Peru has always been a popular destination in South America. That’s for good reason; they have Machu Picchu, an established transportation system in and between cities, and their Spanish is relatively easy to understand. It has only become more and more popular as a destination for travelers and backpackers.
But Peru has much more to see than just Machu Picchu! Peru is also home to the Nazca Lines, Miraflores Boardwalk, Colca Canyon, Sacred Valley, and Uros Floating Islands. You might even see a llama or alpaca strolling through the city streets! If you have three weeks to spend in Peru, this was my itinerary – and what I would do again or change.
Links open to detailed itineraries – day by day – for each city!
How Much Time is About Right?
Between two and three weeks is about perfect if you plan your trip well! I saw most of what I felt I should have seen. I regret not hiking the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu, which typically takes 4 days and planning far in advance (booking a tour, etc.). Some of the time I spent resting, but for the most part was out and about the entire time!
I met two travelers who hired a guide to take them around Peru in 5 days. They wanted to see everything, so their days were long and a good portion of that time was traveling between cities. If you are pressed for time, I would recommend that you pick two or three cities instead of cramming in all the activities of Peru into every hour that you have!
Arrive to: Lima, Peru (4 Days)
In Lima, I spent 1 day getting acclimated after flying in. I spent a full day in each of the city and its suburbs, Miraflores and Barranco.
Lima is wonderful because it is a is mountainous on one side and borders the ocean on the other. You can easily walk from place to place, breathing in the ocean mist. There are also plenty of ancient ruins and historical influences in the city! Four days is just about enough time to spend.
I spent a lot of time in museums here, and trying to book a tour of Machu Picchu took me more time than it should have. I spent a good amount of time figuring out how to buy a bus ticket to Ica, activate my SIM card, shying away from public transportation, etc.
Ica + Huacachina, Peru (3 Days)
These destinations are much smaller than the others, but they provide a calm place to take in the desert! I stayed in Huacachina, but they are only ~10 minutes away but taxi; Huacachina feels more like a desert oasis resort than anything else.
Huacachina is a perfect place to take it easy for a couple days! The beach, though a pretty small area, is great for reading. The sunsets in the desert are STUNNING! Book a tour with the sand dunes – they include riding in a dune buggy across the open desert and sliding down the large hills! The vineyards in Ica are beautiful, and definitely the best place to buy pisco in Peru.
It’s best to keep your expectations low if you plan to do more than sit and read on the beach! Ica has little to do aside from the vineyards. Huacachina is exclusively for tourists and vacationing locals, so it has higher prices than usual. These two towns can be seen in a single day, but at least two days is best since the dune buggy tours start about 30 minutes before sundown.
Nazca, Peru (1 Day)
Nazca is home to the Nazca Lines! They are a series of geoglyphs that are giant drawings in the sand of various animals, patterns of lines, and objects.
The lines are beautiful! They are preserved because Nazca rarely gets any rain and has minimal wind. Instead of going on a $50, 30-minute helicopter ride over the lines, I opted for a more comprehensive tour of Nazca with a private guide. I saw the lines from a 3-story tall tower overlooking the tree and the hands geoglyphs, some old ruins, and old aqueducts. Since the night sky is crystal clear, I also saw wonderful views of the stars and moon through a telescope at night!
I definitely should have negotiated the price of the tour more! Unfortunately, I felt that what I got, the private driver/guide, was not a good deal for the price. I was traveling alone and had no experience negotiating, so the tour agent might have taken full advantage of that.
Cusco, Peru (4 Days)
Cusco is a must for travelers! To get to Machu Picchu, go through Cusco. It’s also home to a small but delicious chocolate museum/store and some of the most comprehensive museums in Peru!
Cusco definitely deserves extra time. Despite the high number of tourists (or maybe because of them), the city is lively, the markets sell foods you can eat directly, and everything is walkable. Because of its proximity to Machu Picchu and the rest of the Sacred Valley, you’ll be busy all day! I loved the chocolate samples at the museum, and Sacsayhuaman is a 20-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas.
