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On the Inca Trail: A beginner’s guide to Peru

Planning a big trip but you're bored with Bali and done Dubai? What about a long haul holiday in Peru? It's got incredible attractions (machu who?) cheap hotels and amazing natural beauty ('allo Andes). Now, for the first time, you can catch a direct flight from the UK to capital Lima, thanks to British Airways. Still not convinced? Let us take you on the Inca Trail and beyond, with a first-timer's guide to holidays in Peru...

Why choose Peru for your holiday?

Peru is one of the world’s cheapest places to go on holiday. You’ll be able to bed down in a five-star hotel for under £60*, while a night in a hostel can cost just a few pounds. It’s also one of the world’s most beautiful destinations, full of ancient ruins, cloud-capped peaks and barren deserts, along with one of the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspots: 60% of Peru is covered by the Amazon jungle, a habitat for 10% of the world’s plant and wildlife species.

Ancient ruins, Peru

When’s the best time to visit Peru?

The long answer: Peru is a long, thin country and the climate varies greatly from region to region. If you’re heading to the Amazon rainforest then the end of the wet season, from December to May, is a great time to go because the higher water levels mean that there are more creatures occupying smaller areas of land, and the plant-life will be in full-bloom after all the rain. In coastal areas, it’s hottest between December and March but cooler (and with frequent mist) between April and November. In the Andes mountains, which stretch along Peru’s western side, you’ll find frequent rainfall from December through to March and drier spells between June and September. If you’re heading to high-altitude towns like Cusco, the best time to visit is late September to early November: the end of the dry season should be slightly quieter than peak months like June and July. Jungle areas follow a similar weather pattern, although rainfalls can be heavier and it’s hot and humid all year round. The short answer: it depends where you’re going to be staying, so check before you travel.

View from window, Cusco, Peru
Image: G M, CC BY 2.0.

What are Peru hotels like?

There’s an enormous range of accommodation in Peru, from budget backpacker hostels (or hostals in Spanish, the main language of Peru) to five-star hotels. Our top money-saving tip? Don’t focus on the big chains: the cheapest hotels in Peru are usually the independent ones, often referred to as posadas. In many of the cities, especially top tourist destinations like Cusco, some of the most beautiful places to stay are lovingly restored colonial mansions, with bedrooms clustered around a central courtyard. But there are a few places where it’s definitely worth splashing the cash, like the beautiful five-star Palacio del Inka in Cusco and the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, with its enviable location at the foot of Machu Picchu.

Hotel courtyard in Cusco Image: Harvey Barrison, CC BY-SA 2.0.

What’s Peruvian food like?

Given that there are almost 30 different climate zones, it’s hardly surprising that almost every type of food can be grown in this country. The cuisine in Peru is wonderfully diverse, influenced by both the early Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous population. Corn, potatoes, plantain and beans are staple food items, as are chicken, pork and beef. You’ll find delicious seafood in coastal areas, one of the most popular examples being ceviche, marinated raw seafood, garnished with herbs. In cities like Cusco and Lima you’ll be able to sample some of the world’s best street food, so don’t let fears about food poisoning put you off. The majority of vendors are scrupulous about hygiene, although when it comes to water, it’s worth avoiding ice in your drinks, checking how fresh fruit and salads have been washed and drinking only bottled water.

Peruvian food

What are the most popular attractions in Peru?

Make sure these sights are top of your list of things to do in Peru:

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is rightly regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This abandoned citadel sits high in the Andes mountains, near the city of Cusco, and was built as a sacred religious site for Inca leaders in the 1400s, before being abandoned for centuries and subsequently rediscovered in 1911. Trek to the site over several days or as a one-day trip on the iconic Inca Trail, but head there by rail and you’ll enjoy one of the world’s most spectacular train journeys. Lesser known nearby sites include Choquequirao, another less-accessible Incan site – getting there involves a four-day hike.

Machu Picchu

Cusco

Cusco is the place to visit in Peru, where luxury hotels huddle alongside ancient cathedrals, cocktail bars sit next to traditional markets, and brightly-dressed Peruvians sell alpaca textiles and trinkets. As the sun sets over the spectacular mountain vistas, enjoy some indigenous cuisine (guinea pig anyone?!) at restaurants like Fallen Angel, a must-visit if only for the unusual decor – think giant bathtub water features and colourful local artwork on the walls. Take it easy with the alcohol, though: at just over 11,000 feet above sea level, altitude sickness can be a problem in Cusco, so drink plenty of (bottled) water and take some time to acclimatise when you first arrive.

Woman in traditional dress, Cusco
Image: Latin America For Less, CC BY 2.0.

Lima

Lima is the capital and home to the country’s biggest international airport, therefore it’s the logical starting point for most holidays to Peru. While this coastal metropolis is less immediate in its appeal, there’s a wide, sandy beach and the city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is filled with beautiful colonial architecture, centred around the Catedral de Lima and the main square, Plaza de Armas de Lima. Make sure you tour the inside of the Monastery of San Francis of Assisi, as the library alone is stunning.

Colonial architecture, Lima

Nazca Lines

Inscribed in the vast Peruvian desert, some say these giant animal and geometric markings used to be religious shrines for local people, while others claim they may be a kind of astronomical map writ large. Whatever your theory, the Nasca Lines are thought to be almost two thousand years old and form another of Peru’s unique cultural attractions. They are undoubtedly best viewed from the skies – you’re not allowed to walk anywhere near the site in any case. Small passenger planes frequently take groups of tourists and you can book a flight as part of a holiday package, but you may be able to save money by heading to Nasca town from Lima (around six to seven hours by bus) and arranging a flight locally once there.

Spider marking, Nasca Lines

Amazon rainforest

Head into the dense jungle of the Amazon and you’ll life blooming in every corner. The Madre de Dios region, in the south, is where you’ll find the Tambopata Research Center, otherwise known as South America’s most remote eco-lodge, and only accessible by boat! Because the area is largely uninhabited, this is as close to unspoiled nature as it gets, with sightings of five different species of monkey, macaws and even jaguars possible around these parts. Manu Biosphere Reserve, further north, is also worth checking out, although its remote location means that there are fewer accommodation options.

Macaw, Amazon rainforest

Still not sold on a holiday to Peru? Maybe we could tempt you with something else?

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*Published July 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.

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