Peru is one of the world’s great backpacking destinations: a geographically diverse nation rich in culture and brimming with opportunities for adventure. It offers budget travelers an affordable and unforgettable experience, from the coastal deserts to the Andean highlands and east into the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon.
How Long Do You Need?
Backpackers need at least one week in Peru. It takes time to get around the country and there are plenty of things to see and do, making two weeks respectable and a month or more ideal. If you want to see the main sites and have time to get off the beaten path, then consider two weeks as a minimum.
Average Daily Budget for Peru
Even among budget backpackers, the average daily expenditure in Peru can vary greatly. At the lower end of the scale, an average of US$25 a day would be reasonable for all the basics (including food, accommodation and transport). Flights, expensive tours, hotel splurges, excessive tipping and lots of partying can easily push the daily average to US$35 and beyond.
Most backpackers in Peru, especially first-timers, will spend time on the classic Gringo Trail. This route lies entirely within the southern third of Peru and includes major destinations such as Nazca, Arequipa, Puno and Cusco (for Machu Picchu). If you want to travel this route and explore beyond the well-trodden trail, then you’ll definitely need more than a week.
If you have two weeks or more, then your options open up. The Gringo Trail is popular for good reason, but -- with more time -- you can explore other geographic regions such as the north coast of Peru, the central highlands and the selva baja (low jungle) of the Amazon Basin.
Getting Around Peru
Peru’s long-distance bus companies provide backpackers with a cheap and reasonably comfortable way of getting from place to place. With the cheapest companies, however, bus travel in Peru is neither safe nor reliable. It’s always worth paying a little extra for midrange to top-end companies such as Cruz del Sur, Ormeño and Oltursa.
Peru’s domestic airlines serve most major destinations; if you are short on time or can’t face another 20-hour bus journey, then a quick but more expensive flight is always an option. In the Amazon regions, boat travel becomes standard. Riverboat journeys are slow but scenic, with travel times between major ports (such as Pucallpa to Iquitos) running from three to four days. Train travel options are limited, but offer some spectacular rides.
Minibuses, taxis and mototaxis take care of short hops within cities and between neighboring towns and villages. Fares are low, but make sure you’re paying the correct amount (foreign tourists are often overcharged).
There are various accommodation options in Peru, ranging from basic backpacker hostels to five-star hotels and luxury jungle lodges. As a backpacker, you’ll probably head straight for the hostels. That makes sense, but you won’t necessarily be choosing the cheapest option. Hostels in popular destinations such as Cusco, Arequipa and Lima (particularly Miraflores) can be quite expensive, so it’s also worth considering guesthouses (alojamientos) and budget hotels that don’t target the international tourist crowd.
Food and Drink
Budget backpackers will find plenty of cheap but filling meals in Peru. Lunch is the main meal of the day; restaurants throughout the country sell inexpensive set lunches known as menús (a starter and main course for as little as S/.3, or just over US$1). If you want to experience the best of Peruvian food, however, treat yourself to an occasional non-menú meal (more expensive but generally of a higher standard).
Travelers on the move can also dig in to various savory snacks, many of which are a reasonable substitute for a proper sit-down meal.
Popular nonalcoholic beverages include the ever-present (and very yellow) Inca Kola, as well as a mind-boggling array of fresh fruit juices. Beer is cheap in Peru, but be careful not to blow too much of your budget in bars and discotecas. Pisco is the national drink of Peru -- you’ll probably have a few pisco sours before the end of your trip.
Do yourself a huge favor before you go to Peru: learn some Spanish. As a budget traveler, you won’t be surrounded by English-speaking hotel staff and tour guides, especially away from the main tourist destinations. You’ll be self-reliant and you’ll need to communicate with the locals (for directions, bus times, recommendations and every other basic need).
A basic command of Spanish will also help you avoid rip-offs and scams, both of which can eat away at your budget. More importantly, being able to communicate with the locals will make your time in Peru more rewarding in general.
Is Peru Safe for Backpackers?
Don’t be too quick to trust strangers (no matter how friendly they seem) and always keep one eye on your surroundings. Always keep valuable items hidden when possible and never leave anything unattended in a public place (in a restaurant, an internet cafe, on a bus etc). Cameras, laptops and other tempting items can disappear incredibly quickly.