A land of great mystery and vast archaeological treasures, Peru is characterized by her geographical diversity. Here, soaring snow-peaked Mountains meet tropical jungles amid coastal deserts reaching upward to high altitude glacier lakes, and vast plunging canyons forming one of the most diverse habitats on earth, an adventure traveler’s paradise!
With a population of 28 million, Peru is best known for its raw natural beauty and 1,000-mile-long Pacific coastline. Home to dozens of diverse cultures thousands of years old living among ancient cities seemingly lost in time. Visitors will be dazzled by the endless varieties of delicious local cuisine, exotic music and entertainment, including indigenous dance, equestrian events, folkloric festivals, and fascinating destinations. Some common sense planning before departure will ensure a safe, harmonious and excellent experience while traveling in Peru. I offer the following tips in the hope that you will come to love the many wonders of Peru, as I do.
KATHY'S TOP TEN TIPS
#1 - Pack lightly, and only pack what you're willing to carry
Check your packing list and follow it to the letter. Then, put half of everything away. You don't really need all that stuff, do you?
I recommend traveling with one lightweight duffle and a backpack. Leave your big, bulky suitcases at home. Instead, carry a small lightweight backpack on your flight to Peru for day trips and hikes in the ancient sites, and a larger duffle as your checked luggage (not to exceed 55 lbs). If you a solo traveler and visiting a local crowded market, wear your backpack across your chest. It will keep your belongings safe from stray hands. Secure with a wire rope and lock when traveling by local trains, jitney's.
Peru is known for its high-quality woven products including first-rate alpaca hats, sweaters, mittens, socks and ponchos, and gorgeous "baby" alpaca blankets. The Indian markets are an experience not to be missed. Be prepared to barter as is the custom, but don't quibble over a few coins. Vendors make very little and often entire families depend on this income.
Many local people will be assisting you throughout your journey and sharing their knowledge, and traditions. Please be respectful and when tipping, be generous with your gratuity. These small considerations will make a tremendous difference in the lives of the people that you will come in contact with. If you would like to donate items to a children's charity consider bringing donations in a spare duffel on your flight to Peru and leave these donations with your hosts, or tour guide. In most cases they will be happy to make the donation for you.
When flying within Peru you are limited to one or two checked pieces of luggage under a certain weight limit, without paying additional weight charges (up to $3 per pound overage). Identify your luggage inside and on its exterior. Use the address and telephone number of a family member or your hometown travel agent who has a copy of your itinerary. In case your luggage is lost they can advise the airline of your whereabouts so that it will catch-up with you.
Know where your bags are at all times. Do not leave them unattended on local buses and trains. If they are placed on top of cars or vans, be sure everything is tied down firmly or else they may fly away. Bring extra luggage locks.
Between May and October temperatures in the Andes are usually in the 70-degree Fahrenheit range during the day and sunny most of the time. Night can become chilly. Bring a warm woolen sweater to layer over your clothes or as an alternative, buy one in the Indian market. It’s the best bargain in the Andes. Pack a heavier jacket if you plan to spend the night outdoors, and a fold-up rain poncho to tuck in your backpack should it rain.
Make sure to include your toiletries (small bottles), ear plugs, snore strips (if you have a roommate), electronics (camera, etc.), valuables, if any, and a change of clothes in your backpack for the flight to Peru, and carry it on the plane with you. Leave expensive jewelry and watches at home. Good silver and costume jewelry may be bought in the local markets; look for the 925 stamp for silver. You can wear these baubles throughout your trip. Buy an inexpensive watch for the trip and leave your expensive one at home. The electric current is on a 220-volt system. Many appliances now feature dual voltage 110/220 (hairdryer, curling irons, razors, etc.), be sure to purchase the appropriate adapter plug for Peruvian outlets in older homes and hostels.
Verify the weather conditions at your destination before departure and pack accordingly. Plan to recycle your clothing, and pack for comfort. Wear one set of clothing two or three times. If you’ll be at a location for two or more days, do your own washing. Pack a small bottle of laundry detergent and a couple of laundry clips and line-dry your clothing in a sunny window. Most hotels have laundry service available at unbelievably high prices. Laundromats are available in most major cities, including Cusco. Make sure you know the currency being charged whether it is dollars or Peruvian Sol, a good rule-of-thumb in any transaction.
