When I arrived in Peru, I struggled to imagine how I would ever fit it all in. Peru is a country with amazing diversity, from lush lowland jungles to arid coastal deserts to the high mountain ranges of the Andes. Ten weeks later, as I crossed the border into Ecuador, though, I felt I had made a good dent.
I’ve been a perpetual traveler for over two years, but I know that not everyone has the luxury to move as slowly as I do. I wrote this three-week itinerary because I know that so many backpackers want to see it all in a very limited time frame, and I fell so in love with these destinations that it’s hard for me to recommend cutting any of them!
But warning: this a whistle-stop, take no prisoners itinerary that only the most energetic of travelers should take on. It leaves almost no room for missed buses, hangovers, impromptu sidetrips, stumbled-upon festivals, naps, or afternoons daydreamed away from the window of a café.
If it is at all possible, I highly recommend doing this same route over the course of a month (or more!), adding an extra day to each destination. Do a biking tour of Lima, stay another night in Huacachina and take a winery tour, and add a day to Arequipa so you don’t have to choose between adventure activities. Do the four-day instead of three-day Adventure Trek to Machu Picchu, and add a day in Cusco after to recover. Viva Peru!
• Days 1-2: Lima
Take a nap after your red-eye flight lands in Lima and you’ve checked into one of the many hostels ringing Kennedy Park in Miraflores. Wake up for lunch at famed sandwich shop La Lucha before heading off to a market tour and Pisco Sour making lesson – there’s no better introduction to Peru. Spend the evening wandering around Barranco (don’t miss the MATE gallery – bring your student ID if you have one!), and treat yourself to dinner in one of its hip eateries.
One Day 2, wake up early to watch the surfers at Playa Waikiki and stroll through Love Park. In the afternoon, do a DIY walking tour around the colonial downtown area (Lonely Planet Peru has a great one mapped out), and stick around for the evening fountain show at Parque de la Reserva.
• Days 3-4: The South Coast
Wake up early on Day 3 to catch a 3.5 hour bus to in Paracas. Check into the Kokopelli Hostel and spend the afternoon ATV riding around the Paracas National Reserve, then sign up for an early morning boat tour of of the Ballestas Islands the next day. After marveling at the penguins, sea lions and pelicans, hop another bus for the short one hour journey to Huacachina, a literal oasis in the desert. Check into Banana’s Adventures Hostel and lounge by the pool until the evening sandboarding and dunebuggying tour begins.
On Day 5, continue down the coast another two hours to Nazca, and splurge on a flight over the famed Nazca lines. In the evening, catch the nightly lecture at the Nazca Lines Hotel before hopping on an overnight bus to Arequipa. As you’re saving on a night of accommodation, splurge on a high-end bus company like Cruz del Sur or Ormeno — if you book Cruz del Sur ahead of time online, you can score major sales!
• Days 6-8: Arequipa
On Day 6, relax by the Wild Rover Hostel’s pool before taking a leisurely afternoon tour of the city’s top attractions: the Santa Catalina Monastery, the Museo Santuarios Andinos, and the Cathedral of Arequipa. On Days 7 and 8, head off for an overnight DIY trek through the Colca Canyon (no need to spend money on a group tour), or stick to the city and take a rafting day trip.
• Day 9-12: Lake Titicaca
On Day 9, relax, do laundry, and catch up on emails in the morning before taking a six hour bus to Puno in the afternoon. While a night bus could save time, they aren’t considered safe in this region. When you arrive at your hostel in Puno, make arrangements to leave early the next morning for a two-day tour of Lake Titicaca. Puno’s a dump – you won’t regret spending Days 11 and 12 away from it!
These Lake Titicaca tours typically take in the Uros Islands in the morning and then head to Isla Amanti for lunch before an overnight at a homestay on Isla Taquille.
• Days 13-18: Cusco & the Inca Trail
On Day 13, take the Inca Express bus trip to Cusco, which breaks up the day-long journey with four interesting stops along the way. Cheaper options are available – but trust me, they aren’t worth the $10 savings. Depending on your mood, check into one of Cusco’s many hostels — either Mama Simona’s (for peace and quiet) or Kokopelli (for a bit of a party). On Days 14 and 15, explore Cusco! There are plenty of free walking tours and other cheap attractions to keep you busy while on budget. On Days 16-18, take on the three-day version of the Adventure Trek to Machu Picchu. Shop around, but remember that you do get what you pay for when it comes to multi-day tours in Peru. Be sure to go over the list of what is included and excluded meticulously to avoid surprise charges.
• Day 19-23: Iquitos & the jungle
On Day 19, fly to Lima and then onto Iquitos with a budget airline like Star Peru or Peruvian Airlines. Spend Day 20 exploring Iquitos, starting with a morning tour of the Belen marketplace and ending with dinner on the Malencon. On Days 21-23, head out on the Amazon for a two-night jungle tour. Take the last flight back to Lima on Day 23 and catch a red eye flight home – assuming you can stand to say adios to Peru!
Have you been to Peru? Did I leave out any of your favorite spots? Let me know in the comments!