When the road is long, even slippers feel tight.
Most of us have heard of Ceviche. We have had a Pisco Sour… and we have seen a million images of Machu Picchu.
But when a country offers every elevation between sea level and 22,204 feet (6767 metres) with climates ranging from the desert to the tropics to freezing you should probably get your act together before the wheels touch the tarmac.
This is everything you need to know:
1. The History is Complicated.
The Inca state only came into being in the 1200s and was officially over in 1533 when the final sovereign emperor died… so in the 5,000-year scheme of things they ruled for but a moment. Expect to learn about the Norte Chico, the Paracas, and the Moche. And if you learn more about the country before you arrive you will get so much more out of your own adventure.
2. Shhhhh. Pisco is maybe not from Peru.
The national beverage of choice, Pisco, is a brandy made from grapes is also beloved in Chile. So there is a serious rivalry between the two nations as to which country the drink really belongs to.
If you are a novice you might want to stick to cocktails that will blur the edges of the Pisco.
How to tell cheap Pisco from the good stuff? Pisco that is below parr smell of rotting vegetables.
The craft beer or cider is also excellent and Amazonian aphrodisiacs replete with shamanic barks and natural remedies abound.
Indulge in it all as long as you do not drink the water in Peru.
3. Take Cash
And carry your Nuevo Sol in small denominations (twenty and under is a good bet). New, unmarked and undamaged. US Dollars are widely accepted. You can easily withdraw dollars and soles from ATMs in Lima, Lima airport, Cusco, Puno, Huaraz, and Arequipa.
Bring a credit card that doesn’t levy foreign-transaction fees as many merchants restaurants and hotels accept credit cards without charging extra.
Don’t change your money with a cambista (street changer). Use a bank or casa de cambio (bureau de change) instead. Ask for billetes chicos (small denomination notes).
Change can be a problem.
Count your soles carefully before paying for something and be on the lookout for forged notes.
4. Altitude Attitude
Being at altitude, especially in the tropics, is usually a pleasure as it isn’t so hot, there are few insects and the air is clear.
There is no way to predict how much the higher elevations will affect you and you will only know after a couple of days how well you are tolerating it as it takes a little while to lower the oxygen levels in your blood.
Minimize the effects by starting slow, drinking lots of water (low air pressure, heat, and humidity all have diuretic effects), sleeping enough, staying away from – or minimizing alcohol, sleeping pills and nicotine and drinking coca leaf tea (mate de coca)instead.
Eat early and concentrate on high carbohydrates with lower fat and protein.
You might want to consider starting low and going to Machu Picchu first.
Machu Picchu lies at about 7,900 feet (2,400 metres)
Cusco is 11,150 feet (3,400 metres) above sea level
the Sacred Valley is at about 9,400 feet (2800 meters) above sea level
5. Closer to the Sun
Sunburn is worse at high altitudes. Take precautions. And in the early stages, overexposure to the sun can contribute to altitude sickness.
6. Before you go
See your travel health specialist as Peru is an exotic country and you will need to consider malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid prevention when you travel to certain areas. If you know you suffer from altitude sickness a doctor might prescribe altitude medication. Inoculations may need to be taken in advance for them to be effective so plan in advance.
Consult the CDC page on travel to Peru
7. A Plumbing Problem
You may find many toilets without seats and signs stating you have to place the toilet paper in the waste bin next to the toilet as the Peruvian plumbing cannot handle it. You want to also bring toilet paper with you as you will be charged to use the toilet and the terrible toilet paper at historical sites.
8. Trekking is not for New Shoes
Very steep stairs along the Inca trail, altitude sickness, rain, heat… it all adds up and wherever you go in Peru it is highly advisable to bring good walking shoes that have been broken in with dedicated walking socks.
9. Porters are Superheroes
You run Ironman for fun. Fabulous. Still, don’t ever try to outrun a Peruvian porter. We think they might definitely not be mere mortals.
10. Electric Dreams
Peru runs mostly on 220 volts. Dual voltage equipment should be fine but as US electrical sockets are only 120 volts you should better be safe than sorry and bring an adapter. Your iPhone might charge must faster but you should unplug as soon as it is charged.
Peru is a lively country. The kind of lively that continues into the night and most probably only increase in decibels as the hours tick by.
12. Prepare for Change
The coast (costa), the highlands (sierra) and the jungle (selva) all offer different weather, food, accents, lifestyle, and dress. It is like visiting three countries for the price of one.
13. Whatever you do, do see Lima
It might be tempting to stick to the most traveled road by concentrating on the Southern parts of Peru. Lima has great food, incredible history, phenomenal food… and fewer tourists. That’s all win as far as we are concerned!
14. Speak Some Spanish
Learn a little basic Spanish as not many people speak English in Peruvian cities such as Lima, Paracas, Cusco, Arequipa. For extra points learn a little Peruvian slang.
