When you think of Peru, do you have dreamy visions of the cobblestoned streets of Cusco, the majestic Machu Picchu, and the jaw-dropping Sacred Valley? Me too. It wasn’t until I started planning a two-week trek through Peru that I realized just how many must-visit cities I need to squeeze into my whirlwind trip. Read on for our top five cities to visit in Peru, from the sea to the desert, to the mountains, and get inspired to book that ticket!
1. Cusco will take your breath away – literally
Cusco leads competition of top cities to visit in Peru, and for good reason. The city sits at 11,152 feet in elevation, more than two miles in the air, and double the elevation of Denver. I’ve never been 11,000 feet in the air (outside the comfortable confines of an airplane, of course). I came prepared though. I started taking the altitude sickness meds my doctor prescribed three days before we landed. While I can’t say for sure if they worked, I didn’t feel the dreaded symptoms of altitude sickness, so that has to mean something right?
In all honesty, though, any fear or anxiety I had of not being able to catch my breath when we landed (helllooo my fellow asthma sufferers!) were quickly erased the moment I saw the red tile roofs, green pastures, and towering mountains of the city from the window of the airplane. I will have a detailed post dedicated exclusively to Cusco, because it’s worthy of a post all it’s own.
Stroll. That’s all I can tell you. Might seem counterintuitive coming from a girl with moderate asthma to suggest moderate activity in one of the world’s highest cities, but it’s that good. Make sure you have offline Google Maps downloaded on your phone, and head out in the direction of San Pedro market, stopping along the way for anything from an espresso or pisco sour, to impromptu celebrations and parades.
I wasn’t blown away by the food in Cusco (in fact, Wardell got a bad case of food poisoning our last night). Limbus Restobar was the exception. The food is great, the drinks strong, and the view…oh the view! Grab a drink, and take in the night sky of one of the most picturesque cities in Peru.
Let’s talk hostels. I know, they’re not for everyone, but Peru’s cities have some of the best I’ve experienced. Loki Hostel sits at the top of a very steep hill which means you’ll get accustomed to stopping every five steps to catch your breath – it’s fine, don’t be embarrassed like I was. Book yourself into the deluxe suite with en suite bathroom for about 200 soles per night and think of me as you have your morning coffee overlooking the mist and the red roofs of the city. I didn’t want to leave.
Pro tip: Plan on leaving Cusco no later than 24 hours after you land. Sounds crazy, but hear me out. Cusco is the highest elevation that you’ll likely visit in your Sacred Valley trip. And altitude sickness doesn’t hit you right away – it’s a slow burn. Within 24 hours, head down into the Sacred Valley, either to experience the lovely countryside towns or to start your trek to Machu Picchu (which, comparatively speaking, is only 7,972 feet high). Reserve the bulk of your time in Cusco until after your body has time to acclimate at slightly lower elevations.
2. The main event: Machu Picchu
Technically, Machu Picchu is no longer a city, but a mecca for travelers around the world. Still, a guide to the top cities to visit in Peru is incomplete without this ancient gem.
I considered not even writing about Machu Picchu. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? And anything that has been said doesn’t remotely do this Wonder of the World justice. I’ll be honest – I was full of worry and doubt as we started our four-day trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu (more on our trek later). Could it really be as impactful, awe-inspiring, and wonderful as everyone says? Surely some of the buzz is hype, right? WRONG. 100% dead wrong. I cried, laughed, and stared in pure wonder. And I cried some more. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because I cannot put the experience into words. You just have to go to find out. Trust us (the collective travel community) – it’s worth it and then some.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. Challenging hikes, thrilling jungle treks, modest trains, or luxurious trains. However you choose to go, just GO. And leave some time to explore Aguascalientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu) – I wish we had stayed one more night.
Again, I wasn’t thrilled with the food, but nothing can beat a hearty meal and a beer in Aguascalientes after a day at Machu Picchu, admiring the peaks surrounding Machu Picchu. I don’t even remember what we ate or where we ate, I just remember not taking my eyes off of the mist and mountains behind me.
Like everywhere in Peru, accommodations run the gamut here – cheap hostels, affordable hotels, and high-end hotels. You won’t be spending much time in your room, so pick a centrally-located property that meets your budget, and don’t think twice about it.
Pro tip: Download and listen to Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. The book isn’t a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but it will definitely get you in the mood for your journey to Machu Picchu – no matter your means of transportation.
P.S. If you’re planning a trip to MP, can I come with?!
3. More to explore in the Sacred Valley
Machu Picchu is, without a doubt, the golden child of the Sacred Valley. But the Incan Empire, the largest of the pre-Colombian empires in the Americas, left us more than the Lost City. We almost cruised past the rest of the Sacred Valley experience, thinking we had “seen it all” at Machu Picchu. Boy, am I glad we stayed a few more days…
Actually a region of cities, each with their own culture, a trip through the cities that dot the Sacred Valley is a must when visiting Peru.
You could spend a week in the Sacred Valley alone. If you’re in search of more ruins, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Maras – the list goes on – are all great options and typically within 30 minutes to an hour from the heart of the valley. Be sure to check out the Pisac market – I found some beautiful, locally-woven pillow coverings and blankets at a fraction of the cost you’ll find in Cusco. And for those of you with an adventurous side (hi!), the options are endless. My favorite, though, was ATVing. It was my first time behind the wheel, and after a timid start, I grew to love it. The views were incredible, and passing smiling locals on the dirt roads will be forever ingrained in my mind.
