Hiking Peru – A Detailed Guide
January 12, 2018
Peru, it is a country filled with history, culture, and some really amazing hikes! Little did I know that hiking Peru would exceed every expectation I ever had. Now I am writing this post to guide, help plan, and inspire others to explore Peru’s amazing landscapes and alpine peaks!
I hadn’t planned to go on many hikes on my trip to South America (not sure why). However, after moving my way through Patagonia with only a backpack and camera I had around 10 multi-day hikes under my belt and it shaped the rest of my trip. It was something about the feeling of being free from comfort and away from the world. I get tired of being in hostels and visiting cities and sometimes just want to be away from it all – hiking is my escape.
Heading to Peru I wasn’t aware of the extra challenges that would arise compared to hiking in Patagonia. I hadn’t really prepared, and to be fair, I didn’t know what to prepare for. Like other travelers out there you might be thinking the same, that’s why I wrote this post. My goal is the help you plan your trip, talk about things like weather conditions and also list some of the best hikes in the country!
Let me start by talking about some of the major challenges of hiking in Peru and how to prepare for them. For this post I’m going to leave out things like… well exercise or fitness for example, and instead focus challenges specific to hiking in Peru (not overall general hiking!)
Let’s talk Altitude! The hiking in Peru varies, however most of the best hikes involve some sort of high altitude. This is the first thing that separates hiking Peru from Patagonia. With hikes pushing the 6000m or 20,000ft mark being prepared for the conditions that present themselves at those altitudes is very important! By no means am I an altitude hiking professional (I am from Australia after all) but for those with little experience I can shed some light on what to expect.
Cold and Hot Weather
It sounds obvious, however, hiking Peru in high altitude the temperature change between night and day is huge. When the sun shines through the thin air in the middle of the day you could strip down to shorts and a t-shirt. But when that sun moves behind the mountains in the afternoon temperatures plunge, and they do so quickly!
Being prepared for this change when hiking Peru is important as it can be the difference between being cold for the rest of the night or staying warm. Things like ensuring you are in dry clothes before that sun disappears for the night or choosing the right materials to wear. Materials like wool are very good at whisking away the sweat and make for one of the best underlayers you can choose.
For a detailed in-depth guide on clothing please read REI Co Ops blog HERE https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/cold-weather-hiking.html
Altitude sickness is one very important factor to consider because in extreme circumstances it can be life-threatening. There are many ways to avoid or manage altitude sickness when hiking in Peru. The best method is prevention by acclimatization. Taking your time and also being careful not to over exert yourself – especially during the first day of hiking. If you do start to feel symptoms of altitude sickness it is important to either lower your altitude, or if that is not possible take altitude sickness medication. It is very important to monitor anyone feeling the effects of high altitudes.
A great article with more information can be found in the link below. https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-travel/altitude-sickness-treatment-essentials.aspx
Higher altitudes can significantly lower your apatite even though your body works harder at higher altitude thus burning more calories. It is important on multi-day hikes to ensure you keep eating high energy meals even if sometimes you don’t feel hungry. I suffered this on an 8 day trek while hiking in Peru. I had no apatite due to the altitude and a minor stomach bug. If I had stopped eating like I wanted to I may not have been able to finish the hike.
Time of Year
Hiking Peru during the wrong months can hinder or even ruin your hiking plans. Unlike some places around the world, Peru experiences most of its rain in the summer. With some trails closed or too dangerous to complete during this time, visiting in the winter months between May and September is very important. Outside of those months cloud cover can destroy your amazing views and the heavy downpours of rain can make you feel like your swimming in mud instead of hiking a trail!
Even if you are hiking in Peru’s “dry season” or winter don’t be surprised if you still experience a little rain or muddy conditions. Despite our planets beauty, it can be very unpredictable so bringing equipment for all weather conditions is important.
Some items I would suggest bringing include – Good quality waterproof hiking boots, rain jacket/poncho, flashlight, warm hiking socks, backpack cover, hiking polls (can save you especially in muddy conditions!), dry clothes for sleeping, multiple layers for clothing. If you are hiking with tour group always ask for a list of recommended items before
To keep this simple I’m going to break hiking in Peru into three regions Cusco, Cordillera Blanca or Huaraz, and Arequipa. These are the regions I hiked the most and also hiked in the busy/best season of winter. As far as being the most popular, these 3 areas offer more than 30 different hiking trail variations.
Cusco and Surrounding Area
The city of Cusco is Peru’s most popular tourist destination and is also a great base for hiking Peru! Cusco is home to all of the Machu Picchu hikes as well as many others. The combination of amazing hikes near Cusco with the amount of rental shops and tour agencies make it a perfect place to start your adventures. Oh, and did I mention Cusco sits at 3400m above sea-level giving you the perfect chance to acclimatize before setting out! Most of the popular hikes out of Cusco don’t go to extreme altitudes (extreme being above 5000m), most hover around the 3500m mark.
