How to Have the Perfect Holiday in Peru

Photo by Herrera

by Peru expert and Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, April 15, 2015

As British Airways starts direct flights to Lima, our expert Chris Moss creates the ideal itinerary for first-time visitors who want to enjoy the highlights of Peru.

The drama of Peru’s topography - from sun-baked coastal deserts to the high Andes and down again to the headwaters of the mighty Amazon - is matched by the grand narrative of Inca empire-building and Spanish conquest told across its ancient sites. This combination of history, culture and a spectacular landscape makes it the most enticing of all South American countries to visit, and it has suddenly got a whole lot easier to get there. From May 5, British Airways will be flying from London Gatwick to Lima twice a week - the first direct link between the UK and Peru since 1982. Once overlooked as a mere stopover, Lima is now a resurgent destination in its own right, revitalised by new hotels, museums, and a gastronomic revolution - especially in the Barrancos neighbourhood.

Peru was the hub of Spain’s South American adventures and Lima, founded in 1535 by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, was the centre of operations for the export of silver and other booty back to Seville. Until the early 19th century, the city’s palaces, churches, monasteries and universities provided Spanish settlers with a veritable home from home.

The historic centre, even where it’s crumbling, recalls those grand days. It also provides a superb first foray into pre-Columbian South America. Huaca Pucllana, a vast administrative and ceremonial site occupied by the Lima civilisation, blew me away on my first visit. It’s around 1,800 years old, making Lima one of the oldest permanently settled places in the Americas, and sits, stately and surreal, in the middle of a modern residential district.

From Lima it takes just an hour by air to reach Cuzco but the shift in altitude, from sea-level to over 11,000 feet, takes more time to adjust to.  Much of the centre is pedestrianised making it easy to drift around and get acclimatised, dropping into churches, art galleries, and former palaces and convents now turned into hotels. Their beautiful arcaded patios make perfect rest stops.

The most symbolic site in Cuzco is the Coricancha, the House of the Sun, an Inca temple demolished by the Spanish after they captured the city in 1533. Only a great wall built from huge, interlocking stones still stands, used as the foundation for the Church of Santo Domingo.

Cuzco's main square

Tangible links with pre-Columbian Peru can be found all around Cuzco. Many hotel staff, guides and local office workers have Inca blood. The “fusion” cuisine served at swankier restaurants contains the quinoa and amaranth of the ancient Inca larder. Patterns on fabrics emulate the motifs seen on walls and on the surviving scraps of ancient textiles.

For travellers in a hurry, the Sacred Valley is the “bit in between” Cuzco and Machu Picchu - traversed at speed by rail or bus, glanced at while checking camera batteries. But standing on the edge of the massive circular agricultural terraces at Moray, it struck me that this, rather like Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent, was the real centre of the Incan world. How can you understand the scale of the empire if you don’t know how its builders, runners and warriors were fed? 

These pleasurable, informative preambles around Cuzco and through the Sacred Valley are, in my view, essential to understanding the citadel of Machu Picchu. Opinion is divided about the function of the citadel, but recent scholarship suggests it was a sort of university, teaching nobles about architecture, astronomy, agriculture and hydrology. Machu Picchu is well preserved, not least because the Spaniard colonists never came here and it wasn’t rediscovered until  1911.  On a recent visit, I devoted myself to the quieter  sections -while tour groups huddled around a handful of key monuments - and then hiked slowly up to the Sun Gate, to take in the panorama. Few journeys can compete with this one for delivering a climax. Machu Picchu is a potent, stirring high point in the wanderings of any traveller. As the sun began to set, turning the mists amber, all I needed for that award-winning photograph was a condor or two to wheel into view. I decided to wait and see. No need to hurry to Machu Picchu; no reason to rush away, either. 


I have designed this 12-night itinerary to take in the best of Peru for first-time visitors: colonial Lima, eight Pre-Columbian sites including the extraordinary Sacsayhuaman, the lush Sacred Valley and two visits to Machu Picchu. The trip builds up through a series of pleasurable, informative preambles, so that by the time you find yourself standing at the iconic Sun Gate you’ll know exactly where you are. It finishes in the Amazon with the chance to wind down at my favourite tropical riverside lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve.


