When you think Peru, chances are it’s Machu Picchu on your mind. But, although spectacular, the famous Incan archaeological site outside of Cusco is only one of a million reasons to visit this incredibly vibrant Latin American country. Encompassing large stretches of beautiful coastline, lush rainforests, expansive deserts with sparkling oases, some of the world’s best alpine trekking, and, of course, impeccably preserved reminders of the ancient civilisations that once flourished here, Peru is one of the most diverse and fascinating countries in the entire world.
I’ve spent 2 months travelling around Peru across a couple of trips, and in that time I fell hard and fast for the chaos of the local markets, the unbreakable spirit of the Andean people, the rainbow of colours that light up the cities, and the seemingly endless natural beauty, much of which is still largely untouched and surprisingly rugged. This travel guide contains everything you need to know before visiting Peru, including when to visit, how to get around, all the best things to see & do, itinerary recommendations, health & safety, typical costs, a packing list & heaps more!
Population: 32 million
Language: Spanish— read more about the Language barrier below
Currency: Sol (abbreviated S/ or S/.)— read more about Money in Peru below
Good to know: Many travellers don’t realise until they’re actually in Peru that it’s a fairly large country— the 3rd largest in South America, actually! You need time to explore it properly, so if you only have a few weeks, it’s better to focus on just one main region rather than spending your entire trip on a bus (like the 24hr bus from Lima to Cusco). See Itinerary recommendations and my specific Peru itineraries for lots of inspiration.
Planning your trip to Peru
Best time to visit
Peru is a phenomenal year-round destination, but there are definitely times that will be better for visiting the coast, Machu Picchu, the Amazon, and the Andes:
- Lima: sunniest and most beautiful in the winter (December – February)
- Huacachina, Paracas, Mancora: fairly consistent sunny weather all year
- Cusco & Machu Picchu: decidedly more enjoyable during the dry season from June – August (the Inca Trail actually closes every February due to intense rain)
- The Amazon: cooler and drier from around May – October (temps can still get up into the 30s)
- The Andes, including mountains in the Cusco and Huaraz region: for trekking, the most consistent nice weather is from late June – early September (it’s still possible to get rain and snow, but it’s far less likely or prolonged)
Essentially, the wet season at the start/end of the year is not great in the mountains or at Machu Picchu, but if this is your only time to travel, you can still have a wonderful trip, especially along the coast. I spent a month in Peru in December a few years back and loved every wet minute— but the clear sunrise at Machu Picchu and the blue skies over the Cordillera Huayhuash during my more recent August visit were undoubtedly more picturesque.
Unsurprisingly, the dry season is a busier time of year with many North Americans and Europeans taking summer holidays, but the only real impact this has on your trip is the need to reserve things a little bit farther in advance. For Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in particular, this means booking 6+ months before your trip if you aren’t flexible on dates.
Flights to Peru
A majority of travellers to Peru will fly into Lima through the Jorge Chávez International Airport, situated just 10km (20-30min drive) from the city centre or 18km (40-60min drive) from the popular tourist districts of Miraflores and Barranco.
Depending on where you’re flying from, you might have a layover in Santiago or Buenos Aires, but Lima is a major hub for Latin America, so flights are typically reasonably priced and fairly direct these days. When I flew to Lima from Sydney in 2014, it cost $2,300 and involved 4 flights, but when I flew in 2019, it was just $1,200 and included only a single stopover in Chile. From the US, flights can be as little as $500 return if you catch them at the right time!
Buses to Peru
It’s also possible to arrive overland from Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile or, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Colombia. There’s a bit of a shuffle involved at the border when you have to disembark, typically walking the final metres into Peru via an immigration office and then re-boarding the bus on the other side, but it’s manageable if you have a base level of Spanish.
There are, however, tensions around some Latin American borders, so I’d always check on a trusted website (like Australia’s Smart Traveller) to make sure it’s safe to cross overland— at present, it is recommended to avoid the Peru-Ecuador and Peru-Colombia borders for safety reasons.
Transport between cities
Peru actually has one of the best networks of public buses I’ve seen anywhere in the world and there’s rarely a need to take internal flights (the exception being between Cusco and Lima, which you should 100% fly). All main cities in Peru have large bus stations (sometimes several) that service heaps of near and far destinations around the country, buses constantly running throughout the day and night, dozens of competing companies, and trips at a fraction of the cost of flying.
