Peru is an exotic and exciting destination, full of mystery and awe-inspiring sights and adventures. It is so otherworldly compared to our everyday realities that it is easy to become overwhelmed, especially when one first arrives. This article provides some basic (and hopefully useful) information for first time visitors to Peru.
Lima, the capital of Peru, is the main hub for international arrivals. Located roughly in the central coastal area of the country almost all domestic flights also connect via this hub. Thus, whether you like it or not, chances are that you will be spending at least a little time in this city. Some other airports now have also been developed to receive international flights, but most are still routed through Lima, even if the final destination is Cusco or Iquitos.
Flights to/from North America are often scheduled at ungodly hours. If your flight arrives very early in the morning you either have to hang around at the airport for your connection or get a day room at a nearby hotel. If you are spending a day or two in Lima itself, the only advantage of very early flight arrivals is that the journey into the city center is relatively swift and unobstructed by other traffic - something that changes drastically once the city wakes up.
There are several ways to get into town from the airport. Some hotels offer a free shuttle service. If yours' does -great! Use it. If it doesn't, your travel agent can arrange a pick-up service for you. In that case, there will be someone waiting for you with a sign that has your name on it. This is the most comfortable and safest option, though a little more expensive than takine regular types of transport. It takes all the worry out of figuring out how to get yourself to your hotel.
The next best option is to get an 'official cab' - there is a booth inside the airport where you can ask for one. But be prepared that before you get there you will be beleagured by droves of taxi dirvers official and unoffical who are all clambering for your business. Compared to unofficial taxis, the offical, licensed ones are quite expensive, due to the fact that cab drivers have to pay an extra fee for being able to get into the airport compound.
Some people advise to go outside the airport and flag a cab down - but this is not safe, especially late at night or early in the morning. Not only do you risk getting robbed by opportunistic thieves who hang around the airport, but also there is an inherent risk involved with using unofficial cabs. While some drivers may be perfectly honest - they are in the minority. Many more will try to divert you, given half a chance. Favorite scams are 'oh, I know that hotel - it burnt down the other day. But I know another one, very nice!'…or, 'that hotel is full, I went there earlier…but I know another one, very nice…' Taxi drivers often have deals with hotels to bring in business for a small commission. Unfortunately, plain robberies by unofficial taxi drivers are also not unheard of.
And finally, yes, there is also a regular bus, which is very cheap. But this option is only recommended for independent travelers with a good working knowledge of Spanish who arrive during the day and know exactly where they are going. There are many bus stations down town - every bus company seems to have their own terminal, so it is very confusing to figure out where you need to go unless you already know Lima pretty well. At night this option is a total no-no - you are just asking for trouble, especially if you are laden with a big suitcase or backpack. Don't even think about it.
Most nationalities do not require a visitor's visa to enter Peru. The passport must be valid for at least 6 months after the date of entry. Visas are issued for 30 - 90 days, at the discretion of the immigration officer who puts the stamp in your passport. You'll be given a tourist card, which you should keep safe, along with your passport. This card must be returned when you leave the country. If you lose it you must apply for a replacement at the immigration office.
Who needs a visa:
All African countries (except South Africa), Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Bhutan, Cambodia, United Arab Emirates, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, Laos, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, Sri Lanka, People's Republic of China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yemen, Cuba, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine
A note on passports: it is a very good idea to make a photocopy of both, your passport and the tourist card and keep it somewhere safe. Passport theft has become a real problem in Peru.
For international departures it is a good idea to be at the airport 3 hours prior to your scheduled departure time. There is a departure tax to be paid, which is currently US$31. It is a good idea to have this handy in cash and in the exact amount as change seems to be in perpetual short supply. For domestic flights 2 hours check in time is sufficient. There are also domestic airport taxes to be paid, currently in the range of US$6-US$10.
Peru is quite a large country - the third largest in South America, in terms of surface area. Transport options depend on distance and remoteness of your destination.
For Peruvians, the most affordable and efficient way to get around is by bus. The long distance buses are usually of a very high standard and offer a good alternative to flying. In some cases they are the only option. Local buses are usually more haphazard - they may break down at any time, schedules are not always reliable etc. They do service very remote destinations, but they really are uncomfortable and mechanically questionable. Avoid traveling on all buses at night.
The rainy season adds a special challenge to getting around. There may be landslides or mudslides, which frequently obstruct the road and cause delays, or worse. Some roads become impassable altogether during rainy season. Bus travel in Peru is not for the faint of heart. Even at the best of times, many roads are in a state of disrepair and accidents do happen. When they do, fatalities are usually high.