Day 1

Fly in on the new direct British Airways flight arriving later the same day.

Peru’s capital city is being revitalised by new museums, gastronomy and hotels. Check into Second Home Peru ( ) in the fashionable Barrancos neighbourhood. A beautiful eight-room mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it’s the former home of Peruvian sculptor Victor Delfín.

Day 2

Join Dutch expat Ronald Edward ( ) for a carefully curated half-day walk around the historic centre including peeks inside private mansions. For lunch take a cab to the Huaca Pucllana for superb sea bass ceviche at its on-site restaurant ( ) before exploring the great pyramid. Dine at Central ( ) in Miraflores where acclaimed chef Virgilio Martinez works wonders with indigenous ingredients.

Day 3

Set off early on a guided day-trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Caral, a three-hour road trip. Established operator Condor Travel ( ) can arrange transport and a guide. Peru’s oldest site, occupied from 3000 BC and as late as 1400AD, sprawling Caral, was home to a sophisticated and cohesive society, its pyramids and ritual structures indicating a powerful religious order. Back in Lima, explore Barranco’s bars and restaurants. Start with cocktails at Ayahuasca ( ), a gorgeous 19th-century mansion.

Lima, the country's capital Credit: Kseniya Ragozina - Fotolia Beguiling Cuzco 

Day 4

Check in for the 70-minute morning flight to Cuzco, the Inca’s “navel of the world” which remains one of the most beguiling cities in South America.

Stay at La Casona ( ), an ultra-stylish boutique hotel built around a Spanish manor house erected on Inca foundations.

Local operator David Ramos provides a guide for a walking tour of this low-slung city, thought to be laid out in the shape of a puma.

At dusk walk over to the Hotel Monasterio for a cocktail in its candlelit courtyard before dining at Cicciolina ( ) one of Cuzco’s best restaurants.

Hotel Monasterio

Day 5

It’s worth employing a guide to understand the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman, two miles north of Cuzco and, in its way, as impressive as Machu Picchu. Massive stones, some over 30 feet tall, have been used to build walled terraces, ritual spaces and fortifications.  Dine at Chicha ( ), a fusion restaurant owned by Gastón Acurio, Peru’s most celebrated chef.

The Sacred Valley 

Day 6

The verdant valley of the Urubamba River is sacred because of its many Inca-era monumental sites. Set off early to make brief visits to three towns: Pisac (famous for its markets on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday), tourist-free Huarán, and pretty Yucay.

On arrival in Urubamba, 45 miles from Cuzco, check into the Tambo del Inka ( ). A resort-style riverside hotel, it’s an ideal base to enjoy the landscapes of the Sacred Valley in peace. Two of the greatest Inca sites are a short drive away: the agricultural terraces at Moray, two great bowls carved into the mountains, and the ancient ponds at Maras used since Inca times to extract salt from a mountain spring.

The market at PisacCredit: Gail Johnson - Fotolia Mystical Machu Picchu 

Day 7

The transfer to Ollantaytambo - as far as you can go by road - takes 30 minutes. The town also boasts an impressive Inca site used by Manco Inca Yupanqui, frontman of the Inca insurgency, as a stronghold to resist the conquistadors.

Around noon, take a shuttle train to Aguas Calientes, a delightfully ramshackle town at the bottom of a forested gorge below Machu Picchu.

Stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo for the night. A short walk from town on its own private reserve, it has airy rustic-chic guest rooms and excellent food.

Sacsayhuaman, on the outskirts of CuzcoCredit: Mariusz Prusaczyk - Fotolia

Take a guide for your first visit to Machu Picchu and set out after lunch. The bus transfer takes 25 minutes. The mystical, mist-shrouded citadel is set in a saddle between two Andean peaksand a cluster of terraces and the citadel make up the UNESCO-listed Historic Sanctuary . Stand-out spots include the Intihuatana or Hitching Post of the Sun, a stone monument with an astronomical function which seems to have a mystical aura, and the Intipuncu, or Sun Gate, from which there are good panoramic views. With mists swirling and mountain peaks all around, you’ll feel you’re on top of the world - that’s why the Incas chose this spot.  Day 8 To see Machu Picchu in a different light, visit at dawn (it opens at 6am). If you’re well rested, walk up to the Sun Gate first, where the Inca Trail ends for those who have arrived on foot.

