Surf Sand Dunes and See Mummies on the Drive to Machu Picchu
Plus pit stops in the ‘Hamptons’ and ‘Galapagos’ of Peru.
A common path to see Machu Picchu? Fly to Lima, get on another flight to Cusco, then take a train, hike, or guided tour to the ancient site. But there’s a better way to spend your time in Peru that still gets you to the awe-striking Incan ruins, while allowing you to see more of the country. If you skip the flight between Lima and Cusco and elect to drive instead, you’ll hit up a road littered with other incredible experiences you can’t find anywhere else. Because Machu Picchu is really just one peak out of a mountain-range of impressive bucket list activities in Peru.
If you go by car, you can surf South America’s largest sand dunes, ogle penguins in the “Galapagos of Peru,” see mummies that still have remains of skin, and try to decode mysterious geoglyphs carved into a mountainside. Taking the route into your own two hands allows you to explore a slower, more rewarding and winding journey through the incredible country. The itinerary also includes options to hop on a boat, propeller plane, or train before continuing via car, so it’s an all-out kind of road trip that goes beyond just the road.
It’s about 23 hours of driving, though we’ve broken the trip into a few manageable days. This way, you’ll have time to soak in Lima’s street art and innovative cuisine, the stunning shoreline of Peru’s version of the Hamptons, wine-paired dinners spread out on desert sands under the stars, and lush valleys full of Inca-made stone streets still being used to this day. Here’s how to road trip from Lima to Machu Picchu.
Driving and renting a car in Peru
Renting a car in Peru, at least at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, is pretty similar to how you would go about it in the United States. Car rental companies like Hertz, Enterprise-Rent-a-Car, and Budget are available, and we recommend reserving your vehicle in advance since you’re going to want to lock in a rate and a car with four wheel drive (Peru has some rocky roads, and potholes are common outside of big cities).
The good news is that you’ll be driving on the right side of the road, same as in the US, and you won’t need to secure an international driver’s license to rent. Whoever is driving and renting will need to be at least 21 years old with a valid license to drive. And go ahead and get the insurance, so you’re covered if you get pulled over or (god forbid) into an accident. The police in Peru sometimes extort tourists for money, so be as prepared as possible with your rental documents, license, and insurance at the ready.
It probably goes without saying, but mustering the courage to drive in another country usually requires being an experienced and confident driver. After all, the unspoken rules of the road vary everywhere, so it’s best to keep your wits about you. Drivers here tend to be on the assertive side and assume they have the right of way, even on narrow, winding roads. If you’re aware going into it, you can muscle up on your offensive and defensive skills for this trip.
Soak up the culture of Lima
In most cases, your flight to Lima will be a long travel day and you might want to rest up before starting your journey—which gives you the perfect opportunity to explore the capital. Check in to The Westin Lima Hotel & Convention Center and bring your post-flight body back up to par with a couple of rounds in their thermal circuit. This hotel has got a great central location, the city’s largest spa, and is home to one of the most celebrated restaurants in Peru, Maras Restaurant—a huge deal for those who know Lima is famous for its robust culinary scene. The tasting menu from Chef Rafael Piqueras is a gorgeous, tastes-as-good-as-it-looks introduction to Peruvian cuisine, with Andean potatoes, fermented corn, and different ceviches in various tiger’s milks done with fish, cauliflower, or even wasabi. While you’re here, knock back a few pisco sours in the speakeasy-style cocktail bar because, hey, you’re not getting behind the wheel just yet.
Before you hit the road, take a trip to the Barranco Arts District, where cool intersects with culture via colorful street murals, cafes, contemporary art spaces, historic colonial buildings, and green community gardens. Meandering on foot about 30 minutes north will pop you in the wealthy Miraflores neighborhood. Get your fill of street food at the Mercado28 food hall, watch surfers tackle feisty waves from the Miraflores Beach Viewpoint, and find your name on the Gaudi-style mosaic wall in Love Park. Miraflores is also a great shopping district and home to Parque Kennedy, a public greenspace with a resident clutter of cats.
