Travelers love Peru for its incredible food scene, stunning landscapes, and mesmerizing ruins of ancient civilizations. It's a place that's well-prepared for tourists, but as the third-largest country in South America, Peru is also vast in size. Read on for tips as you plan your adventure.

Whether you're planning on visiting colonial cities, the coast, the jungle, the mountains, or the cloud forest, it's wise to plan ahead. Travel between different regions in Peru takes either time—driving from Lima to Peru's northern or southern border would take almost 24 hours in the car—or money. Note that flights from Lima to the Amazon can be particularly costly. It's important to work out ahead of time exactly which regions you wish to visit, then decide whether you'll join a guided tour or enjoy a solo adventure.

Where To Go in Peru

Trujillo's beautiful cathedral and Plaza de Armas
Trujillo's beautiful cathedral and Plaza de Armas

Many travelers want to spend part of their time exploring the country's treasure trove of colonial cities. Whether it is foodie favorite Lima, historic highland cities like Cusco and Ayacucho, or culture-rich provincial capitals like Trujillo or Arequipa, self-guided travel in urban centers is straightforward. If you're a fan of extreme outdoor activities — such as the multi-day high-altitude hikes in the Andes near Huaraz, or jungle expeditions out in the wild reaches of the Amazon Basin — enlisting a guide is either advisable or essential. 

Here's a guide to the essential places to visit in Peru, and this article offers some hidden gems that most people miss (but definitely shouldn't).

Exploring Peru on a Guided Tour

Exploring the remoter reaches of the Peruvian Amazon, near Pevas: Peru has a huge variety of jungle to discover by river trip
Exploring the remote reaches of the Peruvian Amazon, near Pevas—Picture credit Luke Waterson

Guided tours in Peru are a good idea for several reasons. First, they get you off the beaten path in record time. Let's say you have limited days in Cusco, but want to make the most of the stupendous surrounding countryside in the Sacred Valley, dotted with hundreds of Inca ruins and laced with hiking trails. Finding your own way may be possible, but it will take you longer on public transport — and you'll be visiting without a guide's intimate knowledge of the area. This guided trek is a great example of a magnificent hike through a remote area of the Peruvian Andes.

Second, Peru has some of the best-protected reserves and national parks in South America. Part of this protection has meant limiting access and irresponsible tourism: in many cases, you can see a destination with a guide, or not see it at all. Such is the case with the stunning Parque Nacional Manú. A journey to the park traverses two gorgeously contrasting topographical zones (cloud forest and jungle) and must be explored on a guided tour.

Why? Guided travel equals responsible travel in sensitive regions. But guided tours are also for your own safety. Parque Nacional Manú, for example, has dangerous fauna (including snakes with potentially fatal venom), and indigenous tribes that have been known to be hostile to outsiders. In Peru, dangers can also include violent crime, especially in remote areas like the Northern Highlands and certain parts of the Amazon. A thoughtfully organized tour and a professional guide can help you steer clear of any potential problems.

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Self-Guided Tours in Peru

The Andes beckon invitingly beyond Cusco, tempting the traveler to explore them
The Andes beckon invitingly beyond Cusco, tempting the traveler to explore them—Picture credit Luke Waterson

Peru is one of the world's great adventure destinations. For some travelers, the experience is more memorable when traveling independently, characterized by unique encounters that you couldn't plan for. Traveling alone in Peru also means that you're directly supporting local businesses, and by extension, the people who live in the communities you pass through. 

With the exception of destinations in the jungle and some protected areas like national parks and reserves, traveling independently can be great. Perhaps you'll seek the solace of the little-discovered sandy beaches in the far north, such as those near Colán. You could get in some indie hiking time in the Cordillera Blanca near Huaraz, take a solo trek out to uncrowded Inca citadels like Choquequirau, or seek out indigenous markets in the Andes that are seldom seen by foreigners, such as those in the Río Mantaro valley near Huancayo. With a bit of patience and determination, you can create your own individual trip.

Logistics of Getting Around Peru

Traveling by train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, Peru
Traveling by train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, Peru

Car, bus, boat, train, or just good old-fashioned walking: there are many ways to get around in Peru, depending on where you go.

Renting a car enables access to anywhere with roads (all of Peru, except the Amazon, where road access is limited). But breakdowns on remote roads are a real possibility, and theft or break-ins are also possible, so it's only a good option for adventurous travelers.

Public buses are a good option, though one that's less popular with international travelers. Peru's bus network has extraordinarily wide coverage and is reasonably priced. There are various kinds of buses: some are rustic, running local routes, while others are modern inter-city express buses that include meals in the ticket price. 

If you're traveling on a guided tour, you'll get around on a tourist bus — and by boat, if you're venturing into the Amazon. Generally speaking, tourist buses are more comfortable than public buses. On the downside, you're limited to the tour's set itinerary.

In the Amazon Basin, boating is the main form of travel. Traveling by boat is exciting and memorable — just beware of biting insects and other jungle hazards. Boat trips in Peru range from a few hours to multi-day odysseys, such as the two to three-day trip from Yurimaguas to Iquitos.

Dollar for dollar, or nuevo sol for nuevo sol, train travel in Peru is usually the most expensive and luxurious form of travel. Peru's train network is better than that of any other South American country, and there's a vestige of timeless glamour to many of the country's train cars. The Hiram Bingham train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, at one end of the spectrum, is one of the world's most elite and expensive railway journeys, offering incredible luxury with its 1920s-era carriages. At the other end of the spectrum, the train from Huancayo to Huancavelica in the Central Andes takes in scenery that is almost as stunning. But it's no-frills: this is a locals' route, and tickets are quite cheap.

In outdoor playgrounds like Huaraz, the Sacred Valley, and Arequipa region's Colca Canyon, hiking is a wonderful way of seeing Peru's nature. Away from the noise, stress, and pollution of a vehicle, hiking offers one-of-a-kind encounters with nature.