Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt Travel Guides, reflects on the pros, cons and ultimate ambiguity surrounding cultural tourism.Read more...
Peru - When and where to visit
The climate varies across the country according to altitude, season and other factors. The coastal climate is affected by the cold Humboldt Current and chilly sea air coming into contact with the hot desert sands.
Moisture is collected by the winds blowing onto the land, but it only condenses into rain during the winter months from May to November, forming a thick sea fog, known as garúa, which settles over the coast from the southern tip of the country to a point about 240km north of Lima. Apart from the occasional shower over Lima, however, it hardly rains.
During the summer, from December to April, the coast is hot and dry, especially in the north, with temperatures during this time reaching 25°C–35°C. Inland, the dry season is from April to October. On the sierra temperatures are steady at around 20°C–25°C during the day but often plummet to below freezing at night. In the selva and jungle areas, temperatures at this time can climb to 35°C although a cold chill can still settle during the night. November to April is the wet season and at this time the sierra tends to be dry and clear in the morning but has showers during the afternoon.
Temperatures are lower at around 18°C, but don’t drop much further at night. The jungle is hot and humid during these months, with heavy rainfall possible at any time.
It is possible to visit Peru at pretty much any time of the year, depending on what you want to do and where you want to go. However, the country’s topography and varied geography mean that choosing when exactly to travel for the best conditions is complicated. The climate is essentially wet or dry; temperature is affected by altitude. In general though, the busiest periods for foreign visitors are June to September, although you will find that there are variations according to region, and high season does change depending on where you are in the country.
The high season for coastal Peru is September and again from late December to March – the early summer months, when conditions on the coast are hot and sunny, especially in the north. Summer lasts until April. After this the region is affected by the sea mist garúa, which cloaks the coast from May to October and makes the beaches and sea much cooler; the southern beaches in particular are deserted at this time, with people heading to the far north and Mancora or Tumbes instead.
That said, if you’re considering swimming or surfing, the Humboldt Current makes the water off Peru chilly at the best of times. Rain is very infrequent and aside from the odd shower over Lima, the coast remains dry year-round. In the highlands the seasons change more noticeably. The high season lasts from May to September, when the weather is generally warm and sunny, making it ideal for walking. The start of this period is particularly pleasant but bear in mind that if the rains last longer then May can be wet.
The mountains are coldest and wettest from December to March, and although they can be explored at this time, the highest passes will be inaccessible and the lower foothills will be muddy. Bear in mind that the Inca Trail is closed in February if you are thinking of trekking to Machu Picchu. The Amazon is best visited during the dry season, which lasts from April to October, when temperatures are bearable, humidity is lower and rainfall is reduced.
The ideal months to explore are July and August. In the rainforest it rains a lot, of course, so you should expect some rain at all times of the year. During the wet season, from December to May, the temperature can hit 40ºC and heavy rain will wash out access roads. Coupled with this, wildlife watching becomes harder and you’re likely to see far fewer species.
Tackle the more off-the-beaten track Ausangate Circuit © Itay.G, Shutterstock
Types of tour
If you simply look online or browse tour operator brochures, the choice of tour may appear overwhelming. To start the process of building an itinerary, ask yourself why you want to go to Peru and what it is that you hope to see whilst there. If time is tight and you don’t have weeks and weeks to explore, focus on a particular region.
Essentially Peru can be broken into four areas that are each much more manageable in a single trip; the north, central highlands, the south and the Amazon. It is possible to combine some of these areas, and flying between places will enable you to cover more ground and enjoy greater flexibility, but you’re unlikely to be able to see and do everything.
Although trips can be tailored to suit your specific interests, most offer a series of standard inclusions. Many of the adventure activities listed below depend on decent weather so they’re better during the dry-/high-season months. This applies particularly to walking, but try to aim for the shoulder seasons when there are fewer crowds.
Adventure and activity trips
If you’re looking for activity then Peru is the place for you. The country has world-class mountain biking throughout, white-water rafting from Arequipa or Cusco, kayaking on Lake Titicaca or the Urubamba River, hang-gliding off the cliffs in Lima or in the Sacred Valley, horseriding in the hills, surfing at Trujillo, Huanchaco or Mancora, and much more to get your adrenaline flowing. Diving is also available off the Paracas Peninsula or from Tumbes.
Peru is synonymous with archaeological sites. Machu Picchu is the established draw, but there are dozens more Inca and pre-Incan sites to discover. From the Sacred Valley of the Incas to the more remote ruins on the coast and the vast pre-Columbian fortress of Kuélap, Peru boasts the greatest array of archaeological treasures in the Americas.
Highlights include Choquequirao; the Huacas del Sol and de la Luna near Trujillo; Chavin de Huantar on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Blanca; Sican, Sipan and Tucume close to Chiclayo; and the Nazca Lines near Nazca.
Birding trips may be lodge-based or involve a river cruise. Peru has a wealth of birdlife, with the majority of it concentrated in the cloudand rainforest. Visit between September and December for the best chance to see birds and be sure to visit a selection of habitats for the chance to spot the widest range of species. Highlight regions include Chiclayo, Huascaran Biosphere Reserve, Paracas National, Manú Biosphere Reserve and Tambopata National Reserve.
One of the most intimate ways to explore the Amazon is on board a river cruise. Sail from Iquitos on a luxurious vessel and drift through the channels and waterways of the rainforest with the chance to see bird and animal life that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to you. Most boats include naturalist guides who bring the ecosystems to life, and trips include stops at traditional villages for a glimpse of daily life.
In addition to ancient sites, Peru has a wealth of colonial treasures to uncover. Fine examples of colonial architecture can be seen throughout the country, with well-documented and beautifully maintained examples to be found in centres such as Arequipa, Cusco and Lima.
Discover the culture of Peru if you really want to get to know the destination. Join a community project to scratch below the surface and spend time in local communities or enjoying traditional markets such as the daily Mercado Modelo in Chiclayo, the Sunday markets in Chinchero, Huancayo or Pisac, and the waterfront market in Iquitos to get a feel for the minutiae of daily life here.
Peru has some exceptional natural history locations and landscapes. The best trips feature a variety of these and include nature reserves and protected areas. Some operators focus on particular regions, be they the Andes or the Amazon, or draw attention to certain types of animal or plant. Whichever you choose, make sure your tour includes the services of a naturalist guide who speaks your language.
Walking and trekking are the most obvious activities in Peru, with the peak season being May to September when conditions are dry.
Beyond the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there are dozens of other treks, many on ancient Inca paths, that visit extraordinary archaeological or natural sites. Whether you want a one-day walk through Andean villages or an epic expedition along less-trodden trails, there’s something for you. In the north, close to Huaraz, the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash are home to beautiful mountain routes.
Southern Peru close to Arequipa and Cusco has a network of trails which visit sites such as Choquequirao. Alternatively, tackle the Ausangate Circuit for a genuine wilderness experience. Whilst most trekking involves camping, your equipment is frequently carried by porters or mules. There are also some lodge-to-lodge options for people looking for a little more comfort.