Peru offers a kaleidoscope of activities, from serene vineyard tours to Amazon journeys, paragliding, surfing, rafting and some of the finest hiking in the Andes. It's an affordable destination for guided tours, with destinations layered with cultural and historical significance that would be impossible to understand without a little help.
Scale icy Andean peaks. Raft one of the world’s deepest canyons. Surf the heavenly Pacific curlers. Walk the flanks of a smoldering volcano known locally as a living deity. With its breathtaking, diverse landscapes, Peru is a natural adventure hub. So gear up and take the Band-Aids. You’re in for one wild ride.
Hiking & Trekking
Pack the hiking boots because the variety of trails in Peru is downright staggering. The main trekking centers are Cuzco and Arequipa in the southern Andes, and Huaraz in the north. Hikers will find many easily accessible trails around Peru’s archaeological ruins, which are also the final destinations for more challenging trekking routes.
History goes deep here – you may be hiking through terraced fields along ancient trade routes or trails used by Inca messengers. Yet even then, the fledgling status of some outdoor activities here means that, in certain times and places, you can get a whole mountain, sandy shore or complex of ruins to yourself.
Big plans are in the works for Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca road system which became a World Heritage Site in 2014. It spans a whopping 22,530km from Colombia to Chile and follows one of the most scenic routes possible, proving definitively that the Incas were master road builders. The trail sections above 4000m are in particularly good shape, thanks to a lack of interference. Tourism outfitters hope that the designation will spur investment into these often neglected trails. SA Expeditions is operating a five-day route from Castillo to Huanuco Pampa and plans to add more. Look out for other new trekking opportunities on this route.
Peru’s most famous trek is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Limited permits mean this guided-only trek sells out months in advance. For those who haven’t planned so far in advance, there are worthwhile alternative routes. In addition, other possibilities around Cuzco include the spectacular six-day trek around the venerated Ausangate (6372m), which will take you over 5000m passes, through huge herds of alpacas and past tiny hamlets unchanged in centuries. Likewise, the isolated Inca site of Choquequirao is another intriguing destination for a trek.
In nearby Arequipa, you can get down in some of the world’s deepest canyons – the world-famous Cañón del Colca and the Cañón del Cotahuasi. The scenery is guaranteed to knock you off your feet, and it’s easier going than some higher-altitude destinations. During the wet season, when some Andean trekking routes are impassable, Colca is invitingly lush and green. It’s also the best place in Peru for DIY trekking between rural villages. The more remote and rugged Cañón del Cotahuasi is best visited with an experienced local guide and only during the dry season.
Outside Huaraz, the Cordillera Blanca can’t be beat for vistas of rocky, snowcapped mountaintops, while the remote and rugged Cordillera Huayhuash is similarly stunning. The classic and favorite trekking route is the four-day journey from Llanganuco to Santa Cruz, where hardy mountaineers climb the 4760m Punta Union pass, surrounded by ice-clad peaks. Longer treks include the northern route around the dazzling Alpamayo, which requires at least a week. Shorter overnight trips in the area go to mountain base camps, alpine lakes and even along an old Inca road.
Cuzco and Huaraz (and, to a lesser degree, Arequipa) have outfitters that can provide equipment, guides and even arrieros (mule drivers). If you prefer to trek ultralight, you might want to purchase your own gear, especially a sleeping bag, as old-generation rental items tend to be heavy. Whether you’ll need a guide depends on where you trek. Certain areas of Peru, such as along the Inca Trail, require guides; in other places, such as in the Cordillera Huayhuash, there have been muggings, so it’s best to be with a local. Thankfully, scores of other trekking routes are wonderfully DIY. Equip yourself with topographic maps for major routes in the nearest major gateway towns or, better yet, at the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (IGN) or at the South American Explorers Club in Lima.
Whatever adventure you choose, be prepared to spend a few days acclimating to the dizzying altitudes – or face a heavy-duty bout of altitude sickness.
Trekking is most rewarding during the dry season (May to September) in the Andes. Avoid the wet season (December to March), when rain makes some areas impassable.
Feature: Responsible Trekking
- Don’t depend on open fires. Cook on a lightweight camp stove and dispose of butane cartridges responsibly.