After lunch there’s the choice of visiting open-air thermal springs in Aguas Calientes or an easy one-hour riverside walk to the rather good Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballon containing artefacts from Machu Picchu.

Return to Cuzco (via Poroy station, just outside the city) on the 5.50pm. Pullman-style Hiram Bingham Train. Food and drink - and Andean music - are served on board. It arrives in Cuzco at 10pm. Stay over at the new El Mercado ( ) a clever blend of colonial and contemporary architecture.

Why you must see Machu Picchu in your lifetimePlay!02:51To the Amazon

Day 9

The temperature rises as you head down to the Rio Tambopata, a tributary of the mighty Amazon, and just 600 feet above sea level. Puerto Maldonado, trading port turned sleepy backwater, is a 45-minute flight from Cuzco. From here, a boat ride up the Rio Tambopata brings you to Posada Amazonas ( ), your base for the next three nights. This riverside resort is owned by the indigenous Ese-Eja community of Infierno and managed by environmental tourism experts Rainforest Expeditions. Explore the grounds and climb the stairs to the 80-foot canopy tower for close-ups of parrots, macaws and toucans. After dinner there’s a lecture on Infierno and eco-tourism in the region.

Day 10

Take a guided boat trip to the Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake to see giant otters, caiman, horned screamers and a noisy local bird called the hoatzin. After lunch you can visit an indigenous local community to learn about medicinal plants. My favourite excursion is a night walk into the forest to spot shy mammals as well as frogs, owls and insects.

The Peruvian AmazonCredit: 2010/Eugene Feygin

Day 11

Take a short guided hike through the rainforest to learn about the flora and see the magnificent giant ceiba tree. In the afternoon relax beside the river or join a farm visit to see how Infierno community practises agriculture in the rainforest.

Day 12

Fly back to Lima from Puerto Maldonado in 95 minutes to connect with the overnight British Airways flight to London.

When to go

Peru is doable year round, but May to September are, on the whole, the best months to be there, after the rainy seasons in the Andes and, especially, Amazon basin; it hardly ever rains on the desert coast. Note, too, that the Inca Trail closes every February for maintenance work, though Machu Picchu remains open. basin; it hardly ever rains on the desert coast. Note, too, that the Inca Trail closes every February for maintenance work, though Machu Picchu remains open.

Peru main Second Home Peru Lima, PeruTelegraph expert rating 8

Living up to its name, the former residence of Peruvian sculptor Victor Delfín is a tranquil, art-filled and homely mansion set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Surrounded by lovingly tended lawns and cooled by ocean breezes, it’s the perfect antidote to downtown Lima’s cramped streets and mad clamour. Read expert review

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Inkaterra La Casona Cusco, Peru Telegraph expert rating 9

This grand colonial mansion in the imperial city of the Incas was one of the most exclusive addresses in 16th-century Peru; dedicated to pampering a small number of guests in a peaceful and palatial setting, it still lives up to that billing. Read expert review

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Tambo del Inka Cusco, PeruTelegraph expert rating9

One of the most luxurious properties in the Sacred Valley, boasting a wide range of guest services, stunning Inca-inspired architecture and superlative Andean cuisine. Slow travel suits thin air, making this ideal for anyone in need of a breather en route to Machu Picchu. Read expert review

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Posada Amazonas Puerto Maldonado, PeruTelegraph expert rating8

This popular riverside lodge, owned by the indigenous Ese-Eja community and managed in partnership with Rainforest Expeditions, combines moderate comfort, good food and relatively easy access, with a real sense of being at the headwaters of the Amazon. Read expert review

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This article was written by Peru expert and Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.