountain ranges. It is the ideal concoction of culture, colour, cuisine and a touch of Andean zest to top it all off, and the perfect place to spend our belated honeymoon and first foray into South America. Needless to say: Peru had me at hola.
One of the most difficult tasks that we faced prior to the trip, however, was working out our Peru itinerary, because 3 weeks in Peru is not enough time. Sure, you’ll get the highlights reel, but you’ll still only be skimming the surface. I laugh now because initially we thought that we could cram both Peru and Argentina into 3 weeks—an impossible task.
After much umm-ing and ahh-ing, we finally managed to whittle our wish list of places to visit down into a more realistic, albeit fast-paced, itinerary. This was not to be a relaxing honeymoon by any means, but who needs relaxation when you have adventure, ceviche and pisco sours!
Here is a suggested 3-week Peru itinerary covering the Amazon, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Note on transport: Bus travel is extensive—and cheap!—throughout Peru, and many tour companies offer private transfers as well. However, we chose to fly wherever we could in order to minimise travel time and maximise our exploration time in each city.
A 3-week Peru itinerary
Day 1: Lima
At some point of your trip to Peru, you will inevitably encounter the capital city of Lima, either spending time there on your arrival or before departing Peru. We chose to leave our time in Lima until the end of the trip.
Early on, we quickly realised that many of our flights from Lima left early in the morning, meaning that overnight stays were required even though we didn’t have much time in Lima itself. In these instances, we stayed in the stock-standard Costa del Sol Wyndham Lima Airport Hotel, literally right across from the airport, in order to make it easier to catch our flights in the morning—perfect if you’re not a chirpy morning person. You’re also welcomed with a free pisco sour!
Days 2–4: Amazon Rainforest
Transport: Flight from Lima to Iquitos (approx. 2 hours)
Although Peru contains only 13 per cent of the Amazon Rainforest—the second-largest portion after Brazil, which has a whopping 60 per cent—the Amazon basin covers approximately 60 per cent of Peruvian territory, an indicator of its sheer size. The Amazon wasn’t part of our original plans but visiting the world’s largest rainforest and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet seemed like an opportunity not to be missed, and it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.
There are 2 ways that you can access the Peruvian Amazon: via Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado. We went through Iquitos which is the largest city in the Amazon. It’s further from Lima, but it is actually on the Amazon River, unlike Puerto Maldonado which lies on a tributary that feeds into the Amazon River. It’s a minor detail but if we were going to go all the way to the Amazon Rainforest, then I damn well wanted to see the Amazon River and its famous pink dolphins and Hollywood human-eating piranhas.
Stay at Amazon Muyuna Lodge: Muyuna Lodge is a 3-hour boat trip up the Amazon River from Iquitos and a home away from home in the jungle. Your days and nights will be filled with excursions led by expert guides where you’ll find yourself trekking through the lush rainforest, wildlife spotting—I see you over there, Mr Sloth!—, swimming in the Amazon River with pink dolphins, piranha fishing, canoeing and unleashing your inner Dora the Explorer, before returning back to the lodge to swing lazily in hammocks. Somebody, take me back already.
Days 5–6: Arequipa
Transport: Flight from Iquitos to Lima (approx. 2 hours) / Flight from Lima to Arequipa (1.5 hours)
Altitude: 2328 metres (7638 ft)
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and often overlooked as merely an entry point to the Colca Canyon; however, many people quickly become enchanted by the subtle elegance and charm of this tranquil city—myself included. Known as the ‘White City’, Arequipa is a photographer’s dream, awash in gorgeous colonial-style buildings made out of sillar (white volcanic rock) and surrounded by a hazy panorama of dramatic volcano peaks. Interspersed throughout the blanket of white buildings are pockets of vibrant hues and splashes of bright primary colours—the best example of this being Arequipa’s star attraction, the Santa Cantalina Monastery, which is not to be missed.
Stay at Casa de Melgar: This was my favourite place where we stayed while in Peru. I was instantly enamoured by the dusty red walls, open courtyard and rustic rooms—if you’re after a place with character, this is it. It’s also in a central location and within walking distance of the main attractions. My only regret is not staying here longer!
Days 7–8: Colca Canyon
Transport: Private bus from Arequipa to Colca Canyon as part of a 2 days/1 night tour with Carlitos Tours
Altitude: Chivay – 3630 metres (11,910 ft)
The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. Tourists also flock to Cruz del Condor, a prime location for spotting soaring condors. The drive through the Colca Valley from Arequipa town is worth it alone, passing the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve before reaching the Patapampa Mountain Pass, which is approximately 4900 metres above sea level. The change in altitude will leave you feeling a little light-headed, so make sure to keep hydrated and drink all the coca tea you can get your hands on.
Descending into the Colca Canyon is like shifting back in time. You’ll pass agricultural terraces—some pre-date the Incas—and rural villages where locals still don traditional attire, with each village distinguished by their distinctive headwear. Most tourists tend to base themselves in Chivay, the largest village in the Colca Valley, but we stayed in Cabanaconde, past the Cruz del Condor, which gives you an opportunity to see more of the villages.
Stay at Kuntur Wassi hotel in Cabanaconde: A quaint hotel with rustic vibes and a B&B feel. Ask for the ‘honeymoon suite’ which is the room on the rooftop with the most incredible view overlooking the town.
Day 9: Puno
Transport: Tourist bus from Chivay to Puno (6.5 hours)
Altitude: 3810 metres (12,500 ft)
Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which is the reason why most travellers pass through this tumbledown port city. I overheard a man at the airport describe Puno as one of the ugliest cities he’s ever seen and I had to roll my eyes at this. It’s true—Puno isn’t beautiful in the classical sense but it does have a certain well-worn, ramshackle appeal to it. It’s also regarded as the folklore capital of Peru and famous for its many vibrant festivals held throughout the year. We even stumbled upon some festive locals dancing and playing the panpipes in the main square.