Get your beach vibe on from Lima to Paracas
Rested and reinvigorated, you’re ready for the highway. Hop on Route 1S and follow Lima's moody coastline down to Paracas, the seaside vacation hotspot that’s kind of like the Hamptons of Peru. With no stops, the 161-mile straight shot should take just under four hours. This stretch of the drive isn’t the most scenic, with miles of beige landscape dotted with the occasional makeshift tin hut, so be sure to have a good playlist cued up.
You should see signs around mile 152 to turn right onto Via 614 toward El Chaco and Paracas. As the road curves left at the coast, you’ll start to get a glimpse of the relaxed, quaint beach town vibes of El Chaco. Dive shops, hostels, tour advertisements, and bustling crowds fill the edges of the main street. It might initially seem sleepy, but the adventurous beach town is an unassuming gateway to two of the most epic and unexpected experiences you’ll have on this trip.
Five-star seaside vacation vibes await on the water at Hotel Paracas. The moment you step out of the car, there’s an instant vibe shift and change of scenery. It’s blue skies and rustling palm trees starting now. Skip the hotel restaurant and head straight for Chalana, a small restaurant shack at the end of the hotel’s private dock with a reputation for extremely fresh ceviche.
Admire penguins and seals from Paracas to Isla Ballestas
The only way to reach the magical Ballestas Islands is by boat, so suit-up and slather on the sunscreen. This triplet of uninhabited islands—Ballestas Norte, Ballestas Central, and Ballestas Sur—are known as the “Galapagos of Peru.” The wildlife here is plentiful and pretty unique, so get your cameras ready as you softly motor around the islands’ perimeters, eyes peeled for sunbathing sea lions, fur seals, Blue-footed boobies, cormorants, Humboldt penguins, bright Sally Lightfoot crabs, and more.
The waters of the Paracas Reserve are also home to pods of dolphins and Humpback whales, but be sure to keep one eye on the land as well. Across the sprawling plain, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Nazca Lines, enormous geoglyphs carved into the mountainside. Brought into popular culture after a Peruvian archaeologist came upon them in the 1920s, the who, what, when, and why of their existence is still fairly unknown (cue the Ancient Aliens theme song and a wild-haired Giorgio A. Tsoukalos).
Several tour companies in El Chabo offer tours to the Ballestas Islands, but if you want a more intimate experience, it’s absolutely worth booking the island excursion as a private charter with Venturia through Hotel Paracas.
Venture into desert sand dunes from Paracas to Ica
It’s time to go from beach to desert with a visit to the impressive sand dunes of the Ica Desert, an extension of the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. Trust that this epic adventure will go down as one of the coolest experiences of your life. Wear tight clothing, pull your hair back, and be prepared to enter an otherworldly landscape. You’ll be climbing, sliding, and hauling ass up, down, and across the largest sand dunes in South America (as high as 1,600 feet!).
To get to Ica, drive southeast down Route 1S, where you’ll park the car and slide into a 4WD vehicle or dune buggy manned by a professional driver (sorry, no personal vehicles are allowed in the desert). Buckle up, grab the “oh shit handle,” and try not to let the adrenaline wipe out your body—save your energy for when you pull over, get out, and get handed a sandboard to strap on and ride down the side of the silky soft dune. Climbing back up the hill will be a sisyphean effort, but it’s the only way you’ll get another chance to chase the rush. There are only so many runs you can do before the sun starts to set behind the dunes, giving you 360-degree views of absolute transcendent beauty.
Most tours pack it in after sunset, but the Desert Adventure option from Venturia includes something extra special. After chasing the setting sun across the tops of the dunes, you’ll summit one final peak, only to speed down the side as a tented picnic—set up under the stars—seemingly comes out of nowhere.
Hunt for mummies and mysteries from Ica to Nazca
Remember those mysterious geoglyphs you saw from the boat in Paracas? Now you’re going to visit them at the source. Three hours driving south on your ol’ pal Route 1S again will lead you straight to Nazca. Once you’re here, you’ll hop in a propeller plane for a bird’s-eye view of the ancient earth markings that have been perplexing scientists since their discovery a century ago.
