Our Peru Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Peru or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
Peru is a spectacular country whose rich civilisations can be traced back 5,000 years. The ruins that remain of these societies and empires are only now beginning to lead archaeologists to understand the people who created them. These rich cultures left palaces and pyramids, temples and monuments to rival any on Earth.
Many are shown off around Cusco, where mist- and myth-shrouded Machu Picchu is synonymous with adventure and the ancient Incas. However, Peru boasts more archaeological sites than anywhere in South America and there are countless examples of world-class architecture throughout the entire country.
From the crumbling pre-Columbian citadels in the coastal desert to enormous forts in the cloud forest and enigmatic ruins that escaped the Spanish conquistadors and the cultural vandalism they wreaked on the sites they discovered, to the grand colonial palaces and mansions built by the Spanish in Lima, Arequipa and Trujillo. And what ruins they are. Chan Chan, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the burial hordes of Sipan. The Nazca Lines, fortress of Kuelap and funerary towers of Sillustani. And of course, there's Machu Picchu, the most celebrated and famous set of ruins, so well-known we forget how little we know about a site only brought to the world's attention just over 100 years ago.
History buffs may be spoilt for choice but the country is also much more than the sum of its indigenous parts. Boasting breathtaking scenery and a variety of landscapes including coastal deserts overlooked by vast Andean mountains ranges, in turn backed by dense jungle, Peru has natural wonders aplenty. These landscapes are ideal for walking, white-water rafting and cycling. Or you can take a river cruise on the Amazon and go in search of the flora and fauna here, considered to be the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife on the planet. With a diverse mix of ancient and modern communities and traditional and contemporary outlooks, it's also a multicultural melange, making Peru one of the most multidimensional places you're ever likely to visit.
Culture & etiquette
By and large, Peru is a very relaxed and friendly place to travel through. Politeness is a trait of Peruvian society and in some places greetings can be rather formal. Always remove your hat or headgear when meeting someone or entering a building. Men shake hands, women share a kiss on each cheek. When dealing with officials remain courteous at all times - it won't help your cause getting angry or being rude. Politeness should extend to bargaining, which is more of a low key negotiation than a hard-nosed business deal.
In general, you shouldn't be tempted to try unpurified or unfiltered water. With this in mind, most hotels and lodges supply bottled water. Drinks range from the violently coloured Inka Kola, vibrantly yellow and tasting of bubblegum, to soothing herbal teas and mate de coca, which uses coca leaf, not to make you high but to soothe stomach complaints and ease altitude sickness. The quality of coffee is getting better but is till often instant.
The national drink is pisco, a type of grape brandy used to make powerful cocktails. Served with lime juice and sugar as a Pisco Sour it is fresh and packs a punch. Modern versions include fruit or infusions of corn or coca.
Peru also produces wine although it isn't on a par with that from its southern neighbour. Beers though are good, with Cusqueña and Ariquipeña the pick. In the Andes you'll also be offered chicha, a type of homemade corn beer, of variable strength and quality. On the coast a non-alcoholic version using the purple-coloured corn, chicha morada, is also readily available.
Peru's festivals are colourful, traditional affairs. Many of these occur in the wetter months but for example, the fiesta of La Virgen de la Candelaria in February, Carnaval on the weekend before Ash Wednesday and Semana Santa (the Holy Week that ends on Easter Sunday) continue despite the poor weather. Other festivals to be aware of include Q'ollyor Riti in late May or June, Inti Raymi on 24 June, the Feast of Santa Rosa de Lima on 30 August and El Señor de los Milagros, a celebration of the Lord of Miracles, on 18 October.
Food & drink
Peru's cuisine is enjoying some strong exposure having gone global in recent years. Celebrity chefs have taken their unique variation on fusion food and exported it to other South American and European cities, banishing the country's previous reputation for potatoes and guinea pig. Lima stands at the centre of this gastronomic revolution but there are regional specialities and must-try dishes all around the country.
On the coast there is a wealth of seafood, with sea bass, salmon and snapper widespread. These tend to be cooked in garlic (al ajo), fried (frito) or baked in white wine (a la chorrillana). You'll also come across mussels and scallops. Octopus is another favourite. Ceviche, white fish marinated in citrus juice and served with onion, spicy peppers and sweet potato, is the standout dish. Chupe de camarones is a delicious buttery shrimp bisque. Alternatively, try chicharrones, artery hardening chunks of crispy, deep-fried pork or anticuchos, beef heart shish kebabs cooked with cumin and peppers. Causas are architecturally impressive yellow-potato based terrines, often layered with avocado, tomato, seafood, chicken or vegetables.
In the highlands, food is heartier and often based around corn or potato; there are literally hundreds of types of tuber here. Soups and broths are common. Stir fry beef with onions, chilli, tomatoes and potato (lomo saltado) is everywhere, while the legendary roast guinea pig (cuy) is considered a delicacy; it tastes a little gamey. Close to Lake Titicaca you'll also get trout.
In the jungle, fresh fruit is easy to come by and so meals are often accompanied with fried banana and palm hearts. You'll also enjoy river fish or shrimp, along with tamales of mashed yucca, stuffed with seasoned chicken.
Deserts everywhere are sweet. Try flan and caramel topped with meringue (suspiro a la limeña), a purple corn pudding served with pineapple (mazamorra morada) and a wide variety of local fruits.
Peru is a country of great geographic and climactic extremes. At a base level it can be broken down into coast, mountains and rainforest. The reality is much more complex though.
Peru's coast, all 2.250km of it, is largely made up of desert. Despite this, the majority of the major cities and so the population live in this thin strip. Inland, foothills quickly climb to a high plateau, dominated by the peaks of the Andes and gouged with deep gorges. The Andes stretch down the country like a spine. The highest summits are in the cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash, close to the mountain town of Huaraz. Mount Huascaran, less than 100km from the coast, is Peru's highest summit at 6,768m and one of the highest peaks in the Americas. In contrast, the high plateau also boasts gorges such as the Colca Canyon, which are thought to be twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Deeper still is the Cotahuasi Canyon close by, where the river lies 3,354m below the canyon rim. Close by stands one of Peru's only active volcanoes; El Misti looms over Arequipa, whilst the Valley of the Volcanoes comprises 80 volcanic cones, testament to the violent forces that shaped this region. Further east, the slopes ease into the Amazon; this vast jungle basin stretches inland and covers more than half the country's land surface. These regions slip seamlessly one into the other, with dozens of distinct habitats swiftly replacing one another as you progress east from the Pacific.
There are frequent flights between Lima and Cusco as well as other towns including Arequipa, Iquitos, Puerto Maldonado and Trujillo, making this the best way to travel long distances quickly.
A popular alternative to flying is to travel overland by bus. Services are regular and reasonably reliable, although the buses can vary hugely in terms of quality from luxury coaches to scruffy old school buses.
Since the privatisation of the rail network, this form of transport has ceased to be a very cost effective way of travelling Peru. There are still daily services between Cusco, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, for people wanting to visit Machu Picchu. There is also a service that operates from Cusco to Puno on the shores of lake Titicaca.
Hiring a car is feasible but not for the faint-hearted. It's a long way from place to place, traffic in urban areas is heavy, pollution is a problem, the roads aren't especially good and other road users can't be relied upon to adhere to any sort of rules or highway code.
In town it's generally OK to walk and explore places on foot. Alternatively jump in a licensed taxi, having first agreed a fee to your destination. Local buses are a colourful way of getting about but you need some knowledge of the route, which isn't widely advertised and must be comfortable in crowds as conductors operate the maxim that there's always room for one more.
Peru is a place of enormous antiquity and there is an extraordinary history to discover in the course of any visit here. Indeed, the country is almost unequalled in terms of its archaeological wealth and ranks alongside the great archaeological centres of Mexico and Egypt.
The first major culture to unify all the disparate elements of Peru was the Chavín, who came to ascendancy in 1000BC and whose authority lasted for around 800 years. The Chavín made significant advances in weaving, pottery, agriculture and architecture.
The Moche took over the region from the Piura River in the north to Huarmey in the south; they were at the peak of their influence from 500 to 600AD. A warlike culture, they established a stable state that endured for almost 1000 years. Their celebrated buildings included the Huaca del Sol y de la Luna, Sun and Moon Temples, close to Trujillo. They also built the adobe pyramid close to Chiclayo that hid the Lord of Sipán, a warrior priest buried with an enormous cache of treasure.
At more-or-less the same time, the Nazca culture was leaving enduring marks on the landscape. The vast pampa around the Nazca River is covered in enormous patterns, polygons and designs including a hummingbird, monkey and killer whale, now known as the Nazca Lines.
The years from around 1000AD to 1450 were dominated by the Chimú culture; they swelled and grew to control more than half of the Peruvian coast, from Tumbes to Lima. Initially they shared the land with other groups but following a devastating El Niño, the Chimú began to take other tribes' land forcibly. At the heart of the Chimú empire stood Chan Chan, an enormous adobe complex close to Trujillo that covered six square kilometres and was made up of 12 palaces.
Elsewhere, the cloud-forest dwelling Chacapoyas, a powerful warrior culture, built Kuélap, one of the most enigmatic and intriguing highland sites. Close to Lima the Chancay people became locally significant, whilst further south the Ica and Chincha cultures established themselves and yet another group began to build impressive funerary towers at Sillustani, close to Puno.
The Chimú continued to grow until they came into conflict with the Inca. The Inca believed that the first Inca, Manco Capac emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca and journeyed to Pacaritambo, close to Cusco. Eventually he thrust his staff into the soil and it promptly vanished, which he took as a sign from his father, the sun, that the valley was fertile and a fine place to stay. He named the place Qosqo (navel of the earth) and built the first Coricancha, Sun Temple.
In reality, the Incas probably evolved from smaller tribes in the Cusco area. Without any writing though, there is no recorded history for them and just a handful of oral histories, allied to archaeological discoveries, determine what we know of them.
The Inca Pachacutec came to prominence in 1438, when the fledgling Inca state was under attack from a neighbouring highland tribe, the Canchas; Pachacutec assumed control and fought off the Canchas. He went on to establish Cusco as a substantial stone city, commissioned the fortress Sacsayhuamen and began to aggressively grow the Inca Empire through military action. In the course of time, the empire stretched from Colombia to central Chile, incorporating the Andean regions of Bolivia and northern Argentina. Pachacutec is also thought to have commissioned many of the Inca's most impressive sites, including Machu Picchu.
When Pachacutec died in 1463, his son Tupac Yupanqui, sometimes known as Topa Inca, succeeded him. He continued his father's work and further grew the empire so that it spread into Ecuador and further into Argentina. His son Huayna Capac spent the majority of his life securing territories and maintaining the Inca's dominance. He died in 1525, just before the arrival of the first Europeans and is considered to have been the last of the great independent Inca rulers.
The arrival of the European army was preceded by European disease, which spread south from Mexico and struck down the Inca Huayna Capac and his heir. One of his sons, Huáscar coveted the throne, as did his brother Atahualpa. The two brothers came to blows and civil war was inevitable; after a bitter struggle, Atahualpa triumphed.
Against this backdrop of disease and civil war, the Spaniard Francisco Pizzaro arrived in Peru on 24 September 1532, backed by 62 horsemen and 106 infantry soldiers. Fatally, Atahualpa hesitated and failed to halt the Spaniards advance. When the two met at Cajamarca, Pizzaro laid a trap and tricked the Inca leader into coming down from his secure position, whereupon he was ambushed, his men butchered and the Inca himself taken prisoner. Atahualpa prepared a ransom but the Spanish, scared of his potential retribution when free, tried him for plotting a rebellion and sentenced him to death by burning.
On 23 March 1534 the Spanish formally took control of Cusco, established Manco Inca as their puppet and brought about a period of relative peace. During this period, Pizzaro left Cusco to establish Lima, as he needed a coastal capital to communicate with Spain. In his absence, Manco Inca rebelled. In a desperate bid to preserve their power, the Spanish attacked his base at Sacsayhuamen and in a super-human effort took the fortress, slaying countless Inca in the process.
Manco Inca escaped and retreated first to Pisac, then Ollantaytambo and finally deep into the jungle, where he established the state of Vilcabamba in 1538. Hidden within impenetrable jungle, the state was small and a shadow of the former Inca Empire, but it was so far flung as to be safe from the Spanish. After two aborted attempts to catch and destroy him, the Spanish resorted to diplomacy. Aware of their tendency for duplicity, Manco refused their negotiations. He was though brutally murdered by some renegade Spanish in 1541 in an attempt by them to curry favour with their lords. Manco's successor, Sayri Tupac, listened to the negotiations more favourably though and in 1557, he accepted an offer of property and money and quit his forest hideaway to live a life of comfort in Cusco.
A final rebellion led by Tupac Amaru was short lived and easily extinguished. Tupac Amaru himself was eventually caught and beheaded in front of the cathedral in Cusco.
Following the defeat of the Incas, the Spanish established the viceroyalty of Peru in 1542. The new territory encompassed much of South America and was a source of enormous wealth and riches. Peru grew into the administrative centre of this empire, with Lima emerging as one of the most important cities in South America.
In 1780 another rebellion broke out, led by an Indian who adopted the name of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru. What started as a protest about taxation developed into an attempt to recreate the rule of the Incas. A crackdown followed but although Tupac Amaru II was executed in 1781, the revolt sputtered on for a further two years, laying the foundation for Peruvian independence.
The Argentine general San Martín had removed the Spanish from Argentina and Chile but needed to evict them from Peru to ensure they couldn't potentially pose a threat to him in the future. Having sailed from Chile to Pisco, he made land and began to battle his way towards Lima. As the Spanish fled, San Martín entered the city and declared Independence in 1820.
Giving pursuit to the royalist army, San Martín approached the other great South American liberator, the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar, for assistance. Bolivar refused to help, on the basis that he wanted the glory for himself. San Martín decided to remove himself from the equation and leave the field to Bolivar, who duly defeated the royalists at key battles in 1824 and became political supreme chief.
A period of prosperity and development followed under the benign leadership of Ramon Castilla, who developed a rail network, invested in educating the Indian population and emancipated black slaves. These good times couldn't last and his successor, Balta, spent more than he could afford on attempting to continue the development of the country and incurred enormous debts.
The Depression affected Peru just as it did much of the world and premeditated the rise of APRA, the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, a Marxist outfit determined to resist economic imperialism, help the oppressed minorities of Peru and establish a united South America. Denied victory in 1931 elections, APRA staged an uprising the following year in Trujillo where 50 army hostages were killed. The army bit back and murdered up to 5000 people thought to be even slightly associated with the group. The tit-for-tat killing continued when APRA assassinated the president in 1933.
The 1950s were characterised by an increase in the dissatisfaction of the landless peasants, which culminated in a revolt in the Cusco area. Inconclusive elections in 1962 saw the military once again assume power although an election was called the following year. New president Belaúnde Terry recognised the threat of the landless Indians and introduced agrarian reforms in 1963 that finally saw peasants assume ownership of the land they worked.
The early 1980s however were not progressive times; the fishing industry was badly hit by an El Niño, Peru's currency collapsed, inflation escalated and the terrorist movements of the MRTA, Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru, and Sendero Luminoso, The Shining Path, started to gather a following. As things deteriorated, inflation soared and human rights abuses increased, peaking with the extreme violence inflicted in the name of the war on terrorism by a right wing death squad assembled to combat the insurgents; it is calculated that some 50,000 people died or disappeared over ten years.
The 1990 election was held with the country and economy on the ropes. At the end of his term, the then president, Alan García, went into exile, accused of embezzling millions of dollars. An unknown contender of Japanese ancestry, Alberto Fujimori, stole up and secured power. Having shut down the Congress and dismissed the Supreme Court, Fujimori rewrote the constitution in 1993, allowing him to make brutal economic reforms and stand for a second term in office.
Successes in stabilising the economy, although at enormous cost to the average Peruvian, and the arrest of the leader of the Sendero Luminoso, Abimael Guzman, meant that Fujimori was re-elected in 1995. A further strengthening of the economy followed but at considerable cost in terms of human rights. Fujimori rewrote the constitution once more to enable him to stand for a third term.
Only once he was back in power did a mass of evidence emerge connecting Fujimori's righthand man, Vladimiro Montesinos, to thousands of instances of corruption and intimidation to secure votes. Montesinos fled abroad, having stashed millions of US dollars in foreign bank accounts. Fujimori vowed to track his one time ally down but in the course of a routine trip to Japan he faxed Congress to announce he wasn't returning to Peru and was resigning his presidency. To add insult to injury he declared that he was a Japanese national, meaning that he had held power illegally for ten years.
In 2005 though Fujimori returned to South America, intent on contesting the next election. He was duly arrested in Chile on an extradition warrant and convicted of a number of charges, including ordering extrajudicial killings, embezzlement, corruption, bribery and wiretapping. He's currently serving three decades in prison but remains unrepentant. Meanwhile, Montesinos is also languishing in prison for 20 years, convicted of bribery and selling arms to Colombian rebels.
The new millennium started brightly for Peru. In 2001 a former shoeshine boy turned world economist, Alejandro Toledo, became the first person of Quechua ancestry to be elected president. At the end of Toledo's term, García defeated Ollanta Humala in a run off and was returned to power, despite his atrocious economic record during the late 1980s and self-imposed exile whilst charges of embezzlement expired. Under his second tenure, the economy strengthened due to mining and agricultural exports and Lima enjoyed an international resurgence after decades of decay.
Humala subsequently won the 2011 election, defeating Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori. Having previously campaigned in a red polo shirt and called for a dramatic transformation in the style of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Huamala modified his radical stance, promised to respect democracy and spread the benefits of the decade-long economic boom to the poor.
Early signs were promising but there remain untold challenges to reduce the gap between rich and poor and indigenous and white, whilst resolving how to develop or preserve the Amazon and ensure that Peru continues to make the most of the economic boom that has seen its economy become one of the fastest-growing in the world.
There are plenty of opportunities in Peru to pick up handicrafts and souvenirs. Start at the regular markets in city centres such as Cusco. One of the largest indigenous markets is in Chiclayo. Other well-established markets include the weekly events in Pisac and Chinchero in the Sacred Valley, close to Cusco In each there are two separate locations, for craft and artisanal goods, and the other for food and produce. If you're still searching for something n Lima, try the vast Petit Thouars market.
As for what to buy, you'll be spoilt for choice as Peru has a long tradition of producing high-quality arts and crafts. Silver and gold are good value, whilst jewellery is often unusual. Saint boxes, known as retablos, are intricate, portable alters containing detailed figures. In Cusco in particular look out for reproductions of paintings in the celebrated Cusco-School style, which mixes Spanish religious imagery with indigenous elements and icons.
However, the Andes are best known for textiles. The local people have long used llama and alpaca wool to create intricate textiles, often decorated with anthropomorphic or geometric designs. These days, scarves, jumpers and ponchos are popular, with the best quality items on offer in Arequipa, Ayacucho and Cusco.
Peruvian pottery is also worth seeking out. Contemporary examples of older designs and decorations, again using animal and angular shapes to record stories or the minutiae of daily life can be picked up in most craft markets.
Tipping can be a tricky issue, especially in a destination where the gulf between rich and poor is so pronounced. In Peru the staff at hotels, restaurants and in airports often rely on tips to make up their income. In most situations a tip of around 10% is acceptable depending on the level of service. Taxi drivers don't expect tips but agree a rate before setting off. If you are on an organised tour it is customary to tip for good service, usually at the end of the day or at the end of your stay. If you go on a trek and have a team of porters walking with you, then tip generously; these people receive very low wages and work incredibly hard to ensure that you have a good experience. Make sure to tip the whole team, from guide to cook to porters, on a sliding scale, with more for the senior members of the team and an even split for the porters. Try to tip individuals directly to ensure it ends up in the right hands. Discuss the actual amount to tip with your tour operator before you travel.
Where to eat
You'll find great food all around Peru, available in hotels, restaurants and from street vendors but there are a host of centres you should look out for. Lima pioneered the Peruvian food renaissance and has a number of award-winning restaurants, celebrity chefs and a signature fusion food style that blends Spanish, indigenous and Asian elements. In the north, Chiclayo is celebrated for its stews, simmered in beer and cilantro, and its spectacular seafood. Trujillo also serves great seafood but is best known for ceviche. Cusco, with its high-end and celebrated restaurants is the place to try rich soups and a wide range of pork dishes along with roast guinea pig. Arequipa in contrast is the best spot for spicy specialities, with spicy bell peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables (rocoto relleno) the dish to seek out.