From the Peruvian Andes to the salt pools of the Sacred Valley, Peru is paradise on Earth. This incandescent South American nation has it all: pre-Columbian ruins, exotic Amazonian wildlife, spot-on ceviche, and the world’s highest lake. Though Peru’s got more dazzling sites than you could experience in a lifetime, this Insider’s Guide to Peru will help condense the highlights into a manageable itinerary. Happy travels!
Peru borders the Pacific Ocean on the central-western coast of South America. It shares land borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, is located on the Peru-Bolivia border.
The country comprises three geographical regions: the coast, the sierra, and the jungle. The coast is a narrow, arid plain along the Pacific shore. The sierra region includes the Andes, with the highest peak soaring 22,205 feet above sea level. The jungle region makes up over 60% of the country and is the most pristine rainforest on the planet.
Weather and What to Wear
Due to the extreme biodiversity and the Humboldt Current, the climate in Peru varies drastically. In fact, Peru has 30 out of the world’s 32 climates. The coast sees high temperatures and limited rainfall, while the mountains experience colder temperatures, wet summers, and dry winters. The Amazon is hot and humid year-round with plenty of rainfall.
Temperatures in Peru can be volatile, so when packing for your trip, think layers. Pack a light, breathable rain jacket and a warmer coat for cooler nights. Comfortable walking or hiking shoes are an absolute must, as is sunscreen. Because many of country’s attractions are in the mountains, the UV index can be extremely high.
Peru has three official languages: Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. Spanish speakers account for approximately 84% of the population, and Spanish is the language of the government and media. Thirteen percent of Peruvians speak Quechua (an Andean and ancient Incan language) and 2% speak Aymara—common in the highlands.
In tourist centers like Lima and Cusco, English is common at high-end hotels, restaurants, and attractions. In rural areas, it is much more difficult to find locals who speak English. However, the Spanish of coastal Peru is considered one of the most comprehensible dialects of Spanish spoken in South America.
The sol is the official currency of Peru. Major credit cards and debit cards are accepted in urban centers, but you will most likely need cash outside of major cities.
If you plan on exchanging dollars for soles, make sure you have new, crisp bills. Peru is a global leader in counterfeit money, so most exchange bureaus will reject money that appears “worn.” Due to fraudulent bank notes, you must also be cautious about where you exchange money. If you’re staying at a reputable hotel, ask the front desk. In general, it’s usually safest at a bank, your hotel, or the airport. Know the current exchange rate, and count your money.
While it is wise to have cash on hand, avoid carrying around large sums of money. There are ATMs in most cities, so you can almost always withdraw more. Just be sure to check the transaction fees and the offered exchange rate. Always tell your bank before you travel.
You are not obligated to tip in Peru, but it is appreciated for excellent service. Most high-end restaurants add a 10% gratuity to the bill, but it is customary to add more. When a gratuity or service fee isn’t added to the check at casual restaurants, most locals leave a sol or two.
You don’t need to tip hotel housekeepers, but you should tip the bellman. In most hotels, money left in the rooms will go to lost and found. In taxis, prices are usually negotiated prior to departure, so tips are not expected. However, if your driver is especially helpful, it is generous to add some money to the pre-negotiated fare.
Peruvian culture has deep roots in Spanish and Amerindian traditions, with influences from various immigrant groups. The country’s diverse landscapes have allowed for different customs to coexist and thrive throughout centuries. The eclectic mix of art, music, architecture and cuisine is part of what makes Peru so special.
One commonality among cultures is the importance placed on family and religion. In many instances, generations live together and care for each other. Between 80 and 90% of the population identifies as Catholic, and churches are abundant. To pay homage to their roots, many Catholics imbue their religious celebrations with Incan and other Amerindian traditions.
Peruvians shake hands frequently and kiss acquaintances on the cheek. In Amerindian cultures, the handshake is brief (if there is one at all) and eye contact is minimal.
