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Lake Titicaca, which straddles Peru’s border with Bolivia, is the highest navigable lake in the world—and one of the most beautiful. The Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, which would be stunning anywhere, are truly spectacular in their Andean setting, high above the Urubamba River. And Cusco, once the center of the Incan empire and now a vibrant gateway to Incan ruins, is also high in the Andes.
Yet even at sea level, Peru can leave you breathless. With unspoiled beaches, coastal desert, deep canyons and dense Amazon jungle, its variety of natural wonders is astonishing.
Then, there are the cultural treasures. The contrast between old and new runs throughout the land: Poncho-clad indigenous peoples walk their llamas through modern cities, past Spanish cathedrals built on the foundations of ancient Incan ruins. Giant, stylized designs were etched in the earth by the Nazca—a great pre-Columbian civilization.
Peru is where pre-Columbian culture reached its most graceful peak. Like the Parthenon in Greece or the Pyramids of Egypt, the Incan and pre-Incan ruins of Peru provide an unforgettable glimpse of the genius of a lost world.
Peru can be divided into three distinct geographic regions: the coastal desert, where most of the major cities are located; the Andean Highlands, where mountain peaks soar above 20,000 ft/6,000 m; and the largely
undeveloped Amazon jungle, with isolated villages and cities and a tremendous number of plant and animal species.
Although the northern tip of Peru reaches within a mile/kilometer of the equator, coastal temperatures are moderated by the Humboldt Current, which rises from Antarctica and creates frigid swimming conditions as well as rich offshore fishing.
Before the Incan empire, many civilizations flourished in Peru. The Moche culture (noted for exceptionally fine pottery), the Nazca culture (which made huge etchings in the desert) and the Chimu culture (with its large adobe cities) are but three examples. It is the Incas, however, whose civilization is best known—their empire, though short-lived, covered the South American Andes from modern-day Colombia to Chile.
Their lands were held together by an extensive network of roads, traversed by imperial messengers bearing quipus, or knotted-string messages. The empire was incredibly skillful in its use of dry masonry, irrigation and
terraces. The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu—made of large stones interlocked like fingers with no mortar used—attests to the technical and aesthetic mastery of this Amerindian empire.
All that came to an end when, in 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived with a small but well-armed force, captured the emperor Atahualpa and began the destruction of a civilization. Today, Peruvians are ambivalent about their past: Pride in their Spanish and indigenous heritage mixes with shame over the sometimes brutal actions of their forefathers.
After declaring independence from Spain in 1821, Peru enjoyed a short period of republican government, followed by nearly 160 years of “good” dictatorships alternating with corrupt tyrannies, ineffectual democratic administrations and sheer anarchy. Sporadic attacks by guerrilla groups continued into the late 1990s, despite the arrest of most of the leaders of the Shining Path, the most violent group. Recent years have signaled a new era of stability, and while extreme poverty remains in parts of the country, the economy is growing at one of the fastest rates in the region.
Outsider Alejandro Toledo was elected president in 2001, following the ignominious flight of Alberto Fujimori. Toledo struggled with low approval ratings and strikes despite pretty robust economic growth throughout his presidency. He was replaced in 2006 by former president Alan Garcia, who led Peru to hyperinflation and foreign capital flight during his first term in the 1980s. Peruvians accorded him a remarkable second chance, and he presided over a rapidly expanding economy, but not without criticisms of growing social unrest, environmental mismanagement and, later, allegations of corruption. In 2011, Garcia was replaced by the current President of Peru, Ollanta Humala.
The chief attractions of Peru are Cusco and Machu Picchu, ecotourism jungle adventures, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, vast coastal archaeological sites, bird-watching, world-class cuisine and friendly people.
Almost everyone will be impressed by what Peru has to offer. Outside of the few major cities and increasing amount of tourist areas, do not expect deluxe accommodations, high standards of service or high levels of sanitation. Nevertheless, simple but comfortable hotels and surprisingly good restaurants are found throughout the country.
Lima’s San Marcos University is one of the oldest in the New World, founded in 1551, 70 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
Peru ranks among the highest places in the world in biodiversity, with 84 of the 104 known life zones on the planet found in the country.
Peru is one of the countries in the world with the largest variety of orchids—2,800 classified and as many as 3,000 unclassified.
Lima’s metropolitan area population accounts for close to one-third of the nation’s total population.
The mummy of a young Incan girl had lain frozen for five centuries before melting ice dislodged her from her summit location on Mount Ampato and sent her down the mountain. Probably left there as a sacrificial offering, Juanita, as she was named, was the first female Inca mummy discovered in the Andes. She is now on display in the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa.
