Peru. Have you been? You need to. Peru has something for everyone – outdoor activities and adventure (sandboarding!), cultural sites that blow your mind (um, hello Machu Picchu), and food that you only dream about (ceviche, ceviche, ceviche). It’s a gorgeous, diverse country that I was lucky enough to travel through in 2018.
Since I was working a 9-5 office job at the time, I only had two weeks for this vacation. If you have more time, use it! There is so much to see. But, if you are limited on time, you can still see a lot in just two weeks. To maximize our time and make traveling a bit easier, my friend and I joined Peru Hop, a hop-on hop-off bus with pre-defined routes through the country. This made it easy to plan our itinerary, and also provided transportation, activity ideas, and people to connect with! Definitely recommend checking them out if you are short on time, or just looking for someone to take care of your transportation.
14 days through Peru was jam-packed. We started in Cusco then moved through the following route: Cusco > Sacred Valley (Pisac, Ollantaytabo and Machu Picchu) > Arequipa & the Colca Canyon > Huacachina > Paracas > Lima.
There is so much to say about each location, here is a brief overview – use it for inspiration on your own trip to Peru!
Days 1-5: Cusco, with side-trip to the Sacred Valley
We chose to start our trip in Cusco, primarily because we wanted to go the opposite direction of the typical Peru Hop itinerary. We figured the buses would be less crowded going the opposite direction, which they were. If you choose to start your trip Cusco, be aware of altitude sickness. Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,399 meters, and so the altitude sickness is real. Both of us felt pretty good overall, but noticed we were very short of breath while walking, especially up hill. Make sure to look up on this very real thing and prepare yourself to take it easy and acclimatize when you arrive.
Cusco is an amazing city, full of culture and interesting sites. It’s known as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but is worth a visit in its own right! Here are some highlights:
- Take a free walking tour through the city.
- Climb (slowly, the altitude really makes it hard!) up to one of the many viewpoints overlooking the city.
- Take pictures with the alpacas and llamas around town (offer a tip or payment to their owners).
- Visit San Pedro Market, and get something to eat – I recommend the traditional chicken soup. It’s super cheap, and great for a light meal when you are battling altitude sickness.
After a few days in Cusco, we left for our 2-day, 1-night tour of the Sacred Valley. Because of our short time frame, a tour was perfect – we saw so much and didn’t have to worry about any of the logistics. Some highlights were:
- Visiting lesser-known Incan ruins – Ollantaytabo and Pisac. Both were super impressive and stunning to walk around.
- Waking up early to get to Machu Picchu – because we stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes, we were able to get to Machu Picchu when it first opened. I would highly recommend this, because if you wait a few hours, you are visiting at the same time as all the day-trippers from Cusco. It’s already busy there first thing, so get up early to avoid the rush.
- It is a one-way walk around the Machu Picchu, so we actually ditched our tour group pretty early on to hike up to the Sun Gate. SO WORTH IT. We got away from the crowds by hiking about 45 minutes up the mountain. This gave us gorgeous birds-eye views of the site without so may people around.
- Shop for souvenirs in Aguas Calientes – seriously, everything you ever want is here, and after your day at Machu Picchu, you will want something to remember it by!
- Enjoy the train trip back to Cusco – the scenery is stunning. The train has one car with open sides and a clear roof, so you can get a 360 view of everything around.
Days 6-10: Arequipa, with side-trip to Colca Canyon
Arequipa is the “White City (Ciudad Blanca) – because of it’s architecture built with white volcanic stone – and is surrounded by 3 volcanoes. The views from around the city are absolutely stunning. Most people stop through here on their way to the Colca Canyon, as we did. But there is so much to do and see in this city – here are some highlights:
- Take a free tour around the city – there are tons of options. To be honest, our tour guide was very weird, and not really very good, AND we were the only two on the tour, but we still really enjoyed it and got to see the city. We also got a free Pisco Sour out of it, so that makes it worth it!
- Explore the Santa Catalina Monastery, right in the middle of the city. It takes up a few city blocks, and is full of colourful buildings. Pay for a tour and get the full history of this amazing place. We were lucky to see the nuns who live there, which made it feel very authentic. We also got some pretty good Instagram pictures…
- Venture out of the city centre – my friend was pretty tired one afternoon, so I went for a walk by myself. I continued out of the main square and shopping area and ended up in some less-touristy streets. It was pretty cool to just wander and explore – there was so much to see.
- Despite being touristy, the main square in Arequipa is pretty cool. There is a view of the 3 volcanoes surrounding the city, plus tons of interesting people watching. We saw a wedding and an old car show parade while there. Just get a snack, sit down, and enjoy the sites.
