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Itinerary advice for a 5 week trip to Peru

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My boyfriend and I (early 30's) are planning a 6 month plus tour of South America and have some questions about Peru that we hope forum members will be able to hep us with.

Basically we want to experience the best Peru has to offer for a period of 5 or so weeks (we can be flexible), focusing on food and hiking (to counter the food). As we are on a long trip, money is an issue so if we can trek/hike without guides safely we would prefer that option. That being said we are not pro hikers/mountaineers.

Given that we also plan to visit Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia there are some areas we have identified such as the Amazon and Lake Titicaca where we are uncertain which country is the best to visit from.

We're happy to visit big sites but would like to avoid the tourist traps as much as possible.

Here is our rough plan so far:

Lima
Cusco
Four day Inca Trail (Machu Picchu)
Hike Colca Canyon
Arequipa
Nazca Lines
Pisco/Paracas to see the Islas Ballestas National Reserve
Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca

We would also like to see Lake Titicaca and the floating islands but we're not sure whether to see it from Peru or Bolivia - any thoughts?

We're also still not sure about the Amazon and which country we should try seeing it from. If we do the Amazon after Peru it would probably make sense to continue on to Rurrenabaque in Bolivia. But what about seeing it from Iquitos?

I think we have the basics of the gringo trail covered and enough hikes to keep us busy. In your opinion are there any other must sees on the trail?

What about the north of Peru? Any favourite places up there that are off the gringo trail?

We've been looking at Trujillo/Chan Chan and Mancora as possibilities (and we want to do the Cordillera Blanca hike as mentioned).

If you've got any recommendations or suggestions on how to fill out the rest of our itinerary we'd appreciate hearing about it.

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    Have you looked at crellston's blog? Or even any of the many trip reports here? He went to Rurre.

    None of the sights you have listed are off the beaten path. Other than Huaraz, they are all part of the "Gringo Trail". For the Inca Trail itself, you must go with a guide and it's fairly expensive. You need to book that ahead.

    There are no floating islands on the Bolivian side of L. Titicaca, they are only of the Peruvian side.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/south-america/back-to-south-america.cfm

    If you do want to go a bit more off the beaten path I like Chachapoyas and northern Peru, Ayacucho (you can take a day bus inland from near Paracas), and Huancayo (there is a great train ride there but it doesn't run very often).

    Hiking the Cordillera Blanca is also fairly expensive and you should go with a guide. Season is important in the Andes. Dry season is also when it's cold (the Austral summer).

    I feel you may wish to invest in a guidebook since many of your questions are basic. Footprint is pretty good for South America.

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    Thanks crellston and mlgb for the links and information. We’ve done a lot more research over the week into the southern Peru trail and would appreciate any thoughts or input.

    Lima (4 days) - We are food crazed and from all our reading Lima looks like the best place to bash up our budget a bit in the continent. Looking at Barranco, heard it has a nice village type feel whilst Miraflores sounded a bit more popular with the tourist crowd.

    Pisco/Paracas (TBD) - We would like to see the Islas Ballestras and the Reserva Nacional de Paracas. I understand that we can get down here in 4 ½ hours from Lima taking an early morning bus, then we can arrange tickets at the docks. If we need to we could stay the night then move onto Ica/Huacachina but I would prefer to treat it as a day trip of sorts and end up Huacachina. Any thoughts on this? Too rushed?

    Ica/Huacahina (2 days) - One day of chilling and having some fun in the dunes around Huacahina and maybe on the second day some wineries but the feedback we have read and some guidebook entries are putting us off a little on the wineries. Any recommendations? Staying a 2nd day in Huacachina to much?

    Nazca Lines (TBD) - Still a bit uncertain for the price and experience in a small plane banking like a rollercoaster (I love nature thrills, but hate theme parks). We have friends that went two years ago, one hated it and thought most of the operations were a bit shoddy whilst his partner threw her lunch up all over the plane and recommends it. Go figure! We are still leaning against it and motoring down to Arequipa.

    Arequipa (2 days, Colca Canyon, 1 day) - This city has piqued my interest quite a bit and i am thinking of giving it a fair shake with extra time to just soak it in. Given that we may travel for an entire a year i don’t want to burn out and would rather spend some time in a nice place to digest. Having said that i only put down 3 days. Maybe 4? Any ideas for Arequipa? I have read people that say 2 days and others that wax lyrical and recommend a whole week or more!

    Colca Canyon (3 or 4 day) - This seems like a great opportunity to hit a trek without a guide. We have read a few accounts and it seems doable. We are still looking at the best route to take. I wouldn't mind stretching the typical 3 day hike into a 4 day, but need to do more research on the towns. Any suggestions? We will be back in Arequipa after the hike.

