Peru Tips: Helpful Advice From A Local And A Traveler

January 8, 2015
Peru Tips: Advice from a Local and a Traveler, Pink Pangea

“But I don’t speak Spanish!”

“Ahh, you’ll be fine, chica. Just translate your French into Spanish. They’re very similar.”

The conversation with Lore after I bought my ticket to visit in August went a little differently than I had expected. I had wanted to visit my Peruvian friend for years, and another friend’s wedding invitation in Lima had given me enough motivation to engrave a trip to Peru in my schedule. I was so excited to go visit her (finally!), and we had talked about all of the fun things we could do while I stayed with her and her family.

I wish I had prepared to stay for more than 10 days because I missed so much.

What we had discovered, however, was that Lore was moving overseas the week before I was scheduled to arrive in Lima. Her family was still expecting me to come stay with them, even though their English was spotty, and my knowledge of Spanish comes solely from its similarity to French (as you might have gleaned from the conversation above).

Thankfully, Lore was still able to help me prepare for my trip so I wouldn’t feel so lost. She helped me a ton with my preparations; hopefully, I can help you out a bit here, too.

Let’s get this out of the way, though:

Peru Tips: Tips from a Local and a Traveler

Machu Picchu

I, like most tourists in Peru, wanted to make sure I visited the famous and majestic Incan ruin before attending the wedding. My trip was during the height of tourist season, and the government limits the number of daily visitors (for the sake of preservation). On top of that, the government website is decidedly complicated and unfriendly. Despite cursing at the error messages and website complications, I bought my tickets before the supply dwindled from people booking one of the popular multi-day hikes there (such as the Inca trail). Also, I’m not a fan of tour groups, and having bought my ticket without asking the help of a tour company gave me a better sense of freedom while visiting the ruins.

I learnt early on that my trip to Peru, if going to Machu Picchu, would be pretty expensive – especially for a backpacker like me. Initially, I also had this vision that visiting Machu Picchu would be an easy, magical journey where I simply got on a bus, gingerly got off on some mossy grass and set foot on some sacred territory. In reality, it is much more complicated than that, and preparation is important for a time-constrained traveler like me.

After I bought my tickets to visit the ruins, Lore and I worked our way backwards in order to plan everything else. See, if you’re not hiking there, Machu Picchu is only really accessible through the small base town of Aqua Calientes…which is only really accessible through the Andean city of Cusco…which is only really accessible by flight (even if you’re starting from Lima).

“You have to stay in Cusco for at least two days before you go to Machu Picchu,” Lore told me. “Otherwise, the soroche will be too much and your visit might be ruined by illness. I’m from here and I still get soroche.”

The tickets for the bus from Agua Calientes are only available for purchase when you’re in town, so I looked towards my train tickets from Cusco. Like the visitor tickets, train tickets between Cusco and Agua Calientes are pretty limited and the highly-prized early morning tickets are often snatched up months before leaving. Happily, I was booking my tickets months beforehand. Now all I needed were my plane tickets to Cusco and I’d be set for my Incan adventure!

“You have to stay in Cusco for at least two days before you go to Machu Picchu,” Lore told me. “Otherwise, the soroche will be too much and your visit might be ruined by illness. I’m from here and I still get soroche.”

Soroche, also known lovingly as altitude sickness, is a real thing. The Andes are very high up, and Cusco is in the Andes. While there are some remedies to help lessen the impact of soroche on the body’s system, I am glad she warned me about it. I padded my trip plans in Cusco by a couple days so I could adjust. I was in Cusco for about four nights overall. I wish I had prepared myself for a couple more days in Cusco so I could have felt even better on my daylong trip to Machu Picchu.

Speaking of being high up, the Andes (especially in the winter) are chilly. I wish I had packed some warmer sweaters for my trip, as I was shivering in my hoody at night in Cusco. I was able to get through with my warm new alpaca sweater I bought there while panicking in the cold.

Fortunately, prepping for my trip to Machu Picchu (via a four-day trip to Cusco) consumed the lion’s share of my preparation time for Peru. The rest of my trip planning was pretty simple, and Peru is increasingly tourist-friendly. Lore had some tips I found especially helpful while I was getting ready for my departure, and I have some additional things that helped make my journey fun, relaxing, exciting, and easy.