All good guides will speak fluent English as you will find it very difficult to find someone who understands English outside the big cities.
Peru’s communities have over 300 unofficial and almost 100 official native languages they speak all over the country, sometimes not even Spanish is spoken.
15. Try weird food.
The country enjoys an incredible variety of fruit and vegetables, including 4,000 varieties of potato and pretty well any tropical fruit or vegetable you could mention and many you have never seen. Prepare for a lot of gut-friendly aji (chili pepper) and ajo (garlic).
With the wide array of specialties, you can easily extend your adventure to the food.
Lima and the coast are well known for excellent ‘creole cuisine’, which features many excellent, sophisticated (and often shellfish marinated in lemon juice with onions and red peppers as well as much other delicious seafood.
Typical Andean dishes might be a little less refined but include cuy (guinea pig) and chicharron de chancho (deep fried pork).
Peru is becoming more vegetarian-friendly but it can be a little difficult on the street. Traditional Peruvian dishes that can be vegetarian are:
- Lomo saltado is a combination of rice, vegetables, and French fries. Simply ask them to hold the meat.
- A tallarin saltado is a sautéed spaghetti and vegetable dish. Again, ask to hold the meat.
- Chaufa is Peruvian fried rice, sometimes including potato as one of the ingredients.
- Yucca fries, roasted corn kernels (like spicy, hot corn nuts), and purple potato salad
Avoid eating from street vendors unless you can see that food is freshly cooked, untouched and served on clean dishes.
Whatever you do: don’t eat ceviche at night. Only weirdos do that.
16. Don’t Believe the Taxi Drivers
If there is no taximeter you should haggle if you do not want to pay too much. Your bargaining powers will increase exponentially with the amount of Spanish you can speak.
Uber is also an option, especially in Lima, Cusco or Arequipa.
17. Ass Spoons & More
Famous for amusing product names or creative translations of menus – you might want to keep your eyes open and your camera ready.
18. Peru’s Pickpockets
Keep your personal belongings within reach at all times. Be vigilant and sensible. Over friendly locals or tourist, the beach areas in offseason and night time in downtown Lima should be avoided.
Leave paper valuables including your passport in the hotel safe (caja fuerte), taking only what you need and a copy of your passport for the day.
When traveling, carry paper valuables in a money belt under clothing, not in a bum-bag. Carry your daypack on your front and always replace your camera after use.
Take a little extra care in the markets. Be aware of distraction techniques.
NEVER leave your bags unattended, especially in airports, bus terminals, and hotel lobbies.
19. Books to read before you go
The Peru Reader by Orin Starn, Carlos Iván Degregori, Robin Kirk
Trail of Feathers: In Search of the Birdmen of Peruby Tahir Shah
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming
Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda
Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie.
20. Soles for Poses
Ask before you take a picture – you might be asked for a couple of soles and then will have a very happy subject striking a pose.
21. Arriving in Peru
Most travelers only need a return ticket and a valid passport to enter Peru.
22. Book in advance
Many of the incredible sights will be booked well ahead of arrival. To avoid disappointment and missing out on bucket list experiences do book your Peruvian trip as far in advance as possible.
23. Note to self
It is possible to test positive for cocaine after indulging in Coca Tea. The coca leaves are also illegal to bring back to the USA.
The tea can be stimulating and may keep you awake so you might want to switch to Andean mint tea in the evening.
24. Make Peruvian time work for you.
Peruvians are not driven by time. If there is a delay try to look around and enjoy the moment instead of allowing it to drive you crazy.
25. Tipping and Haggling
Tipping is normal in Latin America. Haggling is a national pastime. Local restaurant staff will appreciate approximately 10% and you can tip according to your satisfaction level. Guides, drivers, assistants, and cooks can be tipped around US$5-10 in small sol denominations.
26. Consult charity lists.
If you are planning any village visits we can advise you which supplies will be good to bring. You may also check the Pack for a Purpose to see which hotels they work within Peru, and pack the supplies they suggest(remembering that their list is not always exhaustive or up to date).
27. When to travel to Peru?
Most people, if given the choice, will prefer to visit the Peruvian highlands in the dry season: May to September or October.
(but take into consideration that we are talking about the weather here – the rainy season may be delayed or early)
If you plan to hike or visit the Amazon April, May, September and October are good.
Conversely, in the rainy season (Nov-March), you may find cheaper flights and fewer visitors (Christmas notwithstanding). During these months the mornings are clear and warm, but the cloud gather during the day and rain can come in the afternoons.
Images via Ben Ostrower, DAVIS VARGAS, Willian Justen de Vasconcellos, Paul Lequay, Kal Loftus, Chris Leipelt, Persnickety Prints, julian mora, Willian Justen de Vasconcellos