    Puno/Lake Titicaca (TBD, 5 days?) - Puno as a base to see the islands, we would like to do a homestay and visit independently. Also plan on visiting Lampa and surrounding ruins. How many nights do you recommend exploring this area? Maybe we can spend a bit more time on one of islands just chilling out. We also plan on heading to Bolivia on this trip so we are toying with hitting their spots on the lake though we don’t know how to fit it in. When in Rome i guess, so that will take more time.

    Cuzco (2 days) - Planning to stay somewhere in San Blas. First two days to relax and enjoy the city before we hit the hike. I read mixed things about Cuzco mainly that it is packed with touts and naturally has the trappings of a very touristed site. We will check out the main square of course but hopefully we can get ‘lost’ in the city away from the circus. Not sure how much time we will spend. After the hike/MP we will come back this way but maybe spend more time in the Sacred Valley. Any opinions?

    Inca Trail (4 days) - Looking at hiking with the Llama Path. Seems like a handful of good operators to pick from.

    Machu Picchu (TBD) - So we will wind up at MP after the hike and have the day to explore. We were thinking maybe overnighting in Agua Caliente and spending another day doing some hiking/walking at MP. This very well maybe overkill after the trail. But i would really like to cover some ground on the site.

    Cusco/Sacred Valley (TBD) - As mentioned earlier i would like to spend more time in this region off the very well beaten Inca Trail/MP route. Ideally we would like to slow the pace down and do a homestay in a village maybe Pizac or Ollantaytambo or anywhere :). Any recommendations? How long do you think we should spend in the region? Maybe 3 or so days? I haven't nailed down extra time in Cusco yet either, i know i talked about touts and touristy stuff but maybe we will fall in love with Cusco :)

    We haven’t worked out yet what our approach into Peru will be, whether we come from Colombia or Ecuador first or Peru first and loop back through Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. It depends also on where we decide to take one month Spanish immersion classes.

    We also haven’t touched on the Amazon or northern Peru yet - that portion of the trip will come in the next day or so.

    Please let us know what you think or if you have any suggestions. Thanks so much for your help.

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    Sounds like a great trip, and you have certainly done your homework! I haven't been everywhere you're going in Peru, but here are my 2 cents on the places I have been:
    Puno/Lake Titicaca. 5 days is way too much. Puno has weather that does not make one want to spend time "just chilling out." It is a cold, raw, harsh climate. Still, worth going to see the lake. We spent 1 night/2 days doing a homestay on an island. A cool experience, but that was ample time to hike the island, see the floating islands, and have a very relaxed afternoon and evening chatting with the family.

    Inca Trail. yes, awesome, do it.

    Machu Picchu. We spent 1 full day (after arriving at sunrise til about 3 in the afternoon) and did a tour of the ruins, saw them on our own, and hiked Huayna Picchu (worth it). That was enough for us, but I can't imagine you would regret an extra day at such an amazing place.

    Cusco/Sacred Valley. If you won't already be acclimitized, do your Cuzco time before you hike the Inca Trail. Every day you spend at Cuzco elevation will make the hike that much better. I personally loved Cuzco, though yes it is touristy. There are great day hikes in the area, and I really enjoyed a city tour of all the colonial and Inca buildings.

    For the Amazon, Peru would be a good choice (manu, madre de dios and other places). I recommend spending the time and money to get to primary forest rather than secondary forest, because you're likely to see far more large animals. Best to go where people aren't hunting, for the same reason.

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    LIMA - definitely the place for great food! We have stayed at various times in both Barranco and Miraflores and much preferred the Barranco. Yes it does have a village type atmosphere and sees fewer tourist. Miraflores also has a great deal going for it and is worth spending time in. Fortunately it is only a 15 min walk between the two.

    AREQUIPA & COLCA - We really like Arequipa and spent a couple of weeks there in an apartment last visit. Sadly we didn't get to hike the canyon as it was closed for much of our time there because of the earthquake activity.

    We stayed in Calma this time rather than the city centre and certainly did not get bored but in 4-5 days you would be able to relax and cover most there is to see at a relaxed pace. The food here was as good and almost as varied as that in Lima.

    PUNO & TITICACA - Titicaca is amazing but I wasn't that keen on Puno at all. For visiting the lake I much preferred the Bolivain side - Copacabana/ Isla del Sol. 2 days woul be enough for me in Puno. The. Uros islands are interesting but are very touristy. It is amazing though to sail on a lake that is 4000 m above sea level.

    CUSCO AND THE SV - is jam packed with tourists and I was quite shocked by the increase in the six years between our two visits. That said, it is still a magical sort of place and deserves more time than you are suggesting. The first time we were there over a month ( but that included both language lessons at FairPlay and volunteering at Living Heart Foundation. The second time were were the for a couple of weeks and still found plenty to hold our interest. There is a huge amount to keep you occupied so don't stint on your time there. I think you will fall in love with the area.

