Self-Drive Adventures in Peru
You can see Peru by bus and train—but there are places that public transportation just won't take you. Being in the driver's seat means freedom and access: you can get off the main highways and explore quiet backroads, mountain passes, Incan ruins, and communities where foreigners rarely set foot.
Another reason to drive yourself? You can pause whenever you want, a perk in Peru, where drop-dead gorgeous views appear around every corner, and tempting roadside snack stands are prevalent—you can make a solid pit-stop meal out of the breads, nuts, fruit, and trigo (puffed corn snacks) on offer.
Travelers should strongly consider renting a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle—while these features aren't mandatory, you'll be happy to have them when roads get rough off the highway. Another tip: look out for speed bumps. They're common, can be quite large, and are often unmarked, making for quite a surprise when hit at a high speed. And be sure to download a map ahead of time that doesn't require cell service—or, in the true road trip spirit, grab an old-fashioned map instead.
Road Trip Idea #1—Lima to Cerro de Pasco (163 Miles)
Arguably Peru's best road trip—and one of its least traveled. No other itinerary packs in the contrasts like this remote run up from the capital city into the highest, loneliest, and most breath-sapping part of the Andes.
As you leave the traffic-clogged arteries of Lima's outskirts behind, green valleys soon wrap around you. Day-trippers from the capital make it out on this route as far as the small neighboring towns of Canta and Obrajillo, at the 66-mile mark, where there are lots of family-friendly eateries, waterfalls, and horseback riding. But few go further.
The road gets rougher as you continue, passing some interesting little-known Incan ruins onto the altiplano (Andean plain) proper, where you'll see grasslands, ice-blue lakes, and wandering herds of llamas. You'll pass Huayllay and finally Cerro de Pasco, both mining communities sitting higher than 13,000 feet above sea level, with parts of the route measuring even higher. Near Huayllay is the highlight of the trip, the Santuario Nacional Huayllay, a so-called "rock forest" of ethereal rock formations soaring up out of the plain.
Want to keep exploring? Find out more in this article about the Central Andes of Peru and its highlights.
Road Trip Idea #2—Trujillo to Chachapoyas (350 Miles)
Taking you from the coast up into the mountains and then into the jungle, the Trujillo to Chachapoyas run is a must if you're interested in the ancient cultures that inhabited Peru before the Inca.
Right outside the vibrant coastal metropolis of Trujillo is the first of these settlements: Chan Chan, the most extensive pre-Columbian complex in all the Americas. Highway 1 swoops right by the ruins—the legacy of the Chimú culture—before cutting inland via Contumazá and then at Chilete. It's not long before you'll arrive in Cajamarca, considered the prettiest town in the Northern Highlands. Cajamarca is famous for its 1523 clash between the Spanish conquistadores and the Incas under Atahualpa. The picturesque red-roofed 16th-century buildings resonate with history.
Several routes onward to the laid-back cloud forest city of Chachapoyas exist. But the best is the hair-raising run via Celendín: it's a twisting route that climbs through cloud forest and offers some stunning views of the Marañon River Valley far below.
And just beyond the of Chachapoyas awaits the best part of the trip yet, the superbly preserved site of Kuélap, another monumental pre-Columbian citadel perched on a mountainside.
You'll probably want to read more the highlights of Northern Peru while you're here.
Road Trip Idea #3—A Round Trip Through the Sacred Valley (110 Miles)
Welcome to the Incan heartland! This road trip is all about ancient ruins surrounded by striking mountain peaks and backpacker-friendly ancient villages and towns.
Climb up above the clatter of Cusco on the highway to Pisac to begin. The route runs through some devastatingly charming Andean altiplano scenery as it passes a quartet of fabled Incan sites—Sacsayhuamán, Q'enko, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay—on the way to the scenic, sleepy village of Pisac.
From Pisac, take Highway 101 via Urubamba to Ollantaytambo. Great stops along the way include Patabamba, known for its fine weaving, but you should stop anywhere you feel inspired. Ollantaytambo is flanked by the remains of impressive Incan settlements on both sides. Backtrack to Urubamba before detouring to Maras and the intriguing ruins of Moray, before returning to Cusco via the delightful colonial village of Chinchero. This place, perched high up on the mountain plain in a region riddled with Incan ruins, was known in Incan mythology as the birthplace of the rainbow.
This itinerary is a good reminder that there's more to Peru's Incan ruins than Macchu Picchu. Learn more about other ruins to visit here.
Road Trip Idea #4: Cusco to the Jungle (125 or 295 Miles)
Cusco sits in the Andes at a lofty 10,912 feet above sea level. Few travelers think of traveling by road from Cusco to the jungle, but two of the best road trips in the entire country follow this exact path.
There are several routes into the jungle. Perhaps the most impressive goes via the attractive town of Paucartambo, and then through a tract of spectacular cloud forest known for its fascinating birdlife, to the end of the road at Atalaya. Here, deep in the jungle, you can switch to water for a boat trip down the Río Alto Madre de Dios into Parque Nacional Manu, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Watch out along the way for the rare, bright red cock-of-the-rock, a bird people travel from all over the world to view.
Alternatively, you could take one of the most controversial roads ever built, the Carretera Interocéanica, down into the jungle via Puerto Maldonado. This road is the first and only to cut right through the heart of the Amazon, running from the coast of Peru to the coast of Brazil via Cusco and Puerto Maldonado.
Puerto Maldonado is the jumping-off point for fabulous wildlife-watching on the Río Tambopata and Río Madre de Dios. The route includes some of South America's best butterfly viewing near the town of Quince Mil.
Whether or not you're ready to get behind the wheel on a road trip adventure, take a look at this article on planning a trip to Peru.