I’ve taken countless bus journeys around South America and Peru’s buses are definitely among the best in terms of comfort and actually running on time (looking at you, Colombia). RedBus is my favourite site for checking bus times and routes in advance and I’d also recommend reading this post for heaps of info about booking bus tickets in Peru.
With some itineraries, there’s also the option to travel with Peru Hop, a new hop-on/hop-off bus service from Lima to Cusco via a number of destinations, some popular and some hidden gems. It’s more expensive than travelling by public bus, true, but it has some definite draws— added convenience of hostel pick-up/drop-off, cool extra stops along the journey, and a whole bus of fun backpackers to hang out with.
After travelling around Peru for several months by public bus and then with Peru Hop, I wrote a super in-depth comparison to help you decide which is better for you! If you’re travelling alone or if it’s your first time in Latin America, I’d absolutely recommend it.
Transport within the city
All major cities in Peru have buses and colectivos (shared minibuses) and these are an incredibly inexpensive way to get around (S/1-4 for most journeys). Ask at your hostel/any local where the best stop is for a particular destination and then lurk around the area until someone drives by shouting Miraflores, Miraflores, Miraflores!! or the like.
Full disclosure, this kind of public transport can be pretty difficult and stressful if you don’t have a good grasp of navigation (or the Spanish language)— I once got so lost after a colectivo journey in Lima that it took me 8hrs to find my way back to the hostel. I’d only recommend this if you’re somewhat familiar with your surroundings, travelling with another person, and have absolutely no where to be anytime soon.
Taxis are also inexpensive; not so much as the colectivos, but you can still estimate S/3-5 for a 10min drive across town, which is super reasonable. You need to be careful when taking taxis in some cities (specifically in Lima), so it’s recommended to have your hostel call one for you in the evenings or if you’re travelling alone, just as an extra precaution. In almost all instances, the driver will negotiate the fare with you rather than reading off a metre— it’s a good idea to have at least a ballpark idea of a fair price so you don’t get swindled!
Major cities in Peru (like Lima and Cusco) also have Uber, and I’d definitely recommend this over taking a taxi. It tends to be cheaper, is generally believed to be safer, and removes the need to barter over a fare with the driver (which is tricky when you don’t know exactly what the fare should be).
What to do in Peru
Top sights & destinations
I’ve written comprehensive guides to just about every city and major destination in Peru, so this is just a brief idea of where to go and what you might do on your trip. Links to more detailed posts are provided throughout.
Peru’s coastal capital is a great place to start your trip, sampling some of the country’s best food at world-famous restaurants or even joining a cooking class to learn the art of ceviche. There are also heaps of parks to explore along the water, great surfing beaches, and even pre-Inca ruins within walking distance of the main tourist district, Miraflores. If you want to get out of the city, colourful Paracas and the Islas Ballestas are accessible as a day trip.
- WHAT TO DO IN LIMA: 10 AWESOME ACTIVITIES IN THE PERUVIAN CAPITAL
- A COMPLETE TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARACAS, PERU: ISLAS BALLESTAS, PARACAS NATURE RESERVE & MORE
- BUEN APETITO: A DELICIOUS COOKING CLASS WITH SKYKITCHEN PERU IN LIMA
Surrounded by golden sand dunes and bathed in perpetual sunshine, the tiny town of Huacachina is quickly becoming a favourite destination for visitors to Peru’s Pacific Coast. From sandboarding and dune buggy rides to paragliding over the desert, there’s no shortage of adventures to be had—but the relaxed beauty of South America’s only oasis is just as sure to blow you away!
Said to be Peru’s most beautiful city, Arequipa is dominated by brilliant white colonial churches, vibrant palms, and volcano views in every direction. The city itself is absolutely enchanting, but the main draw for adventure travellers is nearby Colca Canyon, the world’s largest canyon and the site of one of Peru’s classic treks.
Once considered the spiritual and political heart of the vast Inca empire, Cusco (meaning “centre of the universe” in Quechua) is still one of the most vibrant and historically significant cities in Latin America. It’s somewhere that absolutely every traveller will fall in love with, whether it’s the charming cobbled lanes, local artisan markets, endless adventure activities, ancient ruins, or proximity to some of the country’s best trekking. The nearby Sacred Valley is also an incredible place to explore with Cusco as your base, as is the Amazon rainforest and Machu Picchu.
