Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is one of the most commonly identified infectious aetiologies of encephalitis in North America and Europe. The epidemiology of encephalitis beyond these regions, however, is poorly defined. During 2009–2012 we enrolled 313 patients in a multicentre prospective study of encephalitis in Peru, 45 (14·4%) of whom had confirmed HSV infection. Of 38 patients with known HSV type, 84% had HSV-1 and 16% had HSV-2. Patients with HSV infection were significantly more likely to present in the summer months (44·4% vs. 20·0%, P = 0·003) and have nausea (60·0% vs. 39·8%, P = 0·01) and rash (15·6% vs. 5·3%, P = 0·01) compared to patients without HSV infection. These findings highlight differences in the epidemiology and clinical presentation of HSV encephalitis outside of the Northern Hemisphere that warrant further investigation. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for improved HSV diagnostic capacity and availability of intravenous acyclovir in Peru.