I recently returned from the incredible country of Peru. My mother’s family is from Brasil, and so I’m quite familiar with the largest country in Latin America. However, I wanted to explore another country in South America, and being that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list, I quickly chose Peru as my first venture to the western side of the continent.
I present to you my humble travel guide, based on my first hand experiences there, complete with do’s and don’ts, a sample itinerary, and some tips on how to make the most out of your vacation in Peru. I should note that to avoid writing a book-length post of my advice, I am focusing on specifically the cities I have visited, and I do not get into much detail on activities to do in each city. It is more of a compilation of elements that stuck out that I thought people should be prepared with before they go to Peru. This guide is also geared towards travelers on a budget and who are willing to be more adventurous, backpacker style. However, any visitor to Peru can take bits and pieces from this post.
When to Go: I went during low tourist season, which is from November to March. Even though you risk rains during these months, it’s much less crowded than during high season (June to September). Because I was traveling during low season, I didn’t have to book my hostels, transportation and tours in advance. The only exception was Machu Picchu, which you should book early, as it only allows a certain number of visitors per day, and even earlier for the Inca trail (people have told me they booked the Inca trail 4-6 months in advance).
Getting around: It is far easier and more economical to take the bus when travelling from one city to the next. These busses are not uncomfortable Greyhounds. Rather, the seats can go down as far as 180 degrees, and your ticket includes a meal and drink, a pillow and a blanket. There is wifi on board as well. Cruz del Sur is the one of the highest quality bus companies. Ticket prices range according to route: I took the bus from Lima to Arequipa, which took 16 hours, and it cost me 90 soles ($30). From Puno to Cusco my six-hour bus ride cost 49 soles ($16.50). Flights can cost over 130 dollars during low season, so overnight and day busses are the way to go. When you take a taxi anywhere make sure you find out the standard price to that specific place so you know what you should be paying, or else the taxi driver will overcharge you.
Accommodations: I’m a big fan of hostels; I travel alone and on a budget, and hostels make it easy to meet people from all over the world. At almost all of the hostels breakfast is included, which consists of bread, butter, jam, and tea/coffee.
Food: Peruvians eat very little red meat. Instead, they eat a lot of grains and potatoes. The most common foods I found was chicken, fish, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. Almost every meal I’ve had, whether at a local market or a restaurant has been so yummy! The best thing to do for lunch is to order a “menu” at local food spots. For between 8-12 soles ($2.70 – $4), you’ll get a soup, salad, rice, a protein (commonly chicken or fried fish), French fries, and a beverage (usually tea). Common menus include a quarter chicken with rice, French fries, soup, and salad for 10 soles ($3.37). At the local markets you’ll find these menus for even less. The restaurants in Lima and Cusco will be more expensive, but you can always find a local restaurant for all your meals. For a snack there’s fresh juice everywhere, which costs between 5-7 soles ($1.69 – $2.36). A bottle of water is costs between 1.50-3 soles (50 cents to $1). Don’t forget to drink a lot of water, especially when acclimating to the high altitude! Beer costs around 7 soles ($2.36), and the famous Peruvian Pisco sours can range from a cheap 12 soles ($4) to a fancy 22 soles ($7.42).
What to Bring:
–Backpack: Visiting Peru is generally more of an adventure and hiking experience. Bring backpackers backpack and not a suitcase You’ll be travelling to a lot of cities and will be trekking, and backpack is so much easier.
-Sunscreen: the higher the altitude the closer you are to the sun, so even if it’s cold you’ll get sunburned.
Bring hiking boots. Almost every ruin or cultural site you go will require good shoes. If you don’t have hiking boots then wear rubber soled sneakers, because in the rain things can be very slippery and dangerous. However, hiking boots are an absolute must if you’re doing Waynapicchu and the Colca Canyon trek.
-Layer Up: The weather varies throughout the day, especially at high altitudes, so layers are key. At one moment you’ll be sweating in the sun, and the next it’ll be cold and windy. My savior for those cold nights and 4000 meters above sea level was my purple Uniqlo puffer jacket, which can be folded into a small little pillow like ball when you’re not using it. I brought that with me everyday wherever I went.
-Pocho: It also rains on and off, especially in Machu Picchu, where the weather is most unpredictable. Bring a small plastic poncho with you when you go hiking.
-Other items: sunglasses, a hat, long pants (preferably the comfortable and breathable hiking type), and warm socks. Having your own towel can be handy on the Inca Trail and the Colca Canyon trek, and some hostels only provide towels for a fee. And bring a lock so you can use it to store valuables at hostels. Most hostels have lockers.