- THE ULTIMATE CUSCO TRAVEL GUIDE: 25 AMAZING THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO, PERU
- VIA FERRATA CLIMBING & ZIPLINING IN THE SACRED VALLEY: AN ADRENALINE-FILLED DAY TRIP FROM CUSCO
- DIY INCA RUINS WALKING TOUR: VISITING TAMBOMACHAY, PUKA PUKARA, Q’ENQO & SACSAHUAMÁN WITHOUT A GUIDE
- A GUIDE TO TREKKING AUSANGATE & RAINBOW MOUNTAIN IN PERU
Nestled high in the Peruvian Andes and shrouded in thick fog, Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most enigmatic archaeological sites, continuing to reveal new secrets even a century after its “discovery” by the American explorer Hiram Bingham. It’s probably the cause of your initial interest in Peru, possibly even the entire reason you want to visit, and Machu Picchu is every bit as magical and breathtaking in person as you’ve been imagining. Whether you make the historic journey by train from Cusco or hike to the ruins along the ancient Inca Trail or the alpine Salkantay Trek, this is something NO traveller can miss.
- ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING MACHU PICCHU (& NEW 2019 REGULATIONS)
- HIKING TO MACHU PICCHU: COMPARING THE CLASSIC INCA TRAIL VS SALKANTAY TREK
- SAVAGE MOUNTAIN TO MACHU PICCHU: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO HIKING THE SALKANTAY TREK IN PERU
- SALKANTAY TREK (DAY 4): AGUAS CALIENTES TO MACHU PICCHU & HUAYNA PICCHU
Incredibly lush, strikingly beautiful, and with more biodiversity than just about any other place on the planet, the Amazon is one of the most spectacular areas to explore in Peru. Thanks to the enormous size of the rainforest, there are heaps of options for exploring, from water-locked Iquitos in the north to the jungle lodges of Puerto Maldonado and ecological reserves of under-rated Manu National Park in south.
- INCAS & THE AMAZON: 2-3 WEEK PERU TRAVEL ITINERARY FROM LIMA TO MANU NATIONAL PARK
- PLAYING WITH MACHETES IN THE AMAZON
Peru’s trekking capital, about 10hrs north of Lima by bus, is absolutely unmissable if you want to experience the rugged beauty of Andes in the Cordillera Blanca or the lesser-explored Cordillera Huayhuash. These mountain ranges are home to most of the country’s highest peaks and absolutely unparalleled alpine trekking, particularly the Santa Cruz Trek (Blanca) and Huayhuash Circuit (Huayhuash). A seemingly infinite number of day hikes in the region make it even more appealing for a long visit.
- THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO INDEPENDENT & SOLO HIKING THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT IN PERU
- HIGHLIGHTS FROM 10 DAYS ON THE HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT
- SOLO HUAYHUASH CIRCUIT PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK FOR 10 DAYS WITHOUT A GUIDE
- HUANDOY VIEWPOINT & LAGUNA PARÓN: A STUNNING DAY HIKE FROM HUARAZ, PERU
- BEST OF THE PERUVIAN ANDES: 3-4 WEEK PERU TREKKING ITINERARY
After spending 2 months in Peru, I designed several comprehensive, crazy-detailed travel itineraries to help you plan your own trip! All of the itineraries have you flying into Lima (as this is the main international transport hub), involve predominantly bus travel (to be budget conscious), and feature time in Cusco and a visit to Machu Picchu (because this should be on everyone’s list). Other than that, these itineraries highlight different parts of the country, from the coast to the Amazon to the Andes, and are an awesome way to cram a lot of amazing places into a 2-,3-, or 4-week visit. Check out the itineraries here:
Best food & drink
Peruvian food is actually incredible and chances are you won’t have tried much of it before. If you’re an adventurous eater, the best thing to do at a restaurant is order the menu del día, since it will always feature an awesome local dish that you’re pretty much guaranteed to love. The food generally isn’t too spicy, but will come with chilli or ají on the side for you to spice up your life. Oh, and they love starch, so come prepared to eat potatoes at every meal. Here are some must-try Peruvian delicacies:
- Ají de gallina: shredded chicken dish with a fantastic chilli-based sauce, served with rice
- Cuy: guinea pig is a traditional Andean meal and, if you can get over eating something so cute, it’s actually quite good (best in Cusco)
- Ceviche: raw fish/seafood cured in lime juice and served with cilantro, chilli, crunchy corn; possibly one of the greatest culinary inventions of all time (best in Lima or Paracas, although ceviche de trucha (trout) in Cusco is also good)