Thor Heyerdahl, in his voyage of the Ra (an Egyptian reed ship), had the help of Titicaca’s Uros people—the only people in the world with the requisite reed-working and boat-building skills. The explorer also believed that Peruvians were the first people to settle Polynesia.
The traditional use of the coca leaf dates back at least 5,000 years. Chewing the coca leaf was once a privilege for Incan royalty. The Spaniards began to cultivate it and used it to stimulate their workers. Peru is one of the world’s largest sources of coca leaves, and chewing coca leaves is an integral part of highland Andean society. Even in cities, coca tea and candy are popular.
Millions of years ago, the Amazon River drained into the Pacific through what is now Peru. Eons of continental drift and collision raised the Andes and reversed the course of the mighty river. Pink Amazon River dolphins are the most obvious—and beautiful—relic of the great inland lake that formed when the Andes rose.
Iquitos is so remote and the Andes such a formidable barrier that trade with Europe used to be far more economical than trade with Lima—the Amazon River leads to Iquitos, but there are no roads connecting it with the rest of Peru. With air transportation, Iquitos now has good communication with the rest of the country, but it remains the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road.
Peru is considered the Egypt of the Americas for the sheer abundance of historical sites that are found in nearly every corner of the country. Most famously, there’s the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu near Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a New World Wonder.
Also in the Cusco area are hundreds of lesser-known Incan archaeological sites such as Choquequirao, Ollantaytambo and Pisac. On the shores of Lake Titicaca are the Sillustani stone towers built by the Aymaras, while the northern highlands are home to the Chachapoyan walled city of Kuelap and the Karijia sarcophagi.
The coast of Peru is particularly rich in Pre-Incan ruins. The Nazca Lines 250 mi/400 km south of Lima are a 50-mi/80-km stretch of ancient geoglyphs etched into the desert by the Nazca culture between 400 BC and 650 BC. On the north coast in Trujillo is Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the Americas, and the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, two important Moche pyramids.
Near Chiclayo is Tucume, a complex of 28 pyramids. Closer to Lima is Pachacamac, a pre-Inca ceremonial center, and Caral, which dates from 2600 BC and is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
An excavated royal burial site at Sipan exhibits Moche burial practices. A priest-warrior was buried with young women at his head and feet, older women and a dog at his side, and surrounded by water and food containers for the next life. Just above, a guard with a gilded copper helmet and copper shield lay buried—his feet cut off to prevent him from abandoning his post.
The majority of artifacts that have been discovered in Peru’s countless archaeological sites can be found in Lima’s museums. Weavings from the Paracas culture, Incan mummies, Moche erotic pottery and colonial artwork can be seen in the Larco Archaeology Museum, Gold Museum and the private Amano Museum. In Cusco there are several important collections of Incan and colonial artifacts including those dedicated to Pre-Columbian art and Catholic relics.
Near Chiclayo, there’s the world-class Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, which holds artifacts from some of the most important archaeological finds of the past century. A few miles/kilometers away in Ferrenafe is the Sican National Museum with its rare finds from the Lambayeque culture. More than a dozen museums are located in Arequipa, though none are more important than the Museo Santuarios Andinos, where the child mummy Juanita, found buried in ice on the Ampato volcano, rests.
Peru has more than 70 conservation zones that cover approximately 16% of the country’s total territory. The largest of the national parks and reserves are in the eastern part of the country that lies within the Amazon Basin. In the north near Iquitos is the Pacaya Samiria, a massive flood plain with the greatest number of species of fruits and fish in the world. In the southeast the Tambopata-Candamo National Reserve near Puerto Maldonado, and the even more remote Manu Biosphere Reserve are two of the most biodiverse places in South America, home to rare and endangered wildlife such as the giant river otter and the Andean spectacled bear.
Dozens of other reserves are dotted across the highlands and on the desert coast. Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, the two deepest canyons in the world, can be found in the south near
Arequipa. The Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas are home to countless marine bird and sea lion colonies, while several parks near Tumbes in the far north hold ecosystems found nowhere else in Peru, ranging from mangroves to equatorial dry forests.
The Spanish mark on Peru is woven tightly to their installation of Catholicism in the country in the attempts to quell the Incas. Cusco’s Plaza de Armas holds some of the more elaborate religious structures in the country. The Cathedral is built on the base of the Inca Viracocha Palace. Nearby, the church of Santo Domingo, believed to be one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in the world, was constructed on top of the Incan Temple of the Sun, or Qoricancha, while the Jesuit La Compania is considered equally opulent.