After exploring Arequipa for a couple days, we embarked on another 2-day, 1-night trip – this time to the Colca Canyon. The excursion left at 3am (plenty of people still out partying when we left the city), with a couple hours’ drive to the canyon. The plan was to hike down into the canyon, sleep over night there, and hike back out. However, mother nature had other plans for us.
On the drive to the canyon, both me and my friend started getting sick – like, run-to-the-bathroom-immediately-at-the-rest-stop kind of sick. We knew we would not be able to successfully hike for the day without access to *ahem* the facilities.
So, we had to pivot. We ended up staying in a tiny village at the edge of the canyon. It ended up being pretty cool. Some highlights:
- Walking trails at the edge of the canyon – after a few hours of rest, we were feeling well enough to explore the area. There were a number of walking trails all around, so we chose one that took us right to the edge of the magnificent Colca Canyon. It was stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. I actually think we got the better experience, seeing it from up top, rather then down at the bottom like those in our tour group.
- There is not a lot of English in Peru, even in the tourism sector, and especially not in a small town. To find out anything, I had to speak Spanish, which was challenging, but made me pretty proud that I could actually converse!
- Observing life in a small town – we got a different perspective of Peru while in this little town. It was cool to just sit, drink tea and observe the daily life in the town.
Day 11: Huacachina
Our next stop was one of the most unique places I have ever been to. Huacachina is a little oasis town in the middle of the desert. It is a small town – 100% tourist-centered – around a tiny man-made lake. All surrounding the town are kilometers of sand dunes. The two main attractions of this town are partying and sand-sports (sand-dune buggying and sand-boarding).
We were still recovering from feeling sick in the last place, so weren’t up for a night of partying (though we did grab a few drinks at the aptly named bar, Huacafuckingchina). The main highlight of this was our sand dune buggying and sand-boarding tour.
It. Was. So. Much. Fun. Seriously one of the best times I’ve ever had. We went ripping around on the sand dune buggying, up and down over sand dunes – dunes as far as the eye could see. The buggy would stop at the top of the hill and then we’d pull out old snowboards, repurposed for the sand, wax them up and go down the dunes. Most people would sit on them or lie down, like tobogganing, but a few tried actually standing. For me, it was enough of a thrill to go down on my stomach. It was crazy. There were some hills that were borderline dangerous how fast we were going down… such an adrenaline rush!
Day 12: Paracas
The most popular reason to go to Paracas is to visit the Ballestas Islands, fondly nick-named “Poor Man’s Galapagos.” This place has so many different animals including, sea lions, seals, Humboldt penguins, Peruvian boobies, pelicans, and so much more. We took a boat over to the islands and the guide pointed out different animals to us. It was cool, but I also felt a little seasick in the boat. It was worth it at its price point, but I can see why it’s called “Poor Man’s Galapagos” – just not quite the same level of impressive I don’t think.
The other reason to go here is to check out this whole-in-the-wall restaurant/art gallery that served me the best meal I had in Peru. No joke. It’s called Pukasoncco Arte y Restaurante, and I only found through a quick google search, looking for something with good reviews. Not only was the food amazing, but it was such a unique experience. The owner is an artist and chef, so he was working on some paintings when we came in, just in the adjoining gallery. He came over to seat us, took our orders, and then literally put on a chef’s hat and made our food. After serving us, he took off the hat and went back to painting. His artwork was as good as our food, so we left with full bellies and beautiful art souvenirs.
Days 13-14: Lima
My one regret of this trip was not spending enough time in Lima. We really just used it as a city to fly out of and only had a day to explore. I know we just scratched the surface and there would be SO much more to see here. A few highlights include:
- FOOD TOUR. You’ve got to do it. We went on a 4-hour tour that took us through some different neighbourhoods of Lima. We tried a total of 6 or 7 different things on the tour, including beef heart, Peruvian-Chinese fusion food (called Chifa), street-cart health drinks, ceviche and other seafood, and local craft beers. It was a really fun way to see the city and try some new things.
- Shopping – there’s just a lot of it here. Spend some time exploring and checking out different shops!
- Lima is right on the Pacific Coast, and yet there isn’t an easy way to access the water. Instead, there is a park right up against a cliff that drops down to the ocean. It’s got some nice views to check out!
Peru in 14 days was a whirlwind. There is so much to see and do, we barely scratched the surface. Thanks to Peru Hop, it was easy to get around and see so many places. I would go back to Peru in a heartbeat, with my main goal to 1) explore more of Lima, 2) actually go on a hike, and 3) visit the Amazon.
I hope this blog gave you some inspiration for your own trip to Peru!