Two weeks isn’t a long time, but it’s the amount of time most people are going to have for a vacation or holiday excursion. Given this, I chose to take two weeks to tour some of Peru’s most interesting areas in hopes of giving you information that will make your trip to Peru enjoyable and stress-free. This blog article isn’t designed to offer great detail, that will come in future posts. This article is to give you the basics that you’ll want to know to plan your trip and to make your time in Peru well spent.
Things You Cannot Afford to Overlook
- You cannot drink the water in Peru – it will make you sick. Hotels and restaurants offer plenty of bottled water options so don’t stress about this. In many places the water is brown. Don’t worry. You can pee in it and take a shower in it. Just don’t drink it, brush your teeth with it (even though I did a couple times) or otherwise ingest it. When ordering water, like in much of Europe, water with carbonation is most common so you need to specify that you want “still” water or water “without gas” in restaurants. They will ask you “with gas?” It will often sound like they’re asking you, “with a glass?” So don’t make the mistake of saying, “yes” (like I did) unless you like carbonated water. Ask for water without gas or when buying water in a store look for “sin gas” on the bottle. This is Spanish for “without gas” which is the same as bottled water you find most commonly in the USA.
You will need cash – by this I mean Peruvian Nuevos Sol (pronounced like soul) commonly called Soles. Keep plenty on you. You can get them at any number of the many money exchange spots you’ll see in Peru or any bank in that country. ATMs will also give you the option of US dollars or Peruvian Soles. Credit cards like Visa and Master Card are usually accepted, but they want cash if at all possible and especially if you want to get a better price (see below). In most areas you can use US dollars but they will give you change in Soles so you may as well use Soles to begin with. Also, if you use dollars, they will not accept any dollars that are not new and in perfectly new condition so do not fold or bend your dollars. Banks won’t allow them to be exchanged so the people in Peru want new, crisp dollars only. If they are willing to accept your dollars, they will do their own calculations on the currency exchange rate which may vary from business to business so just keep Soles on you and you’re fine. Be sure to spend them all before leaving the country.
- Haggling is expected – if you are paying with cash, you have haggling leverage. Once you find out the initial price, if you feel like practicing your haggling skills, offer a much lower amount. According to a number of my tour guides, it is not unusual for the initial price to be about 3 times what they’ll actually expect to get for most items. Depending on how much they come off the initial price you’ll know how to proceed. I tend to only come off my original offer just slightly each time, forcing them to lower their price or just refuse the sale altogether. Of course if you just want to buy the souvenir without haggling, you can certainly do that too. Keep in mind that this is part of their culture and it is not considered rude as long as you are respectful during the process. And, if you are buying a higher quality item, of course less haggling is going to happen. But most of the items found in the local markets are synthetic, relatively cheap and factory made so haggle all you want and the worst thing that can happen is your offer is refused and you pay a bit more – no harm done.
The local markets are full of junk – well maybe it’s not junk, but it isn’t usually what it is advertised to be. For example you’ll see alpaca blankets for sale that are not real alpaca wool, but synthetic. This is commonplace in the large markets. You might expect the local people selling their wares in markets and on the side of the road to be offering handmade, high quality and authentic items but this isn’t the case. It’s all fake! And by fake, I mean it is not hand made, nor is it usually made from high quality materials. So when I say “fake” I don’t mean worthless, I just mean it’s not truly hand made. The local markets are full of factory made items that the locals push off on you as handmade and high quality but there are almost no authentic, handmade items being sold by the local people in the markets. I tell you this because dozens of tour guides and locals told me this throughout my trip in Peru and after experiencing this amazing place in person, I can say that this seems true in almost all cases. Ironically, it is not the local people, but the nicer stores that will usually have more authentic items made from authentic materials. Even some stores in the Lima airport will offer items made from real materials such as baby alpaca or llama. The locals have access to factory items mass produced to sell to tourists and they’ll ask high prices for these products in the markets. Two rules to consider according to the guides I traveled with – the brighter the colors and the looser the weaving, the cheaper the product usually is. Real (hand made) materials are tightly woven, not as bright and are heavier than synthetic versions.
- Bring wet weather clothing – Peru has 28 of the 32 possible types of climate found on the planet. Peru’s landscapes and climate are incredibly diverse and the weather changes in a split second. Bring a rain coat and some water resistant boots/shoes because chances are you will need them.