Lima’s Spanish neoclassical San Francisco Monastery is the city’s most visited religious site, known for the catacombs below it that hold the remains of more than 10,000 people. Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Convent is a city within a city that dates from the late 16th century and was closed to the outside world until 1970.
WINERIES, BREWERIES & DISTILLERIES
While Peru’s vineyards are not as well-known or developed as those in Chile or Argentina, the dry desert conditions that extend from Lima to the Chilean border are ideal for grape production. Wine is produced, but it is not nearly as common as pisco, Peru’s national spirit, which is distilled under strict appellation of origin rules. The Ica region is home to the most distilleries, but Lima, Chincha, Canete, Arequipa and Tacna also feature numerous distilleries.
There are plenty of beaches to choose from along Peru’s long stretch of Pacific coastline. The country’s coast is desert, however, so the beaches are not Caribbean-postcard perfect, nor are the waters all that warm because of the cold Humboldt current. As a rule, the farther north you travel, the warmer the water is. The stretch from Huanchaco to Tumbes, near the Ecuadorian border, is the only area where you can swim comfortably for extended times outside of the summer months without a wet suit.
Favorite beaches include Punta Sal (30 mi/50 km southwest of Tumbes)—considered by many to be the best beach in Peru—Mancora (60 mi/100 km south of Tumbes), Las Pocitas (65 mi/105 km south of Tumbes), Paita (30 mi/50 km west of Piura), Pimentel and Santa Rosa (9 mi/14 km west of Chiclayo) and Huanchaco (7 mi/12 km west of Trujillo).
In Lima, the beaches to the south enjoy the best reputation, although many can be dirty and polluted. Popular places include El Silencio, Senoritas, Caballeros, Punta Hermosa (a good place for ceviche and seafood restaurants), Punta Negra, San Bartolo, Santa Maria, Naplo, Pucusana (with beaches and a small fishing village) and Asia (where wealthy Lima residents have summer homes).
Peru has developed a mountain biking tourism industry—and with the rugged terrain, where better? The best place to go for outfitters with decent bikes and knowledgeable guides is Huaraz. There is also good mountain biking out of Lima, Cusco, Arequipa and Huancayo.
Peru is a birder’s paradise, with some 18.5% of all the bird species in the world and 45% of all neotropical birds. The country’s varied geography and topography combined with many wilderness areas means the number and variety of birds is more than anywhere except Colombia. Even if you’re not a keen bird-spotter back home, it’s hard not to admire the huge condors in the high Andes or the flocks of brilliant scarlet macaws in the Amazon basin. Birding in Peru is possible year-round.
HIKING & WALKING
Peru boasts a huge range of hiking possibilities, including the world-famous Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. This was just one of the hundreds of “royal highways” that criss-crossed the Inca empire, all paved with stone. The remnants of these trails are ideal for hikes and walks, and many are still in use today. In the north, the passes, lakes and mountain scenery of the Cordillera Blanca offer several beautiful circuits to explore, such as Llanganuco and Santa Cruz.
To the south of the Cordillera Blanca lies the Huayhuash range—a tougher proposition with higher altitudes and longer circuits. Farther north stretches the Chachapoyas region, a wonderful area for hiking amid cloud forests, villages and the impressive ruins of the Chachapoyan people. In southern Peru, there are several excellent treks close to Arequipa, in the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, as well as around Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
The Inca Trail
This 25-mi/40-km trail wends its way from the vicinity of Cusco to the citadel of Machu Picchu. It ranks among the most spectacular in the world, rewarding the fit traveler with a string of impressive Inca ruins, stunning mountain vistas and varied environments. The trek usually takes four days. Only a few operators in Cusco are licensed to organize the hikes, and you must contract their services—you can’t go independently.
Packages include transportation to the trailhead (located beyond Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley) from Cusco, all meals, snacks and drinks, all camping equipment, entry to the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary and a ticket for the four-hour train ride back to Cusco. The trek goes over two 13,120-ft/4,000-m passes, so it is wise to acclimate for a while in Cusco before the hike. The dry season runs roughly April-October, and the trail is busiest in July and August. The trail is closed for maintenance during the month of February.
With the popularity of the Inca Trail, authorities have limited trek permits to 500 people total, including guides and porters, per day. Travelers must book several months in advance (in peak season it’s wise to book as much as six months early). If you don’t book in time, or want to trek other routes, consider the four- to five-day trek to the ruin of Choquequirao, or the Salkantay trek, which is a longer and tougher route culminating in Machu Picchu. A shorter, two-day version of the Inca Trail, ending at Machu Picchu, passes through the ruins of Winay Wayna. http://www.incatrailperu.com.