Peru Tips: Advice from a Local and a Traveler, Pink Pangea
Peru Tips: Tips from a Local and a Traveler

Here’s what Lore advised:

1. Stay with locals

Honestly, the best part of preparing for me was knowing that I was going to be with a family who knew how to get around, and would treat me as part of their own. If you can find a way to stay with locals, especially in a big and mildly confusing city like Lima, it definitely provides a lot of potential that isn’t there when cooped up in a hotel room, or even at a hostel.

2. Exchange all of your cash in your home country

ATMs are not going to give good exchange rates, and coupled with the conversion fees, they aren’t worth it. Credit cards are not accepted everywhere, especially since the best foods are often found in smaller establishments. I was fortunate to be with people looking to exchange dollars for soles at the market rate, but there are also guys on the street who will happily give you a reasonable exchange rate.

3. Don’t be stupid with your stuff

Figure out how to keep the cash you don’t need in a safe and secure location when you don’t need it. And don’t bring flashy jeans and expensive bags if you don’t want to be targeted while walking around touristy areas. Petty theft happens.

4. If you’re traveling during tourist season, dress warmly

Not all of Peru is cold, but Lima and Cusco can get cold during the dry season. Pack scarves and sweaters. The jungle (and Machu Picchu, for the matter), on the other hand, is not cold, so don’t dress warmly there.

5. Pack lightly

Peru has poverty, sure, but you can get anything you need there without much effort. You don’t need to pack toilet paper or your entire wardrobe because, honestly, you can get them in most urban areas. And, if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to buy some warm alpaca shirts and a couple of nice things, which take up a lot of space. There are pharmacies, too, so you don’t have to pack every single toiletry or pill you may need (unless it’s prescribed).

Here’s what I advise:

1. Learn (some) Spanish

Even with my Francophile Spanish attempts, people appreciated me trying out a few words here and there. Knowing key phrases make it so much easier there, especially when English is not reliable anywhere. People are more than willing to patiently listen, I found, and can help you when you’re lost.

2. Read up on the place before you get there

I found that learning a brief history of Peru was incredibly helpful for me to understand half of what I saw while I was there.

3. Be prepared for late nights

I was surprised when Lore’s family encouraged me to take a daytime nap during siestas, but I was more surprised to find that the country lights up after 10 PM (my normal bedtime). Her parents took me out to a dinner show, and we left “early” from it at 3 AM.

4. Bring antacids, or at least be prepared to buy some

I’m a Celiac, and traveling is always challenging for my body – especially because explaining what “gluten free” means in some areas is still mystifying. Also, some Peruvian food is very rich, which for the traveling soroche-enduring body can cause some discomfort.

5. Be prepared to consume bottled water

In Peru, tap water isn’t drinkable, so you may not need to bring your water bottle with you, anyway. Yes, my water conservation advocate side wept at the fact that I knew I’d be buying a lot of bottled water while I visited, but I learned to deal, and so should you.

6. Stay longer

I wish I had prepared to stay for more than 10 days because I missed so much (Lake Titicaca, The Nazca Lines, etc.). The country is so rich with beautiful terrain and fascinating culture, and most of the backpackers I found who really enjoyed themselves fully in Peru stayed for a month or so.

7. Oh, and dress up!

If you are going to a Peruvian wedding while you’re there, make sure to pack your nicest dress and a good set of heels. While my outfit for the wedding was perfectly appropriate for my friends’ American weddings, I found myself to be wildly underdressed compared to most of the other guests. Fortunately, Lore’s family helped me get appropriately made up and groomed beforehand (makeup and hair especially) so I’d fit in better. I’ve been told it can be the same if you want to go “out on the town” in Lima.

Peru Tips: Advice from a Local and a Traveler, Pink Pangea

Peru Tips: Tips from a Local and a Traveler photos by Unsplash. 

About Kimberly Worsham

A nomadic heart from New York City, Kimberly Worsham has been passionate about travel once she found a closet in her house she could use as a traveling device when she was four. She has lived all over, including India and Rwanda on short-term projects, as well as a year in Europe for studying abroad. Currently residing in Australia, Kimberly is working on a second masters so she can work in WASH throughout the developing world. She loves getting completely immersed in new cultures, and cannot wait for her next adventure! Read more about Kimberly’s travels on her blog.

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