South America really pisses me off. It is a continent full of astounding natural beauty, but it’s all so far stretched out over such a large area that any backpacking itinerary that involves more than one country soon becomes an exercise in what to miss out on, rather than what to actually include!
South America simply has it all. From the culture of Buenos Aires to the beaches and bikinis of Rio, and from the wildlife of the Galapagos to the ancient civilisation of Machu Picchu. But there is also so much in between, spanning almost every kind of terrain possible: the Andes mountains, the Bolivian salt flats, Mount Cotopaxi, the Amazon, Iguassu Falls, the Atacama desert, Easter Island, Argentine gaucho ranches, Brazil’s rugged Atlantic coast, glaciers in Patagonia…the list goes on…
One of the common ‘multinational’ backpacking circuits includes Peru-Bolivia-Ecuador, as these countries are somewhat smaller, and therefore easier to navigate in one fell swoop. It is foolhardy to try to include Brazil, or worse, Chile, in your itineraries as it is almost impossible to competently travel the length and breadth of those countries unless you had months and months to spare at any one time. Yet starting or ending your backpacking adventure in Peru is actually a really good idea.
Peru is strategically placed on the mid-west part of the continent, with Ecuador to its north and Bolivia to its south east. The Amazon Rainforest, of which a large part is within Peruvian borders, is also within “easy” reach in the east of the country (so you don’t have to go to Brazil to see it, right?). Who can turn down the chance to hike the Inca Trail and see the fabled ancient city of Machu Picchu? And when you’ve taken in the scenery of the Colca Canyon, witnessed the mystery of the Nazca Lines, and eaten a few guinea pigs in Lima, then you may well very be ready to head across the border to Bolivia – which can even be done by boat over the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca (sort of).
As far as planning an adventurous backpacking itinerary goes, did you know that the 3 main overland border crossings between Peru and Ecuador are at Aguas Verdes (Pacific Ocean coast), La Tina (through the mountains), and La Balsa (through the jungle). Are you getting a sense of wanderlust yet? You should be. It kind of makes me want to return to Peru just to enjoy the adventure of some of these border crossings!
As far as add-ons to your backpacking adventure are concerned, you could go to either Bolivia or Ecuador (depending on your personal preference) very cheaply and usually with many other tourists, as it is a popular backpacking circuit. I think you should include both of these countries – along with Peru – and make the most of the opportunity while you’re in the area!
The capital of Bolivia is La Paz, which is one of the highest cities in the world, perched up high in the often snow-capped Andes Mountains. Much like Cusco in Peru, you will need to acclimatise to the altitude upon arrival, but thereafter you can enjoy everything the city has to offer. La Paz is also only 30 miles from Lake Titicaca (1 hour bus journey) and is a great day trip. As far as the Inca link is concerned, while most of the great and most well-known Incan ruins are located in Peru, there is one site, Tiwanaku, that sits firmly in Bolivia, and it just so happens to be right in the middle of La Paz and Lake Titicaca, so a stop here is a must-do on anyone’s itinerary. Salar de Uyuni, the most well-known of Bolivia’s salt flats, sits much further away in the south of the country. It is at least a 9 hour bus journey along a very uncomfortable and bumpy road (you didn’t think backpacking Bolivia was going to be easy, did you?), although the godsend is that this is a night bus, so you get to save on a night’s accommodation on your way to the salt flats (although whether you actually sleep or not is another matter entirely…).
As far as Ecuador is concerned, some travellers say it is even more beautiful than Bolivia – and it has a coastline! The capital of Ecuador is Quito, a charming colonial-style city that is visually similar to Buenos Aires but only half as busy, which makes it a nice and easy introduction to Ecuadorean culture. Looming large over Quito is the indomitable Mount Cotapaxi, which is an active volcano usually covered in snow (its conical shape make it look a bit like Mount Fuji in Japan) and has quite a fierce reputation. When it is not spewing out lava, it forms a beautiful backdrop to the Cotapaxi National Park, surely one of the most serene places in the country. Away from the city (and the volcano), you can find the world famous Galapagos Islands, a truly enchanting place which is only reachable by air from Quito. The flight takes around 2 hours. There is a rather steep $100 entrance fee per person to enter Galapagos, yet when on the islands, you do not need to take an expensive cruise – just lay on the beach with sealions, go and look for a wild Galapagos Tortoise in the foliage, and maybe even feed some sharks (from the comfort of the shore)!