Horses, mules and donkeys are part of everyday life in much of the Andean highlands, and there’s a cowboy culture of sorts the length of Peru. Most tourist towns and cities boast an operator organizing horseback riding trips. The most spectacular regions to consider a four-legged adventure are the Cordillera Blanca, Chachapoyas, Sacred Valley and the Colca Canyon.
Peru is world-renowned as a surfing destination, with more than 30 top surfing beaches. The variety of waves and year-round action keep both foreign and Peruvian fans happy. Waves up to 20 ft/6 m can be found there. The season runs approximately September-February in the north and March-December in the south. May is rated the best month around Lima. International competitions are held at Pico Alto and Punta Rocas, both south of Lima. The Mancora area, near the Ecuadorian border in the north, is the best coastal village that caters to surfers.
Peru’s reputation as a white-water paradise is growing fast, with increasing numbers of paddlers heading to the country every year. There is easy access to a wide range of rivers running the gamut from pleasant Class II rides to heart-pounding Class V. Cusco is considered the best starting point for many trips on both the Urubamba River and the mighty Apurimac. One can also embark on longer four- or five-day expeditions all the way down to the Amazon basin. Other popular centers include Lunahuana and Arequipa.
Lima has a number of modern department stores (Ripley and Saga Fallabella in more than a dozen locations around the city), as well as malls (Larcomar in Miraflores and Jockey Plaza in Surco), so if you have forgotten anything at home it will probably be quite easy to find there. Shop for alpaca-wool sweaters and rugs, gold, Incan walking sticks, miniature handmade statues, woven-straw items, ponchos, llama rugs, cotton and linen fabrics, blankets, silver, tapestries, wood and leather products, Andean oil paintings, silkscreen prints and pottery.
The Indian Market (Mercado de los Indios) on Petit Thours Street in Miraflores is the best place in the capital to buy a variety of handicrafts from all over Peru. There are also good shops in the deluxe hotels. Bargaining is the rule in markets, but prices are fixed in hotel shops. You will get better-value items in the smaller towns.
Be aware that no one can export artifacts or antiques. If you want to buy anything that looks remotely old, contact the Peruvian Institute of Culture to verify that you can take it home with you. Stuffed animals, animal skins or handicrafts made with the feathers of certain birds are also illegal.
Shopping Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 am-6 pm, with some stores open as late as 9 pm. Most of the malls and markets are open on Sunday, but do check before making a long trip. Small local stores selling basics may open later, but might close for an hour or two at lunchtime.
Peruvian cuisine has received an increasing amount of press, including one article stating that the country is experiencing “a revolution in gastronomy,” particularly in Lima.
So do sample the local food—Peruvian dishes can be outstanding—but to be on the safe side, dine in the better hotels and restaurants. Much of the food is highly seasoned—in fact, it can be hot and spicy, although not always so. Lomo saltado is a hearty beef, vegetable and rice dish that seems to appear on every Peruvian menu: When in doubt, order it (vegetarians excepted).
Ceviche de corvina (white sea bass marinated in lemon, chilies and onions, served cold) is a Peruvian specialty. The best ceviche is in Lima, but good ceviche can be found all up and down the coast. Trout is particularly good from Lake Titicaca, while the highlands are also home to some unusual meats, including cuy (grilled guinea pig), alpaca steak and lechon (suckling pig).
Within Peru, the dishes also vary, and some of the best Andean food can be found in Arequipa, where you can try the local specialties: Rocoto relleno (stuffed hot red chili pepper), adobo (marinated pork or beef) or anticuchos (skewered beef heart).
Try the local drinks. Pisco—brandy from the Ica valley—is used to make delicious pisco sours. Mate de coca, an herbal tea brewed from coca leaves, is a popular energy booster and is said to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. (It’s available free in many hotel lobbies, especially in higher altitudes.) Inca Kola has a very sweet, bubble-gum flavor that does not appeal to everyone. Fruit juices are also delicious, but confirm that they are made with purified water.
Wine isn’t as good as those of Argentina and Chile, but isn’t bad—Tacama, Ocucaje and Vista Alegre are the best-known brands. Beers are usually a lager and occasionally a sweet dark brew; Cusquena and Pilsen are widely considered the best brands.
Unlike much of South America, Peruvians generally eat at about the same time as North Americans, with lunch beginning between noon and 1 pm, and dinner around 8 pm. A late afternoon snack, called lonche, is often eaten around 5 pm. Restaurants typically open at noon and close at 11 pm.
Most visits to Peru are trouble-free, but you should take precautions and be alert at all times. Most crime consists of pickpocketing and purse snatching, so whenever possible, don’t take a bag and keep items such as wallets in your front pockets, preferably zipped. If you must take a bag, keep it close to you and don’t leave it unattended, especially in airports and bus terminals. It is recommended that you don’t go out alone late at night (after 10 pm), except by taxi.