- Carry out all rubbish.
- Contamination of water sources by human waste can lead to the transmission of all sorts of nasties. Where there is a toilet, use it. Where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm deep and at least 100m from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. Pack out toilet paper.
- For washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container at least 50m away from any watercourses. Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully.
- Do not feed the wildlife.
- Some trails pass through private property. It’s polite to ask residents before crossing their property and to leave all livestock gates as you found them.
- Don’t give children money, sweets or gifts. This encourages persistent begging, which has become a major problem on some busy routes. If you wish to help, consider donating directly to local schools, NGOs and other volunteer organizations.
- Keep a low profile: the gear you are carrying costs more than many locals earn in a month (or a year). Stow everything inside your tent at night.
Mountain, Rock & Ice Climbing
Peru has the highest tropical mountains in the world, offering some absolutely inspired climbs, though acclimatization to altitude is essential. The Cordillera Blanca, with its dozens of snowy peaks exceeding 5000m, is one of South America’s top destinations. The Andean town of Huaraz has tour agencies, outfitters, guides, information and climbing equipment for hire. Still, it’s best to bring your own gear for serious ascents. Near Huaraz, Ishinca (5530m) and Pisco (5752m) provide two ascents easy enough for relatively inexperienced climbers. For experts, these mountains are also good warm-up climbs for bigger adventures such as Huascarán (6768m), Peru’s highest peak. Other challenging peaks include the stunning, knife-edged Alpamayo (5947m) and Yerupajá (6634m), Peru’s second-highest mountain, located in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Rock and ice climbing are also taking off around Huaraz, where a few outfitters have indoor climbing walls, rent out technical equipment and organize group trips.
In southern Peru, the snowy volcanic peaks around Arequipa can be scaled by determined novice mountaineers. The most popular climb is El Misti (5822m), a site of Inca human sacrifice. Despite its serious altitude, it is basically a very long, tough walk. Chachani (6075m) is one of the easier 6000m peaks in the world – though it still requires crampons, an ice ax and a good guide. Other tempting peaks tower above the Cañón del Colca.
For beginners looking to bag their first serious mountains, Peru may not be the best place to start. Not all guides know the basics of first aid or wilderness search and rescue. Check out a prospective guide’s credentials carefully and seek out those who are personally recommended. Carefully check any rental equipment before setting out.
As with trekking, high-elevation climbing is best done during the dry season (mid-June to mid-July).
Feature: Touching the Void
What inspires a person to endure inhospitable climes, hunger, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen in order to conquer forbidding mountain peaks? It’s a question explored at length by Joe Simpson in his celebrated book, Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival. This gripping narrative tells the story of a climb that Simpson undertook with his climbing partner, Simon Yates. The climb began well enough – with an extremely challenging and, ultimately, successful ascent on the jagged and steep Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash. But it ended in an accident that almost claimed one man’s life. The book examines the thrills, rewards and agony of mountaineering. Touching the Void became an award-winning British documentary in 2003.
Rafting & Kayaking
River running is growing in popularity around Peru, with trips that range from a few hours to more than two weeks.
Cuzco is the launch point for the greatest variety of river-running options. Choices range from a few hours of mild rafting on the Urubamba to adrenaline-pumping rides on the Santa Teresa to several days on the Apurímac, technically the source of the Amazon (with world-class rafting between May and November). A river-running trip on the Tambopata, available from June through October, tumbles down the eastern slopes of the Andes, culminating in a couple of days of floating in unspoiled rainforest.
Arequipa is another rafting center. Here, the Río Chili is the most frequently run, with a half-day novice trip leaving daily between March and November. Further afield, the more challenging Río Majes features class II and III rapids. On the south coast, Lunahuaná, not far from Lima, is a prime spot for beginners and experts alike. Between December and April, rapids here can reach class IV.
Note that rafting is not regulated in Peru. There are deaths every year and some rivers are so remote that rescues can take days. In addition, some companies are not environmentally responsible and leave camping beaches dirty. Book excursions only with reputable, well-recommended agencies and avoid cut-rate trips. A good operator will have insurance, provide you with a document indicating that they are registered, and have highly experienced guides with certified first-aid training who carry a properly stocked medical kit. Choose one that provides top-notch equipment, including self-bailing rafts, US Coast Guard–approved life jackets, first-class helmets and spare paddles. Many good companies raft rivers accompanied by a kayaker experienced in river rescue.
