17 Things to Know Before Traveling to Peru
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Peru was unexpectedly remarkable – from the scenery to the culture. Planning a trip to Peru, however, can be a bit daunting, especially if you have never been to South America before. This may stop some travelers from pursuing their interest in Peru. With some preliminary research, visiting Peru is no more difficult (but possibly 10x more rewarding) than anywhere else in the world.
To help you get started planning your trip, here are the 17 most asked questions for people preparing for a trip to Peru.
1. Do I need a Visa?
Peru essentially has an open door for most visitors. If you are from North America, South America, European Union, Australia, or New Zealand, you do NOT need a visa and are free to be in the country for 183 days per year. If your passport is from Africa (besides South Africa), select countries in the Caribbean or Asia, or from a non-EU European country, you may need to apply for a visa prior to arriving in Peru.
2. What Vaccines do I need?
Besides being up-to-date with your routine vaccines, the CDC recommends all travelers get the Hep A and Typhoid vaccines 4-6 weeks before arriving. Depending on where in the country you are visiting, you may also need vaccines for Yellow Fever, Malaria, Rabies, and Hep B. Yellow Fever and Malaria vaccines are recommended if you are going to areas in Eastern Peru with lower altitudes and high mosquito populations.
Our itinerary stuck to altitudes above 2,300 meters so we just made sure we were vaccinated for Hep A and Typhoid.
3. HOw Do I Prevent Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness is no joke. Don’t plan any long hikes or busy schedules for the first day you arrive at a higher altitude. Even if you don’t get physically ill, you will likely be breathing heavier, walking slower, and enduring a headache. More severe altitude sickness is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and feeling out of breath even when resting.
The only cure for Altitude Sickness is time or going back to a lower altitude. That doesn’t help if you came to Peru to explore the beautiful Andean Highlands.
A few tips to help prevent it or alleviate some of the symptoms:
Plan your itinerary so you gradually increase elevation. We started in the Sacred Valley (2,900m), before going to Cusco (3,400m), and then to Lake Titicaca (3,800m).
Eat smaller meals with carbs. Altitude sickness causes a loss of appetite, so you likely won’t feel up for large meals anyways.
Drink a lot of water.
Take Ibuprofen. Research has shown it can prevent altitude-induced headaches and other symptoms.
Locals may also suggest chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea. We did not find that this helped and there is no scientific evidence that it does anything for altitude sickness. Might just be the wonderful placebo effect.
4. Can I drink the water?
No. Not unless you use a water filter like this or vigorously boil it for 3 minutes.
While it is not the most environmentally-friendly option, most hotels will provide 2 complimentary bottles of water a day in your room. You can also buy water for relatively cheap at local convenience stores (away from the touristy areas). We bought a couple large 2.5L water jugs to refill our reusable water bottles.
Avoid ice in drinks or ask if their ice was made with purified water. It might also be wise to not use tap water for brushing your teeth.
5. Is it safe?
Yes! Peru’s crime rates are on par with most of the major cities around the world. There was not a single instance where I felt unsafe during our 2-week trip, even when walking alone as a young woman at night. I can’t say the same about my midwestern US hometown.
Obviously, you still need common sense, knowledge of the area, and to be cautious. In most areas, it is better to dress down and not to look too touristy. Less jewelry, hide your camera, keep your purse/backpack closed or locked, and limit the cash on you. Be alert, especially in crowded areas.
While in Lima, stay in Miraflores or San Isidro, as other districts can be unsafe at night.
Safety in Peru has drastically increased in the last few years and likely will continue to do so as tourism rates increase.
6. What is the best time of Year to go?
There are few things to note when picking what time of the year to go to Peru:
The Inca Trail is closed in February to allow for maintenance.
The wet season is from November to April. During the height of the wet season, trails might be muddy or closed. Most days, you’ll experience afternoon showers, possibly limiting the amount of sightseeing time.
June to August is the busiest time. You will need to book train and entry tickets for Machu Picchu and permits for the Inca Trail months in advance. Once you get there, you will be fighting crowds.
We’d suggest either side of the shoulder season. Visit either during May or September for lower crowds and dry days.
7. Can I haggle?
Yes! Haggling or bargaining is expected at markets or if buying something directly from an individual (taxis, tours, etc). This won’t work in restaurants with set prices or higher-end stores. Unlike in other countries where haggling in common, Peruvians will not start at 5x what it should cost and you have to game it all the way down. Vendors will set the price a bit above what the anticipate selling it for and are willing to go down a small percentage to make the sale. Don’t expect to walk away with a T-shirt with a price tag of 40 soles for 4 soles. It just won’t happen.
8. Do most locals speak English?
Not really. Many locals involved in the tourism industry will speak English, but beyond that, you might need at least basic Spanish to order food, go shopping, or pick up a taxi.
We do not speak Spanish but were able to get by fine. Before arriving in Peru, we learned basic words and phrases. We used google translate when needed while we were there. For taxis, we either arranged them through our hotel, used Uber (in Lima), or relied on our minimal Spanish.