#2 - Layer, Layer, Layer
Layer clothing for warmth and bring the following: trail shoes well worn and broken-in (hiking boots are not necessary for the Cusco region, unless you plan to hike the Inca Trail); hat and sunglasses (with good UV protection); two pair of comfortable trail pants, stretch pants (leggings for women); bathing suit and sandals for hot springs; sweatshirt, sweatpants; long underwear (sleeping in unheated hotel rooms or camping), heavy socks for each day; undergarments; gloves, scarves, knit hat (for sleeping during cold nights); pack of pens and journal or sketchbook; money belt with safety pins; zip-lock bags for liquids, a travel alarm for early departures or airline flights, and a flashlight. Bring you digital pocket camera and charger. When photographing local people in traditional wear at tourist sites a gratuity is often expected.
Toiletries include: antibacterial hand wipes or liquid hand sanitizer, all medications and prescriptions; sun block; insect repellent; nutritional power bars and trail snacks. Consider bringing gifts for the local children such as school supplies, pens, paper and crayons. Stickers are favorites. In remote areas toilet paper can be scarce, always carry a small personal supply with you especially for day trips.
#3 - Book Reservations Early for Machu Picchu, Inka Trail
When traveling independently and going to Machu Picchu or to any high traffic tourist areas, be sure to book your entrance tickets and transportation early. Access to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are controlled and limited to a daily capacity. We often choose to travel in the "off season", which enables more access to the sites with less tourist activity. If you will be traveling in the high season, May through September, be advised that seating capacity on the train to Machu Picchu is limited and reservations are a must. Contact Peru Rail or Inca Rail for more information. If you are a budget traveler consider taking the “backpacker” train. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury travelers might opt for the “Hiram Bingham” deluxe carriage for a day trip. Rail fares from Cusco to Machu Picchu range from $57 for the backpacker, to $547 for the roundtrip Hiram Bingham line. Luggage restrictions are now in effect with the rail lines. Check with the company to see what you can bring, or opt to take a carry-on bag and leave the remainder of your luggage locked in storage at your previous hotel, and get a receipt.
#4 - Check Your Documents
Passports should be renewed or obtained early. Your passport must be valid for (6) months from the date of travel. If it is about to expire you will not be granted entrance to Peru. Check the visa requirements for your destination. Travelers from the USA, UK, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are automatically granted a visa upon entrance to Peru. Make two copies of your travel documents including air and land itineraries and your passports, and leave one copy with friends or family at home, along with the telephone numbers for contacting you in Peru. Keep a copy separate from your other documents. Carry your money, passport, and credit card with you in a money belt, inside your clothing, unless locked in a hotel safe.
#5 - Don't exchange money in the street
The streets have many eyes. Use good sense when transacting currency in public, and opt for a currency exchange office or bank whenever possible. Never carry a purse or wallet. For quick purchases, place a few small denomination bills in various pockets. Tuck $100 bill under the insole of your shoe as insurance against theft. Bring one or two credit or debit cards and know your PIN (use 4 digit codes for compatibility with Peru’s ATM’s). Test it before departure. Cash can be obtained at banks throughout Peru. Peru’s ATM’s are compatible with systems worldwide. Be forewarned that some ATM’s have been known to dispense counterfeit bills. Check your currency carefully. Go inside a bank or Currency Exchange office to make a transaction.
Contact your credit card company before your departure, and notify them of the destinations that you will be visiting. There is a daily limit on most transactions and your account may be frozen by the credit card company if they have not been notified in advance that you are using the card abroad. Save ALL receipts in case of errors. In many countries, credit card purchases are held until the rate of exchange is favorable to the vendor, as much as six months after your return.
Traveler’s checks are difficult to cash, and carry a hefty fee. The most commonly accepted is American Express. Most vendors in the highlands simply will NOT accept travelers checks.