But even if you were not looking to cross borders and visit neighbouring countries, the prospect of a medium-length stay in Peru is still a great reason to dust off that backpack and get planning properly to obtain that visa! There are a handful of incredibly epic locations in Peru that every traveller should make an effort to visit when they are in the region.
The Nazca Lines are ancient geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. The high and arid plateau stretches more than 80km and the hundreds of individual figures range in complexity from simple lines to detailed designs of hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, and lizards. The designs are shallow lines made in the ground by removing the reddish pebbles and uncovering the whitish/grayish ground beneath. The largest figures are over 200 metres across and it is believed that there is religious significance to them. Contrary to the popular belief, the Nazca Lines are visible from atop the surrounding foothills, and you don’t need an airplane to see them!
Despite being pretty much in the middle of nowhere, The Nazca Lines are still one of Peru’s most visited tourist attractions. From Lima, reliable bus companies, like Cruz del Sur, will take you to the Nazca Lines for around $21 each way, and the journey takes around 8 hours each way. From Arequipa (Colca Canyon), it takes 9 hours to get to the Nazca Desert by bus, so it is an opportunity to fit both of these into your itinerary before heading back to Lima to fly home.
The Peruvian Amazon is plentifully supplied with accommodation, jungle transport, guides, and tour packages for every budget. Cusco is the best departure point for trips into the Amazon, with air and road access to the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado, which is a great base for visiting the nearby Parque Nacional Bahuaja-Sonene, an enormous tract of virgin rainforest close to the Bolivian border. Many naturalists believe that this region is the most biodiverse on Earth, and thus the best place to head for wildlife. For a quicker and cheaper taste of the jungle, you can travel by bus from Cusco via Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba, on the Río Urubamba, which flows north along the foot of the Andes, through the dangerous but unforgettable whitewater rapids of the Pongo de Mainique.
Arguably the main reason people come to Peru in the first place is to see the ancient city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. This incredible city in the mountains can be visited from Cusco in a day, or by a more challenging 4 day trek known as the Inca Trail. Regardless of your backpacking itinerary in South America, you should always make time to stay in Cusco long enough not only to indulge in the Incan ruins (there’s much, much more than just Machu Picchu) but also to acclimatise to the extremely challenging altitude.
Laying on the border between Peru and Bolivia is the sacred Lake Titicaca. According to Incan mythology, it was from Lake Titicaca that the creator god Viracoca rose up to create the sun, moon, stars, and first human beings. Recently, a large temple was discovered submerged in the lake, adding to its mystery and fascination. At 3,200 square miles in size and up to 1,000 feet in depth, Titicaca is one of the largest, highest, and deepest lakes in the world. In addition to Lake Titicaca itself, several of the 41 islands in the lake are regarded as sacred. Especially important is the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), located on the Bolivia side near Copacabana, which was regarded as the home of the supreme Inca god Inti.
The main bases for exploring Lake Titicaca (and other sights in the region) are Puno in Peru and Copacabana in Bolivia. From Copacabana, most tour operators run a day trip to the Isla del Sol, with a quick stop at the Isla de la Luna.
Claimed to be the deepest canyon in the world at more than 1km from cliff-edge to river bottom, the Colca Canyon is such an impressive sight that in places the canyon’s sides are so steep that it is impossible to see the valley bottom, while the higher edges of Colca are punctuated with some of the finest examples of pre-Inca terracing in Peru. Craggy mountains, huge herds of llamas and traditionally dressed Andean peasants complete the picture.
The main way to get to the Colca Canyon is from Arequipa by local bus. The buses are fairly regular throughout the day, and at 17 Sols the price is not too bad. The journey from Arequipa takes around 6 hours. The journey is arduous but when you get to the canyon you can be sure of witnessing one of the most impressive vistas not just in Peru, not just in South America, but surely in the whole world!
Forget Brazil, and maybe even Chile – Peru can give you everything!