- Lomo saltado: a beef and veggie stir-fry with incredible flavour, one of my absolute favourites
- Papas a la Huancaina: simple but delicious potato dish with a similar chilli-based sauce to ají de gallina, often accompanied by salty Andean cheese
- Chicha morada: the most incredible non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn, tastes like a sugary punch
- Emoliente: a hot, slightly thickened drink made from local herbs, typically sold from street vendors around the cities
- Pisco sour: the national drink of Peru, a cocktail made from Pisco (fermented grape juice), lime juice, and egg white
- Inca Kola: delicious soft drink that tastes just like creaming soda
I always love reading about a country before/while I’m visiting. It’s a great way to learn more about the history of the places you’ll be seeing, but also about the culture and the people and the customs. Here are my top picks for Peru:
- Turn Right at Machu Picchu // Mark Adams: This is a great non-fiction travel book about an American writer who, hoping to discover some real adventure and prove that he’s not just a “martini explorer”, sets off on an ambitious mission to retrace Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition to Machu Picchu (or, rather, the expedition where he stumbled across Machu Picchu while looking for Vilcabamba). This book is wildly inspiring, very entertaining, and actually quite illuminating when it comes to the Incas, Machu Picchu, and Hiram Bingham himself. If you only read one book about Peru, this should be it, and I’d recommend reading it right before you go to Machu Picchu!
- Lost City of the Incas // Hiram Bingham: If you can sift through the white male privilege that oozes from Bingham every time he interacts with Andean people, this is actually an incredible book— the original account of a Yale professor’s obsession with Vilcabamba, his extraordinary expedition to Peru, and his eventual “discovery” of Machu Picchu and numerous other Incan ruins. Even though he can be incredibly arrogant, it’s still impossible not to be swept up in his wild adventure or to admire his unrelenting passion.
- Trail of Feathers // Tahir Shah: Another fascinating travelogue following the journey of a man determined to discover the history of flight in Peru, which was rumoured to have predated the Wright Brothers by hundreds of years.
- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter // Mario Vargas Llosa: Recipient of a Nobel Prize and one of the continent’s most prominent literary icons, Mario Vargas Llosa should be required reading for anyone planning a trip to Peru. This particular book is set in Lima and concerns a young would-be writer who falls in love with his aunt (not by blood), alternating between this main storyline and short stories in the form of radio “soap operas” by a prominent Bolivian scriptwriter with whom the main character develops an odd friendship. Most people agree that the book is a thinly veiled autobiography, and it is undeniably one of the best books ever written by a Peruvian author.
- Touching the Void // Joe Simpson: Nearly dead after an accident atop Siula Grande, a 6,344m peak in the Cordillera Huayhuash, this true account of a young mountaineer’s miraculous survival is just about as hair-raising as it gets. I read this unbelievable memoir (and also watched the documentary) before hiking the Huayhuash Circuit, and both added several layers of appreciation to my trek.
- The Bedlam Stacks // Natasha Pulley: Part historical fiction, part magical realism, this is a fascinating story set in the late 1800s about an expedition by the East India Company to collect quinine, a powerful malaria treatment, from a mysterious Peruvian town. Although the setting is not real, elements of the story certainly could be— but most importantly, the book perfectly captures the mysticism and spirituality that are still very much a part of Peruvian culture. I read this right before planning my second trip to Peru and it had me dying to go back!
Money in Peru
Cash & cards
I’d definitely recommend carrying Peruvian Soles throughout your trip for food, accommodation, transport, souvenir shopping, and entrance fees to various sites— the section below will give you a good idea of typical costs. Small notes are essential if you’re going to buy streetfood or inexpensive items from the market, so try to break your bigger notes whenever possible (like at a restaurant or hotel).
