21 Things to Know Before Traveling to Peru
Peru is a fascinating country that has something for every type of traveler. Whether you are eager to marvel at the ancient Incan architecture, try food in the foodie capital of the world, or be immersed in beautiful, natural landscapes, Peru will leave you fully content. To help you make the most out of your trip, here are 21 things to know before traveling to Peru:
1) You don't need a visa.
Peru does not require a tourist visa from citizens of the United States and most Western European countries. You just need your passport to have at least two blank pages for stamps. You are only allowed to stay on a tourist visa for a maximum of 183 days per year.
2) There are two major transportation hubs.
The two major airport hubs in Peru are Jorge Chávez in Lima (LIM) and Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco (CUZ).
3) Request a window seat if you are flying to Cusco.
Flying from Lima to Cusco, you will find the most picturesque views of the Andes mountains. Sit by the window to soak it all in as you soar across the canyons and mountains.
4) Take Uber.
We got around Lima primarily using Uber. Our Uber ride from LIM to Barranco was 50% less than what the airport taxis were quoting. The only downside to using Uber at LIM was that the internet connection was spotty, which made communication with the Uber driver difficult.
We found that the best place to meet the Uber driver at the airport was by the parking areas.
5) Taxi drivers are aggressive at the airport.
Beware that taxi drivers at the airport are super aggressive. It can be overwhelming. They usually listen after the third "No" though. Don't tell them you're taking an Uber -- it will only add more fuel to their fire.
6) Private drivers are affordable.
Since we were short on time, we got around Peru primarily with private drivers who also served as guides. To get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, we hired a private driver online through Taxidatum for 110 soles (33 USD). While we could have gotten a taxi for as low as 60 soles (18 USD), we wouldn't be guaranteed that the car would be comfortable or that the driver spoke English. To go from Ollantaytambo to Cusco via the Sacred Valley, our hotel recommended a driver/ guide whom we hired for the day at 283 Soles (86 USD).
7) Altitude sickness is real.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness, also known as 'sororche' in Peru, happens at heights of 8,000 feet (2,500m) above sea level. At high elevations of 8,000 feet and above, the air is “thinner". This means there is less pressure, so despite the oxygen percentage staying the same, the air is less dense. Each breath you take contains less oxygen than normal. Because we have amazing biological protections in place to prevent oxygen deprivation, your body will counteract this by breathing faster to circulate blood quicker and get the same amount of oxygen it's used to receiving. For most people, this is traumatic for the body and results in various symptoms.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart racing
Peru's geography is very diverse and if you are traveling beyond Lima, you are most likely going to visit a high-elevation city during your trip. The public health nerd in me furiously researched how to avoid altitude sickness before my trip. It did strike a bit of fear in me, as I am mildly asthmatic. But I wasn't going to let it stop me from experiencing the unique beauty of Machu Picchu and Cusco. The crazy thing about altitude sickness is that you cannot predict whether you will get it or not. Your level of physical fitness, age, and gender have no effect on whether you will get altitude sickness. However, people at increased risk for feeling its effects include those with heart or lung problems.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
The good news is that there are a plethora of ways to prevent altitude sickness.
- Acclimate at a lower altitude, and ascend slowly. My itinerary order completely changed once I learned about the acclimatization process. I initially had Rainbow Mountain (17,000 feet above sea level) on the 2nd day of arriving in Peru. Thank God for the internets for saving my friends and I, that would have definitely been a struggle. A slow ascent is highly recommended. If possible, give your body time to get used to the altitude, as proper acclimatization is the best defense against altitude sickness. I reorganized our 9-Day itinerary to be acclimatization-friendly in the following way:
Days 1-2: Lima (505 ft / 154 m)
Day 3: Ollantaytambo (9,160 ft / 2,792 m) via Cusco (11,152 ft / 3,399 m)
Day 4: Machu Picchu during the day (7,972 ft / 2,430 m), Ollantaytambo at night
Day 5-6: Cusco (11,152 ft / 3,399 m)
Day 7: Rainbow Mountain ( 17,060 ft/ 5,200m)
Day 8-9: Lima (505 ft / 154 m)
- Take it easy during the first 24 hours at a high elevation. Day 3 in Peru was our first day at an elevation above 8,000 feet. This was an easy travel day for us; we flew into Cusco and then drove to Ollantaytambo.
- Avoid alcohol. There are some studies that show that high altitudes enhances the effects of alcohol and can worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness.
- Drink plenty of water. In general this is a good rule of thumb when traveling; however, high elevations in particular can be very dry. Keep yourself properly hydrated by drinking lots of water.
- Eat high-carbohydrate foods. Beyond affecting the oxygen levels in your blood, the change in air pressure between high and low altitudes can impact your electrolytes, fluid levels, and salt levels. Loading up on carbs like pasta, potatoes, and bread may not be great for your diet, but it's good for helping you adjust to the altitude shift.
