What to Know When Traveling to Peru

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Peruvian children in traditional dress
Peruvian children in traditional dress

Peru is a fascinating blend of modern and ancient and definitely not to be missed. The people are exceedingly friendly, the climate is warm and sunny, and the history is rich and varied. However, it is a developing country and there are some things you should know before you go.

Before You Go

There are no vaccinations required before you head for Peru, but when traveling in any developing country it is a good idea to make sure your tetanus and polio vaccinations are up-to-date. Also check with your local travel clinic about being vaccinated against hepatitis A and typhoid. Add hepatitis B and yellow fever to the list if you plan to head off into the Amazon jungle. Also get a prescription for Diamox, an altitude sickness medication, if you plan to spend any time in the Andes. Cusco, the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, is about 11,000 feet above sea level and Lake Titicaca is even higher.

Traveling to and around Peru

Many major airlines fly into Lima, the capital city, and there is good air service between Lima and most major cities. If you want to see the countryside, buses are your best bet. While there is rail transportation, it can be problematic due to mechanical problems, labor strikes, and other interruptions of service. In the cities, there are taxis everywhere. Make sure the taxi you use has the black and white checkerboard decal indicating that it is licensed. It's also a good idea to avoid any taxi with serious damage. Traffic in Peru is intimidating, and a dented cab indicates a driver who may not be too careful. Always negotiate the price of a taxi fare before entering the cab. Don't be afraid to haggle, as the driver expects it. If you are staying at a hotel, ask the concierge to arrange for a taxi for you as this is the safest way to get a reputable ride.

Exploring

Peru is full of Incan and pre-Incan ruins, some right in the heart of Lima. To really see the country, plan on at least one excursion outside of Lima. The most popular destination is Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. Fly to Cusco from Lima and then find a travel agent to book you a tour of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Cusco is a fascinating town, once the heart of the Incan Empire, so plan to spend at least a day exploring. Many buildings show several layers of construction with Incan stone foundations and Spanish stonework sandwiched between the Incan and modern construction. Don't miss Korychanka, a Spanish church built over an Incan temple, and the Cathedral in the Plaza with it's painting of the Last Supper featuring guinea pig instead of lamb. Plan on at least one day to get used to the altitude before heading out sight-seeing. Plan on another day to see the Sacred Valley which will include stops at several ruins and local markets. Again, be prepared to haggle. You can find some very nice deals on Peruvian handicrafts, especially textiles. Machu Picchu is definitely a "don't miss." High in the jungle, the ruins are spectacular. Take a tour so you get the most out of it, and take rain gear or plan on buying a plastic rain poncho from the ubiquitous street vendors. To get there, take the train from Cusco, but be warned that the train itself can be an interesting experience. Plan on the trip taking longer than stated. You might want to plan to spend the night in Aquas Caliente if you want plenty of time to explore the ruins. Peru is full of other interesting sights, including Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake, and Colca Canyon, the world's deepest canyon. For more information on these attractions, see the resources section.

Hiking the Inca Trail

If you have the stamina to walk a fairly strenuous course for four days at high altitudes, the best way to see Machu Picchu is along the Inca Trail. Plan to spend at least three days in Cusco before attempting the trail as you must be fully acclimated to the high altitude. Only 200 tourists are allowed to start the trail on any given day, so make sure you book with a reputable guide service. Tourists are not allowed to travel the trail without a guide and porters.

Food and Drink

Peru has a varied cuisine with many traditional dishes. Yes, they do eat guinea pigs and you will often find the critters roasting on a barbecue spit in the markets of the Sacred Valley. In restaurants, however, this is a special dish and you should plan to pay dearly if you choose to try it. On the menu it will be listed as cuy. Be sure to try the aji de gallina, a chicken dish, and anticuchos, brochettes of beef heart. Ceviche, made with raw fish marinated in fresh lime, peppers, and onions, is delicious, but can cause severe diarrhea in people not used to the particular bacteria found in seafood off the coast of Peru. If your stomach is at all sensitive, it's best to avoid the ceviche. Pisco, a Peruvian brandy, is well worth a taste. Drink it straight from the bottle or ask the bartender for a Pisco Sour, a traditional Peruvian drink made from Pisco, lemon juice, egg whites, and sugar. Chicha is another traditional drink made from fermented maize and herbs. If you want something alcohol-free, try Chicha Morado, a soft drink made from maize, or Inca Kola, the Peruvian answer to Coca-Cola. However, tap water in Peru is not safe for drinking. Make sure you drink bottled water and that ice in your soft drinks is also made from bottled water.

Money

Peru is a relatively inexpensive place to travel. If you stay in top hotels, expect to pay Western rates. If you stay in "hostels" you will find very nice private accommodations for very nice prices. The currency of Peru is the Nuevo Sol. Check the exchange rate before you go as it fluctuates almost daily. Most ATM machines in tourist areas will dispense either sol or dollars, so accessing money is not an issue.

Other Information

Spanish is the national language but when you get out in the countryside many people speak only Quechuan, a variation of the Incan language. Learn a few words of this for talking with street vendors. Take along several bags of cheap pens and pencils to hand out to children. School supplies in the villages are hard to come by, and passing out pens will endear you to parents and children alike. It's also a great way to make friends and get some of those photographs you dream of. Budget for some tours. You will learn a lot about the places you visit if you take the English-language tours. In Lima, the tour takes you throughout the city, underground in some Cathedrals, and helps you decide what you want to revisit on your own. In the Sacred Valley, the tour guide is able to explain the meaning of the ruins you will see.

A Note to Textile Artists

Take along several homemade top whorl spindles. The spinners in the Sacred Valley use hand-carved bottom whorl spindles and are eager to trade for a toy wheel spindle and a lesson. Some will even throw in some llama or alpaca fiber.

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