ATMs & cambios
You can pull soles from an ATM in any of the major cities or mid-sized towns, and there’s rarely a fee with BCP (although your bank will probably charge $5-10 for the transaction). But do avoid the GlobalNet ATMs (mainly in Lima airport, some in the city), as these are wildly expensive compared to bank-owned ATMs!
If you have American Dollars or Euros (sometimes also GBP and to a much lesser extent AUD), you can also exchange your cash at a cambio in the city. American dollars are occasionally accepted by tour companies or travel agencies (e.g. if you’re booking a trek or flight, the price will often be listed in USD), but it’s still best to carry soles for a majority of purchases.
Cards are not a great option for everyday purchases in Peru. Debit or credit card surcharges are often as high as 10% and most local restaurants, artisans, and markets won’t accept card anyway. As such, it’s a good idea to book expensive tours, transport, and accommodation in advance to avoid paying a huge fee or carrying thousands of soles in cash. I found that most tour companies, even if they typically collected cash payment on arrival, were happy to accept a pre-payment through Paypal if I emailed to ask.
If you do end up paying with card and copping the hefty fee, VISA is sometimes preferred over Mastercard (and definitely over AMEX). I’ve had cards randomly and inexplicably rejected from certain machines in Latin America, so it’s also a smart idea to have at least two debit/credit cards with you, just in case.
Peru is an inexpensive travel destination, but of course the total cost of your trip is going to be largely dependent upon what you want to do while you’re there.
If you’re content to spend most days just wandering around and exploring the city, using public transport, and staying in bare-bones hostels, you can easily do Peru on less than S/100 ($43AUD) per day. If you want to add some additional excursions and hikes into the mix, stay in trendier hostels, and really cram your days full of every possible adventure, you’ll need more like S/200 ($85AUD) per day. You’ll have a great time either way, but to really get the most out of Peru, budget for at least a couple pricier outings like taking a cooking class, hiking the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek, and going to the jungle.
- Book a hostel with free breakfast and make sure you fill up every morning on the rolls, fruit, tea, and sometimes even eggs on offer so you don’t have to buy 3 meals a day.
- Look for small local restaurants rather than touristy restaurant and always ask if they have a menu del día— this is an inexpensive daily set menu that usually includes a soup, main dish, and drink for S/5-10 (also a great way to try new food!).
- If you want to join a tour out to Rainbow Mountain, the Sacred Valley, Huacachina etc, you can usually find much cheaper last-minute deals when you book at a local travel agency in town rather than on the internet— the quality of tours is quite high in Peru, so even the super budget options will be enjoyable and can be a fraction of the cost.
- Research DIY alternatives to popular tours, as it can often be perfectly easy to tackle a hike alone or visit ruins on foot rather than spending the money to join a group.
- Always take the night bus— not only does it maximise your time in each city, but it also saves money on accomodation for that night.
- Dorm bed in a nice hostel: S/25-45
- Airbnb, whole apartment: S/100-170
- Hotel room for two: S/100-300+
- Lunch at a casual restaurant: S/5-10 for the menu del día
- Street food: S/1-2
- Dinner at a restaurant: S/10 for the menu del día, S/15-30 otherwise
- Drink from a restaurant or bar: S/5-15
- Bottle of water: S/1
- Snack from convenience store: S/1-2
- Bus to the airport: S/25 Airport Express Bus from Lima Airport
- Bus to another city: S/20-150
- Internal flights: $30-100AUD from Cusco to Lima
- Entry to Machu Picchu: S/150 (S/200 including Huayna Picchu)
- Day tour to Rainbow Mountain: S/60
- Inca Trail hike: $1,100AUD
- Salkantay Trek hike: $580AUD
Practical considerations for Peru
The water in Peru is not safe to drink straight from the tap, which leaves most travellers to buy several plastic water bottles every single day. Although inexpensive, this is TERRIBLE for the environment, so I’d strongly encourage you to get a filtered water bottle instead, which will allow you to fill up from any water source (bathroom tap, stream, etc) and still enjoy clean, safe drinking water.
Some very sensitive people avoid brushing their teeth with tap water, but I’ve never had (or known anyone who has had) an issue with this in Peru. It is also true that you should avoid ice cubes in places where the water is unsafe, but it should be fine to have ice in your drinks or eat washed vegetables in most restaurants, particularly touristy restaurants.