Huaraz (The Cordillera Blanca)
This area is my favorite! The hikes near Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca offer a huge variety of difficulty from easy one-day hikes to week-long (or longer) expeditions that are rather challenging. The Cordillera Blanca is the chain of mountains where the hikes are located and Huaraz is the closest town to access the majority of them. The town itself also sits above 3000m making acclimatization easy. You could spend months in Huaraz completing hikes and with altitudes over 6000m you can really challenge yourself! This area is typically for experienced hikers. Between the altitude and extreme weather conditions it is recommended beginners use a tour guide.
Arequipa is a beautiful city in Peru’s south and is home to many amazing hikes including the Colca Canyon. The Colca Canyon is the deepest Canyon in the world and is located only a few hours from Arequipa. Altitudes in this area are quiet low and at most hit 3500m. To most traveling Peru this doesn’t prove to be much of a problem however if you’re not used to it be sure to spend a few days in Arequipa first. The hiking in Colca Canyon is definitely warmer and thus not as extreme although the steep paths make descending and ascending difficult on the knees! I highly recommend the use of hiking poles for those with bad knees!
There are many other options for hiking near Arequipa including Chachani Mountain and Misti Volcano, although these hikes are much more difficult and climb to altitudes above 6000m! It is recommended to take a tour on these hikes unless you have lots of experience, know the area, and the weather conditions.
As for the many different hikes on offer in Peru, below is a list that comprises some of the best and most famous with their difficulty, duration, best time of year, and location.
The Inca Trail (from Cusco)
The most popular hike in all of Peru is the Inca Trail. The classic trail is either 88 km (55 miles) or 82 km (51 miles) depending on the starting location. The trail takes you over 4000m above sea level and the trail rating is Moderate. It is essential to book this hike at least 8 to 12 months in advance! Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day and with 300 guides and sherpas that leaves only 200 spaces for visitors!!!
The Salkantay (from Cusco)
The Salkantay is another amazing way to Machu Picchu. With its rather less popularity than the Inca Trail but still breathtaking views it is a great option for those on a budget! In fact, the Salkantay trail was named in the top 25 hikes in the world by Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. The hike is 74km done over 4 days (the fifth day at Machu Picchu) and takes you to an altitude of 4580m above sea level and gives you the chance to camp by large glaciers!
The Santa Cuz (from Huaraz)
The Santa Cruz really is a beautiful hike. The 4 day 3 night hike takes you to altitudes over 4750m above sea level so being acclimatized before tackling this hike is very important! The Santa Cruz hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in Peru and should be on your bucket list! It is said that the Paramount Pictures logo was taken on this trail!
The Huayhuash (from Huaraz)
I have a love hate relationship with the Huayhuash. It nearly killed me, but wow, it was stunning! After day two of this eight-day trek (the trek is between 8 – 12 days depending on speed/ route) that takes you to over 5100m above sea level, I fell sick. Thinking it was just a small stomach bug I continued on and by day four I was wrecked, but I was already half way so turning back was not an option. I finally made it back after a grueling but beautiful 115km trek that I will never forget. The Huayhuash is a must do when visiting Huaraz but keep in mind that it is much harder than the Santa Cruz!
Laguna 69 (from Huaraz)
This short but beautiful one-day hike is simply amazing. It makes for a difficult day but it is perfect to acclimatize before tackling the longer hikes. The Laguna 69 is located at 4650m above sea level and involves a 17km round trip. The Laguna 69 was the bluest lake I saw while hiking Peru and if you’re brave enough you can swim in it! If you just arrived in Huaraz then you’re likely to feel a little altitude sickness on this one however you will be up and back in under a day. Just be prepared for the headache on the long drive home!
Rainbow Mountain (from Cusco)
Rainbow Mountain is a mountain peak covered in different minerals’ that give it its color. This unique mountain offers a few different trekking options however the most popular is the one-day hike. This short day starts at 4200m and ends over 5000m above sea level. Due to the rapid ascent from Cusco (3400m) minor altitude sickness is just about certain. Taking a tour is recommended although they really only offer transport and hiking is done alone (aside from the other hundreds of people also hiking).
Colca Canyon (from Arequipa)
The hiking in Colca Canyon really differs from Huaraz and Cusco. Instead of hiking up mountain passes you hike down the canyons steep walls. It is lower in altitude than the others, and in my eyes, it was the easiest. The canyon can be hiked in many different ways with two-day trips to six-day trips available. The views are amazing but truthfully don’t compare to the other hikes mentioned above!
It really doesn’t matter who you are and what your experience level is, Peru has a hike for everyone. Hiking Peru is cheap compared to its southern neighbors, Chile and Argentina, so it’s the perfect place to explore the Andes. Tours and guides are easy to organize with so much information online you really can’t go wrong. I found hiking in Peru to be an amazing experience, one I really will never forget!
I hope this guide on hiking Peru has helped you plan for your trip and inspired you to pick up them boots and hit the trails! Please let me know in the comments if you have further questions or advice on which hike would suit your experience!