Traveling to lesser-known pre-Incan archaeological sites, lush jungles and tranquil beaches almost always requires a bit of land transport in Peru. Why not take control and set the pace of your Peru exploration by hiring or renting a car for an epic road trip? While car rental prices in Peru are steep compared to bus tickets, the ability to make the various stopovers along any of our favorite routes is well worth the investment.
Before embarking on a road trip to any region, keep in mind some road etiquette in Peru: tourists driving here will find that big city traffic is chaotic, and locals don’t always heed typical rules upon interregional highways (speed limits, turn signals, etc.). If you avoid driving at night and take things slow, your road trip will be a safe and unforgettable travel highlight.
Get local insight on destinations all over the world with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Stretch your legs on the dunes around Huacachina, a popular spot for dune buggies and sandboarding © DoraDalton / Getty Images
Southern coast adventure
Best route for adrenaline activities
Lima-Nazca; 450km (280 miles); allow 2-3 days
When the hustle and bustle of Peru’s capital leaves you craving serene landscapes, it’s time to venture south! Head down the arid Pan-American Highway and cruise past weekend getaway favorites like San Bartolo (surfers should prioritize a stop at Cerro Azul, a small fishing town favored by local wave hunters). Continuing through Peru’s vast southern desert for another 1.5 hours, the Pan-American takes road trippers to the unique coastline of Paracas.
A stop in Paracas will give you the opportunity to stretch your legs as you stroll the rugged beaches and spot wildlife such as sea lions or take an epic boat ride out to what’s known locally as the “poor man’s Galapagos Islands,” Islas Ballestas, and spot Humboldt penguins. From Paracas’ Pacific coastline, Ica is just an hour inland and bordered by wineries and pisco producers. Just 10 minutes beyond the city center is the desert oasis, Huacachina. The natural pool is surrounded by spectacular dunes, making Huacachina a hot spot for dune buggies and sandboarders.
After a full day of adrenaline-induced activities, get back in the car and head to your last stop on this southern road trip: Nazca. This is your chance to change modes of transportation by opting for a six-seater plane ride over the mysterious geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines. Just two miles out of town are the spiraling stone canals also built by the Nazca culture (in 200 CE and 700 CE), the Cantalloc Aqueducts.
Detour: Stop in Palpa before you get to Nazca to see the Palpa Lines, the lesser-known but just as impressive geoglyphs, which can be viewed from a lookout 8km (5 miles) south of Palpa. Better yet, combine the viewing with the same flight over the Nazca Lines.
Oxapampa is an easy drive from peaceful jungle and stunning waterfalls © Leonid Andronov / Getty Images
Central to high jungle
Best for exploring coffee fields and German-Austrian ancestry
La Merced-Pozuzo; 157km (98 miles); allow 4-5 days (not including pit-stops)
The gateway to Peru’s central jungle, La Merced is your jumping-off point for this scenic road trip that concludes in the tranquil selva alta (high jungle) of Oxapampa, which can only be reached by land. As you leave La Merced, take the time to stop by the native Ashaninka Pampa Michi community to learn about their history and culture. Continue north on Av Castilla along Route 22B, eventually merging onto Highway 5N (which cuts through the northern jungle). At the fork of Puente Paucartambo, take a right to reach Villa Rica (left takes you to Oxapampa, so you’ll be circling back to this point to continue your scenic road trip). This corner of Peru is known for its warm climate and delicious coffee.
When it’s time to circle back to Puente Paucartambo, take the exit to Oxapampa. It should take less than two hours to reach the picturesque high jungle, but you will feel worlds away from previously visited tropical towns. Austrian-German settlers arrived in this isolated area in 1853 and left a lasting mark on its architecture, culture and gastronomy. Recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco, this unique town is next to the thriving Yanachaga Chemillén National Park.
After strolling around the clean and calm town of Oxapampa, chowing down on chicken schnitzel and cooling off at El Tigre waterfall (a 10-minute drive from the plaza), jump back in the car to continue north for nearly two hours to reach Pozuzo. Along the way, you can stop at two more waterfalls: Torre Bamba and Rayan Tambo. The reward for navigating the narrow dirt road to Pozuzo is a cold pint from the town’s German-style brewery, Dörcher.
Planning Tip: Organize your road trip through the jungle between April and October to avoid the rainy season.
High altitude cultures in southern Peru
Best for archaeological sites
Cuzco-Puno; 389 km (242 miles); allow 3-4 days
Various modes of transportation can take travelers from the imperial city of Cuzco to Puno, be it by train, plane or bus. However, the advantage of traveling to the so-called folkloric capital of Peru by car is that you and your fellow passengers can traverse the highlands while soaking in all the cultural highlights at your own pace.
Stay on Highway 3S the whole route, stopping off at the pre-Incan archaeological site Pikillacta. Built by the Wari culture around 650 CE, Pikillacta is a bit of a mystery, yet it has been incredibly preserved. Continuing south just 15km (9.3 miles), you will run into the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas,” Iglesia de San Pedro in Andahuaylillas.
Less than two hours further along the route is another archaeological gem, Raqchi, which contains a two-story temple dedicated to Viracocha, the most prominent Inca deity. Be sure not to fill up on too hearty a lunch as you’ll soon be crossing La Raya Pass, the highest point of your trip at 4335 meters above sea level (14,222 feet). Take your postcard-perfect photos and hop back in your vehicle before the high-altitude chills numb your fingertips. A few hours later, you’ll have reached Puno, your final destination and the gateway to Lake Titicaca. Though you’ll surely want to feast on a plate of trout ceviche or chupe de quinoa (quinoa stew) to celebrate the end of this scenic yet windy drive, take it easy as the altitude of Puno is 3822m.
Detour: Not long before arriving in Puno, pull off Highway 3S to see the chullpas (funerary towers) of Sullistani, which reach heights of up to 12m.
Unwind in numerous laid-back beach towns on a drive along Peru’s northern coast © PatricioHidalgoP / Getty Images
Northern coast beaches and mangroves
Best route for a relaxing getaway
Piura-Tumbes; 287km (178 miles); allow 3-4 days
Travel along Peru’s northern coast for your chance to catch a wave and soak up the sun. Along the way, you’ll stop at idyllic little beach towns, each one adding to the chilled-out state of this road trip. This route begins in Piura, a bustling city whose Plaza de Armas is trimmed with colonial buildings. Peruse the Casa Grau museum, dedicated to the famous naval hero. Hop onto the Panamericana Norte Highway and whisk yourself away to Organos.
Characterized by turquoise waters and sandy beaches, Organos is located just 15 minutes away from the popular surf town of Máncora but is far more laid-back than its neighbor. Kayak, windsurf or simply stroll along the coastline dotted with cozy bungalows and a few stylish cafes.
Continue your journey north, whizzing past Mancora. Your drive along the coast will bring you to countless other beach towns, but after an hour and a half, you can count on stretching your legs in Zorritos. Thanks to the Humboldt Current, the fishing and surfing village enjoys a warm climate and pleasant water temperatures all year long. Just 25 minutes outside of Zorritos is El Tubo, the natural hot spring. Head over in the evening with a cold drink and enjoy the calm surrounding desert landscapes. Another fantastic option would be the medicinal mud baths known as Los Hervideros.
Cruise along the coast for one more hour to reach your final destination: Tumbes. Synonymous with biodiversity, this small region of northern Peru is known for its incredible Mangroves National Sanctuary. Take a break from behind the wheel and paddle your way through these coastal swamps.
Planning Tip: Aim to drive between July and October to squeeze in a whale-watching excursion near Organos.