-Rent Gear: You can also rent hiking boots, backpacks, walking poles, and other gear at some hostels or independent shops in Cusco.
People: Peruvians are really friendly and helpful. It does help to speak a little Spanish, however, because many people don’t speak English. It’ll make your life easier if you learned a couple of key Spanish phrases.
Length of Trip: Every time I visit a country I wish I had at least a month. But realistically, I think you need between ten days and two weeks to see Peru. Oftentimes people only make time to see Cusco and Machu Picchu, and these two places will certainly not give you the full experience. My personal itinerary felt rushed, however I did get a chance to see a lot in a short amount of time. Listed below are the places I traveled to, with some notes about each location.
-Lima (2 days, 1 night): One third of Peru’s population of 30 million people lives in Lima. It’s a large city, and one that shouldn’t be skipped. Here is where you splurge on food, as Lima is one of the most famous culinary capitals in North and South America. If there is any one thing to make a priority here it is to try their ceviche. I went to this lovely restaurant for lunch called Punto Azul. Be sure to get there early to avoid the lunch rush! Stay in Miraflores, the nicest neighborhood with the best restaurants and also with the most things to do. You can walk to the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and watch the surfers catch waves down below. If the winds cooperate you can also try parasailing. The most charming neighborhood is Barranco. I recommend walking around during the day to see the contrasting architecture there: a stone house looking like it belongs in the English countryside can neighbor a one story colorful Latin home. The nightlife is also in Barranco, so be sure to head there for some drinks and dancing.
-Arequipa (2 days, 2 nights): Arequipa is a gem. Not as many tourists are familiar with this city, and it was one of my favorite places in Peru. If you’re up for some pre-Machu Picchu hiking, you can do a one, two, or three day trek in the Colca Canyon, which is about three hours outside of Arequipa. You’ll see volcanoes (including an active one), be immersed in the gorgeous Andes Mountains, and you’ll have the chance to see the rare Condor, the largest flying bird in the Western Hempishere. Arequipa and Colca Canyon are higher in altitude than Cusco and Machu Picchu, the top most point hitting about 4000 meters (13,123 feet) so it’s an ideal place to visit before doing the Inca trail so you can become acclimated to the height.
-Puno, Lake Titicaca (1 day, 1 night): If you want to spend more time in Arequipa and you only have a short amount of time, skip Puno. The city itself is not that pretty, and the lake’s floating islands felt very contrived and are quite touristy. But, if you have the time, traveling along Lake Titicaca is a nice experience. Lake Titicaca is occupied by both Peru and Bolivia, and often tourists take a bus from Puno to La Paz if they want to see Bolivia and the Bolivian side of the lake. Many people have told me that Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, is much more beautiful. Puno is even higher in altitude than Arequipa, so it’s another spot to help acclimate you to the height.
-Cusco (3 days, 2 nights): Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire, and so it’s history and culture is very rich. The city is truly beautiful. It caters heavily to tourists, so be careful to avoid the classic tourist traps and highly priced restaurants. But, I always say that places become tourist destinations for a reason, so do not let the large numbers of tourists prevent you from visiting the city. Definitely take advantage of what’s outside of Cusco. You can take day tours to the outskirts of the city to see Incan ruins, salt mines, and indigenous villages where the people only speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. If you have extra time you can take a multi-day tour to Manu National Park, part of which covers the Peruvian side of the Amazon Rainforest.
-Machu Picchu (1 night, 1 day): I chose stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and do a full day in Machu Picchu. If you want to do the Inca trail, add 3-7 extra days to your itinerary to allow time to do the trail.
Machu Picchu & the Inca Trail:
For those not doing the Inca Trail (which can last between 4 and 7 days), be sure to bring a small backpack, since there are weight limits on the rail line that takes you to Aguas Calientes. Bring just enough for one short overnight stay. There is luggage storage at Machu Picchu if you bring your backpack but don’t want to carry it around amongst the ruins. Buy food before you go up to Machu Picchu, because food there is limited and expensive, and you’ll want to have lots of water and energy bars near you if you get hungry. You’re not supposed to bring food into the ruins so keep it hidden in your bag so no one sees it. And, be sure to bring your original passport.