Vaccinations & medication
Thankfully, there aren’t too many diseases you need to worry about in Peru and no vaccinations actually required for entry. If you’re travelling to northern Peru and the Amazon where malaria does exist, a doctor might prescribe antimalarials, but it isn’t necessary for travel in most of the country. Ditto Yellow Fever. Most doctors will also suggest routine vaccinations like Hep A/B, typhoid, and rabies before your trip, which are optional.
If you’re doing any trekking in Peru or you’re worried about your reaction to the altitude, I strongly recommend getting a prescription for altitude sickness medication from your doctor. Far better to have it on hand and never use it than to be seriously ill without it! Trekkers should get Acetazolamide (Diamox), Dexamethasone, and Nifedipine, while travellers not planning time in the mountains will be fine with just Acetazolamide. If you want to know more about these medication and current medical research on treating altitude sickness, check out this detailed post.
Altitude & acclimatisation
Minor symptoms related to the altitude (and, to a lesser extent, true altitude sickness) is a very real possibility when travelling in mountainous parts of Peru, especially places like Cusco (3,400m) and Huaraz (3,050m) or hiking along the Inca Trail (4,215m), Salkantay Trek (4,650m), and Huayhuash Circuit (5,090m).
Basically, there’s less oxygen in the air at high altitudes, which can lead to a number of unpleasant symptoms like headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. When you first arrive in Cusco (or your first high-altitude town of the trip), you’ll probably notice being a bit lightheaded, not having your usual appetite, and panting heaps when you walk up stairs — basically, just feeling really unfit. These are all totally normal physiological responses to arriving at altitude, and they typically pass within a few days. And thankfully, they don’t mean you have actual altitude sickness. According to recent research, only about 17% percentage of travellers to 3,400m (e.g. Cusco, Peru) will experience bad altitude sickness.
I wrote two extremely detailed posts about the different types of altitude sickness and how to prevent/treat it on your trip, so I’d recommend reading both of these for a lot more info:
- For general altitude info relevant to all travellers in Peru: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN SOUTH AMERICA
- For altitude advice specific to hikers in Peru: HIGH-ALTITUDE TREKKING: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO PREVENTING & TREATING ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN THE MOUNTAINS
In brief, the altitude in some Peruvian cities just means you need to take it easy for the first few days or you can make yourself really ill— don’t plan to fly straight from Lima to Cusco and set out on the Inca Trail immediately unless you want some serious issues. The two posts linked above will give you an even better idea of how to plan your trip to avoid altitude sickness, including some medication you should bring from home in case you do experience problems (Acetazolamide is a good option!).
It’s impossible to say that any destination is “completely safe”, but Peru would have to be fairly close— I was totally comfortable travelling by myself throughout the country and, taking basic safety precautions, never really felt like I was in a bad situation. As long as you can speak some Spanish, it’s incredibly easy to get around and the locals are amazingly friendly, always willing to help.
That being said, it’s still a foreign country, so don’t be an idiot. Every country and city in the world, whether it’s in Latin America or the USA, has sketchy places you should avoid and things you just shouldn’t do. And most of the cases of robbery I’ve heard about in Latin America were actually the result of someone being careless, like leaving their bag unattended or buying drugs on the street while drunk (what do you expect is going to happen?!). Here are some BASIC and very common sense tips for keeping safe in Peru:
- Buy a local SIM card and use Google Maps to avoid getting lost in a new city. Claro and Movistar are the main providers, but Bitel also offers good packages specifically for travellers: get 20GB of data, 500min calling, and international call credit for S/49.
- If you’re travelling alone or at night, call an Uber or have your hostel call you a taxi. During the day, it’s usually fine to grab one off the street.
- Ask at hostel reception if it’s safe to visit a certain area alone at night before you go out, and if not, make some friends to go with you or wait until a safer time. Downtown Lima is a good example of somewhere that can be fine in a group or in the morning, but just a tad uncomfortable after hours by yourself.
- Don’t carry large amounts of cash on your person and definitely don’t carry them in an obvious way. It’s fine to bring a purse or backpack around town if you keep a close watch on it (so don’t set it down), and you REALLY don’t need a ridiculous nude-coloured money belt.
- There was no where in Peru where I felt like I couldn’t have my camera out during the day (and I’ve got a pretty large DSLR), so as long as you don’t set your electronics down and walk away, and you should be fine.
