The average tourist comes to Peru with the one goal: visit Machu Picchu. They land in Lima, catch a flight to Cusco, see the ruins, and head back home.
Machu Picchu is one of the ancient wonders of the world and deserves nothing short of mystical reverence. But Peru warrants so much more than one stop.
With the goal of seeing all that Peru had to offer, I dedicated a month to bussing my way down the country. Fortunately for me, the Peruvian bus system is surprisingly luxurious. For around $20-$40 USD, Peru’s bus lines offer food, beverages, a personal TV and a fully reclining seat. As someone who can never sleep on an airplane, I was thrilled to recline my seat to the full 180 degrees and wake up well rested at my destination.
1. Laguna 69
Imagine the perfect turquoise blue of the Caribbean ocean. Now imagine water the very same color surrounded by snow-capped mountains. That is Laguna 69.
Laguna 69 is located in the Huascarán National Park, right outside the city of Huaraz in northern Peru. It’s a (very difficult) three-hour hike to the lake through the stunning Peruvian mountains. Every time I stopped to catch my breath, I was amazed by the green pastures, crystal-clear streams, and waterfalls. After hiking past several deep-blue lakes, you finally reach one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen: Laguna 69.
Some brave souls go so far as to jump into the lake, but with the outside temperature hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I was content eating my pre-packed avocado sandwich and soaking it all in.
2. Huacachina Oasis
I had only seen an oasis in cartoons before I visited the Huacachina Oasis, located 3 hours outside of Lima. It is comprised of a lagoon and the palm trees surrounding it, which has given way to the tiny town of Huacachina. Beyond that are miles of wind-swept desert.
I signed up for an afternoon sand-boarding tour for $12. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my entire trip. We entered the desert and our driver immediately began racing up and down the sand dunes. We then spent two adrenaline-packed hours whizzing down the dunes headfirst. To top it all off, the tour ends with the sunset view over the dunes, and an equally great view of the oasis from above.
It is difficult to describe the magic of standing on top of a sand dune, looking out at the boundless desert before you. Add a sand-board to the mix, and you have another perfect afternoon in Peru.
Just 45 minutes from Huacachina is Paracas, a small beach town best known for the Isla Ballesta islands just offshore. A boat tour will take you to the islands, which are overrun with countless birds, penguins, and sea lions. Though you cannot get out of the boat, you will have no trouble seeing the animals up close. They are above, next to, and under you. One beach is so filled with baby sea lions and their mothers, we couldn’t even see the sand below their flippers.
Next up was the city of Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city located in the south. Flights run regularly from Lima for about $80-$100, but I chose to take a deluxe bus for $40 and brave the 16-hour ride.
Arequipa came to be one of my favorite cities in Peru. Surrounded by three volcanoes, Arequipa was built in white volcanic rock that adds to its enchanting colonial architecture. The city is sprinkled with stunning plazas, hidden courtyards and arched alleyways. I took a great free walking tour, offered twice daily, that took us through a local market, a genuine alpaca manufacturer, and ended with a free Pisco Sour, Peru’s signature cocktail.
5. Cusco and Machu Picchu
I couldn’t spend a month in Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. Most travelers who visit Machu Picchu stay in Cusco and take the PeruRail train to get to the ruins and back. However, since a one-way ticket ranges from $70-$200 USD, I decided to find another way to Machu Picchu.
I quickly learned that many budget-travelers take the bus to Machu Picchu. It takes 6 hours plus a 3 hour hike to reach the small town at Machu Picchu’s base, but at just $20 USD round-trip, I was in. Once at the base, you either hike up to the ruins—a grueling hour-long ascent— or take a bus for $18 one-way. I decided to bus up and hike down.
Clouds circled the surrounding mountains, which only added to the mystical air surrounding the ancient city. While standing above Machu Picchu, you can really feel the full force of the empire that once ruled Peru. It was easy to spend around 6 hours walking around, taking in the history.