In short, you can survive in Peru without Spanish, but knowing it would make your life easier.
9. Will my credit card be accepted at shops?
Cash is preferred in Peru. Many shops and food stalls will be cash-only. Markets definitely will be. However, both Peruvian soles and US dollars are widely accepted. Occasionally, vendors won’t give you the best exchange rate if you are paying with US dollars, but there is also a chance it might be slightly cheaper to pay in USD. The exchange rate is pretty constant day-to-day and month-to-month. You can withdraw both USD and soles from ATMs in Peru.
Credit Cards are typically accepted at hotels and higher-end shops and restaurants, with Visa being the most widely-accepted card. Be sure to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
10. What weather should I expect?
Peru has wet and dry seasons. Since it is in the Southern Hemisphere, Peru’s winter and dry season are from April to October. Temperatures do not change drastically throughout the year. You can expect temperatures in the 60-70sºF (17-26ºC) during the daytime when you visit. While up in the Highlands, days are warm but nights are chilly.
If you are visiting during the wet season, expect dry mornings but rain outbursts in the afternoon.
11. What do I need to pack?
Check out our post on What to Pack for Peru. We packed everything for 9 Days in a Carry-On.
12. Should I rent a car?
We would advise against renting a car and driving yourself in Peru. This is for a few reasons.
The first being that the distances to get between cities is quite long. Unless you love driving, multiple 10+ hour drives aren’t ideal. Rental cars can be pricey (especially if doing a one-way rental), same with gas and tolls. Taking a comfortable, higher-end bus is cheaper than driving yourself. Flights will likely cost slightly more or the same as driving but will cut your travel time drastically (think 10 hours vs 2 hours).
The roads and drivers are chaotic. Lanes aren’t really treated as such. Cars will just move about as they please down the road, driving in the middle of a lane line is common, so is 4 cars across on a 2 lane road. In cities, mototaxis will squeeze in between cars or on the curb. Many of the roads in the Andean Highlands are switch-backs in the mountains. Drivers are not afraid to pass you while taking a sharp dangerous blind turn. That includes drivers of big trucks or buses. Honking is frequent in cities. All in all, Peruvian drivers are seriously skilled, but they take unexplainable risks and overestimate their abilities. If you are not that skilled or unable to handle the stress, don’t attempt it.
Along with the scary drivers, the roads themselves do not always have road signs or lighting for driving at night. Google maps might not be able to lead you to the right place. Chances are you will need to ask for directions at least once, requiring some basic Spanish.
There is also no need to rent a car once at each location. Taxis are remarkably cheap. You can get a taxi and driver for the full day for cheaper than renting a car. This allows you the flexibility to make your own schedule compared to an organized tour. We used taxidatum in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Lima to organize taxis in advance.
13. How Long should I spend at each place?
It may vary depending on who you ask, but these are our suggestions:
Lima – 1-2 Days
Cusco – 3 Days
Sacred Valley – 2-3 Days
Inca Trail – 4 Days
Lake Titicaca – 1-2 Day
Arequipa – 2 Days
Colca Canyon – 2-3 Days
Nazca Lines – 1-2 Days
Amazon Rainforest – 4 Days
The length of time you can spend in Peru will determine how many places you can see. Note, these times do not include traveling between cities. It may take a full day to travel between locations.
14. How do I get to Machu Picchu?
There are two popular methods:
Taking the train.
The most popular route for hiking to Machu Picchu is on the classic Inca Trail. This is the original trail that the Inca took to get from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. There are other alternatives if you want a different scenery, a less crowded trail, or did not get a permit in time for the Inca Trail. The Salkantay, Lares, and Ancascocha treks are all great alternatives.
If you are short on time or don’t fancy hiking all the way there, many visitors arrive at Machu Picchu on the train. You can pick up the train in Cusco or Ollantaytambo and it will drop you off in Machu Picchu Town. You will then need to take a bus up to Machu Picchu itself.
15. How much can I expect to spend on Food, ACCOMMODATIONS, tours, etc?
We wrote a whole post detailing every cent we spent on our 9-day trip through Peru.
Estimating the cost of travel to Peru can be incredibly difficult. While Peru is a fairly inexpensive country, typical costs can vary region to region and depend on your desired level of comfort.
16. Do I need to book train tickets or Machu Picchu Tickets ahead of time?
Yes! There is no way to buy Machu Picchu tickets once you are at the sight. There is a limited number of tickets to enter Machu Picchu each day. Depending on the time of year you are visiting, you may need to buy tickets a few months in advance.
The train tickets book out even faster. Book further in advance if you want the best choice of times.
17. Do I need travel insurance?
Naively, we have never gotten travel insurance before this trip. Travel insurance is a great idea, no matter where you are going. It is especially important for visiting a country like Peru. Even if you do not use it, it can provide incredible peace of mind. Travel insurance protects you in the case of theft, lost luggage, getting sick, or other unexpected complications.