I have spent 4 months traveling in Peru. While there I stayed in the following places: Lima, Miraflores, Trujillo, Chiclayo, Cajamarca, Huaráz, Chavín, Piura, Máncora, and Cusco. Here are some of the things that I learned and that I recommend to anyone planning to spend some time in that beautiful country. These tips are probably useful for most other Latin American countries as well.
1. Bring a travel guide book.
Buy one before you go, as you won’t find any in English once you get there. Make sure that it is current as these can become obsolete rather quickly. These guides are great for getting referrals on places to visit, eat, or stay. They usually have great advice for travelers. And they make great reading material while you are traveling.
2. Bring ear plugs.
These will help you drown out the early wake up calls from taxis in the morning as well as the usually obnoxiously loud movies that they show on the longer bus rides. I like the cheap foamy earplugs that you can get at the drug store. I recommend buying a big box of 20 or so. At least they are light to carry.
3. Travel light.
Do you really want to lug around all that stuff? You’ll be much happier having less weight to carry with you.
4. Riding the buses.
Most Peruvians commute between cities by bus. In fact, on the roads connecting the cities, you hardly see any personal vehicles. Only buses and cargo trucks.
There are several bus lines in Peru and they are double decker size. The lower level is considered first class. The seats are bigger, there are only about 10 seats, and the bathroom is closer. The upper level is only a little cheaper. Like maybe $5 cheaper. The problem with the upper level is that it can be noisier (babies or the man snoring next to you) or smellier (men with cheap cologne) or too intimate (people next to you falling asleep and using your shoulder as a pillow).
If the bus ride is a longer one, I prefer splurging on the first class seat. It is definitely a more comfortable ride. When you buy your ticket, you can usually pick the seat you want. If you are really feeling adventurous, and the bus is going down the Andes to the coast, I recommend the seat directly above the driver in the first row. There is a window view of the trip down the mountain which is exhilarating. But there is also a curtain in case it gets too scary.
5. Taxi drivers
You think people drive crazy in the United States? No matter what city I was in, the cab drivers drive fast, rarely use signals, freely cross the multitude of intersections without stop signs or stoplights in any direction, and seem to communicate with each other via a series of bleeps and blips from their horns. It’s like a secret Morse code for taxistas. The good news is, I didn’t see a single car accident when I was there. I think the Peruvian taxi drivers are tapping into the Force to maneuver themselves. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!
6. Pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way.
That concept simple does not exist in Peru. Pedestrians have the right to get out of the way of oncoming traffic because it’s not going to stop for you. One of the things that weirded me out was, I’d be walking on the sidewalk in a smaller city. Then a cab would come up behind me and honk at me as if I needed a warning to get out of the way, even though there was no other traffic on the road, and the cab was at least 20 feet away from the sidewalk. This happens a lot and I decided that they are just lonely and saying “Hi”.
7. Going to Cusco
The bus ride to Cusco is about 24 hours, so you may want to consider flying. I didn’t and spent a scary trip from Cusco to Lima. There was a rock slide that backed up traffic for hours. We were the first ones there (coming down the mountain) and the bus driver decided to try to drive the bus over the rocks! Since that almost got us killed, he stopped the bus and we all got out and helped remove rocks from the road for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. Kinda surreal.
My debit card worked just fine all over the country. The best thing to do is carry a small amount and pull money out of ATM´s as you need it. I also hide the majority of cash on hand somewhere safe, and keep a smaller amount in my pocket. This way, in the unlikely event that I got robbed, I would only lose a little bit. I actually learned that trick living in Chicago where the likelihood of getting robbed is way greater.
The other thing I would do differently is have more than one bank account. That sure would have come in handy when I lost my debit card in Cusco! And be sure you let all your banks know that you are in Peru and the dates you are there. Otherwise they will probably pull the plug on your account under the suspicion of fraud.
9. Food and Water
In general, food is cheap. It is more sanitary in the restaurants than the stands on the street or in the markets. Some street vendors sell very simple things like a potato or corn dish. There is also a delicious quinoa soup that you can find on the streets in Lima. In general, meat is going to have more potential of transferring bacteria and germs from unsanitary practices and not washing cutlery properly. So the simple vegetarian street food is probably much safer. I am a certified food handler, so I speak from the authority of having passed a test.
Water should always be boiled to kill bacteria. So to be extra safe, order your drinks without ice. There is plenty of bottled water available. I used to buy liter bottles. Unfortunately there is a huge problem with unrecycled plastic bottles in Peru, but I’m not sure how to avoid buying bottled water while traveling.
One of my favorite things was to have fresh-squeezed orange juice in the morning. In many cities you will find an orange juice vendor that has a homemade cart. He or she puts the orange in a vice and manually spins it against a cutter that peels the entire orange in 2 seconds. Then the orange is put into a hand presser. The juice is served in a glass that you return when you are done. There is a soap and water container built into the stand used to wash the glasses.
A private room in a hostel is usually about $10 a night. They are much cheaper than the hotels, and usually just as nice. It’s a little cheaper for a shared room where you will get the opportunity to meet other travelers, hear them snore and be awakened in the middle of the night when they stumble in drunk. If you value a good night’s sleep, I recommend getting a room to yourself. And if you want to have a guest, you will be able to. You usually have to pay for the guest though.
If you want to find the cheapest places to stay, then look for the hippy artisans that sell their wares. They usually congregate in the plaza area. They usually are traveling from place to place, following the tourists destinations in the different seasons. They stay themselves where it’s cheapest. These places are a little off the beaten path and you may be the only gringo staying there, but it will be an interesting experience.
These ten tips are what I learned from my experiences. You’ll find plenty of other useful tips in your tour guide. One thing to mention, which really isn’t a tip. Internet access is cheap and readily available in any city I went to. So that’s not something to worry about.