Be especially careful in Lima, the capital, and other urban areas popular with tourists, including Cusco, Arequipa, Puno and Juliaca. Potentially dangerous areas in Lima that you should avoid include discos and bars downtown; San Miguel (Avenida La Marina), Lince and especially La Victoria; any place in Villa El Salvador after 6 pm; any place in Surquillo and the port of Callao (except the airport).
You will notice the overwhelming number of taxis in Lima and the big cities; the taxi drivers will often honk their horns to pick up passengers, but do try to avoid using the ticos (a diminutive for a Daewoo make)—they are unsafe as vehicles and are also the cheapest to rent. Whenever possible, you should have your hotel call for a taxi.
In Cusco, there have been rare incidences of choke-and-rob attacks against tourists, especially women traveling alone. Also be aware that despite the capture of the leaders of the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru, two guerrilla groups, a terrorist presence still exists in remote mountain and jungle areas—especially in central Peru in the Upper Huallaga, Aguaytia and Apurimac-Ene basins, where the terrorism is linked with drug trafficking. Tourists are unlikely to be affected by this.
The major tourist sites are generally safe, but travelers who are planning to venture beyond major tourist areas should contact the Lima Tourist Police or the South American Explorers (Enrique Palacios 956, Miraflores, Lima; phone 511-445-3306; http://www.saexplorers.org) upon arrival. Your embassy can provide an up-to-date list of places around the country considered dangerous and where official government travel has been restricted.
Tourists may register complaints on a national 24-hour hotline, provided by the official iPeru tourist information and assistance service. In Lima, call 574-8000. Outside Lima, add the prefix (01) to this number.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
In larger cities, there are adequate medical and dental facilities (private facilities are generally better equipped than public hospitals or clinics). See your doctor about malaria suppressants if you’re going to visit rural areas in the Amazon (chloroquine-resistant strains are present in the eastern provinces that border Brazil). Malaria is not present in Lima or in high-elevation areas such as Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Vaccinations for yellow fever, hepatitis and typhoid are also recommended but not required. Take along all prescription medicine needed for the trip.
Cholera is no stranger to Peru. Fueled by poor sanitation, the disease is spread by contaminated water, raw seafood (ceviche) and unsanitary preparation of food. Except in the more deluxe establishments in major cities, sanitary conditions in restaurants can pose problems for travelers. Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe (especially if it’s included on a package tour). You should, however, peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables before eating. In addition, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly, avoid local dairy products, and assume tap water and ice are unsafe (stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks). If you eat street food, make sure it is cooked in front of you.
If you fly into high-altitude areas (such as Cusco), allow some time for your body to adjust. Some people need as much as three days. You may experience altitude sickness (nausea, headache, insomnia, dizziness, loss of appetite and general malaise), which can be serious. Take it easy, drink plenty of liquids, and avoid alcohol and smoking for the first few days; see a doctor if symptoms seem extreme or persist (you may have to return to a lower altitude).
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Do find some time to relax in Cusco’s main plaza. It’s an enjoyable place to sit and watch the world go by, with a backdrop of Incan and colonial Spanish architecture, and beyond that, the Andes. But don’t relax too much—the plaza is also a hangout for pickpockets and petty thieves.
Don’t throw toilet paper down the toilet; use the trash can next to the seat.
Do carry toilet paper with you. Many public places and restaurants don’t provide it.
Don’t assume anyone speaks English or that raising your voice will help them understand your strange tongue.
Do try to learn some Spanish words and use them whenever possible. You will always get a positive reaction from Peruvians if you try to speak their language, and common courtesies such as greeting people upon entering an office, elevator or house are very important in Peruvian culture.
Don’t get into a taxi before negotiating the cost of the ride. Taxis in Peru don’t have meters.
Do expect to be kissed on the cheek by female Peruvians when they introduce themselves and when they say farewell.
Don’t allow yourself to be easily distracted by the action around you. Different tactics seem to go in and out of style among thieves, but their main objective is to divert your attention—staging a fight or accident, for example—so they can make their move when you’re focused on something else.
Do keep your eye on your baggage. We should mention that one of our correspondents spent three months in Peru without any problems—until departure at the airport, when he set his camera down for a moment. It was a moment too long.
Don’t expect to see the headhunter tribes in resplendent primitive glory. Tribe members are well aware of the fascination their tribes hold for tourists, and visits to tribal villages have become very commercial in many places. On our last trip, we came around the bend of a river a little too early and caught a fellow changing his swimming trunks for a grass skirt.