Air travel is widespread and a good option if you want to cross the Andes or have a very long distance to go. There are a number of airlines that service domestic airports. The most reliable (which isn't saying a great deal) is LAN. But even LAN is notorious for changing its schedule at short notice, so always check and reconfirm 72 hours before you intend to fly or you might find yourself getting bumped off your flight, even though you have a ticket. Other airlines often offer cheaper rates than LAN, but are even less reliable - and may, out of the blue, cease operations altogether.
LAN offers a 'Discover South America' pass, which is very good value if you fly more than 3 individual flight segments. This must be booked outside of South America and is only available for travelers coming from outside of South America.
There are only a few train lines in Peru, most famously of course the one that runs from Cuzco to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes). There are 3 different types of services offered on this route: backpacker service, vista dome and Hiram Bingham. Hiram Bingham is the most luxurious, and the most expensive. Vista Dome is slightly better standards than backpackers, with the main improvement being the transparent roof that allows you to get a better view of the spectacular scenery as the train climbs up to Machu Picchu.
At present train services to Machu Picchu are limited, due to ongoing repair works after landslides destroyed parts of the main track earlier this year. It is absolutely essential to book your train journey in advance - well in advance, as demand is high for the limited services that are currently running.
Another famous train journey is the route from Cusco to Puno, the folklore capital of Peru, located on the shores of legendary Lake Titicaca. This is a long journey, but very scenic and services are very good. It is expensive, however. Also, it climbs to above 3000m, which may result in altitude sickness unless you are well acclimatized.
There is also a train service from Lima to Huancayo, which takes 12h and climbs up to over 4800m. This journey is literally breathtaking and certainly not for the faint of heart. Altitude sickness is a possibility.
There is also a train service from Huancayo to Huancavelica.
It is possible to rent a car in Peru, but I would not recommend it. The hazards of unpredictable road conditions are too much of a safety concern to make it worthwhile. Moreover, the police is liable to keep anybody who has been involved in a car accident in detention until it has been established who is to blam. Furthermore, car rental charges are expensive and so is the gas. There are few gas stations once you go beyond the city limits of major towns. Rental cars are also an easy target for thieves.
Taxis often offer the most convenient and comfortable way of getting around. Agree on a price before you get in. After dark you should always get a taxi. In rural areas a popular alternative are the motorcycle- or auto rickshaws. They are noisy and slow, but serviceable for short distances.
There are also collective buses, little vans that drive certain routes on no particular schedule. When the van is full they go. In Lima they are rather dangerous as they only stop for seconds to pick people up or drop them off and might take off again before you have fully gotten in or out of the van.
In some areas of Peru, notably the Amazon, boats are the only viable means of transport. Rainforest Lodges run their own boat services from the nearest airport town to their remote jungle locations. Most use modern speedboats and travel is quite smooth and fast. The traditional mode of transport is by dug-out canoe, and motorized canoe, locally known as peque-peque, after the characteristic noise of the motor.
There are also boat services on Lake Titicaca that transfer tourists to the various islands, or even across to Bolivia. Those who prefer a calmer speed might like to try kayaking on Lake Titicaca - though this is more of a tour option than a transport option.
Peru is not a particularly dangerous place, but there are things to keep in mind and be aware of in order to avoid trouble. First of all, use common sense. Leave expensive jewelry, watches any valuables you don't need for the trip at home. Don't show off - that means, dress casually and don't brag or flash wads of money around. Tourists are always perceived as rich, even if they are not by the standards of their own country. Most Peruvians are extremely nice - but if someone seems a little too nice for no particular reason, there may be a not-so-nice reason. Don't be fooled by the kindness of strangers.
Violent crime is relatively rare, but it can happen. Occasionally tourist sites or routes are targeted by politically motivated groups who are looking for a relatively easy way to bolster their finances or who simply want to draw attention and vent their anger about social injustice. This can even happen in highly frequented areas like the Inca Trail, but it is rare.
The most common type of crime is non-violent theft - things going missing, even from hotel rooms, pick-pocketing. Passport theft has become epidemic. Independent travelers and in particular solo travelers are most at risk.
Only stay at hotels that offer safety deposit boxes where you can leave your valuables and only take as much money on an outing as you are likely to need. Be very careful as to where you draw money from cash machines and who is watching while you do it. A good idea is to leave your regular credit cards at home, prepay all the big expenses of your trip and only take a travel visa card that you can charge up to a certain amount, that way your bank account stays safe no matter what happens.