- Bring a lock so you can secure your valuables in a locker at your hostel while you’re out during the day.
- Bus stations in Peru can be really chaotic, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose track of your bags if you aren’t being careful. You need to be on alert when you are waiting for your bus and putting your bags onboard, just to make sure nothing gets left behind or swiped while you’re distracted. Keep your valuables with you on the bus, but your big bag that’s been checked is totally safe underneath (all bus companies issue bag tags, so no one but you can collect your luggage).
- Bus stations are also typically in a dodgier part of town, so I’d recommend taking a taxi rather than walking with all your stuff through the streets. I never had any issues doing this, but there were times I felt a bit on edge, especially in the evenings. Taxis are cheap and they will save you the worry.
As with most everywhere in South America, there is a very real language barrier in Peru and I really wouldn’t recommend travelling here without learning some basic Spanish phrases. Any tour guides will speak English, but most waiters, cashiers, hostel staff, taxi drivers, bus station employees, and just general people on the street won’t speak a word. Yes, seriously, sometimes hostel reception will not speak ANY English.
Even just learning how to order food, buy bus tickets, ask for directions, and pay for things in Spanish will make your trip to Peru so much smoother (and actually more enjoyable). When in doubt: Google Translate, which can be downloaded for offline use).
Some useful phrases to master now:
- Habla Inglés? | Do you speak English?
- Lo siento | I’m sorry
- Disculpe | Excuse me
- De donde eres? | Where are you from?
- Me llamo [your name] | My name is ….
- Yo tengo venticinco años | I am 25 years old
- Estoy viajando por seis meses | I am travelling for 6 months
- Yo necesito comprar un boleto a [your destination] | I need to buy a bus ticket to [your destination]
- A qué hora es el próximo bus? | What time is the next bus?
- Cuánto cuesta? | How much does it cost?
- Donde esta el baño? | Where is the bathroom?
- La cuenta, por favour | The check, please.
Communication & connectivity
I’d highly recommend getting a local SIM card when you arrive in Peru, as this will allow you to use Google Maps and Uber to get around (absolutely essential in bigger cities like Lima and Cusco). Claro and Movistar are the main providers, but Bitel also offers good packages specifically for travellers: get 20GB of data, 500min calling, and international call credit for S/49.
Don’t purchase a SIM card at the airport unless you’re happy paying a huge mark-up. There are numerous cellular shops around the country, and if you’re starting your trip in Lima, all 3 main providers actually have stores within 50m of each other on Avenida Jose Larco in Miraflores. The staff will put the SIM card in your phone and help adjust all the necessary settings, just make sure to take your passport with you!
Culture & customs
- Peruvians are incredibly friendly people who will almost always go out of their way to help/chat to you, and this is one of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive. Everyone wants to know how you are and offer suggestions, which is really lovely, but apparently not what everyone expects out of a trip to South America.
- As a woman travelling in Peru (alone or not), it’s incredibly common for men to stare at you or even make comments as you walk down the street (tus ojos azules, muy guapa blah blah). Even though it can be slightly uncomfortable, it’s part of the culture here and isn’t intended to be offensive or inappropriate. I usually just smiled and kept walking, no one continued to bother me; when in doubt, a cheeky no hablo español is also an excellent way to prevent further conversation.
- La hora peruano: “This is the code, indecipherable to North Americans, by which Peruvians determine the latest possible moment that it is acceptable to arrive for an appointment” – Mark Adams. It’s true, Peruvians aren’t a terribly prompt people, so don’t be surprised when buses or tours depart late, because it will happen more often than not. Compared to other parts of South America, it’s actually not that bad in Peru, but Europeans seem to find it baffling that someone could arrange a time to meet and not be there early. That’s just not the way here.
Essential packing list
This is far from a comprehensive packing list (you can find more detailed ones in my specific Peru itineraries), but here are just a few essential items you MUST have for Peru:
- Rain jacket
- Down jacket (oh yes, even in summer)
- Long pants/tights (even in summer)
- Comfortable daypack
- Hiking boots (for pretty much any trek in Peru longer than a couple hours, you’ll want these)
- Filtered water bottle (avoid buying plastic water bottles every day)
- Lock for hostel lockers
- US-style plug adapter