Do consult your local camera store about how to take pictures where there’s lots of glare—a polarizing filter will improve your photography greatly. Also mention that you’ll be at high altitudes, as well as in high humidity if you’re bound for the jungle. (Take along a plastic bag if you’re going to the Amazon region to keep moisture out of your camera, as well as small bags of silica gel.)
Don’t always count on getting a hot shower or hot tap water, even in hotels that advertise they have it. Electricity, used to heat water, is sporadic in most medium-sized and small towns in Peru.
Do take plenty of water with you wherever you go in the Andes. You can quickly become dehydrated at such high altitudes.
Don’t lose the white entry slip given to you by immigration when you enter the country, as you will need to hand it back when exiting.
Do check, before leaving home, the number of days you are allowed to stay in Peru (for most tourists it is 90 days). Immigration officials might stamp 30 days unless you have requested otherwise.
Don’t carry your passport with you each day; keep it and your bank cards in a safe location, such as a hotel safe. Instead, carry photocopies of your passport.
Do take adapter plugs. Peru is a confusion of U.S.-style flat-pin plugs and European-style round-pin plugs. It’s best to be prepared for both.
Passport/Visa Requirements: A passport and proof of onward passage are needed by citizens of Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. for tourist visits of 183 days or less.
All U.S. citizens must have a passport when traveling by air to or from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Mexico. Citizens of Canada, Mexico and the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda also must have a passport or other designated secure document to enter the U.S.
Passports are required for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda. Reconfirm travel-document requirements with your carrier prior to departure.
Languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic).
Time Zone: 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-5 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 51, country code; 01,city code for Lima. From outside Peru, do not dial 0 after the 51; 051,city code for Puno; 054,city code for Arequipa; 065,city code for Iquitos; 084,city code for Cusco.
Peru’s currency is the Nuevo Sol, available in bills of 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 nuevos soles. It has been relatively stable to the dollar in recent years, exchanging for about three soles to the dollar. When exchanging dollars, take crisp, new, untorn bills. Money changers and banks will refuse to change even slightly damaged notes. Try to acquire small bills whenever changing money—there seems to be a constant shortage of change in Peruvian cities.
Don’t accept bills that are torn or taped—no matter how slightly—because almost no one will accept them: Counterfeiting is a problem in Peru. Check your bills by holding them up to a light. You should see a watermark and a very small strip that says Peru 50 or Peru 20 depending on the denomination of the bill.
It’s best to pay in cash whenever possible. Restaurants and hotels often levy a service charge (about 6%) for processing a credit card. Also, you can bargain for discounts in cash, but rarely with plastic.
A value-added tax (VAT—called IGV in Peru) of 19% is added to all sales. You won’t pay it for cash transactions in places such as markets and street stalls. Sales tax should be included by restaurants on the menus, but some add both sales tax and a 10% service charge to your bill, so it’s best to check if in doubt. (It’s totally legal—you just don’t want a 29% surprise.) Cheaper restaurants often don’t bother adding anything.
Hotels may also append sales and services charges to bills; foreign travelers can present a photocopy of their passports and the 19% IGV will not be charged (first class and luxury hotels will often make the photocopy for you). Less expensive hotels may not bother charging the IGV.
Airport departure taxes are included in the price of your ticket, so you will not have to pay an additional fee in the airport itself (unless a particular airline does not include the tax in the ticket price, which is unlikely).
Most restaurants in Peru do not include a tip with the bill, nor do waiters expect a 15%-20% tip. In most restaurants Peruvians leave a small 5% tip, though in fine dining restaurants in Lima, Arequipa and Cusco, a 10%-15% tip is becoming increasingly common. Peruvians in inexpensive restaurants almost never tip.
Skycaps and bellboys get about 2 soles per bag. Leave housemaids about 2 soles-3 soles per night in first class hotels. Taxi drivers are not normally given a tip. Tour guides and crew (drivers, porters and the like) are tipped roughly 15 soles-50 soles per tourist per day for tour guides, depending on the quality of the tour, and the same amount divided among the crew.
There is no single climate in Peru—the deserts, jungles and mountains are each separately under the influence of different natural forces. Temperatures are fairly stable year-round—it’s colder in the highlands and hot in the lowlands. The rainy season is October-April in the mountains, and most travelers go during the dry months that coincide with North American and European summer vacations. Many Peruvians travel during this time as well, especially for the national holidays in late July, when prices can double.
The dry months are by far the best for camping and climbing trips in the Andes. The heaviest rains in the highlands are January-April, and disruptions in bus traffic because of landslides can be severe especially in February and March.