I’m sure there are some great restaurants, maybe embedded within some of the high-end hotels in the Sacred Valley, but I didn’t try any of those. Truthfully, we were exhausted most nights after exploring that we would share a bottle of wine, watch Netflix on the iPad, and fall asleep by 9 pm. One day, we had lunch in the cute town of Urubamba at Kampu, a fusion restaurant with everything from Italian to Indian to Asian. I know, how can they possible do it all well? I don’t know, but they can.
Spreading across 60 kilometers, the Sacred Valley is vast and each town offers something a little different from the rest. There really isn’t a great place to stay that is walkable so we opted for a small bed & breakfast off the main “highway” with easy access to colectivos to take you where you want to go. Compared to some other countries, these busses were clean, safe, and came with some regularity. The Greenhouse Bed & Breakfast is the cutest, coziest place to lay your head in the Sacred Valley. The owners will arrange any excursion or activity you want as well as transport to and from Cusco. The main house is where you can have breakfast, and don’t miss out on the dinner offering – the owner is very talented in the kitchen!
Bonus! Check out our guide on the most stunning sites to visit on a tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley.
4. Let loose in Huacachina
Our next top city to visit in Peru is Huacachina: a far-flung oasis tucked in the middle of the highest sand dunes in South America, about four hours by bus from Lima. No, it’s not Mars, but you sure do feel like you are in a faraway land. Sure, everyone goes to Peru to experience either the Andes or the Amazon, but it’s Huacachina that will surprise you most – trust me. It’s no wonder it’s become a backpackers paradise – I could have veg’d out there for longer than the two days we had.
Dunebuggy tour, duh. We arrived in the afternoon, and had a scheduled tour for the following day. But, we just couldn’t wait – we had to see those dunes pronto. Luckily, Huacachina is incredibly laid back – walk around and chat with the tour companies to find the best prices and the next departing tour. (I say tour companies like they are brick and mortar stores, waiting to take your credit card and give you a ticket. No, no. What I really mean is: walk around and try your broken Spanish on any and everyone chillin’ behind an ATV repair shop and see who’s up to taking a couple of newbies up to the dunes). Spoiler alert: our spontaneous, unplanned trip to the dunes was more enjoyable, fun, and thrilling than our planned trip the following day. Note to self: always leave room for spontaneity in your agenda.
It’s a beautiful, natural oasis, sure, but I wouldn’t classify Huacachina as a culinary oasis. But, what it does have gets the job done after a few Pilsens. Again, laidback is the name of the game here – just cruise the lagoon boardwalk and pop into the first restaurant you find. Personally, we ate at Wild Olive Trattoria (it’s also a hostel) for four out of our six meals in town. I don’t know what they put in their pesto, but my mouth waters to this day when I think about it. Then again, could be courtesy of the never-ending Pilsens…
The lodging in Huacachina is pretty modest, and largely geared towards backpackers. We opted for a low-key stay at Hostal Curasi – centrally located with a much-appreciated pool. If you’re looking for upscale, head towards one of the many haciendas in Ica.
Pro tip: Getting to Huacachina can be a bit tricky – it’s a bit off the typical tourist path. There are cost-effective public bus options from Lima to Ica (the nearest large town to Huacachina). We chose a more comfortable route (and less of a logistical headache) and booked a roundtrip bus through Peru Hop. Can’t recommend this company enough. If you have time to spare and want to see the vastness of the country, they have itineraries that take you throughout Peru, and sister companies in Bolivia and Ecuador. The bus is cold, though, so be sure to bring a sweater!
5. Give Lima a chance
I know, I know. The guidebooks urge you to skip Lima and go straight to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Hear me out though: chances are your international flights will arrive and depart through Lima. If your itinerary can spare just one.more.day, Lima has more than enough to entertain you for 24 hours and definitely warrants a spot in the top cities to visit in Peru. By all means, though, if you’re tight on time, skip straight ahead to Cusco.
Morning bike tour with Lima Bike Rental. We chose the Barranco tour and found it to be a great introduction to the history and beauty of Lima.
You can’t leave Lima without trying Peru’s national dish – ceviche. Depending on where you stay, head to the Costa Verde for some ceviche with a view of the Pacific Ocean. My favorite ceviche of the trip, though, was a happenstance encounter on our last night in Peru, in the San Isidro neighborhood at Barra Lima Restaurante – great place to grab a seat at the bar and try a few different styles.
Lodging in Lima (well, Peru in general) can be as cost-effective or expensive as you’d like. We chose to save in Lima and stayed in a private room at Pariwana Hostel in the hip Miraflores neighborhood. It was walking distance to most everything, and we enjoyed the rooftop bar and lounge. Looking to splurge? Check out the Belmond Miraflores Park (and it’s stunning view of the Pacific Ocean).
It’s impossible to sum up the greatness of Peru’s cities and regions in just one post. In fact, I only saw a sliver of the country during my two-week trip. For those with the flexibility, Peru would be a perfect country for digital nomads or those looking to plan a workcation. Be on the lookout for more detailed info on traveling to Peru, including a full two-week itinerary, detailed suggestions, and more. Until then, let me know below: what city are you most excited to visit in Peru?