Despite the big distances, five days is enough time to do justice to any part of Peru. These five 5-day itineraries give a good cross-section of what is on offer in this topographically and culturally diverse country.

Choosing Your Peru Itinerary

Peru is comprised of three distinct topographical zones, the sandy and almost desert-like coast, the Andes mountains, and the Amazon jungle. It would take a full 24 hours just to drive Peru's coastline, and a lot longer to travel north to south through either the Andes or the Amazon, so when planning a 5-day break, you should focus on one (or at a push, two) of these regions.

That said, you can still pack a lot in. Try sticking in and around the capital Lima and the coastline to the south for museums, fine dining, and interesting pre-Inca archaeology. Aim straight to the heart of the Andes for a fix of Inca culture in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Combine the mountains with the cloud forest and jungle on a Cusco and Parque Nacional Manu adventure, head to Huaraz for a fix of South America's best hiking, or make a beeline for Arequipa in the south to sample both a cosmopolitan colonial city and the world's most stunning canyons.

Itinerary #1 Fine Dining, Art, and Archaeology from Lima to Nazca

Lima's beautiful cathedral on Plaza Mayor
Lima's beautiful cathedral on Plaza Mayor
Day Highlights Overnight
1 Fly into Lima, explore Miraflores and Barranco Lima
2 Central Lima sights, seafood at La Punta, Museo Larco Lima
3 Bus to El Chaco, explore Islas Balletas El Chaco
4 Explore Reserva Nacional de Paracas, bus to Nazca Nazca
5 Fly over Nazca Lines, bus to Lima Lima

 

Peru's capital city is huge (in South America, only São Paulo is bigger) and navigating it takes time: there would easily be plenty of inspiration for a 5-day break here even if you themed your time solely around food, or devoted every available hour to perusing galleries and museums. This itinerary keeps you in and around the capital to begin with, then whisks you south for a tour of the abundant marine life on Península de Paracas and south again to the stunning geoglyphs at Nazca, the Nazca Lines.

Stay in the agreeable, upper-middle-class districts of Miraflores or Barranco for the duration of your time in Lima. Full of fabulous, internationally renowned restaurants including several by Peru's culinary ambassador Gastón Acurio, these two districts are also the areas to dine. Try a Barranco breakfast and slip into a Miraflores ceviche restaurant for lunch and take the first day easy. Take a ramble along the Miraflores clifftops with their lovely landscaped parks and slot in an afternoon of culture with visits to either the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (Museum of Contemporary Art, Avenida Grau 1511) or the restored pyramid of Huaca Pucllana (corner of Tarapacá and Borgoño), a monument to the pre-Inca Lima culture bizarrely jutting up in the midst of leafy Miraflores.

Allow a half day at least for exploring central Lima. Focus your explorations on the impressive Plaza Mayor. Here the impressive Cathedral contains the remains of city founder Francisco Pizarro, whilst striking facades assail you from every angle: the Moorish balconies of Palacio Arzobispal and the beautiful baroque Palacio de Gobierno, home of Peru's President. Other architectural highlights include the city's most captivating church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (corner of Camaná and Conde de Superunda).

Try getting a taxi out to La Punta for the best fresh seafood lunches in Lima afterward, then linger in the exquisite Museo Larco (Bolivar 1515) for a spellbinding introduction to all of Peru's ancient cultures, presented wonderfully and told through some intriguing ceramics and artifacts. 

On Day 3, get an early start and take a bus south to the lively traveler hub of El Chaco on the Península de Paracas coast (3.5 hours journey). Leaving early, you'll have time to sail to one of the highlights of this stretch of seaboard: the rocky isles of the Islas Balletas, a mecca for marine life from penguins to sea lions, as well as thousands of cormorants and other seabirds (the huge quantities of guano on the Islas Balletas has long been utilized for fertilizer). You'll also visit a giant geoglyph, known as the Candelabra, carved into a hillside on the peninsula.

Trips also run from El Chaco into the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, covering most of the desert-like hammerhead-shaped Península de Paracas, endowed with an interesting interpretation center, nice beaches and Pre-Inca ruins. Explore this on the morning of Day 4 and take an afternoon bus to Nazca (2.5 hours).

Nazca's main sight is the world-famous Nazca Lines, a mesmerizing series of over 300 ancient sand drawings of geoglyphs representing various plants and figures. They are only really visible from the air, which of course begs the question of how the creators of these lines ever managed to etch them upwards of 1500 years ago. On the fifth day of your tour, fly over the lines to truly appreciate their fascinating shapes: highlights include a monkey and a huge condor. Then take an afternoon bus back from Nazca to Lima (7-8 hours).