Leave photocopies of your passport and important documents at home or with a friend or family member. Take out adequate travel insurance as well as trip cancellation insurance.
In most tourist areas hygiene is pretty good and the risk of contracting the dreaded traveler's diarrhea is relatively low unless you have thrown all caution to the wind. However, it can get you and when it does, it can be bad. Independent travelers, who don't fear eating at cheap eateries or street vendor's places should get a Hepatitis A vaccine before they leave their country.
In the Andes and even in Cusco, altitude sickness may become problematic. The most important pre-caution is to stay hydrated and well rested, don't over-exert yourself and take your time getting acclimated. If necessary retreat to lower altitude until you are feeling ok again.
In the jungle the greatest health hazards are not poisonous snakes or jaguars, but mosquitoes and sandflies, which can convey dangerous diseases, such as Leishmaniasis, Maleria or Dengue Fever. Bring ample supplies of bug repellent and cover up - particularly at dawn and dusk, though the Mosquito that carries Dengue Fever is active during the day. Bugs are mostly a problem in the lowland rainforest and here, in particular during and just after the rainy season when pools of standing water provide the ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes.
In the Tambopata region it is mandatory to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate upon arrival, even though yellow fever is not a threat at the tourist lodges in that area. It is a good idea to get vaccinated before you leave for Peru (if you intend to visit Tambopata) as those who cannot show the certificate upon arrival in Puerto Maldonado will be vaccinated right there and then.
Peru is a large country and its climate varies considerably depending on which zone you happen to be in. Roughly the country can be divided into the coastal desert region, the Andes, and the Amazon basin. However, in reality there are many more ecosystems and microclimates.
If you travel around in different zones your best bet is to dress in layers. In particular it is important to bring something to protect you against wind and rain. Don't think that because you are in the tropics it will always be hot. Up in the mountains at 3000 meters or more it may be hot during the day, but as soon as the sun goes down it can get bitterly cold.
Even the coastal desert is not always hot. During the summer, which is winter here, there may be banks of fog sweeping in that make for very chilling damp conditions, similar to a summer in San Francisco.
In the cloud forest too it is often damp and cool and rain or drizzle must be expected at any time. In the rain forest temperatures are usually hot and steamy, and torrential rains can occur at any time. However, the rainy season is from November to April with the rainiest months usually being January and February. At this time it can rain for days, though usually it only rains for a few hours at a time and then clears up again. The best strategy is to bring clothes that dry quickly, as you are bound to encounter rain sooner or later. Bring sealable plastic bags for anything you want to keep dry. Don't bring leather items, (shoes, belts, bags etc.) as they have a tendency to soak up moisture and then harden to an unusable condition.
For hiking in the Andes the best months are May to September. After that it may still be possible in some parts, but may not be a very pleasant experience. It can get very cold at night, even during the dry season, so for treks it is recommended to bring thermal underwear, warm socks, a warm hat and gloves - as well as sun protection. The tropical sun is always strong, so it is important to protect yourself, even if temperatures don't feel that hot. Sun glasses are also essential.
For foot-wear it is best to bring something light, but sturdy to make hiking on different grounds comfortable. All soles will slip in wet conditions, but some shoes have better slip protection than others. Check with your equipment expert at your local 'outdoors' shop. Again, to protect your luggage against the wet conditions it is a good idea to get a slip-over plastic cover for your backpack too.
As for your luggage - really, backpacks are best for withstanding the sometimes rugged conditions and handling. On hiking treks duffel bags or backpacks are obligatory and if you don't have your own you will be asked to repack using one that your tour operator provides. Don't overdo it with the packing. On small plains and certain tours like hiking or kayaking there is usually a weight limit. Even at the jungle lodges you will be asked to store whatever you don't need for the duration of your stay at the lodge in lockers at their office in town.
Peru has mostly two seasons - wet and dry. Dry season runs from about May - September. This is the best time to go hiking in the Andes and most people also prefer it for a visit to the Amazon. However, in the Amazon 'dry' is a relative term. It means, it is 'drier' than during the wet season, but this is still a rain forest, which means that rain must be expected at any time.
The wettest months are usually January-March and occasionally rains can truly be torrential at this time. Mud and landslides are not uncommon and roads and bridges may get totally washed away.
Shoulder season, April/May and October/November are often good times to travel, despite or rather, because of the higher levels of rain fall. It brings the landscape back to life and attracts animals to the re-appearing water sources.