On the desert coast, it almost never rains but can be interminably cloudy April-December, especially on the central and south coasts. It’s always hot and humid along the Amazon River (it is a jungle, after all). Be sure to take a sweater (or something heavier) if you’re going to Cusco and Machu Picchu. The best times to visit are May and September, missing the busiest tourist months and skirting the rainy season. But you can go year-round and have a wonderful time.
What to Wear
In Lima and on the coast, temperatures vary little and are balmy enough for a shirt or T-shirt and light pants in the day. At night, it’s best to have a lightweight sweater or jacket for the coastal breezes. In the Andes, you should take precautions against both the plummeting temperatures at night and the high UV radiation during the day (long-sleeved shirts protect against sunburn better than T-shirts; also wear a sunhat and strong sunscreen). Fleeces are essential, as is a decent hat (wooly ones are available on every street corner). For the jungle, long sleeves and pants are recommended to fend off mosquitoes. Don’t forget a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
Business meetings require business suits, but they don’t have to be conservatively colored. In general, the less scruffy you look, the better you will be treated. Women should dress modestly when entering churches, but otherwise only worry about modesty in more remote communities. Men who wear shorts away from the beach will stand out as foreigners.
Cell phone use is widespread in Peru, having reached many rural areas far sooner than traditional land lines. In Lima, you can rent cell phones by the day, and they are inexpensive if you are planning on staying in Peru for more than a month. Cell phone numbers all begin with 9.
Public phones are very common in all towns and cities; in addition to the official-looking ones, you may find small boxes lurking in convenience stores. These public phones are either coin-operated or use prepaid cards that can be bought in almost any corner store. The cards have a phone number and a code that you dial in—instructions are usually in Spanish. Every department in Peru has a separate two-digit area code prefix, with the exception of Lima, which uses a single digit (1). If you are calling from one department to another, this area code is preceded by a single zero. You do not need to add this zero if calling Peru from abroad.
Internet cafes often offer voice-over Internet calls, and you’ll find small stores for making international calls. These are generally cheap and of acceptable quality, and far, far cheaper than making calls from your hotel room.
Internet cafes cater to tourists and locals in Peru, so you should have no problem finding one. Internet access is widely available, even in remote areas; although the farther you are from a big city the slower the connections, in general. Costs are around 2 soles an hour, or less in major cities. Most hotels now provide Wi-Fi without a fee; however, some international chain hotels add a service charge. Some Internet cafes won’t let laptop users connect directly to their networks, but most will. Wi-Fi is not common in public areas.
Mail & Package Services
Sending packets, postcards and letters from Peru is fairly safe as long as you’re not in a hurry for the item to get to its destination. Postage times can be as much as two or three weeks to North America and Europe. If sending an item of value, it’s best to use a courier service, either a local one or an international name such as DHL or FedEx. To send mail within Peru, the South American Explorers have a postal system for their members at the clubhouses in Lima and Cusco.
Newspapers & Magazines
The two most established newspapers in Peru are El Comercio and La Republica. Both have decent sections on national and international politics and events. El Comercio has an excellent section about what’s going on in Lima, including a special section on gastronomy.
Rumbos magazine explores travel, nature and culture in Peru and is published in English and Spanish. Rumbos has some beautiful photographic features.
Jorge Chavez International Airport (LIM) is about 10 mi/16 km northwest of central Lima and has modern food courts and other amenities such as Internet capability. Even international air travelers headed to other destinations in Peru must, for the most part, fly into Lima and make connections from there to other parts of the country
Although the roads have much improved and the top bus companies assure a very comfortable and afforable ride, domestic flights are cheap and will save you time when traveling inside the country.
A number of cruise lines call at Callao, a port city 7 mi/11 km from Lima. Riverboats ply the Amazon between Iquitos and Leticia, Colombia, and Tabatinga, Brazil. Intercity public buses are generally efficient and vary from comfortable “bus-camas” with seats that recline into beds to overcrowded second-class buses. There are few rail networks in Peru, with regular services limited to the Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes) line and the Cusco to Puno line. Less frequent departures run along the scenic railway line from Lima to Huancayo
If your budget allows, hire a car and driver (we don’t recommend renting without a driver, as the driving is nerve-racking—and be aware that only those older than age 21 can rent cars). Taxis can be hailed on the street, but it’s safer to arrange one by phone. The fare should be determined prior to entering the cab.
Buses are not allowed to enter Lima airport grounds, and to get to the closest stop, you must walk to the main road going toward the city center. This is dangerous and not advised.
Car rental agencies are located in the Lima airport terminal.