Stay at Tierra Viva Puno Plaza: A standard hotel that is conveniently situated around the corner from Calle Lima, one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in Puno lined with shops, bars and restaurants, and in walking distance of the main square. Puno did feel a bit sketchy at times, so we mainly kept to walking around the old town.
Days 10–11: Lake Titicaca
Transport: Tour boat from Puno to Amantaní island (3 hours)
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and it straddles the Peruvian and Bolivian border. Here, you’ll find the famous floating islands of the ancient Uros people, and the biggest tourist drawcard for excursions out on the lake. These artificial floating islands are formed completely of bundled layers of totora reeds, which need to be continually replenished.
As part of the tour, we did a homestay with a local family on Amantaní island. We were fed delicious traditional vegetarian meals (the Peruvian staples of potatoes and quinoa soup) by our island ‘mum’ and provided with a basic room to sleep in where a candlestick acted as our ‘electricity’—there was nowhere to charge my phone, that’s for sure. There was even a town fiesta organised for all of the families, where we dressed up in traditional clothing and learned some of the local dances (warning: it involves continually dancing in circles and getting dizzy in the process).
Stay on an island with a local family. I would definitely recommend this experience to get a taste of local island culture, and there are many tour companies that offer island homestays. We went with Carlitos Tours as an extension of our Colca Canyon tour.
Days 12–13: Cusco
Transport: Flight from Juliaca to Cusco (1 hour)
Altitude: 3399 metres (11,152 ft)
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, as well as the Sacred Valley, which means that it gets its fair share of visitors. It is a town that is set up to welcome the hordes of tourists streaming in, but has managed to retain its authenticity, which is one of the many reasons why people end up falling in love with the city. Most guidebooks will advise you to stay a couple of days to acclimatise to the higher altitude, but you’ll end up wanting to spend more than a couple of days here as there is so much to see and do in and around the city.
Stay at Hotel Rumi Punku: This funky boutique hotel is perfectly situated in the artistic San Blas neighbourhood.
Days 14–19: Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
Altitude: Salkantay Pass (highest point) – 4600 metres (15,092 ft)
You can’t visit Cusco without paying a visit to the iconic Machu Picchu. While some take a train up to the Inca ruins, others do a hike with the most famous being the Inca trail. We opted to do the Salkantay trail with the Mountain Lodges of Peru, essentially because this is the only tour company that has lodges along the trail (as opposed to camping grounds), and we wanted to rough it in the most luxurious way possible—it was our honeymoon after all.
Stay at Mountain Lodges of Peru: This was one of the best decisions we made as there’s nothing like coming back to a hot tub and massage after a day of trekking up steep terrain and down slippery slopes. It was definitely worth the price tag!
Days 20–21: Lima
Transport: Flight from Cusco to Lima (1.5 hours)
Spend the last couple of days in Peru eating up a storm. Unbeknown to many people, Lima has emerged as a gastronomic destination in part buoyed by the success of Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio. Dine at his restaurant Astrid y Gastón—that is, if you can get a reservation (it’s in the top 50 list of world’s best restaurants). Couldn’t get a reservation? Why not go on a Urban Adventures tour where you get to enjoy a delicious homemade meal with a local Peruvian family instead?
While many travellers choose to stay in Miraflores down by the beachfront, I would recommend staying in the bohemian neighbourhood of Barranco, which is full of cute and trendy restaurants and bars, and an ideal place for wandering around aimlessly. Brooke Saward from World of Wanderlust shares her tips and recommendations for Barranco here.
Stay at Casa Nuestra Peru B&B: A cute B&B with the most gorgeous exterior and a large common area that is ideal for meeting other travellers on the go.
What to do before you arrive
- Don’t don’t be too ambitious when planning your Peru itinerary—there is a lot of ground to cover so pick a few key highlights that you don’t want to miss out on and use that as a starting point for your itinerary.
- Book in your vaccinations. Having your yellow fever vaccination is mandatory for Australians and you should check what vaccinations are required before travelling.
- Book your tour to Machu Picchu if you’re intending on trekking with a tour company. Note: you can only do the Inca trail with a guide.
- And on that note: Do your research on tour companies and make sure to pick one that has consistently positive reviews.
- If hiking, pack appropriately and make sure to bring rain-proof gear and good hiking boots. We were exposed to all of the elements while doing the Salkantay trek.
- Purchase altitude sickness pills from your doctor just in case. We were quite lucky and only had minor headaches, but we saw other people who needed to go on oxygen tanks.
- Brush up on your Spanish—it will come in handy!
- Keep small packets of tissues with you in your bag (public toilets don’t always have toilet paper).
- Don’t drink the local water unless you want to get sick.
- Drink lots of coca tea and water when adjusting to the altitude—don’t be surprised if you’ll need to go to the bathroom every 5 minutes, though.
- Try and have small change in Peruvia soles on you. Going to public banos (toilets) can set you back a sol and shopkeepers don’t always have sufficient change for larger notes.
- Bring sunscreen and mosquito repellant and proceed to smother yourself with it. Funnily enough it was during the Salkantay trek that I got attacked by mozzies, while I was virtually untouched in the Amazon. Vigilance!
- Don’t forget to bring your passport to get into Machu Picchu. You can also get it stamped while you’re there!
- Go on, buy the colourful beanie. You know you want to.
Get in the Peruvian mood
- WATCH: The Motorcyle Diaries
- READ: Anything by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2010
- LISTEN TO: Anything with panpipes playing in the background
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