Itinerary #2 Ruins to Mountain Rambles - Best of the Inca Heartland 

Machu Picchu, the highlight of any trip to the Sacred Valley, veiled in cloud
Machu Picchu, the highlight of any trip to the Sacred Valley, veiled in cloud
Day Highlights Overnight
1 Fly into Cusco, explore Cusco Cusco
2 Explore Inca ruins just outside Cusco Cusco or Huchuy Qosqo
3 Train through Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu Belmond Hotel Río Sagrado
4 Explore Machu Picchu Belmond Hotel Río Sagrado
5 Return by train to Cusco, souvenir shopping, fly back to Lima Lima

 

Flying into Cusco from Lima on the first morning of your 5-day break in the traditional center of the Inca's power base, the Sacred Valley, you must ready for a stark contrast with Peru's arid, low-lying coast: vast 13,000-foot peaks pepper the skyline in the Andes, and in Cusco the altitude (11,000 feet) is already breath-sapping.

After checking into your hotel, take it easy in the city on Day 1. The buildings in the Plaza de Armas alone are worthy of an hour or two of your time: the cathedral dating from 1559 and the Jesuit-built Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús built about a decade later. Cusco's main draw, though, is simply strolling the streets, taking in the street performances, food vendors, markets such as Mercado San Pedro (Túpac Amaru) or gawking at the ingenious Incan building methods still in evidence on streets like Tandapata. The best Inca site in the city itself is formidable Qorikancha (Plazoleta Santo Domingo). Below the striking church of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, this site was once the location of the most formidable Incan temple in the land.

In a leisurely full day, all four Inca ruins closest to central Cusco, Sacsayhuamán, Q'enko, Pukapukara and Tambomachay, can be explored. Their setting on the beautiful llama-dotted altiplano (high plain) just above the city makes them particularly impressive. For a more off-the-beaten track ruin, try taking an organized tour out to the far remoter Inca ruins of Huchuy Qosqo, where you can stay over in a traditional mountain community.

Come Day 3, and it's time for your trip highlight: taking the train to Machu Picchu. There are seven categories of service on offer from two different train companies, Peru Rail and Inca Rail. For more on taking the train to Machu Picchu from Cusco, click here. The journey to Aguas Calientes is beautiful and the Belmond Hotel Río Sagrado even has its own station stop if you take Peru Rail's Vistadome train.

The next day is for exploring the mesmerizing ruins of Machu Picchu: leave early to beat the worst of the crowds. For all the best information on Machu Picchu itself, click here. In the afternoon, try bathing in the thermal baths at Aguas Calientes, or, if staying at Belmond Hotel Río Sagrado, return to luxuriate in the pool or spa.

Back in Cusco on your last day, there will be time before your flight back to Lima for some souvenir shopping in the artisan quarter of San Blas, also full of delightful cafes and restaurants, or at Centro Artesanal Cusco (corner of Avenida Sol & Tullumayo). Cusco has umpteen amazing dining experiences on offer as well: here's another 5-day Sacred Valley itinerary made especially for the culinary-minded.

Itinerary #3: Manu Jungle, Cloud Forest, and Cosmopolitan Cusco

Macaws feed at one of the most bird-rich clay licks in Peru on the Madre de Dios river, Parque Nacional Manu
Macaws feed at one of Peru's most bird-rich clay licks in Parque Nacional Manu
Day Highlights Overnight
1 Fly into Cusco, explore Cusco Cusco
2 Drive into cloud forest on Manu tour Cloud forest
3 Continue Manu tour - Río Alto Madre de Dios Jungle lodge/Parque Nacional Manu buffer zone
4 Wildlife watching along Río Alto Madre de Dios Jungle lodge/Parque Nacional Manu buffer zone
5 Return to Cusco, fly back to Lima Lima

 

This tour starts off in Cusco, and for the first day follows a similar itinerary to Itinerary #2. On Day 2, however, you are up early for a fabulous 4-day adventure down out of the Andes through cloud forest and into one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: the jungle of Parque Nacional Manu.

Early on the second day, and you will be skittering along a spectacular mountain road to Paucartambo, perched on the eastern edge of the mountains by a gushing river. Nearby is Tres Cruces, known for its sensational sunrises overlooking the jungle spreadeagled below. There is the option of overnighting in the cloud forest near here, with several lodges available. Bird watching is fabulous, with one of the highlights being the distinctive orange cock-of-the-rock. (Bird enthusiasts may wish to spend a second day here, but if so, be mindful that it won't be possible to voyage as far into the Parque Nacional Manu within this 5-day tour.)

The road through the cloud forest continues down to the village of Atalaya, where all tour companies switch to boat to continue downstream into Parque Nacional Manu. The buffer zone of the national park, along the Alto Madre de Dios river, has several good lodges, only visitable as part of an official Manu tour.

Spend days three and four, and the evening of day two if you have come here direct, exploring primary jungle where a huge spectrum of bird, insect and reptile life, as well as bigger animals like jaguars and tapirs, can be spotted. Of particular interest are the clay licks, where macaws and parrots gather to feed in an amazingly colorful spectacle.

