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10 Gap Year Itinerary Highlights in Peru

Written by Milly Whitehead on 22 / 11 / 2022

Gap Year Advice

Peru is one of those countries full of awe and splendour, with its cultural and natural richness this country is truly fascinating. It is simply a powerhouse of diversity from its cool surf beaches on the coast to the desolation and raw beauty of the Nazca desert. You can trek amongst towering snow-capped peaks in the Andes, then go on to cruise down the Amazon river.

Peru is a large country and the travel can be slow, but pick some of these highlights below…

Itinerary highlights

1. Lima - starting in the capital city of Peru

You will fly into Lima and probably only need a few days to acclimatise and find your feet. Stay in an area called Miraflores – the happening part of Lima and if nothing else: visit the Catacumbas (underground burial sites), the San Inquisicion Museum with their old torture chambers, try paragliding over Costa Verde and taste ceviche.

2. Cusco - the gateway to the Sacred Valley

Cusco is one of those cities where a pair of comfy trainers is essential as you pound the streets to capture the visual fusion of the ancient Inca’s with colonial conquest and the modern day. This is the most fascinating city in Peru where ancient Inca walls stand side by side with Spanish architecture.

Back in the day Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and is scattered with archaeological sites such as the Sacsayhuaman where thousands of huge stones, some weighing hundreds of tons, have been intricately and painstakingly joined together to form a long series of terraces. Why? We will never know. The Spanish left their mark with their colonial masterpieces - The Plaza de Armas being the standout piece - think arcades, carved wooden balconies and general magnificence. Which brings us to the modern day where contemporary architecture, sits comfortably beside the ancient offering fantastic food, great music and an overall hippie chic vibe.

3. Machu Picchu - the heart of Sacred Valley

Cusco is the doorway into ‘Scared Valley’ - a world of Andean countryside dotted with villages, high altitude hamlets and ruins linked by trail and railway tracks leading to the continent's biggest draw of them all – Machu Picchu. Just look at the picture…and it really does look like this. Definitely worth a place on your gap year in Peru, and word has it that they are thinking of closing this off to visitors in the next few years, so make haste.

Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century high in the Andes Mountains above the Urubamba River valley. It’s renowned for its dry-stone walls, buildings in line with astronomical alignments and stunning, I repeat stunning, panoramic views. Its exact former use still remains a mystery making it even more extraordinary. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

In our opinion the best way to see this epic sight is to trek – yes that's right, get fit, get busy – no short cuts. A 4-day trek, sleeping in village hostels, along the Inca trail with a local guide. Just make sure you arrive at sunrise. Awesome. Set your alarm and don’t forget your camera. A whole day is required at the top so build in enough time.)

  • Take the 5 day hike via the Salkantay Trek.
  • Pisac, Yucay, Urubamba, Moray, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero – towns brimming with pre-hispanic archaeological ruins built by the Incas.
  • Hike to Huchuycosco, a stunning location overlooking the mountains.

Huchuycosco is one of the most sacred sites in the whole of the Sacred Valley because it was a main water source. Very unknown and off the beaten track – a hidden gem. Huchuycosco means little Cusco; it’s about a 3-4 hour trek to get to there, where you will be met by a family who will cook you a delicious meal and be your hosts for the night. You will only need to carry a small rucksack with you as bedding and food is all provided at the site.

  • Visit the Quishuarani Community

The Quishuarani are a traditional community, tucked away in the Sacred Valley. They are desperate to keep hold of their traditional values and way of life but realize that they need to educate the younger generation with the modern day world. To help with this they have agreed to welcome Leap volunteers into their sanctuary where they will work side by side, sharing, respecting and learning from each others cultures. At the same time they will take you out exploring this remote, off grid area and introduce to their many herds of llamas.

Volunteer and Adventure in Peru

We have a great off grid volunteering adventure in Peru's Sacred Valley, which combines working with local communities, exploring ancient sites and trekking to Machu Picchu.

Show me more

4. Choquequira

This is for the dedicated traveller who is always keen to get off the beaten track while travelling in Peru. It is one large sparkly gem of a secret.

However not for the faint hearted, a week-long trek is involved through gnarled forests and along boulder-strewn paths to reach the perfectly formed Inca walls, a grassy green plaza cut out of the face of a vast mountain spur covered in forest, terraced fields dropping into a steep valley and the serrated edge of snow-covered mountains. Utter magical heaven.

