Peru is one of the most diverse, safe, peaceful, and intriguing South American countries to ride. The Amazon rainforest, the Atacama Desert, coastal beach towns and fishing villages and the dizzying heights of the Andean passes – Peru has got it all. On top of that, if you want to stay longer than your allowed ninety days, you can do a quick border run and get another three months in the country.
So if you’re planning to ride Peru, here’s list of must-see places on and off the road.
Northern Peru is full of hidden gems that haven’t been discovered by endless hordes of tourists just yet. If you are coming in from Ecuador, forget the Panamerican highway from Tumbes to Trujillo and head for the little La Balsa border instead. It’s probably going to be a little muggy as it’s on the Eastern slope of the Andes which is where the jungle begins, but it’s worth it – the smaller backroads there lead through lush green foothills of the mountains.
From Jaen, take the 5N south and hop on to the 8B leading to Chachapoyas. It’s going to be hot, but the scenery is amazing. Along the way, visit the Gocta Waterfall, one of the highest in the continent (you can stay in a campsite nearby), and continue on to Chachapoyas. It’s a cute little town where you can stay and buy local Amazonian coffee before heading out to the Fortress of Kuelap – the Northern Machu Picchu. Kuelap is much older than Machu Picchu, and its origins are even more mysterious.
After Chachapoyas, head south towards Balsas and Celendin stopping in Leymebamba to check out the creepy but awesome mummy museum. The road will lead you through incredibly beautiful mountain passes and valleys, eventually crossing River Maranon and ending in Cajamarca, a beautiful colonial town with interesting cuisine (and a place to finally buy your Peruvian insurance!).
Past Cajamarca, head for Pallasca to enjoy truly twisty backroads and dirt trails of the Andes.
You won’t see any gringos here and will be met by incredible local hospitality. Make sure to ride the canyons of Rapay and Pato on the way to Huaraz, the capital of mountaineering and hiking, and do a loop in the Huascaran National Park. To see the glaciers and the boundless Andean wilderness in Huascaran, take the 106 road from Yungay which meets Road 107 and loops back towards Carhuaz. Turquoise blue glacier lakes, highest motorable tunnel in the continent, stunning mountain landscapes and fjords – this loop has got it all.
Lima with its crazy traffic and big city atmosphere isn’t for everyone, so if you skip it, you’re likely to end up in Pisco further south. Paracas, a small beach town nearby, is a very touristy place, but that’s where you can park your bike for a couple of days and enjoy a boat trip to the Ballestas islands to see the penguins and other wildlife, and just soak up the sun. If you’re headed towards Nazca next, do a quick stop at the Huacachina oasis famous for its enormous sand dunes and try sandboarding – or take your panniers off and pretend you’re racing the Dakar!
In Nazca, do check out the Nazca lines (a flight over the lines costs about $75), but make sure you also visit the Chauchilla necropolis – a weird and wonderful open cemetery full of dreadlocked mummies, remnants of a strange culture that roamed this part of the Earth long before the Incas or the Spanish.
From Nazca, ditch the Panamerican and take a beautiful mountain road towards Abancay and Cuzco. From Cuzco, you can ride almost all the way to Machu Picchu: take the mountain road to Ollantaytambo, stay the night, then keep going on the 28B road until you see river Urubamba and a dirt trail leading towards Santa Teresa. Follow the dirt trail until Hidroelectrica, a large hydroelectric dam on the river. There, leave your bike in a garage of one of the cheerful locals (they’ll charge you about $10 to keep your motorcycle safe) and hike to Machu Picchu following the train tracks, or take the train. You can either stay in Jardines de Mandor, a small, quiet hotel and campsite on kilometer 2 – they have amazing botanical gardens, locally grown coffee and great food – or in the village of Aguas Calientes which is full of tourists but closer to Machu Picchu.
From Cuzco, ride to Arequipa, the White City, a true diamond hidden in the Peruvian Andes. Hang out, get your bike serviced, try the local Andean cuisine (roasted guinea pigs are especially delicious) and small craft beer breweries in the beautiful colonial Old Town, and ride the dirt trails around the city. After Arequipa, ride towards Chivay crossing the beautiful wilderness of the Salinas y Aguada Blanca national reserve – a vast expanse of wild mountain pampa inhabited by indigenous llama herders.
In Chivay, try the local alpaca stew, and ride to the neighboring villages of Coporaque, Maca, Yanque, and Cobanaconde. On the way to Cobanaconde, observe the flight of the condors at the Cruz del Condor and once in town, leave your bike there and hike down the Colca Canyon (the sun is very intense there, so make sure you’re wearing a hat and plenty of sunscreen).
Finally, head to Puno to explore the local Islas Flotantes – floating islands made of dried reeds. On the Bolivian side, the islands are much smaller but quieter, with less tourists. On the Puno side, the Islas Flotantes, inhabited by the local Uro tribe, are more crowded but they are also larger, more colorful, and more accessible.