What’s more frustrating than trying to plan a trip through Peru without knowing how long to stay in one place? Most people, like me, don’t have an unlimited amount of time to travel and want to make sure to get the most out of their time. While planning as you go has great benefits – being able to take up someone’s suggestion without having to pay cancelation penalties for other things, for example – it’s certainly not for everyone. Even if I know it’s going to be fine, I get tense when I don’t know my plans!
How to Budget Your Time Through Peru
It is certainly possible to see all of Peru’s main attractions and big cities in one week. I met two friends who took advantage of a long weekend and a couple vacation days and booked a rush tour. This is not ideal because you will spend much of your time traveling between cities and/or spend a fortune on transportation. You won’t have time for a lot of the smaller but quirkier attractions.
If you have very limited time, you need to choose between staying in one place and exhausting the sights in the area (you could easily spend a week in Cusco and the Sacred Valley) or taking just one or two days to see the biggest sights and move on. What you choose should depend on you!
To have a more leisurely time seeing all the sights of Peru, I would recommend about 2.5 weeks. For me, between 2.5 and 3 weeks was enough to see everything I wanted to see in Peru (except the rainforest!). However, if you want to see the rainforest, trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, explore the Sacred Valley more than just the most popular spots, etc. you may expect to add time to your itinerary.
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Lima: Doable in 1-2 days, but 3-4 recommended
Lima, the capital, is probably closest to a big city that you can get in Peru. It has a combination of museums and cultural sites that mainly showcase Peruvian modern culture. While it has some history in its buildings, much of the preservation is in Cusco. It also has two suburbs (Miraflores and Barranco) that are popular tourist destinations as well. In a time crunch, you can explore the main city and Miraflores/Baranco in a day each, or spend up to 4 full days seeing all of it.
Ica/Huacachina: 1-2 days recommended
Ica is a small desert city located a couple hours south of Lima. Huacachina is a lagoon oasis about 10 minutes from Ica, easily accessible by taxi. Ica is famous for its vineyards, which can be visited during the day, but not much else. Huacachina is more lively because it is full of tourists; it offers a beautiful relaxing beach (not suitable for swimming) and sand activities at dusk (dune bugging, sliding down the sand hills as if they were made of snow, etc.). The sunsets are absolutely stunning here. If you can stop by, taking one late afternoon to book a dune bugging/sand sledding tour because you will have a blast and dream of coming back again.
Nazca: 1 day recommended
The non-touristic and non-historic parts of Nazca are really a dud. There’s honestly essentially nothing there but houses and some small businesses. Even the Plaza de Armas is basically non-existent. HOWEVER, the UNESCO Nazca lines are both stunning and a MUST! These lines were discovered decades ago and depict weird but clearly coherent shapes whose meaning remains unknown until today. You can make this a day trip – I stopped by here on a bus from Ica, then left the same night on a bus to Cusco – or stay a night. These lines, the museum, and the planetarium provide a great overview of the area. If you can get a tour that includes the old aquifers and ruins overlooking the city (taxis are few and far between, making them unreliable), you can round out the day in Nazca.
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Cusco: 2 days at the VERY minimum, 4-5 days recommended
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, which means Cusco warrants a must visit of at least two days. You can see the great Inca citadel and UNESCO site in one day, or take your time. If you want to trek the Inca Trail that takes you through some beautiful countryside and often lets you stay with local families, treks are usually 4 full days and must be booked pretty far in advance. It’s a lot of walking and physical activity, but I didn’t met anyone who has regretted trekking. Cusco itself has several museums and markets that are great for better understanding its history and contemporary life, and is the gateway to several Sacred Valley ruins that can take a full day each to visit.
Another thing to note about Cusco is that it’s a lot higher in elevation, so you might want to factor in some time to get used to the altitude. If you plan to hike/climb a lot of Machu Picchu, try to acclimate first.
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Arequipa: 1 day minimum, 3 days recommended
Arequipa, though quite a large city in terms of population, doesn’t have nearly as much to offer. You can see the city on a walking tour and browse the local market in one day. In the city itself, there really is little else to see. The main reason I stopped here was to see the Colca Canyon. It’s one of the deepest in the world (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon!). It is not accessible through public transportation, but day tours or couple-day treks are not expensive. I chose a two-day trek, which was a good choice for me.
If you like hiking, there are several large mountains that you can hike as long as the weather permits it. You can check with your accommodations to get a tour: unlike Lima or Cusco, there aren’t very many tour agencies around the city.
Puno: 1 day recommended
When I was in Peru, I heard several people tell me that Puno was not worth it. Its main attractions are a couple islands in Lake Titicaca, one of the highest altitude lakes in the world; it really has very little else to offer. The first set of islands, manmade islands that float, are really a unique experience. Critics say that the experience is overly touristy. I can attest that the demonstration of making the island was done with specially-prepared props and the island was flooded with souvenirs. But, you won’t see anything else like it! I thought it was well worth it. Either way, the other island (natural) is picture-perfect. It’s surrounded by pure blue water and is featured on the cover of Lonely Planet’s Peru guide.
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Of course, everyone has different tastes and it’s really up to you choose your experience! Don’t forget that traveling between cities is important to take into account, as is rest time! Going around to see all the sights, eat great food, and meet amazing people can seem like a full-time job (though a very enjoyable one). Just remember you will need to rest, not just while you sleep.
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