For more on river running in Peru, visit www.peruwhitewater.com.
With consistent, uncrowded waves and plenty of remote breaks to explore, Peru has a mixed surfing scene that attracts dedicated locals and international die-hards alike. Kitesurfing and paddleboarding are also emerging as popular sports.
Waves can be found from the moment you land. All along the southern part of Lima, surfers ride out popular point and beach breaks at Miraflores (known as Waikiki), Barranquito and La Herradura. Herradura’s outstanding left point break gets crowded when there is a strong swell. In-the-know surfers prefer the smaller crowds further south at Punta Hermosa. International and national championships are held at nearby Punta Rocas as well as Pico Alto, an experts-only ‘kamikaze’ reef break with some of the largest waves in Peru. Isla San Gallán, off the Península de Paracas, also provides experts with a world-class right-hand point break only accessible by boat; ask local fishermen or at hotels.
Peru’s north coast has a string of excellent breaks. The most famous is Puerto Chicama, where rides of more than 2km are possible on what’s considered the longest left-hand break in the world. Also, very consistent waves can be found at Pacasmayo, and outside Chiclayo at Pimentel and Santa Rosa. It's also worth checking out Lobitos and Máncora.
Máncora is a hub for paddleboarding and kitesurfing, which has also caught on in Paracas.
The water is cold from April to mid-December (as low as 15°C/60°F), when wet suits are generally needed. Indeed, many surfers wear wet suits year-round (2/3mm will suffice), even though the water is a little warmer (around 20°C/68°F in the Lima area) from January to March. The far north coast (north of Talara) stays above 21°C (70°F) most of the year.
Though waves are generally not crowded, surfing can be a challenge – facilities are limited and equipment rental is expensive. The scene on the north coast is the most organized, with surf shops and hostels that offer advice, rent boards and arrange surfing day trips. Huanchaco is a great base for these services. Serious surfers should bring their own board.
The best surfing websites include www.peruazul.com, www.vivamancora.com and www.wannasurf.com, with a comprehensive, highly detailed list of just about every break in Peru. Good wave and weather forecasts can be found at www.magicseaweed.com and www.windguru.com.
Sandboarding down the giant desert dunes is growing in popularity at Huacachina and around Nazca, on Peru’s south coast. Nazca’s Cerro Blanco (2078m) is among the highest known sand dunes in the world. Some hotels and travel agencies offer tours in areneros (dune buggies), where you are hauled to the top of the dunes, then get picked upat the bottom. (Choose your driver carefully; some are notoriously reckless and there has been a fatality.).
For more information on sandboarding worldwide, check out Sandboard Magazine at www.sandboard.com.
Mountain Biking & Cycling
Mountain biking is very popular in Peru. It is still a fledgling sport, but there is no shortage of incredible terrain. Single-track trails ranging from easy to expert await mountain bikers outside Huaraz, Arequipa and even Lima. If you’re experienced, there are incredible mountain-biking possibilities around the Sacred Valley and downhill trips to the Amazon jungle, all accessible from Cuzco. Easier cycling routes include the wine country around Lunahuaná and in the Cañón del Colca, starting from Chivay.
Mountain-bike rental in Peru tends to be basic; if you are planning on serious biking, it’s best to bring your own. (Airline bicycle-carrying policies vary, so shop around.) You’ll also need a repair kit and extra parts.
Cycling is popular in Lima, where designated bike lanes in Miraflores and an excellent coastal bike path make it more accessible than ever.
Swimming conditions are ideal along Peru’s desert coast from January to March, when the Pacific Ocean waters are warmest and skies are blue. Some of the best spots are just south of Lima. Far more attractive is the stretch of shore on the north coast, especially at laid-back Huanchaco, around Chiclayo and the perennially busy jet-set resorts of Máncora.
Only north of Talara does the water stay warm year-round. Watch for dangerous currents and note that beaches near major coastal cities are often polluted.
