Latin American expert Mark Rolfe of Latin Odyssey gives us his guide to making the most of a holiday in Peru.
A vacation to Peru is an unforgettable journey into a mysterious and diverse world. It contains 28 of the world’s 31 climates, so any holiday here will involve a well-packed bag of clothes! Its land mass includes fertile valleys, Andean peaks, Amazon rainforest, coastal plains and a barren desert known as the Altiplano, which is home to indigenous Indians that still preserve their ancient tongue of Quechua and Aymara.
If that was not enough to entice you then it is also steeped in a fascinating history. Little is known of the pre-Inca civilisations that once ruled this land, though we do know the Incas incorporated these beliefs into their own and in doing so, they created the most powerful empire in Latin America.
The Incas built an empire that stood the test of time and what now remains are monuments of the past, places where you are left in awe of their achievements. The best known site is of course Machu Picchu, but to understand the Incas you need to delve deeper and to visit sites such as Ollantaytambo, Phuyupatamarca and Pisac, each of which is a window into another world.
To help you plan a holiday in Peru, here is a brief guide on the best way to travel around the country as well as a brief synopsis on the main areas of the country…
The best way to travel around Peru is in an anti-clockwise direction from Lima – same as outlined below. The reason for this is that these destinations are lower, and hence allow you to acclimatise to the altitude gradually. It is also the best way to see the Inca world as the majority of the pre-Inca ruins are here as well, so you end with Machu Picchu which is an obvious highlight.
Not really worth any time, though if you get stuck here for a day then its colonial quarter is worth exploring, but it’s really an entrance and exit city.
A lovely colonial town overlooking two 6,000 metre volcanoes. Located at 2,300 metres so perfect for acclimatising – you only get altitude sickness (called Soroche in Peru) over 3,000m. Definitely worth two nights here and spending time visiting the main plaza as well as the Santa Catalina monastery and Juanita museum.
The Colca Canyon
The deepest canyon in the world. The area is littered with small adobe villages and hot springs. Good for short walks into the canyon, cultural interaction as well as a really good chance of seeing condors. You can be driven from here up through the Andes to Lake Titicaca.
We feel this area has become very touristy in the past few years, though the island of Taquile in the centre of the lake is worth exploring as the inhabitants still live like they did in Incan times. The highlight is the 10 hour train journey to Cuzco which goes across the Peruvian Altiplano and has some spectacular scenery. The train is also brilliant, serving a three course lunch and with a viewing platform at the back as well as a perspex roof.
The Sacred Valley
A perfect place to stay put for three or four days. The area has some outstanding Inca ruins, colourful local markets and is also the heartland for activities such as walking, trekking, white water rafting, horse riding and bike riding.
Not much to say here as pretty self-explanatory! The trick to seeing these magnificent ruins is timing and trying to avoid the busiest times of the day. You need to do this as a two day/one night trip, spending the night at the small town of Aguas Calientes located at the bottom of the ruins. There is also the four night Inca trail if you wish.
A beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, artisan shops, stunning plazas dominated by colonial churches, museums, Inca ruins and excellent local restaurants – you will want to try the guinea pig here! I recommend at least three nights.
One of the easiest places in South America to access the Amazon as it is a short one hour flight from Cuzco followed by a 40 minute motorised canoe to your lodge. To give you an idea, if you went to the Amazon in Brazil you'd have a five hour flight from Rio followed by a four hour transfer by road and motorised canoe. Manage expectations here as due to the density of the foliage you will always hear more than you see.
Top tip: Travel at the beginning of a season. You may get a few days of rain but most places will be free of tourists, enabling you to interact more with the locals.
A holiday to Peru is one that you will remember forever, so make sure you do it the right way. We’ve been there, a lot, which means we can create holidays of a lifetime.
Written by Mark Rolfe, founder of South American travel specialists Latin Odyssey.
Latin Odyssey was founded in 2002, created to fuse Mark’s extensive insider information with a desire to help others discover this breathtaking region.
It is one of the most varied, biodiverse parts of the planet – and Mark’s focus on smaller, intimate hotels and lodges ensures that you have full exposure to everything that each location has to offer.