10 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Peru
On May 2016, we visited Cusco, a city with a great history and an impressive architecture. It stands 11,000 feet above sea level over layers of Killke, Inca, and Spanish culture.
We stayed at the JW Marriot El Convento Cusco and couldn’t have asked for better accommodations. The hotel is beautiful, with Inca and colonial history embedded in its walls.
We went to Peru for my friend's wedding, and she gave us the full Peruvian experience by hiring a tour guide. We went on a two-day excursion that included a tour of Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Urubamba, Valle Sagrado, and Machu Picchu.
Seeing Machu Picchu for the first time was both emotional and transformational. The site was built around the year 1450 but abandoned a century later during the Spanish conquest. Locals knew about Machu Picchu but kept it from the rest of the world in an effort to protect it. In 1911, American historian Hiram Bingham found it in his search for Vilcabamba, the capital of the Inca state. Vilcabamba is now known as “the lost city of the Incas” after being destroyed and lost by the Spanish.
There is nothing like experiencing Peru for yourself. Here are some tips to prepare you for a trip of a lifetime.
1. Get That Cash
Peru is a great destination for budget travel. The local currency is el Nuevo Sol, and the exchange rate is 3.20 – 3.40 soles to a dollar. We used our travel card throughout most of the trip to avoid exchange fees. However, because we needed cash to pay for cabs, tours, and the occasional souvenir, we exchanged money at the airport and at one of the exchange houses around town.
If your bank has a relationship with a bank in Peru and does not charge a foreign exchange fee, then I strongly suggest withdrawing soles from an ATM. No matter where you exchange, make sure your bills are new and crisp with no writing or rips of any kind.
2. Altitude Sickness is Real
Cusco's high altitude will get you sick, so make sure to stay hydrated and rest for a few hours upon landing. Drink plenty of Coca tea, and if that doesn’t help, go to the nearest pharmacy and buy altitude sickness medication.
3. Bring a Jacket
The temperature in Cusco tends to fluctuate, ranging from 30 – 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning and evenings, and around 60 degrees in the afternoon. I packed a mix of dresses and thick sweaters to accommodate the temperature changes. Because I went in March during raining season, I also brought hiking boots, a pair of sneakers, and a waterproof down jacket to stay dry and warm when visiting Machu Picchu.
4. Don't Forget Your Passport
You will need your passport almost everywhere you go, particularly Machu Picchu. The site has a strict policy and will not, under any circumstances, let you in if you don't have it.
5. Plan Ahead
Successful trips are about preparation. Book your tours ahead of time, preferably before you get to Peru, and make sure you have all your documents with you before taking off.
If you're getting to Machu Picchu through Peru Rail, make sure to print your tickets at least 24 hours before your trip. If you wait to collect your ticket at will call on the same day, Peru Rail will cancel your reservation.
6. Learn to Haggle
If you're a Spanish speaking tourist or have a very persuasive body language, I suggest you try to negotiate a 35% – 50% discount on the items you wish to purchase. Never pay the asking price unless you’re feeling very generous. We traveled with great negotiators and learned to haggle like a local.
Peru is a great place to shop for souvenirs if you go to the right place. We went to Centro Artesanal Cusco and found a great selection of high-quality items for less than half of what you would pay in other locations, particularly in the shops at the base of sites like Valle Sagrado and Machu Picchu. We bought dozens of items including leather bags, artisanal instruments, paintings, decorations, sweaters, blankets, and t-shirts, all for less than $200 dollars.
7. Be Aware of Scams
Peru is known for its cultural textiles. Those made out of Baby Alpaca are highly coveted and expensive, with prices going over 1500 soles ($500 dollars). I couldn't afford any real alpaca textiles, but if you're purchasing any of these items, make sure to go to an authorized shop as many fakes tend to be sold around the city.
8. Eat Like a Local
Peru is really cheap. You can have a good meal at a hole in the wall spot for less than 10 soles and enjoy a decadent three-course meal for two at a good restaurant for about 30 - 40 soles.
Enjoy typical dishes like ceviche, lomo saltado (stir fried beef), and pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). There's a strong Asian influence in Peru, so you will find dishes like arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice) which is absolutely delicious. Peruvians eat cuy, or guinea pig, but I couldn't muster the courage to eat such a cute and precious little animal.
When it comes to tipping, most restaurants and bars automatically add 10% gratuity to the bill, but locals tend to leave one or two soles in mom and pop restaurants that don’t include tip.
9. Drink Up, If You Can
For the first half of the trip, the altitude sickness had me feeling dizzy, almost drunk, so I had no desire to smell, let alone consume, alcohol.
If you've got the energy, take advantage of the affordable price of alcohol in Peru. Try Pisco sour, the country's signature drink, which is made out of lemon juice, egg white, pisco, and simple syrup.
10. Be a Kind Guest
Peruvians are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. However, because their economic situation is not the best, you will find people trying to sell you something almost everywhere you go.
Young girls dressed in traditional Peruvian attire will approach you for a picture and immediately ask you for money. They are constantly wary of the tourist police who discourage this practice.
Despite the nuisance of street vendors, make sure to be a kind guest. Be firm but polite when declining their offers since their economic survival depends on people like you.
What lessons have you learned while traveling? Let us know your travel plans and post your comments and questions in the comments section.