Scuba diving in Peru is limited. The water is cold except from mid-December to March. During these months the water is at its cloudiest, due to runoff from mountain rivers. Dive shops in Lima offer PADI certification classes, rent scuba equipment and run trips to sea-lion colonies along the coast. Máncora is also a hub for scuba diving.
Horse rentals can be arranged in many tourist destinations, but the rental stock is not always treated well, so check your horse carefully before you saddle up. For a real splurge, take a ride on a graceful Peruvian paso horse. Descendants of horses with royal Spanish and Moorish lineage, like those ridden by the conquistadors, are reputed to have the world’s smoothest gait. Stables around Peru advertise rides for half a day or longer, especially in the Sacred Valley at Urubamba.
Popular paragliding sites include the coastal clifftops of suburban Miraflores in Lima and various points along the south coast, including Pisco and Paracas. There are few paragliding operators in Peru. Book ahead through the agencies in Lima.
Sidebar: Top 5 Wildlife Watching Spots
Jaguars, tapirs and monkeys inhabit this expansive rainforest park, among the continent’s wildest, deep in the Amazon.
Andean condors glide over this rugged canyon, the second deepest in the world.
Colonies of honking sea lions and penguins claim these rocky Pacific outcrops off Peru’s south coast.
Giant Puya raimondii plants burst with flowers while vicuñas and viscachas bustle around the high alpine landscape of the Cordillera Blanca.
A rare mangrove forest on the northernmost coast, home to crocodiles, seabirds, flamingos and crabs.
Trekking the Inca Trail
You have pictured its deep green gorges, the lost citadels and misty peaks that ebb in and out of view. It is nothing less than mind-bending to climb these stone stairways laid millennia ago, following the Andean route that evaded the Spanish for centuries. There is no doubt: trekking the Inca Trail is a traveler’s rite of passage and the adventure of a lifetime. Logistics can be confusing, so preplanning is essential before you get your boots on the trail.
Planning Your Trek
When to Go
Organized groups leave year-round except in February, when the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance and it rains so much that nobody in their right mind goes trekking. The coldest, driest and most popular months are June to August. But those who are well prepared with proper gear can enjoy the trail during any month it’s open.
To skip the crowds, consider going before and after the rainy season: from March to May (best vegetation, orchids and birdlife) or September to November.
What to Expect
Even if you are not carrying a full backpack, this trek requires a good level of fitness. In addition to regularly exercising, you can get ready with hikes and long walks in the weeks before your trip (also a good time to test out your gear). Boots should be already worn in by the time you go. On the trail, you may have to deal with issues such as heat and altitude. Just don’t rush it; keep a reasonable pace and you should do fine.
Booking Your Trip
It is important to book your trip at least six months in advance for dates between May and August. Outside these months, you may get a permit with a few weeks’ notice, but it’s very hard to predict. Only licensed operators can get permits, but you can check general availability at www.camino-inca.com.
Consider booking a five-day trip to lessen the pace and enjoy more wildlife and ruins. Other positives include less-crowded campsites and being able to stay at the most scenic one – Phuyupatamarka (3600m) – on the third evening.
Take some time to research your options – you won’t regret it. It’s best to screen agencies for a good fit before committing. Also make sure you have international travel insurance that covers adventure activities.
Due to the Inca Trail’s overwhelming popularity, you must book at least six weeks in advance for trips outside high season and six months to a full year beforehand for departures between late May and early September. The same goes for the abbreviated two-day route.
And if it’s already booked for your dates? Check out the alternative routes.
Regulations & Fees
The Inca Trail is the only trek in the Cuzco area that cannot be walked independently – you must go with a licensed operator. Prices cost US$595 to US$6000 and above.
Only 500 people each day (including guides and porters) are allowed to start the trail. You must go through an approved Inca Trail operator. Permits are issued to them on a first-come, first-served basis. You will need to provide your passport number to get a permit, and carry the passport with you to show at checkpoints along the trail. Be aware that if you get a new passport but had applied with your old, it may present a problem.
Permits are nontransferrable: name changes are not allowed.