Most travelers and locals opt to get to and from the airport by taxis, which are reasonably priced and convenient. When departing the airport (after baggage claim), there is a prepaid taxi desk that charges 45 soles-75 soles per taxi, depending on where you want to go in the city. Walking a short distance outside of the prepaid taxi desk will take you to the outdoor taxi stand where cheaper rates are available.
When heading to the airport, it’s a good idea to call a taxi company rather taking a taxi off the street. The unmarked luxury taxis that wait outside major hotels are also an option, although significantly more expensive.
For More Information
Peru does not have tourist offices in Australia, Canada, the U.K. or the U.S. For information, contact the nearest embassy.
There are a number of Tourist Information offices run by PromPeru, the Commission for the Promotion of Peru throughout the country. Known as iPeru offices, they offer free maps and advice.
Lima: Jorge Chavez International Airport (Main Hall), daily 24 hours. Phone 01-574-8000. Also Larcomar Entertainment Center, Plaza Gourmet, Level 1, Stand 211, Miraflores, daily 11 am-9 pm. Phone 01-234-0340.
San Isidro: Jorge Basadre 610, open Monday-Friday 9 am-6 pm. Phone 01-421-1627. Peruvian Embassies
Australia: Embassy of Peru, 40 Brisbane Ave., Ground Floor, Suite 8, Barton, ACT 2600. Phone 2-6273-7351. http://www.embaperu.org.au.
Canada: Embassy of Peru, 130 Albert St., Suite 1901, Ottawa, ON K1P 5G4. Phone 613-238-1777. http://www.embassyofperu.ca.
U.K.: Embassy of Peru, 52 Sloane St., London, SW1X 9SP. Phone 20-7235-3802. http://www.peruembassy-uk.com.
U.S.: Embassy of Peru, 1700 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20036. Phone 202-833-9860. http://www.embassyofperu.org.
Embassies in Peru
Australia: Australian Embassy for Peru and Bolivia, Av. La Paz 1049, Floor 10, Miraflores, Lima. Phone 1-630-0500. http://www.peru.embassy.gov.au.
Canada: Canadian Embassy, Bolognesi 228, Miraflores, Lima 18. Phone 1-319-3200. http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/peru-perou.
U.K.: U.K. Embassy, Torre Parque Mar, 22nd and 23rd Floor, Ave. Jose Larco 1301, Miraflores, Lima. Phone 1-617-3000. https://www.gov.uk/government/world/organisations/british-embassy-peru.
U.S.: U.S. Embassy, Ave. de la Encalada 17, Surco, Lima 33. Phone 1-618-2000. http://lima.usembassy.gov.
Quechua Phrasebook by Serafin Coronel-Molina (Lonely Planet).
Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca by Brad Johnson (Alpenbooks).
Travellers’ Wildlife Guides: Peru by David Pearson and Les Beletsky (Interlink Pub Group).
Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez (CTTC).
Eat Smart in Peru by Joan Peterson and Brook Solvent (Gingko Press).
Birds of Peru by Schulenberg, Stotz, Lane, O’Neill and Parker (Princeton Field Guides).
Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham (Greenwood Press). The discoverer of Machu Picchu tells his story.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Mathiessen (Vintage Books). Set in the jungles of Peru and Bolivia, the
story explores conflicts among missionaries, mercenaries and the native peoples.
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel that chronicles the ills of modern-day Peru, set in the northern coastal town of Talera.
Inca-Kola: A Traveller’s Tale of Peru by Matthew Paris (Orion Paperbacks). Out of print but sometimes available in bookstores in Peru, this story both perpetuates and illuminates the misunderstandings of gringos traveling in Peru.
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (Random House). This true story of a climber’s brush with death and his several days of crawling out of the mountains with broken legs is set in the Peruvian Cordillera Huayhuash. It is a big hit with trekkers and climbers and was released as a movie in 2004.
The Imperfect Spy—The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos by Sally Bowen and Jane Holligan (Peisa). Written by two British journalists based in Lima, this is an intriguing biography of one of Peru’s most notorious and corrupt government officials who worked with President Fujimori in the 1990s.
Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru by Ronald Wright (Viking Press). A sensitive and poetic tour of Peru exploring Quechua culture, music and society.
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming (Mariner Books). Regarded as the most compelling and convincing among modern accounts of the downfall of the Incas.
The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie (Simon & Schuster). A highly readable account of archaeology, exploration and the end of the Inca Empire.
History of the Conquest of Peru by William H. Prescott (Nabu Press). Originally published in 1847, this is the starting point for study of the Inca, with them as heroes and Spaniards as villains. You may not want to wade through the very long original, but seek out a modern, shortened version for a detailed picture of Inca civilization.