Afterwards, head to Museo Antonio to soak up what we do know about the Nazca peoples, inhabitants of the area between 200 B.C.E to 600 C.E. Keep the curiosity flowing with a visit to the impressively preserved prehistoric remains at the Cemeterio Chauchilla, just a 20 mile drive south of Nazca. The combination of ancient funerary processes and the arid desert climate have helped keep these mummies so intact that you can still see the skin on many of the bodies as you walk through an impressive collection of deep-dug graves. Postulate your own Nazca Line theories over a dinner at La Kasa Rustica before heading to bed at a decent hour (the next day will be a hefty drive).
Tackle the Andes Mountains from Nazca to Abancay
Strap in and get comfortable, because this nine-hour leg of the journey is the longest—you’ll also be climbing over 5,500 feet in elevation, so stock up on water and coca tea before you leave to combat any high-elevation effects. For your patience, you’ll be rewarded with window filmstrip snippets of small-village life and hyper-local roadside food stands selling snacks that range from fresh fruits to roasted cua cua (guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy). This route gives unforgettable mountain views from a privied perspective as you cut through the Andes, whose sheer size and beauty can only humble you.
Don’t let the stellar views distract you too much—you’ll need to stay alert, as road conditions vary and buses don’t automatically give passenger cars the right of way. This stretch of the trip should only be driven by experienced drivers.
If the driving conditions freak you out a bit too much, or you’d rather just focus on filling your camera space with jaw-dropping photos, hiring a professional driver is also an option. Will it cost more? Yes. But you’ll also have someone behind the wheel who is used to the driving conditions and road etiquette—and knows the best places to stop, grab great local food, capture snaps of the spectacular surroundings, and refuel along the way.
Head towards Machu Picchu on the drive from Abancay to the Sacred Valley
Resting quietly at the foot of the Andes, the Sacred Valley is a 127-mile journey heading east from Abancay via Route 3S. The valley is a popular stop for travelers who want to acclimate to higher elevation before visiting Machu Picchu. But fair warning—the impossibly striking views at this elevation and the plentiful hairpin turns you’ll take as you worm through the mountains are equally likely to take your breath away. Again, be vigilant as you drive.
Several small villages and important Incan cultural sites are hidden throughout the Sacred Valley, concealed and protected by the spread of mountain. Check out Pisac to see some of the best preserved Incan ruins in Peru, and hit up the ruins of Ollantaytambo, once the royal estate for Emperor Pachacuti the Sapa Inca of the Kingdom of Cusco. (Some historians believe Machu Picchu was actually built as a royal residence for Pachacuti.)
Once you’ve had your fill of history and culture, you can pump your adrenaline with river rafting, trail trekking, and rock climbing. Or snag snaps of the delicate white valley landscape created by the Maras Salt Mines, a collection of thousands of natural salt pans that have been harvested since Incan times.
Assuming you’ve got Machu Picchu on your bucket list, you can head straight there from the Sacred Valley. Just book a tour through your hotel, or stay at Tambo del Inka, a divine luxury hotel with a private train station that links up with PeruRail train to Machu Picchu.
End in the ancient city of Cusco
On this final leg of your road trip, you’ll up the altitude one last time on a 35-minute drive to Cusco. This ancient city sits high at over 11,100 feet above sea level and is packed with almost unfathomable history, most notably as the former capital of the Inca Empire between 1400 and 1534 C.E.
Steep sloping streets, hordes of people, and narrow, bumpy roads make Cusco a nerve-wracking place to drive, just FYI. Park the car and get around on foot to visit the Cathedral of Cusco, colonial Plaza de Armas de Cusco, and the bustling and vibrant merchants of the San Pedro market. You don’t have to travel far to find ancient stories here; this small but fascinating city is packed full of visible history with surviving foundations, structures, and walkways from the pre-Incan Killke, Incan, and Spanish colonial times.
If you find yourself out of breath, it might not just be the elevation. You’ve now driven 744 miles across the country and over 11,000 above sea level. From here, you can fly out of the airport in Cusco, where you’ll surely sleep well on the long flight home.