Dollars are accepted throughout Peru. The local currency is the Peruvian Sol, be sure to check conversion rate before your departure. Counterfeit money is a common occurrence. Pay special attention to the bills that you will receive. Always request that the vendor give you the local currency first before you hand over your money. And know what you are handing over. Be alert! Look closely at your own money. Did you just hand him a $10 or a $100? If you are unsure, an unscrupulous vendor may insist that it was a $10, when in fact it was a $100. You must pay attention. Know the exact amount of exchange before any money is transacted. Count every dollar carefully, and unfold the received currency as it is often folded, and sometimes missing bills. And, unless you're a whiz at math, bring a small credit-card type calculator to calculate the rate of exchange. Torn, damaged or scarred US Dollar bills are NOT accepted in Peru. Bring absolutely clean, fresh, pristine U.S. dollar bills or the currency of choice.
When estimating how much cash to bring for expenses such as meals and incidentals, a minimum of $50 per day is a good rule of thumb, more if you are paying for hotel and transportation. Be sure to tuck away funds for airport departure taxes as you won't be able to leave the country without paying the fee, and they do not accept credit cards. Do not carry large amounts of cash on your body. Lock valuables in a hotel safe and ask for a receipt that details every penny. If the cash is stolen you will have proof of value, and a better chance of having it recovered or refunded.
#6 - Prevention IS the best medicine
No vaccinations are required for travel to Peru. When in doubt, useful health information can be obtained from the Center for Disease Control. Allow six months if possible, for immunizations. If you are concerned about health issues inquire about the Hepatitis A vaccine as prevention against diseases created by unsanitary conditions. The challenges of foreign travel can, at times, get the best of us. Bring medicine for diarrhea. Commercial bottled drinking water is available nearly everywhere in Peru. Drink plenty of bottled water when traveling to high altitudes. NEVER drink tap water or use ice cubes made from tap water, as they contain harmful bacteria. Do NOT eat food purchased from street vendors.
Fortify your immune system with supplements months before your trip. Carry your vitamins with you. They may be hard to find or not available in Peru. Consider taking an herbal parasite cleanse before and after your trip. We highly recommend Hulda Clark's “Herbal Parasite Cleanse”. Have a wellness kit with you, including topical antiseptic, charcoal tablets (dysentery), vitamins and cold and flu remedies, band-aids, ace bandage, moleskin for blisters , insect repellent, aloe vera gel and sunscreen, Lomatil, Pepto Bismal, Kleenex tissue, and liquid hand sanitizer.
Altitude Sickness known as “Soroche” is often mistaken for food poisoning due to the similarities in symptoms. Altitude sickness may come on quickly in the form of a light headache, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and loss of appetite. To avoid symptoms eat lightly and rest the first few days in the Andes. Avoid alcohol! Do drink copious amounts of coca tea, “mate de coca”, a local remedy. Before arrival consider obtaining a prescription of Diamox (Acetazolamide), a prescription sulfa drug used to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. A generic alternative to Diamox is available over-the-counter in Peru. Side effects may include frequent urination, and tingling extremities of the hands and feet. Bottled Oxygen will give immediate relief of altitude symptoms. Taking a supplement of Gingko Biloba may help reduce the effects of altitude illness. Descending to a lower elevation is an instant cure.
You will be walking constantly in Peru. Start a program now that suits your lifestyle. The easiest and best exercise to prepare for the Andes is a daily routine of walking. Traveling in the Peruvian Andes is relatively safe and comfortable, and you don't have to be a fitness nut to enjoy the easy walks throughout the lush meadows and ancient temples.
#7 - Dine like an Inca
Peruvian cuisine is among the finest in the world renowned for its succulent vegetables including dozens of varieties of potato, originated in Peru. There can be found the delicious white asparagus and giant Andean corn in many varieties. Olives are abundant. Fruits and grains such as quinoa, and cereals such as kiwicha, are favorites. Exotic local delicacies include roasted Alpaca, and “cuy” (roasted guinea pig) similar in taste to pork. Wonderful seafood includes locally-caught Pacific sea bass (Corvina) and a delicious marinated seafood salad made with lime juice and chilies called Ceviche. A typical Peruvian dish favored by locals is Lomo Saltado, consisting of chopped meat in a savory tomato sauce, with onions and potatoes. Chicha Morada is a popular sweet beverage, made from boiled purple corn (maize). Chicha, a light alcoholic beverage, is made from varieties of fermented maize and tastes slightly like hard apple cider. It’s said to lower blood pressure and was used as a ritual drink during the time of the Inca.
