Peru is well established on the South American tourist trail and is a relatively easy country to navigate. That said, it’s still South America and your plans will inevitably change! So, after spending a month exploring from Iquitos in the Amazon basin to Cusco in the Andes, we have put together our top ten tips, which you might find helpful along the way.
Similar to most countries in South America, the best and most affordable way to travel around Peru is by bus. We looked in to travelling with Peru Hop, a hop on hop off bus with a guide, but quickly decided it wasn’t for us. It is on the pricier end of the spectrum and we didn’t necessarily want to do stop offs in all of the included locations. We do know people who did, however, and they found it both useful (they help with the boarder crossing to Bolivia) and good value if you do want to stop at all the places it goes.
We decided to book the buses individually and have found these two companies to be the most luxurious, reliable and good-value – Cruz del Sur and Oltursa. For a treat, you can book yourself into first class for not that much more and get 160 degree reclining seats, tons of leg room, a tasty meal and a screen with movies (although they’re all in Spanish). The toilets are also of a pretty decent standard for buses!
2. Booking the Inca Trail
We booked our four-day Inca Trek about five months in advance as there are only 500 permits available per day and these get booked up quickly, especially in high season. After extensive research in to the various companies offering it we decided to book with Loki Travel. As it is a local company it is much more affordable and only cost us $420 per person for the four-days, while some of the other international travel companies were charging more than double. The trek was one of the highlights of our South America trip so far, but we definitely felt that we got what we paid for. If you pay more you will probably get better guiding, better food (although ours was of a very good standard), and better camping spots. G Adventures, SAS, Wayki and Llama Path were some of the other companies we would recommend. If you have the budget then we would suggest paying slightly more. However, if you are on a tight budget like us, you can spend around $400 and it will be perfectly reasonable.
Furthermore, despite what you hear about the limited permits, a couple in our group booked the Inca Trail for $400 two days beforehand, so always double check availability. If you are travelling in peak season (from May to September) and there isn’t any availability, don’t worry, there are other great treks you can do including Salkantay, Lares and if you’re feeling a little more adventurous Choquequirao, or you can pop up to Aquas Clients and Machu Picchu for either one night or even just one day if you are pushed for time.
3. Altitude Sickness
This is a constant topic of conversation in Peru amongst travellers. Our best advice is to spend time acclimatising, especially before doing any big hiking trips in and around Cusco. We went to Arequipa first which is at 2300 metres and then got the overnight bus to Cusco, at 3400 metres. If, however, you are planning on flying directly in to Cusco, there are things you can do to help. Take it easy on your first couple of days, no drinking or hardcore hiking – the Bolivian’s have a saying, as experts on altitude sickness: ‘eat little, drink little and sleep on your own’.
Spend at least two nights in Cusco before doing a hike, longer if you have the time. Drink lots of coca tea; Most of the hostels and hotels offer it for free. There are pills you can buy but we didn’t find these necessary and so I would only get some if you are for some reason really badly affected. If you do find yourself struggling and don’t want to get pills, find some agua florida or flower water. It is brilliant for opening up the airways and can be bought very cheaply in the markets. Just splash a bit on your hands and inhale!
4. Buying Alpaca
Coming to Peru and not buying at least one item of alpaca clothing is in our eyes a sacrilege. You will be spoilt for choice as it is everywhere! We found Cusco to be the best place for shopping as there is so much choice and the prices are fairly reasonable. However, do not be fooled by the shop owners who will tell you that their jumpers are 100% baby alpaca as this almost always won’t be the case! They are more likely to be a mix of alpaca and wool or cotton. The best way to tell if a jumper is real is to feel it. If it is alpaca it will feel cold and heavy. if you lift it up to the light and see long straight hairs coming out that it also alpaca. if it feels light, synthetic and is fuzzy when you lift it up to the light it is more likely to be 100% cotton or just synthetic – one hat Pete picked up actually crinkled it was so synthetic. I would recommend paying around 20 – 50 soles on a fake or part alpaca jumper and around 200 soles for a real 100% one. It is worth going in to the more expensive shops around the main square as they often have discounts and you know that you are buying a really good quality item. The cheap ones are good too but just know what you are buying.
During our time in Peru, we booked our accommodation mainly with Booking.com. We found this to be a reliable source and you also don’t have to pay a deposit like you do on Hostelworld, plus their cancellation policy is better and a great deal more flexible. They also have options for budget hotels which are usually the same price or cheaper than hostels; Great if you are a couple travelling and need a break from dorm rooms.
6. If ill…
Unfortunately getting sick whilst travelling in South America can be a fact of life and Antie experienced some nasty food poisoning whilst we were in Paracas. We still aren’t completely sure what it was caused by but it wasn’t pretty. It started with a nasty fever and then quickly progressed to sickness and diarrhoea. We had to move hostels mid illness which involved a bout of sickness in front of a tour bus of people, a slightly mortifying experience! After not being able to keep down any water for most of the day we decided it was time for a visit to the hospital. We went to the local, rather than private, hospital in Pisco and were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and efficiency. Although they just have rather strange processes like we had to buy our own thermometer before they could do anything. Two hours on a drip and it was time to go, feeling much more normal and less sick.
With severe food poisoning, it is always worth going to the doctor or hospital rather than let things get out of hand, particularly if, like Antie, you can’t keep any fluids down. The doctor also told us to buy a magical drink called FruitiFlex. You can get this bright pink drink from most chemists and replaces all of the sugar and salt your body is lacking.
7. Free walking tours
In Lima, Arequipa and Cusco there are excellent free city walking tours. The guides are very knowledgeable, usually speak excellent English and it is a great way to get your bearings in a new city. We even ended up doing two in Cusco as they take you to different parts of the city. We just turned up in the main square and looked for a guy wearing a red t-shirt and found them to be really good. You can either sign up in advance online or just turn up on the day at the various meeting spots. At the end you just will need to leave a tip of around 25 soles.
8. Renting hiking gear
For any hiking trips you are intending to do in Cusco you will probably, like us, need to hire some bits and pieces. You can hire these through the company that you book the tour with but we heard this is more expensive, and actually found two camping shops in town, which have better quality items and to be cheaper – Rosly/Speedy Gonzales. You can get anything from them from down sleeping bags, walking boots, walking poles, rucksacks and more. You just need to leave your driving license with them and then return the things following the hike. The down sleeping bag was a life saver on the chilly nights of the Inca Trek.
Similar to Asia, haggling is a must in Peru. Especially in Cusco; home to hundreds of shops all selling pretty much the same thing – alpaca jumpers, socks, hats, rugs, bags, niknaks, jewellery, and all of the fluffy llamas you could ever want! I think the general rule with haggling is start on half the price they have said and then slowly work up to a reasonably priced middle ground. Another rule, the more you buy, the better discount you will get and so it is worth finding a shop which has a selection of the things you want to buy. Never feel pressure to buy something at a certain price as the chances are you will be able to find it in another shop – they almost all seem to sell very similar stuff.
10. Try Guinea Pig
Trying local delicacies is an integral part of visiting a country and we were determined to try cuy, or guinea pig at some point during our month in Peru. Many restaurants in Cusco serve full roasted guinea pig. We ended up trying it at Nuna Raymi, a nice little restaurant with excellent service. It cost 60 soles which is rather a lot to spend on a main meal but seems to be quite reasonable for cuy. They firstly bring it out to you whole, complete with a tiny hat and chilli in its mouth, for a picture and then take it away again to cut up. I must say though, we were slightly disappointed that we didn’t like it more. There isn’t much meat on it and it tastes very gamey, quite similar to rabbit. I won’t be trying it again any time soon but it was worth it for the picture!