    For off the beaten path, take a look at one of the Lares treks. We did the one to Ollantaytambo six years ago and saw only two or three other hikers on the route , although I expect it has got a lot busier in recent times since they reduced quotas on the main Inca Trail. Pisac is great, I actually prefer it to MP but I am not sure it is worth an overnight stay. I would be inclined to go early in the morning, hike the ruins and then get the bus back to Cusco. Jump off at Tambo. Machay and hike back down to cusco via Sacsayhuaman.

    As for you route into Peru, we had an open jaw ticket into Quito and out of. Lima so we took a north south route down through Ecuador into Peru via Vilcabamba/ San Ignacio ( challenging!!) on to Chachapoyas ( don't miss it) and down through northern Peru to Lima. The route from Cusco through to La Paz is one of the most spectacular I have taken anywhere in the world. From LP we travelled around Bolivia before crossing into northern Argentina and Chile before finding our way back to Lima through Southern Peru. Always nice not to have to retrace your route if at all possible.

    We looked at various places for visiting the. Amazon, initially in Ecuador and then Peru before deciding upon Madidi in. Bolivia. We loved our time there and would recommend it. It was certainly the least expensive option. However, after considerable research we mainly chose it because it offered pristine primary rainforest that was relatively easily accessible. I haven't been anywhere else in the Amazon basin so I can't really compare but I have visited many other rainforests elsewhere in the world and it did seem to be the most untouched by far. The one thing it did lack was the big wide river you would see in say Brazil.

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    Re Paracas, Huacachina, Nazca.

    What I did was take an early morning Cruz del Sur bus to Paracas in time for an afternoon tour which to the Paracas Peninsula. I spent the night and the next morning did the boat ride. I booked with the agency that is at the Cruz del Sur bus depot.

    I did Ica and Nazca on a separate trip.

    In Ica I stayed at Villa Jazmin, which I liked, instead of Huacachina which is more of a backpacker hangout. It's only a short taxi ride. The dune buggy (optional sandboarding) ride in the afternoon at about 4 pm is the nicer time, since they stay up on the dunes to watch sunset. You should be able to take one of the early evening buses to Nazca from there. Great seafood restaurant in Ica is Soy Peru. It's near the bus stations but takes a bit of hunting. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g304040-d4452203-Reviews-Soy_Peru-Ica_Ica_Region.html It was recommended by my favorite receptionist at my B&B, who was my go-to expert on cebicherias, & used to work in Paracas before the earthquake. There is another decent seafood restaurant not far from Villa Jazmin that has some local delicacies on the menu (like limpets).

    In Nazca everything is pretty much on one main drag, I stayed a night at the Casa Andina which was average. A good seafood restaurant there is Limon.

    One thing to be aware of is that the Regional museum in Ica had a theft of their most famous textiles so it's not really worth a visit. Yes they have skulls but you can see similar in Arequipa.

    In Arequipa I stayed in the older central part of town at Casa de Melgar, I liked it (but don't stay there in rainy season as the rooms get chilly). It is one of those old sillar mansions. I was disappointed in the touristy restaurants in Arequipa but the market (San Camilo) is great. Go there around 9-10 am for the downstairs stalls that sell ceviche, rocoto relleno and other local specialties. The center of Arequipa is quite attractive, it reminded me a bit of Jerusalem.

    I stayed two nights in Colca Canyon, one at Giardino's Mama Yacchi, and a second at Killawasi Lodge. I liked Killawasi quite a bit and they have a 3pm hike to Uyo Uyo. There are some tourist buffets in Chivay, one was better than the other. I'd just ask to look at the spread if you go that route for lunch. I had heard the food at Killawasi was very good but was too wiped out by Uyo Uyo to have dinner.

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    Thanks everybody for your replies. I have gotten a bit tied up of late so i apologize for not responding earlier. Your suggestions/observations are a great help.

    So since last i typed we have settled that our approach will be south from Ecuador. We are going to take Spanish lessons in Ecuador and head South. It has been a frustrating plan thanks to the Inca Trail and having to lock in a set booking. First world problems, i know :).

    Once we have hit the trail i haven't spotted anything else that i need to book way in advance. Rather the consensus is to book on the ground for a better price.

    That being said here are my targets for Northern Peru:

    Mancora/Colan - Beach time! The bustle of Mancora sounds great as does the more laid back vibe at Colan as a juxtaposition.

    Chiclayo - Been reading up on the food in this area! Excited! Plan on visiting the Sipan ruins and nearby museum.

    Chachapoyas - Kuelap, waterfalls and what sounds to be a really picturesque laid back town off the well trodden trails.