If you have the opportunity to pass by a “Pachamanca”, you will be amazed by this all-day ritual cookout, a special type of barbeque made from a variety of meats and vegetables cooked on a bed of heated stones in a large underground earthen pit. We tried Pachamanca near Santa Rosa de Quives, a two-hour drive northeast of Lima near the famous petroglyph site of Checta. Here several restaurants feature the Pachamanca.
We often make a special trip to “Chinatown” in barrio chino near downtown Lima, to enjoy an afternoon at one of the huge “chifa’s” (Chinese restaurants) along Capon Street. You will find a wonderful fusion of cultures, shopping and restaurants serving exotic, tasty dishes.
A cocktail made from Pisco, a type of brandy made from grapes, is topped with a froth of raw, whipped, egg whites, and is a national favorite. Use your best judgment when consuming raw egg whites or order the drink without the topping. We’ve given up on tossed green salads; locally-grown lettuce often contains microbes that can lead to dysentery, regardless of how well the lettuce is washed. Lastly, be aware that not all dairy products are pasteurized.
You may not always have the opportunity to eat when traveling. Be prepared, and bring along a supply of comfort foods that transport well such as trail mix, energy bars, and dried fruits and nuts. These foods will see you through in a pinch.
Foods that Heal
Peruvians have used the coca leaf as a natural remedy for thousands of years, for ailments including high blood pressure, gastrointestinal ailments, motion sickness, fatigue, as an antidepressant, and as an adjunct to weight reduction. Whole coca leaves are steeped in water and served as a tea (mate) and used as a common remedy for the effects of high altitude illness. Another amazing healing plant is Maca, an indigenous root from the radish family. Maca is said to enhance strength and endurance, and is also hailed as an aphrodisiac. Some claim it is a natural anti-depressent. The early Spaniards used it as currency. Maca may be purchased in powdered form and added to hot tea, a beverage, or sprinkled in your cereal. Maca is reasonably priced in Peru, and legal to bring into the USA.
#8 - The Trouble with Taxis
Once, while traveling in Puno, our taxi sped away with all our packages in the trunk. Fortunately, I'd memorized the taxi number and we were able to retrieve everything. Most taxi drivers are good, hard working folk, but I have been known to select a taxi by the number of religious icons hanging from the dashboard. Whenever possible use a licensed taxi company, or ask your hotel to guarantee a cab. Notify someone where you are going and when you will be expected back. All taxis, whether licensed or not (there are many who are not licensed), cost two soles for daytime fares within Cusco, and three soles after 10 p.m. Agree on the price before you get in the cab. For security reasons lock all doors and close the windows. I make a mental note of the taxi number, company, and driver's I.D (it hangs next to the meter).
#9 - Communications
In order to stay in touch with friends and family back home, internet cafes are the best answer. They abound in all major cities and tourist areas, and charge from $2+ per hour. Some offer wireless for those bringing a laptop. Consider buying a prepaid telephone calling card with service to Peru. Peruvian call centers generally charge up to 50 cents or more per minute for international calls. If you are bringing your cellular telephone, contact your carrier for international rates and service areas.
#10 - Traveling Smart
Unforeseen circumstances may require that you alter your trip plans. Consider purchasing a trip cancellation policy to cover any non-refundable land and air tickets, including land and air evacuations, and medical costs due to personal or family illnesses. We encourage the purchase of Travelers Insurance to provide coverage for unexpected medical expenses, travel cancellation, and travel related emergencies while on a trip.
With over two decades of travel to Peru I've rarely had any security problems. My advice is to always travel smart, be sensible and keep a low profile. Don't flash money or jewelry around, and stay with your group or travel companion. Practice the “buddy system” and do not wander alone at night. Always pay attention to your surroundings.
My last and best advice is simply to enjoy yourself and keep an open mind. Have a wonderful adventure because in reality it's already begun.
Kathy Doore leads a yearly sojourn to the ancient and sacred sites of the Andes. She is the author of the award-winning coffee table book “Markawasi: Peru’s Inexplicable Stone Forest”.
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