Choosing an Inca Trail Operator
While it may be tempting to quickly book your trek and move onto the next item on your To Do list, it’s a good idea to examine the options carefully before sending a deposit. If price is your bottom line, keep in mind that the cheapest agencies may cut corners by paying their guides and porters lower wages. Other issues are substandard gear (ie leaky tents) and dull or lackadaisical guiding.
Yet paying more may not mean getting more, especially since international operators take their cut and hire local Peruvian agencies. Talk with a few agencies to get a sense of their quality of service. You might ask if the guide speaks English (fluently or just a little), request a list of what is included and inquire about group size and the kind of transportation used. Ensure that your tour includes a tent, food, a cook, one-day admission to the ruins and the return train fare.
If you have special dietary requirements, state them clearly before the trip, being clear about allergies (versus preference issues). Vegans will meet with a lot of quinoa and lentils. If possible, get confirmation in writing that your specific requirements will be met.
Porters who carry group gear – tents, food etc – are also included. You’ll be expected to carry your own personal gear, including sleeping bag. If you are not an experienced backpacker, it may be a good idea to hire a porter to carry your personal gear; this usually costs around US$50 per day for about 10kg.
Part of the fun is meeting travelers from other parts of the world in your trekking group. Keep in mind that individual paces vary and the group dynamic requires some compromise.
For those who prefer more exclusive services, it’s possible to organize private trips with an independent licensed guide (US$1250 to US$2000 per person). This can be expensive but for groups of six or more it may in fact be cheaper than the standard group treks. Prices vary considerably, so shop around.
Porter welfare is a major issue in the Cuzco region. Porter laws are enforced through fines and license suspensions by Peru’s Ministerio de Trabajo (Ministry of Work).
Lonely Planet only lists operators who haven't been sanctioned at the time of research. Of course, there are other conscientious operators out there, and some offer treks as well as other tours around Peru.
Feature: Porter Welfare
In the past, Inca Trail porters have faced excessively low pay, enormous carrying loads and poor working conditions. Relatively recent laws now stipulate a minimum payment of S170 to porters, adequate sleeping gear and food, and treatment for on-the-job injuries. At checkpoints on the trail, porter loads are weighed (each is allowed 20kg of group gear and 5kg of their own gear).
Yet there is still room for improvement and the best way to help is to choose your outfitter wisely. Conscientious operators do exist, but only a few are confident enough to charge the price that a well-equipped, well-organized, well-guided trip requires. A quality trip will set you back at least US$595. The cheaper trips cut costs and often affect porter welfare – on the Inca Trail and other trekking routes. Go with a well-recommended company.
There’s more you can do on the trail:
- Don’t overpack. Someone will have to carry the extra weight and porters may have to leave their own essential gear behind.
- Don’t occupy the dining tent until late if it’s where the porters sleep.
- Tip the cooks if you liked the food, and always tip your porters.
- Tip individuals directly and in Peruvian soles. Don’t leave it to the company or a guide to distribute.
- If you don’t plan to use your gear again, items such as good sleeping bags are like gold to porters. Warm jackets, pocket tools and headlamps also make thoughtful end-of-trip tips.
- If you don’t like what you see, complain to your guide and to the agency, and register an official complaint with iPerú (www.peru.info), either at a branch or online.
Though guides and outfitters are subject to annual review, it can take time to deactivate a company that has acted irresponsibly. It is important for trekkers to give feedback. To learn more about the life of porters, look for the documentary Mi Chacra, winner of the 2011 Banff Film Festival Grand Prize.
What to Bring
Trekking poles are highly recommended, as the Inca Trail features a cartilage-crunching number of downhill stone steps. Other items that will come in handy: first-aid kit, sunscreen, sandals for camp, a down jacket for cold nights, a waterproof jacket, a warm hat and gloves, sun hat, travel towel, broken-in hiking boots, warm trekking socks, thermal underwear top and bottom, a fleece, water bottle or hydration pack, insect repellent, long pants and sunglasses. Make sure that the weight of your pack is comfortable and that you have enough camera batteries – there are no electrical outlets on the way.
Take cash (in Peruvian soles) for tipping; an adequate amount is S100 for a porter and S200 for a cook.