- Chew coca leaves or drink coca tea. Although scientifically unproven, chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea are remedies for altitude sickness that are highly recommended by locals (and locals always know best). Coca leaves are raw materials for cocaine, although the amount of cocaine alkaloid in coca is very small, and the effects are different. In high altitude cities, you can find coca leaves everywhere. There were coca leaves for us as soon as we departed the plane in Cusco, and most hotels offer leaves and tea. There are also coca candies!
- Medication is available. Acetazolamide (Diamox) is the most common prescribed medication for altitude sickness. Starting the day before I arrived in Cusco, I took 2 pills daily. I was the only one in my group of three that took prescription medicine. My friends used ibuprofen prophylactically. I can say that I experienced less altitude related symptoms than them. They experienced a lot of shortness of breath and headaches, especially while climbing up stairs.
8) Don't drink the tap water.
9) Carry a hat and use sunblock.
At high altitudes, sunburn is worsen (even on an overcast day). When you’re at an elevated altitude, protect yourself by wearing a hat and using sunblock.
Where to Stay
10) Give Lima a chance.
People often complain about Lima, but I truly enjoyed it. Lima was actually the city that enticed me to come back and explore Peru more deeply. At the very least, it is the gastronomical capital of the world, which is more than enough reason to come and explore its restaurant scene. In Lima, we stayed in Airbnbs in Barranco and Miraflores. I loved Barranco for its intriguing street art and hipster feel, and I loved Miraflores for its bougie feel.
11) In Cusco, stay close to Plaza de Armas.
When choosing your accomodations in Cusco, it's good to pick places central to Plaza de Armas as it's a central hub of activity! We visited Cusco in June, which was a time of great celebration in the city. The Jubilee celebrations in Cusco last for several weeks in Cusco and showcase Andean and Incan culture and religious traditions. Most events take place in the Main Square and are free!
12) When visiting Machu Picchu, stay in Ollantaytambo.
We stayed in Ollantaytambo because it is an interesting town and so we could have a closer commute to Machu Picchu (1 hour and 50 minutes as opposed to 3 hours and 20 minutes from Cusco). Some people choose to stay in Agua Calientes (the town of Machu Picchu); however accomodations there tend to be pricier.
13) Peru can get cold!
We traveled during Peru's winter, which is their dry season. Dry season is the perfect time to see main attractions like Machu Picchu, but it can get extremely cold. Layering was critical because throughout the day, temperatures ranged from low 30s to high 60s. Beware that most hotels don't have central heating systems but do provide space heaters and alpaca blankets.
14) Learn some Spanish.
Peru is a multi-lingual country where the official language is Spanish. It would be helpful to know a few basic Spanish phrases. The indigenous languages, Quechua and Aymara, are also widely spoken.
15) The Voltage Is Higher in Peru.
If you are from the U.S., you don't need a power adapter because we use the same plugs as Peru. However, you should note the difference in the electrical sockets of the U.S. (120 volts) and Peru (220 volts). This isn't an issue because most electronics tend to work with a wide range of voltages, but your devices will charge much faster and heat up while doing so. Make sure to unplug your devices when you’re done charging so you don't stress the circuitry.
16) Bring your own toilet paper and don't flush it in the toilet.
You usually have to pay a small fee (1-2 soles) to use public bathrooms at historical sites. I highly recommend carrying toilet paper or wipes with you, because it is not always available in restrooms. Also, don't throw the paper in the toilet, because this clogs drainage system and causes flooding. There is usually a trash bin next to the toilet for your tissue.
Sacred Valley Preparation
17) Prepare to hike at the ruins.
At the Ollantaytambo ruins, you will climb steep stone steps. The top of the steps will lead you to a hike along the mountain where you will find the best views of the city.
18) Get a tour guide.
Peru is filled with incredible history. It's one thing to marvel at the beauty of the sites, but having a guide to explain the history behind it enriches the experience.
19) Ask Before Photographing People
Life isn't a cover of the National Geographic. Never take a picture of someone's face without their permission. In main tourist landmarks like the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, you will find women and children dressed in traditional clothes and posing with llamas, alpacas and baby lambs. They make their living by charging tourists for photos.
20) Exchange a little money at the airport, but most in town.
We exchanged a little money at the airport, some at a bank in town (you will find the best exchange rates here), and once from an ATM. I have a Charles Schwab account that refunds me for ATM fees. I found that most places accept card; however, market vendors may charge you between 5-10% to use your card. Having my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card was clutch because it doesn't charge foreign-transaction fees and I earn bonus points on my purchases. Some places are cash only or they only accept Master Card. Also, make sure you confirm that the establishment accepts your card. One restaurant had a 'we accept Visa' advertisement on their window, but they didn't actually accept Visa.
21) Haggling in markets is expected.
Haggling is the norm in markets in Peru. I would start at half of the offering price and then work your way up. You usually have more bargaining power when paying in cash. Don't be afraid to walk away -- usually they will give you your best price offer.
Peru is an incredible place with some of the most friendliest people, colorful traditions, and rich history. With these things in mind and remaining open-minded, you will certainly have a memorable time!
What are some of your tips for traveling to Peru? Let me know in the comments.
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