Muña Tea trumps Coca for altitude concerns – I had no trouble whatsoever, but I found people all over the place suffering from headaches, dizziness and other symptoms associated with altitude sickness. If you eat plenty of quality iron containing meat and exercise vigorously on a regular basis, your body is in better condition to take on the demands of Peru’s high altitudes of Machu Picchu at 8,000 ft., Cusco at 11,200 ft. and Puno and Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet above sea level. If you do not have a high level of physical fitness, take your first day at altitude and eat well, drink a lot of water and rest. Let your body adapt. Skip the alcohol initially. Drink water and lots of it! Eat some sugary foods too. Try the coca leaves, try the teas if you want but all of the native guides I met told me that Muña Tea is the best method for dealing with altitude concerns that are not emergency conditions. Muña Tea is not very often mentioned even in Peru, but it is readily available and those that tried it told me they really felt much better after drinking it.
- Get a Yellow Fever Vaccination – it’s actually required, but in my experience not really enforced. But why chance getting held up at the airport for not having it. Peru wants your tourism money so I doubt you would be refused entry, but don’t chance it. If you’re going into the rainforest, you could get Yellow Fever (or malaria for that matter) quite easily and it can kill you so don’t take the risk. The shot is cheap and easy to get at your local health clinic.
You toss toilet paper in the trash – or at least that’s what you’re supposed to do. Peru’s water infrastructure isn’t very good so they don’t want toilet paper in their sewers. I actually ignored this aspect of their expectations a couple of times before adopting the practice. I was initially thinking, “you can’t charge me high dollars to stay at a 3 or 4 star hotel and expect me to put my poop covered toilet paper in the trash can” but that wasn’t very cool of me so I began to comply a couple of days into my journey.
Things I Recommend You Consider
- Spend time exploring in Lima – the capital city may not be the prized jewel of Machu Picchu but it’s a growing, fun and interesting city. I loved Lima, you can see the progress everywhere. The trendy Barranco District was awesome, very “artsy” and eclectic with tons of cool little bars and restaurants, all unique in their own right, nestled overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Miraflores is where I recommend staying if possible. It’s safe at all hours and is right in the center of it all. When I go back to Peru I will spend at least 5 or 6 days exploring Lima and meeting more of the people of that great city.
Buy high quality, authentic items – I found them in various places. The key is to avoid impulse shopping. Anything you see in a market in Cusco is also going to be in every other market in Peru. There is no rush to buy something like that. But places where authentic hand made items are sold do exist you just have to search for them. Like I said before, the nicer stores have high quality products as do specialty shops like the one I found in Cusco owned by my new friend Pablo. His mother created their business years ago and they deal only in authentic native Peruvian textiles like ponchos, belts, blankets, rugs and hats. Find a place like this and the money you spend will be well worth it.
- Use a Peruvian company to schedule your trip – This ended up being the best choice ever made! We used a Lima-based company called Peru Trip Advisors and their level of service and efficiency blew my mind. Everywhere from the various airports throughout Peru where shuttle drivers were there to greet us, to Machu Picchu and the rainforest in Puerto Maldonato, our guides, shuttle drivers and hotel concierge were all seamlessly organized, timely and fully informed of our travel plans. The process actually exceeded my expectations and I can recommend this company to you without reservation. We also paid about half of what other agencies were charging.
Get an external battery – This saved me at least 4 or 5 different times over my two week trip. You’re going to be on your phone and camera a lot wherever you travel and there isn’t always time to charge your device. Could you imagine being at Machu Picchu and running out of camera battery? Bummer! Having an external battery will allow you to charge your camera as you tour. I almost ran out of phone and camera battery a couple of times, but had a fully charged battery in no time by keeping my Anker Portable Charger
with me each day of my trip to Peru. This is a small investment that pays off big time!
Break-in your boots before leaving for Peru – I wear a couple different types of boots, but if you have a brand new pair on your feet and think you’re going to hike the terraced ruins of the Sacred Valley without blisters, you have another thing coming. Do not leave for Peru without a well worn pair of boots or hiking shoes. You’ll be glad you resisted the urge to buy a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots to wear while you climb the mountains around Machu Picchu. That’s a recipe for a ton of pain and discomfort. Be smart and make sure any shoes you bring with you to Peru are broken-in and comfortable being on your feet for many hours over different terrains.
Everything else that we could discuss is really just stuff that isn’t essential. I’ll deal with some of that in later articles. I think of the things above as integral to an enjoyable experience while touring the beautiful country of Peru. Take this advice to heart and use it and you’ll find that everything I’ve mentioned here is not only true, but is also helpful in giving you the best possible experience during your time in Peru.
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