Like all countries on the western side of the Americas, Peru has its share of volcanoes and earthquakes. The last volcanic eruptions occurred in 2006 and 2007. Most of Peru's volcanoes are located in the southern Andes and some are popular hiking destinations among adventure tourists. Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions announce their coming several days or weeks prior to the explosion by means of increased activity. Earthquakes on the other hand are unpredictable and can happen at any time, and almost anywhere. The last major quake to hit Peru struck in 2007 with a force of 7.9 on the Richter scale, about 100km south of Lima with a major impact on the city of Ica near the Nazca lines. The infrastructure is still somewhat impaired in this region.
Peru uses 220V, 60Hz except in Arequipa, which is on 50Hz. Plugs - flat, two pronged type. At the Jungle lodges electricity is limited, though they usually have facilities (generator or solar panels) to charge batteries for cameras etc. but may not have electricity for other uses.
The peruvian currency is the 'Nuevo Sol' (plural: nuevos soles). In some tourist places you may be able to pay with dollars, but for normal every day purchases you will need to change some money to local currency. It is difficult to give an estimate as to how much you are likely to spend per day. In Peru you'll find extremely cheap to extremely expensive services of every kind. Cuzco and Lima are the most expensive cities, and everything in Aguas Calientes (hub town for Machu Picchu) is totally overpriced.
It is useful to have a travel visa card - something that works a bit like a charge card. You determine how much travel cash you want to have available. It is also useful to have a credit card for emergencies. Also, take some cash in small bills and as crisp as possible, as Peruvians are fussy when it comes to accepting dog-eared bills. There are money changing booths and ATM machines in most towns visited by tourists, which make the money changing process straight-foreward and often offer slightly better rates than the banks. Always insist on small bills. Most businesses will not be able to break large bills. Beware of making dollar transactions in Lima - Lima is notorious as the forgery capital of the world.
Tipping is a matter of personal discretion. Service staff is always grateful for a tip. Bell boys expect $1 per bag. Tour guides expect approx. $10 per day. Restaurants often include a service charge, but it rarely benefits those that actually serve you. A 10% tip given directly to your waiter/waitress is greatly appreciated. Taxi drivers don't expect a tip - you agree on a price before you get into the car.
Bargaining is part of normal business in Peru, especially at the markets. At stores items that carry a price tag are usually not negotiable, and nor is the price of a meal at a restaurant. But, don't drive too hard of a bargain - a dollar more or less, which may mean nothing to you, can make a big difference in people's lives, especially when you buy from artisans or in native communities where tourist dollars represent a major source of income.
Peru has much to offer, no matter what your specific thrill maybe. It is a mecca for bird watchers, with hundreds of species in any given habitat, and there are so many different ecosystems that birders will never grow tired.
Many people come to Peru for the wildlife, but in fact most of those critters are shy and elusive. Spotting a Jaguar is a rare event, but it does occasionally happen. Monkeys are much more common. But by far the most common type of wildlife you are likely to see are birds and insects, butterflies, spiders, beetles and reptiles.
Wildlife watching takes patience and a skilled guide who can help you see the tell-tale signs and spot the critters amidst the dense foliage. Eco-lodges in the Amazon offer by far the best opportunities to see wildlife and they are most likely to have expertly skilled staff as well as native guides who are unrivaled at spotting things you would never notice otherwise.
History and archeology are the other most important and popular special interests among visitors to Peru. Peru is exceptionally rich as far as archeological treasures are concerned. Many different cultures have left their traces in different parts of Peru and there are numerous fantastic sites of Incan and pre-Incan origin. Machu Picchu of course is the most famous site, and in fact, the most popular tourist destination in all of South America. This popularity unfortunately takes its toll and the magic fades a little under the bright glow of commercialism and mass tourism. There are so many other spectacular sites - if you want to avoid the crowds and get a real feel for those ancient days of the Incan Empire or other ancient cultures, you would be well advised to visit other sites instead, like for example Kuelap in northern Peru.
Trekking, biking, mountain climbing, or kayaking are among the active adventures that can be enjoyed in different parts of Peru.
There are many eco-travel opportunities in Peru, though it is a little difficult to determine whether an operation is truly green or just green washed. 'Eco' sells. There are several lodges that operate in collaboration with indigenous communities to help them develop a sustainable source of income and there are some operations that are certified by various official bodies in accordance with strict standards. Peru does not yet have its own certification scheme.
One of the best 'green' adventures are some of the volunteer opportunities which allow you, the traveler to have a direct impact through your own personal involvement. Pimping poor peasant farmer's houses, providing a meal for school children, teaching a class in English - there are many opportunities and the reward is unparalleled.
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