When hiking the Inca Trail, get your next day’s water hot in a well-sealed bottle; you can use it as a sleeping bag warmer and it will be cool to drink by the time you’re hiking.
Alternative Routes to Machu Picchu
For more information on alternative routes to Machu Picchu, the Alternative Inca Trails Information Packet from the South American Explorers Club is a great resource.
Two-Day Inca Trail
This 10km version of the Inca Trail gives a fairly good indication of what the longer trail is like. It’s a real workout, and passes through some of the best scenery and most impressive ruins and terracing of the longer trail.
It’s a steep three- or four-hour climb from Km 104 to Wiñay Wayna, then another two hours or so on fairly flat terrain to Machu Picchu. You may be on the trail a couple of hours longer, just to enjoy the views and explore. We advise taking the earliest train possible from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo.
The two-day trail means overnighting in Aguas Calientes, and visiting Machu Picchu the next day, so it’s really only one day of walking. The average price is US$400 to US$535.
Lares Valley Trek
This is not a specific track as such, but a walk along any of a number of different routes to Ollantaytambo through the dramatic Lares Valley. Starting at natural hot springs, the route wanders through rural Andean farming villages, lesser-known Inca archaeological sites, lush lagoons and river gorges. You’ll finish by taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Although this is more of a cultural trek than a technical trip, the mountain scenery is breathtaking, and the highest mountain pass (4450m) is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
A longer, more spectacular trek, with a slightly more difficult approach to Machu Picchu than the Inca Trail. Its highest point is a high pass of over 4700m near the magnificent glacier-clad peak of Salkantay (6271m; ‘Savage Mountain’ in Quechua). From here you descend in spectacular fashion to the vertiginous valleys of the subtropics. It takes five to seven days to get to Machu Picchu.
For a luxury approach, Mountain Lodges of Peru offers high-quality guiding with accommodations in comfortable lodges with outdoor hot tubs. Prices vary according to high and low seasons.
Inca Jungle Trail: Back Door to Machu Picchu
Dreamed up by outfitters and guides, this multisport route between Cuzco and Machu Picchu travels via Santa Teresa with options to bike, hike and raft your way in two to five days. Some call it 'Machu Picchu via the back door.' The number of days and activities vary, but the backbone of tours on offer is the same.
The trip starts with a long, four- to five-hour drive from Cuzco to Abra Málaga – the high (4350m) pass between Ollantaytambo and the Amazon Basin. Somewhere on the Amazon side you’ll board mountain bikes for the long ride down to Santa María. Starting on a paved road that turns to dirt after about 20km, it’s an incredibly scenic descent from the glacial to the tropical, up to 71km total.
Some operators walk the 23km from Santa María to Santa Teresa; others send you by vehicle (one hour), arguing that it’s not a particularly interesting hike, though there is a short section of preconquest camino de hierro (iron road) – the Inca version of a superhighway.
Either way you’ll arrive in Santa Teresa to the welcome spectacle of the Cocalmayo hot springs. Some companies include rafting near Santa Teresa or the ziplines at Cola de Mono.
From Santa Teresa, you can walk the 20km to Machu Picchu, 12km of it along train tracks. There’s nice river scenery but no particular attraction and it’s usually dusty and hot. Alternatively, you can catch a bus and a train. You may reverse this route to get back to Cuzco, but it’s much quicker to catch the train via the Sacred Valley.
Many varieties of this trip exist, and bare-bones versions may not include hotels or entry fees, so read the fine print. Whether you stay in a tent or a hostel, key factors in the trip price are bike quality, professional English-speaking guides and whether you walk or catch the train to Aguas Calientes. Three-day/two-night trips start from US$465, and usually include a guided tour of Machu Picchu and return train ticket to Ollantaytambo.
A guided overnight route with the top highlights of the trail. Permits are limited, so book far in advance.
Best done with a guide, this culturally oriented option is a flexible multiday trek through quaint Andean villages, combined with train travel from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.
A scenic, but demanding, five-day hike that ranges from jungle to alpine terrain, peaking at 4700m. It’s possible to do independently or with a guide.
With hiking, biking and rafting options, this guided multisport route stages to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa.