Geography is the bedrock of Perúvian culture, history and politics. Any meaningful discussion about its people is, in some way, a discussion about geography. The fact it’s listed as a megadiverse place by geographers doesn’t just stop at plants and animals. It goes way beyond. Although it makes Perú hella attractive for travel, it also usually requires compromising on destinations. The goal of this article is to help you pick the right places.

Or skip as much unnecessary fluff as you deem fit.

From top to bottom, Perú goes as far as Toronto to Miami, or Athens to Riga. More than the size of Caspian, Black and the Baltic seas combined. Number 19 by surface area on the planet. But there’s a simple way to categorize it all.

This guide will give you a general idea of what’s where and if it’s for you. To make life easier, I won’t force you to read the entire thing. Here’s the answer – Perú, roughly speaking, is divided into 3 vertical stripes: the coastal desert, the mountains, and the jungle. There’s much diversity within these groups and there are transitional areas in between. But that’s the gist. 

The Coast

source: Wikipedia

The long, narrow strip of land along the Pacific ocean is a desert, sliced with river valleys and sprinkled with cities. Even though the desert is right next to the second biggest body of water between planets Mercury and Saturn, it’s mummy-jerky-dry. Why? Because of the Humboldt Current. This sucker (more like pusher) flows south to north, all the way to Ecuador, bringing in cold, arctic water. Low temperatures mean fewer clouds mean less rain means mummy-jerky-dry climate along the coast.

source: seos-project.eu

That is, unless El Niño happens and reverses the whole deal, flooding northern Perú and placing it a whole new reason to be miserable.

Where to go?

Despite being a desert, the Coast is diverse. So don’t expect sandy beaches everywhere. For that you gotta go north, to Tumbes, Zorritos, Punta Sal, Lobitos, or the perpetual party town, Mancora. Famous for surfing, but also bearing the marks of that fame – globalism, consumerism and carnality.

And while you’re in the north, might as well visit Piura and the nearby Manglares de Tumbes National Sanctuary. It’s a forest where the river meets the ocean, full of muddy channels, islets and shrubberies, perfect for kayaking as well as bird/crocodile watching. It’s a good stopover to/from Ecuador.

On the opposite end of the country, you’ll find Arequipa. It jumped early on the colonization train, building magnificent temples, rich vineyards and other buildings that would become fancy restaurants and hotels (as any self-respecting UNESCO World Site does). Arequipa historically grew in importance and status, because of the generous location:

  1. Wedged between 3 volcanoes, with river Chili flowing through and the highest average solar radiation in the country, the city has access to prime farmland. It’s an agricultural player;
  2. On the trail between Lima and Potosí (nowadays – Bolivia), it was a linchpin, a strategic cornerstone of the Spanish Crown. The silver mined in the richest silver mine in the history of the planet had to be transported to Lima. And Arequipa was there to resupply and protect the caravans. Indispensable to an empire based on silver trade;
  3. Standing at over 2km above the sea level, with access to potable water and a barren desert around, Arequipa is an easily defendable spot. Any attacker would have had a hard time.

Arequipa is a place to eat, drink and hike. Given the volcanic soil, the vegetables and fruits are intense (before you spend a million moneys on an overpriced meal, visit Mercado San Camilo); coffee, beer and wine aren’t difficult to find as well. But when it comes to adventure, it’s… fuzzy.Your main options are climbing one of the volcanoes around the city (Misti – more popular, Chachani – taller), taking a hike (plenty of options!) from Chivay, watching the condors in Mirador Cruz del Condor or hiking the Colca canyon. So what’s the issue? To put it simply, these options aren’t equal and you probably won’t have time to visit them all.

For Perú this is average.

What’s the best bang for buck in Arequipa?

Mirador Cruz del Condor probably tops the list, because it’s easy to reach. It would take you ~3h to get there by car/bus, but you wouldn’t have to hike anywhere. Mirador is halfway between Chivay and Cabanaconde, so it’s part of visiting Colca canyon. And let me tell you, a mature condor in flight is a sight to remember.
Climbing any of the volcanos comes second on my list, because of the proximity to Arequipa and the sheer fact that it’s a FUCKING VOLCANO! On a proper journey nothing is guaranteed, but if there’s a spot to feel like an insignificant speck of stardust, it’s probably on top of a volcano. Even though Misti (5822m) is shorter than Chachani (6075m), it’s still a solid climb, so be realistic about your level of preparation.
Chivay is more of a stopover than a popular base of operations, but that means fewer tourists and perhaps a slightly more authentic vibe. This is an option for people with too much time or with grand plans (such as hiking over 300km to Puno). Sometimes it’s just nice to sit back and relax, even if it’s on the side of the worn-out road.
In my humble opinion, Colca canyon is overhyped. Yes, it’s beautiful and deep. In another country it would be considered a wonder. But in Perú it’s upper middle. On the plus side, it’s easy to reach by bus (going Arequipa – Chivay, Chivay – Cabanaconde is cheaper and usually faster than direct bus from Arequipa) and offers accommodation and food along the way. On the downside, a hike takes between 2-4 days to complete, commodities aren’t cheap, and a 1-day visit isn’t visually very different from a 4-day walk. If you’re dead-set on hiking in Perú, save it for the Sacred Valley around Cuzco, Huayhuash in Cordilleras Blancas or the Amazon. Honestly it’s a strong contestant and you’re more likely to enjoy it than not, but Colca is a couple of levels below the top spots of Perú.

Perú contains one of the 5 known cradles of civilization. In other words, it’s got the oldest evidence of cities, agriculture, public buildings or writing. Educates us about humans as a species. And the dry weather of the coast helped to preserve the ruins, mummies and ancient textiles.

What’s there to discover? The oldest known civilization of ALL OF AMERICAS is in Caral, 3 hours north of Lima. The open-air museum of Sacred City of Caral is just a shot away from the town of Barranca. Together with Áspero, they’re only a small part of an entire group of towns and sites found all along the Supe river valley. Keep in mind these sites aren’t visually as stunning as the areas around Cuzco.

For a bigger eye candy, check the remnants of the Moche civilization in the town of Trujillo. They’re almost 2000 years old and tell you how the Age of Empires looked like around Perú.

Although it’s nowhere near the Pacific, Puno and the area around Lake Titicaca is definitely in the desert. And definitely old. Although the oldest archeological sites are about 3500 years old, human activity goes at least as far as the domestication of potatoes (10000 years ago). So no surprise there’s plenty of archeology going on: Sillustani, Kalasaya – Pucará and Cutimbo to name a few. 

Arequipa is a place to eat, drink and hike. Given the volcanic soil, the vegetables and fruits are intense (before you spend a million moneys on an overpriced meal, visit Mercado San Camilo); coffee, beer and wine aren’t difficult to find as well. But when it comes to adventure, it’s… fuzzy.Your main options are climbing one of the volcanoes around the city (Misti – more popular, Chachani – taller), taking a hike (plenty of options!) from Chivay, watching the condors in Mirador Cruz del Condor or hiking the Colca canyon. So what’s the issue? To put it simply, these options aren’t equal and you probably won’t have time to visit them all.

This is what 500+ years of Age of Empires gets you.

How about Lake Titicaca?

Given that lake Titicaca is almost ⅓ the size of Belgium, it’s got much more to offer. But a bigger menu isn’t always better. Falling into a tourist trap is easy around Puno. Travelling to/from requires homework, as companies like Andean Explorer can be a huge ripoff. The city lives off of tourist coin, so most of the entertainment caters to the masses and a lot of it feels like a Disney tour. Take the Floating Islands of Uros – because they’re the most popular, a tour may leave you feeling like you’re in a Christmas market on Sunday (minus the decorations). That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, but with a little research you’ll discover there are places like Taquile or Amantaní islands, which leave a more pleasant aftertaste.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. The altitude of almost 4km above sea level is tough. Pardon me, did I say tough? I meant to say it’s FUCKING BRUTAL. If you’re not paralyzed by headache or diarrhea, you’re out of breath after a few steps. Keep in mind that if you don’t take time to get accustomed, 5 out of your 6 days there could be miserable. What I’m saying is start your journey elsewhere.
Puno is usually just a stopover when going to/from Bolivia. It’s alright for a day, but as a city, it’s not an easy sell. Then again, the very fact of visiting Lake Titicaca is special, no?

Lastly, there are the famous Nazca geoglyphs. Realistically, are they worth it? Yes, but only if:

  • it’s convenient and you have the time (duh);
  • you have a spare 100€ for a 90-minute flight (yes, there is a much cheaper watchtower, but shows only 2 out of the whole myriad of geoglyphs);
  • you appreciate the cultural significance.

In my opinion they’re only as cool as the context surrounding the ancient civilization. Meaning – not for everyone. I’m not saying it’s shit. I’m not saying you wouldn’t enjoy it. All I’m saying is – don’t trust the cliches.

What most blogs forget to mention is that the Atacama Desert is perfect for stargazing. Look for observatories, planetariums and trips to the desert.

Coastal cuisine offers fresh fish. Combine that with sizeable Asian population and you’ll get some of the best sushi outside of Japan. Then again, it’s almost sacrilege to mention sushi before ceviche – raw fish marinated with lime, spices, onion and hot pepper. Delicious.

Obligatory destination in any Peruvian town.

 Finally, a couple of pointers:

  • Bring a hat, sunblock and sunglasses. They won’t save you against a tsunami, but at least your body’d look fabulous;
  • Watch out for pickpockets and thieves. Take your time to read hostel reviews and DO NOT VISIT ANYTHING BELOW 8.0. I got my stuff stolen out of a hostel locker;
  • There are great lunch deals from the day menu – look for hand-written signs and plastic chairs;
  • Check out local markets for fresh produce. Fresh, delicious and cheap.
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