The increase in altitude really threw me off! I went from being at sea level in the deserts of Ica to the Altiplanos of the Andes Mountains overnight. I had a mild headache for several days.
Ollantaytambo, Peru (1 Day)
Ollantaytambo is a small town about 90-120 minutes away from Cusco by car. Though it’s small, it’s home to the Ollantaytambo Ruins – part of the Sacred Valley!
One day is a good timetable for Olla. Arrive in the morning, explore the Ruins in the afternoon. There is a small market, but the Ruins are the main attraction and a good preview of Inca Ruins for Machu Picchu later! The town is close to Cusco, and very convenient. I also took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town that leads directly to Machu Picchu instead of going from Cusco. This saved me precious time – and helped me avoid the crowds!
The Ruins are part of the Sacred Valley ticket package, and you can’t buy tickets only for these Ruins. That means you need to visit at least a couple other Sacred Valley sites – such as Sacsayhuaman in Cusco – to make the ticket worth it. Otherwise it’s expensive by Peruvian standards!
Machu Picchu (1 Day)
EVERYTHING WAS A HIT. Machu Picchu is even more stunning in person than in pictures! Despite rain and crowds, the view is amazing! The rain actually cleared up by the afternoon, leaving the famous cloud cover that makes Machu Picchu look mystical. 100% would go again, even though it’s a tad pricey!
Arequipa, Peru (3 Days)
Arequipa is the 2nd-largest city in Peru after Lima in terms of population. The population doesn’t correlate with the number of things you can do there, though. I spent one day exploring the city with a free walking tour, and the other two days trekking the Colca Canyon.
The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and home to animals like condors and alpacas. If you book a trek or one-day tour, you will see all of them!
Arequipa is an elegant city; its architecture stands out as a mix of traditional Peruvian and Spanish styles. The city is also surrounded by gorgeous mountains like the Misti, which rises above the skyline and paints a beautiful snow-topped picture!
The Colca Canyon is also beautiful. The vegetation is lush and the variety of views means there is something for everyone! The Canyon is a key part of a trip to Arequipa; don’t miss it!
Arequipa is mostly a hub for getting you out to trek the natural sights around it, including the Colca Canyon and Mount Misti. If you aren’t interested in trekking, the city itself has little to offer.
Puno, Peru (2 Days)
Before going to Puno, I heard many other travelers telling each other not to visit it. The points that they made were logical; the floating islands, by far the main attraction, are very touristy. Instead of showcasing the traditional, local culture of Taquile and Uros (the islands of Lake Titicaca from the Puno coast), the tours are now very standard and the economies of the island residents rely heaving on these tourist dollars. I do, however, believe that the islands show a unique way of life that is worth visiting still.
Uros and Taquile really are gorgeous, from the completely reed-made Uro boats to the gates on Taquile that grace the cover of Lonely Planet’s guide to Peru. Because Puno is so well-known for these islands, they have many tour offices, restaurants, and bus companies that often work with foreigners. You can easily navigate the small city.
The city of Puno is not very exciting at all; there are lots of restaurants, tour offices, and accommodations, but the only thing to see in town is the Plaza de Armas (small) and a small church near the Plaza. However, those are nothing compared to the other Plazas and churches around Peru.
Furthermore, the islands are touristy. Even though I enjoyed the experience, it clearly was tailored for foreigners. The process of building the manmade floating islands of Uros was demonstrated with a very cute but well-used model. The tour guide spoke English and Spanish, but he would speak 1 minute of English for every 4 minutes of Spanish, alienating those of us whose Spanish was not yet good enough to understand everything.
The Major Places I Didn’t Hit!
As Peru was my first backpacking trip, I didn’t quite know how to plan everything! I missed out on parts of the Sacred Valley (Pisac or a Inca Trail trek) on the way to Machu Picchu; in addition, I missed the Salinas de Maras, the Peruvian salt flats. I didn’t travel north of Lima, towards the Amazon Rainforest – even though it would have been incredible! If you plan to go to Peru, research these along with the places I have mentioned.
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