A few etiquette tips will get you far in Peru. Do not use your index finger to beckon another person. When in a taxi cab or local market, bargaining is perfectly acceptable. Peruvians are not known for their promptness, so it’s acceptable to show up to an appointment or meeting 30 minutes to an hour late. If “hora inglesa” (“English hour”) is not specified, be prepared to wait.
Peru has what is described as the “quintessential fusion cuisine,” drawing on influences from Spanish and Incan culinary traditions. Local ingredients make up most of the dishes, which consist mainly of corn (maize), potatoes, quinoa, and legumes. Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat, rice, beef, chicken, and pork. The cuisine varies across regions. In the coastal areas, ceviche is the most popular dish. Creole cuisine rules Lima, as does “chifa,” a Chinese-Peruvian hybrid cuisine.
Theft, credit card fraud, and carjackings occur frequently in Peru. “Smash-and-grab” robberies are common following at the airport in Lima. Because of this, use only official airport taxis or a pre-scheduled transfer.
While violent crimes against tourists are rare, robberies always have the possibility of turning violent. Do not resist a robbery attempt. Remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Know where you are at all times, and don’t venture into unknown areas.
The most populous region in Peru, Lima boasts a fascinating mix of cultures and lifestyles. The city has great museums, including the National Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology, Archaeology, and History. Gastronomic tourism is one of the driving forces in Lima, as the cuisine is completely unique to the city.
Lima is Peru’s transportation hub, so it makes an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding areas. The Miraflores district appeals to tourists because of its abundance of restaurants, hotels, and attractions. Both the Miraflores and the Barranco districts enjoy vibrant nightlife scenes.
Nazca and the South Coast
This region includes a long, arid desert that stretches along the south coast to Chile. For adventure travelers, the area is home to the river-rafting center of the Lunahuana Valley. The Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas offer sightseers a wonderful mix of wildlife and archaeological monuments.
Perhaps the most well-known attractions of the area are the mysterious Nazca Lines. These giant, ancient geolyphs in the Nazca Desert measure up to 1,200 feet in length. Best seen from the air, they are also visible from the surrounding high grounds.
Lake Titicaca and Arequipa
Located in Peru’s southern-interior region, this area teems with immense natural beauty. Magnificent lakes (including Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest) and soaring Andean peaks highlight the area’s scenic offerings. From mountain biking to kayaking, this is the region for outdoor pursuits.
This is the most-visited region in Peru. It’s home to the city of Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Cusco offers a wonderful blend of Incan and Spanish architecture. Because of its high mountain elevation, be sure to review some tips for avoiding altitude sickness on your next visit.
Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and by far the most recognizable icon of the Inca civilization. You can reach the 15th-century citadel by the PeruRail train or by hiking the famous Inca Trail. Be sure to acclimate yourself to the altitude in Cusco before heading out on the Inca Trail.
Much less popular with tourists than Cusco, this mountainous region features impressive archaeological sites and colonial architecture. The city of Huanuco is a great base for exploring the Inca ruins of the same name.
Home to the Cordillera Blanca (the highest mountain range in the country), the Ancash region serves as Peru’s center of adventure tourism. Treks, like the Llama Trek and the Huayhuash Mountain Range, wind through picturesque villages, valleys and mountains on pre-Columbian trails. The city of Huaraz has a small skiing industry, along with rafting and mountain biking opportunities.
La Libertad and Trujillo
The city of Trujillo is often referred to as “the city of eternal spring” because of its pleasant temperatures throughout the year. It hosts a yearly spring festival with a parade and a large closing party. La Libertad is home to Chicama and Pacasmayo beaches, which attract surfers from across the globe. Huanchaco is another beautiful beach resort in this area.
Stretched across eastern Peru, the jungle is the largest region in the country. This seemingly endless swathe of dense rainforest is the most pristine and biodiverse in the world. Indigenous tribes still inhabit parts of this region.
You can explore the jungle by foot, boat, or plane. There are plenty of lodging options in the southwestern area, along with reputable guides, boats, and flights. The northern jungle is perhaps the most remote, but it is also the most established for tourists. Unsurprisingly, the jungle region is an important location for ecotourism.
Have we piqued your interest in Peru? Start planning your Peru adventure today!