    Cajamarca - Okay. I am not sure about this… The bus ride seems like it can be real hairy! Includes 12,000 feets ascents/descents on switchbacks on an unsealed road carved into a cliff! That being said i read that the road has gotten an overhaul on a blog but the guidebooks aren’t telling me that so who knows ;). Either way Cajamarca looks like a great town to stick the feet up and do a bit of exploring.

    Trujillo/Huanchaco - After hiking around for a few days i think we will be ready to sit on our butts and digest. We will probably join the rest of the gringos and stay in Huanchaco and take the collectivo into Trujillo to explore as well as visit the Chan Chan site and the Temple of the sun and the moon.. I know judging how much time people should spend at a place iis subjective but how much time would you recommend to spend in the area? We are pretty loose with time here because we reckon we will be buggered.

    Huaraz - Spend a couple of days acclimatizing to the area and planning treks/hikes in the area. We have read that there is no pre booking required for hikes/treks. Hopefully we can hook up with some more experienced hikers or at least pick their brains :). Maybe on second day we will do smallish walk in the area to work out some kinks. We would like to visit the Chavin de Huantar ruins and will most likely do this as day trip, might have to add a day.

    Lima - Pick up Southern itinerary

    I am thinking that maybe it will be wise to split Peru in half. Cover a portion on the way an another on the way backup. We would like to reach Bolivia by late September/early October to avoid the worst of the rainy season. Apparently it gets so washed out it can be miserable.

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    Looking back at the Southern itinerary and the helpful comments.

    We are going to add time in the Cusco area as you both recommend. Squeeze in some day trip hikes before the Inca Trail.

    Thanks for the call on Puno. After a bit more reading and given that we will cross into Bolivia and Copacabana we will cut down on time here. Doing the home stay on the island is the attraction for us.

    The Amazon is still up in the air. Crellston i read your blog (all of it :, really enjoyed it) and the Bolivian side sounds great and affordable. That being said i kind of skipped my research a little for the Peru side so i need to go back but Madidi/Rurrenabaque are definitely on my itinerary for Bolivia.

    mlgb thanks for the food recs. We plan on eating at a handful of fine dinning places but on the whole we are more into eating at local markets. The market in Arequipa sounds great.

    One thing is for certain, planning this trip makes me anxious! So much to see, i know i can't do everything even in a year and people always say theirs next time but who knows when that will be aaarrrrgggghh!

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    Chiclayo.The #1 site is the Lord of Sipan museum (and to a lesser degree the Bruning) in Lambayeque. I have not been to the Sipan ruins but you may be disappointed in them.

    The market in Chiclayo is okay once inside, good place to buy a straw hat. The walk there can be a little sketchy, stay alert and don't carry anything. Or you can take a taxi from your hotel (but it will be faster to walk!)

    I stayed in Mochiks and ate at the traditional restaurant Romana (good ceviche mixto).

    http://www.hotelmochiks.com/

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    mlgb thanks for the food recs. We plan on eating at a handful of fine dinning places but on the whole we are more into eating at local markets

    We had lunch at the Central Market in Lima (one of the things we did love about Lima) for less than $3.00 for two of us (we shared one meal - ceviche, roast chicken, dessert).

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    I like your idea of staying in Huanchaco and exploring Trujillo from there. I wish I had through of that! You need a complete day for Chan Chan and Huaca del Sol y La Luna and maybe half a day to a day to explore Trujillo. Huanchaco would be a nice place to rest up for a while. Some amzing seafood places there.

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    I'll address the north part as it looks like the rest has been covered well in previous replies.

    Chiclayo-the Sipan excavation site is interesting, and so is the Tucume archaeological site. Together you get a good sense of the culture.

    Cajamarca is very interesting and I'd not let the roads deter you from going.

    Trujillo--maybe three days in addition to whatever down time you'll need--one for ChanChan, which is huge, one for the Huacas, and one for exploring the Colonial city. If you're really into archaeology, you can visit El Brujo site from here and that would take another day.

    Huaraz--you can and should book everything once you get there. Chavin ruins are some of the best and most interesting I've seen and, for me, reason enough to go to Huaraz.

    In Lima, be sure to go to at least one of the big archaeological museums--I'd recommend National Archaeological because you'll have seen Chavin de Huantar so you will appreciate the carved rocks from there--Raimondi Stela and Tello Obelisk--two of the most unusual objects I've ever seen.

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    MY suggestion for a home stay (I just did this) on Taquile Island) is with Celso and Juana Huatta Marca, 051-970928993. I spent a night with them in their lovely lovely home on Taquile away from all the tourists,they have a great little kid, beautiful views, great food, they are in their 30s, work hard top make you feel at home. You organize this through Inka's Rest Hostel in Puno, I am SO GLAD I did this instead of the tourista tours. I simply could not have been happier. Quiet, gorgeous, Celso takes you on a fabulous hike up and down the island and you dress up as locals. Too cool.

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