To really get the full experience at the Machu Picchu site, you most definitely should hike Waynapicchu, and not Machu Picchu Mountain. It really changed my whole experience. But it’s only for those who are physically fit and are not afraid of very steep steps. If you decide to hike up Waynapicchu, you should get the first ticket at 7am. The hike round-trip including photos took about three hours. If you get the later ticket at 10am, it will be very hot and crowded. In order to get there by 7am you’ll have to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and take the first bus up to the mountain at 5:30am. The bus ride is $10 each way and takes about 20 minutes to get up the entrance of the ruins. Once I finished Waynapicchu I explored the ruins in more detail for the rest of the day, leaving right before close at 4:30pm. By getting there early and staying late you’ll see Machu Picchu with even less crowds, and you’re able to take your time to relax and enjoy the site.
-Cusco (1 night, 1 day): There is so much to do in Cusco itself, so definitely give yourself some time before and after Machu Picchu to explore the city. Cusco is the place to get an inexpensive massage, which I desperately needed after trekking Machu Picchu. A one-hour massage is about 30 soles ($10). I went to a place at 250 Calle Marques that did an amazing job. The San Pedro market is where locals buy their produce and meats and it’s also where you can have a three-course lunch for 4 soles ($1.35), have fresh squeezed juice made from any fruit imaginable, buy coca leaves, teas, and candies, and buy hallucinogens legally such as the San Pedro cactus. Any souvenirs can be bought here for half the price. *A note about coca leaves and hallucinogens: These hallucinogens are deeply rooted in Incan and native indigenous cultures in Peru, and are completely legal to consume in Peru. They are, however, illegal in the United States, and so you’re at risk if you try to bring anything with you back to the USA. More about coca later.
Altitude Sickness: It is very common for visitors to Peru to experience altitude sickness, particularly if they’re not from cities of a very high altitude. People make the mistake of flying directly into Cusco from Lima. If you do this you’re going to get hit hard with a very sudden change in altitude. The best thing to do is to take a bus from any location and acclimate as the car drives higher up the mountains. And, it’s a great way to take you to a different city and acclimate before doing the Inca Trail and hiking Machu Picchu. The first day you’re in a high altitude city such as Arequipa or Cusco, take it easy. You’re not going to feel he difference right away, so even if you do feel fine, take it slow. I advise you to not immediately go walking around and sightseeing, because you’ll need to regulate your breathing. Take some ibuprofen before arriving and every few hours after that. If you think you’ll really get sick, then have a doctor prescribe you Diamox. Some side effects of altitude sickness are lightheadedness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and nausea. I found that my first couple of days in Arequipa I couldn’t eat as much as I normally did, and I had trouble falling and staying asleep. Definitely try to be in a high altitude for a couple of days to a week before doing Machu Picchu so you’re feeling completely acclimated.
Coca: Locals use a natural remedy for altitude sickness – anything based in coca leaf, most commonly coca tea. Drink endless amounts of this tea when you’re there. Coca is the main ingredient used to make cocaine. But as a plant it is completely natural and safe to consume. The coca candies are a fun thing to chew on when you’re hiking.
DIY or Organized Tours: This is always a personal choice, no matter where in the world you go. I find the best would be a mix of both. Customizing your day-to-day partially doing it on your own and partially with organized tours are also less expensive and although it’s more work to plan everything, it can be very rewarding. The only area where a tour is essential is Machu Picchu, since the number of people allowed into the site each day is limited.
Money: The Peruvian currency is the Nuevo sole (or sole for short). Right now it is about 2.9 soles to the dollar. Things are relatively inexpensive in Peru, especially if you’re not afraid of getting away from the tourist restaurants with English menus and try the local spots. The most expensive parts of your trip will be the entrance fees to the different sites outside of Cusco and the train and entrance fees to Machu Picchu.
Bring Cash in Dollars: Unlike in Europe, where it’s better to use the ATM than to pay high commissions to exchange money, the ATM fees in Peru are really high. Every time you want to withdraw money you pay about 14 soles ($4.72) each time, not including the fees your individual bank will charge you. Either take out what you think you’ll need in one shot, or better yet bring unused US dollars with you to exchange Make sure your bills are clean and crisp because they don’t take torn money at all, even if it’s just a little used or damaged. They are very strict about this.
Shopping: The most typical thing to buy is the 100% alpaca wool scarves, hats, sweaters, and gloves. You’ll also see bags, sweaters, scarves, blankets, baby Llama dolls, keychains, and even sneakers made in the typical Peruvian colors and patterns. Definitely leave some space in your backpack for some purchases. There’s definitely something for everyone, as items range in price according to quality, as you can find a similar scarf made from synthetic materials or from 100% baby alpaca.
A Final Note: Peru is a vibrant country, and you’ll never forget your experience there. Enjoy the wonder of Machu Picchu, but don’t be afraid to venture out and explore other cities, each of which add their own unique element to the Peruvian cultural landscape.