5. Sandboarding in Huacachina

Ok – so this is a mission to get to but well worth the journey. Huacachina is a desert village built around a small natural lake called the “Oasis of America” with towering sand dunes wrapped around. It is just outside the city of Ica which is about 4.5 hours south of Lima or 10 hours from Arequipa (by tourist class bus).

This desert oasis has become increasingly popular for adventurers looking for an adrenaline rush from sand boarding or high-speed dune buggy rides.

6. Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are found in southern Peru and are a group of pre-Columbian ‘geoglyphs’ etched into the desert sands dating back from 200 BC to 500 AD.

Covering an area of nearly 1,000 sq. kilometers, there are about 300 different figures, including animals, plants and oddly shaped fantastic figures some of which are about 30 meters wide and 9 kilometers long. Massive.

The Nazca people were an ancient prehistoric culture. Cahuachi was one of their largest settlements overlooking some of the lines whose true meaning is still unsolved. Some believe they are linked to the heavens, with the lines representing constellations in the night sky, others that they are all part of a great pilgrimage and others believe they are connected with water. Who knows but they are great spectacle and best seen from the air.

7. Colca Canyon

Three hours north of Arequipa is the famous Colca Canyon, one the worlds deepest river canyons. In fact, at its deepest point, the canyon falls from its rim to its floor for an incredible drop of 13,648 feet (4,160 meters). Vertigo challenged? Go carefully.

The canyon is a sensation of green valleys, white water, remote traditional villages with terraced agriculture (predating the Incas), llama’s, alpacas and of course the famous giant Andean condor.

Best way to explore is by venturing on a trek with a local guide to get you off the beaten track. Time wise, 3 days should do it and well worth slotting into your Peruvian gap year.

If you have time in Arequipa, visit the Cathedral or the Santa Catalina Monastery and have dinner in the beautiful town square.

8. Lake Titicaca - Uros people

Next up is Lake Titicaca which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia high in the Andean Mountains. It is one of South America's largest lakes and it is believed to be the birthplace of the Inca’s.

Steeped in history the shores are a visual feast of crumbling cathedrals, desolate altiplano and checkerboard fields backed by rolling hills and high Andean peaks.

The Lake has been home to Uros people for generations who have built floating islands, houses and boats out of the native ‘totora’ reeds and live successfully in this way. Their boats are sometimes built in the shape of a dragon to ward off evil spirits – this is an amazing spectacle.

9. Rainbow Mountain

Head to Vinicunca, also called Montaña de Siete Colores or Rainbow Mountain with an altitude of 5,200 meters above sea level. They are stunningly beautiful but it is rather touristy. Beware of altitude sickness.

10. Amazon

Did you know that Peru has the second largest amount of Amazon rainforest after Brazil, sharing its western edge with Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil? The Peruvian Amazon covers 60% of the country, creating a unique and diverse ecosystem when combined with the mighty Andean Mountain range and Pacific Ocean. If you have time to explore beyond the Andes and into the Amazon basin do make the journey to Iquitos.

Jaguars, anteaters and tapirs still slink about the greenery, anacondas lurk in the swamps, caimans sunbathe along the riverbanks, and trees rise like giants from the forest floor. Many indigenous tribes still live here scattered throughout the Peruvian section of the Amazon, surviving primarily by hunting and fishing.

Best to fly from Cusco or Lima as the roads are terrible if non-existent, to Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado which are the best two entry points.

So how are you going to travel in Peru?

There are 2 options for navigating your travels around Peru. You can either do it independently (or with your friends) using our network of hosts and our extensive travel knowledge through the backpacking hub. The alternative is you can join our Leap Peru team programme where you travel with a group of like-minded Leapers and join our team experience - we take charge of all the logistics and itinerary so you can focus on enjoying yourself.

The other benefit of the Leap program is it includes a phase of volunteering with local people so you can really get off the beaten track and be so much more than a tourist.

Join a Peru Leap team programme

We arrange all the logistics for you allowing you to focus on enjoying yourself.

It's a great springboard to being an independent traveller - find your feet and off you fly.

You will automatically be granted Leap VIP membership once you pay your deposit meaning you can plan your onward travels as well.

You have 24/7 support.

Meet new people who are like minded.

Complete a phase of community development.

Explore Peru Programme

Join the Backpacking Hub

Access more travel tips and knowledge on Peru.

Explore the Backpacking Advice Hub

Volunteer and Adventure in Peru

We have a great off grid volunteering adventure in Peru's Sacred Valley, which combines working with local communities, exploring ancient sites and trekking to Machu Picchu.

Show me more

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