Return to Cusco for your flight back on day five. Read more about the 5-day in Manu itinerary here

Itinerary #4 High-Altitude Hiking in Huaraz

The popular and spectacular Santa Cruz trek near Huaraz
The popular and spectacular Santa Cruz trek near Huaraz
Day Highlights Overnight
1 Fly into Huaraz, sightseeing in Huaraz, bus to Vaqueria Vaqueria
2 Santa Cruz trek Campsite on Santa Cruz trek
3 Santa Cruz trek Campsite on Santa Cruz trek
4 Santa Cruz trek Campsite on Santa Cruz trek
5 Santa Cruz trek; return to Huaraz, night bus to Lima Huaraz/Night bus to Lima

 

This is an itinerary for fit and conditioned hikers who have no problem with walking at over 13,000 feet, and takes in one of the best hikes not only in Peru but in all South America, the Santa Cruz trek through the stunning mountain valleys, lakes and glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca north of Huaraz.

Day 1 sees you arrive on the early morning flight from Lima to Huaraz. There will be time for a leisurely breakfast at one of the city's fantastic coffee spots like Café Andino (Lúcar y Torre 530) and to make any last-minute supply purchases you need in Huaraz before taking transport (colectivo taxis and buses run the route) to Vaqueria, the typical start point for the Santa Cruz trek.

For a full itinerary of what a Santa Cruz trek entails, click here. The hike is unforgettably dramatic, full of surreal ice-blue mountain lakes, glaciers and nevados (snow-capped peaks). But it is tough too. Staying at the campsites of Paria on the first night of the trek, Taullipampa on the second night and Llamacorral on the third, it is possible to get to the end point of the hike at Cashapampa and return to Huaraz by the end of the fifth day of your tour.

Itinerary #5 Arequipa & Around - City Sightseeing and Canyon Thrills

Dramatic scenery beckons at the Colca Canyon near Arequipa
Dramatic scenery beckons at the Colca Canyon near Arequipa
Day Highlights Overnight
1 Fly into Arequipa, explore Arequipa museums and architecture Arequipa
2 Tour of Colca Canyon, hiking, condor watching Cabanaconde
3 Hiking to bottom of Colca Canyon, swimming on canyon bottom Sangalle
4 Hiking, astronomical observatory, zip lining Chivay
5 Return by bus to Arequipa, fly back to Lima Lima

 

Five days is enough time not only to see Peru's proud and dynamic colonial second city, Arequipa, but also enough to do justice to some of the jaw-dropping scenery nearby, which encompasses the planet's most dramatic canyons.

After you have flown in from Lima, Day 1 should be a sedate exploration of Arequipa's delightful historic center, dating back to the mid-16th century. Highlights include the vast and still-functioning monastery of Monasterio Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina 301) and the Museo Santuarios Andinos (La Merced 110), housing the eerily preserved body of Juanita, a frozen mummy from the 1450s. When eating out, remember to try the local specialty, rocoto relleno (peppers stuffed with beef, pork, onions and spices).

On Day 2, rise early for a 3-day exploration of the fabulous canyon country that opens up to the north of Arequipa. Here the fabled Colca Canyon tempts visitors with its fantastic hiking, from rim right down to the canyon bottom  Tour groups normally make straight for the middle part of the canyon, and the pleasant town of Chivay, or the lower part of the canyon at remoter Cabanaconde. From these places, hikes commence to the canyon bottom, 1200 m below Cabanaconde. Do not start the hike down to the canyon bottom today, but instead take the chance to view condors gliding on the canyon air currents from the Cruz del Cóndor viewpoint above Cabanaconde and then hike the 7.75 miles (12.5 km) down into Cabanaconde through bucolic terraced farmland.

On Day 3, hike down into the canyon bottom (a 2-3 hour trek), and into an entirely different ecosystem at verdant Sangalle, an oasis with accommodation and swimming holes on the canyon floor. Spend the night, and return to Cabanaconde and then Chivay on Day 4. From Chivay, there is zip-lining, an astronomical observatory and hikes to the hot springs of La Calera, which could occupy the best part of a day on the way down or back up from Cabanaconde.

The deepest canyon in the world is not the Colca Canyon, but the Cotahuasi Canyon, further to the northwest of the Colca Canyon. The journey from Arequipa is 12 hours, so coming here would occupy a good three days allowing for some explorations. It presents a viable 3-day alternative canyon experience to the Colca Canyon. Trekking opportunities abound here too, although unlike the Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi Canyon bottom is hard to access unless you are an experienced kayaker.

Whichever canyon you choose, rise early on Day 5 for a return to Arequipa.

For a full  tour of the Colca Canyon, click here.