Tourists at the Saksaywaman archaeological site overlooking Cusco, Peru (photo by Tony Dunnell)
How many days do you need in Peru? Is a three-day holiday worth the effort? Is a week enough to see the main tourist attractions? Is a month too long?
It’s not always easy to answer questions like these, because it depends so much on your style of travel, your budget, what you want to see and how you want to see it. But it is possible to give you a rough idea of how much time you need in Peru: what you can and probably can’t do in any given amount of time.
Think of the following as a primer for planning your first trip to Peru. You won’t find detailed itineraries, but you will get a rough idea of how much you can see and do in Peru in (x) amount of days. Most of the following assumes you’ll be going to Machu Picchu, just because pretty much everyone does.
And as this is just an intro to the topic, feel free to ask questions about your itinerary in the comments section below.
3 Days in Peru
Peru is a big place — about twice the size of Texas — so traveling around the country can take some time. For that reason, three days in Peru is rarely enough. Some package tours manage to pull off these whirlwind trips, but they typically concentrate on one single attraction — normally Machu Picchu.
Doing three days in Peru independently, you could fly into Lima and then fly directly to Cusco for Machu Picchu and then back to Lima. Or you could do the Nazca Lines and maybe see Arequipa. Or fly to Juliaca and then take the bus to Puno to explore Lake Titicaca for a day and a half. But you’ll be rushed, you won’t have time to relax, and it will probably all be a bit of a blur.
4 to 7 Days in Peru
Now you’re beginning to get some wriggle room. Four days is still incredibly tight, but with five to seven days in Peru you can do one or two destinations in reasonably relaxed fashion (especially with seven days), or really focus on one region or city.
Five days is enough for exploring Cusco and Machu Picchu. You won’t have much time for trekking, but you could maybe fit in a two-day trek to Machu Picchu. If you don’t trek, then you’ll have about two and a half days for Cusco and the Sacred Valley (let’s say four or five attractions, including Saksaywaman, Moray, Maras and Ollantaytambo) and a day and a half for Machu Picchu.
Alternatively, you could fly over the Nazca Lines, do Arequipa for a day (or two with Colca Canyon), then head to Cusco for Machu Picchu (with no time for seeing over stuff in or around Cusco). Or ditch Nazca or Arequipa for a day in Puno and Lake Titicaca instead.
If you can stretch to a week in Peru, then you can do the above — what is generally considered the classic Gringo Trail in Peru — at a slightly more relaxed pace. You’ll also have the option of taking a day to acclimatize to the altitude in Cusco before Machu Picchu (recommended). Arriving in Lima, you can head south to Nazca (or to Ica and Huacachina for sandboarding), then Arequipa, then possibly Lake Titicaca, finally arriving in Cusco for Machu Picchu.
It’s worth researching these destinations (and nearby alternatives) to figure out which interest you the most. You might find, for example, that you want to do just Arequipa (and Colca Canyon) and Cusco (Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu) in seven days, which is a more comfortable week-long itinerary in Peru.
Number of Days Spent in Peru by US Tourists in 2015:
- 1 to 3 days in Peru 6%
- 4 to 7 days in Peru 32%
- 8 to 14 days in Peru 43%
- 15 to 29 days in Peru 13%
- More than 29 days in Peru 6%
8 Days to 2 Weeks in Peru
Now we’re talking. If you can save up your vacation time to get 8 or 10 days or maybe even two weeks in Peru, then you’ll have enough time to do the classic Gringo Trail without having to rush the whole time.
Ten days would also be enough to see a couple of other destinations — the Nazca Lines and Arequipa, for example — and have time to hike the classic four day/three night Inca Trail or do a multiday alternative trek (most of the best Inca Trail operators offer classic and alternative routes). Or you could find some time to head into the Peruvian Amazon, perhaps into Manú National Park, which lies north of Cusco.
Two weeks would give you even more options, and is enough time to do pretty much all of the main attractions in the southern half of Peru (which is where the Gringo Trail lies). Or you can skip some of the more touristy destinations in the south and head to the far less visited northern half of Peru. You’ll probably have to fly back to Lima first, from where you can fly or bus along the north coast, to cities like Trujillo and Chiclayo with their Moche archaeological sites (and great food). There’s also Chachapoyas (for Kuelap and Gocta Waterfall), and the deep jungle city of Iquitos.
All are worth considering if you have two weeks in Peru, especially if you’d like to get off the tourist trail.
2 Weeks to a Month in Peru
Ah, the sweet taste of freedom! If you have more than two weeks in Peru, maybe even a month, then you have the luxury of choice when it comes to where you go and how long you stay in each place.
You could stay in one place and get to know it well, maybe volunteering or doing a homestay for part of the trip. Or you could do a couple of weeks on the Gringo Trail — seeing the Nazca Lines, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and Machu Picchu, maybe even the jungle in Manú National Park — and then head up to the central highlands and northern Peru for a week or more.
One place I’m not mentioning much here is Lima, where most foreign tourists first arrive. Some tourists hate Lima — but, to be honest, many of them don’t ever get to know it well enough to judge. But if you have three weeks or a month in Peru, then it’s worth sticking around in Lima for at least two or three days before heading elsewhere.
More Than a Month in Peru
Some people take a month or two to do all of South America, sometimes an entire world tour. If you’re that type of traveler — and there’s nothing wrong with that — then you might think a month in one country is excessive.
But if you want to know Peru well, then you’ll need at least a month. Peru is a country with three distinct geographic and cultural zones: the coast, the highlands, and the jungle. It’s kind of like visiting three different countries, each with differences in landscape, food and culture. Even the people change; for example, the more reserved but hard working highlanders are different from the more openly cheerful jungle Peruvians.
So if you think one or two or even three months in Peru is overkill, it might be worth thinking again. I’ve lived here since 2009 and there’s always another place to explore and another experience to discover.
And when you have the luxury of time, why make yourself rush by trying to do too much? Having no itinerary is far better than being a slave to a unforgiving schedule — it’s a holiday, after all.