There’s so much I could write on an advice standpoint for this amazing South American country. But I’ll limit it to five things I feel would benefit any traveler, regardless of their budget, while in Peru.
NOTE: As I only visited the Sacred Valley and the capital of Lima, my tips are based on my experience in those places. I’m sure that in a place like the Peruvian Amazon, there’s more advice to be had.
Don’t travel with ripped or torn bills
I had read prior to traveling to Peru that using or exchanging bills that are either ripped or torn is very hard to do. Peru (just like other developing nations) has a serious issue with counterfeiting and I suppose making it impossible to use non-perfect currency bills is the government’s solution for dealing with the problem. However, for visitors like myself, when you get money back from an ATM, the bills are often not in perfect condition. In the United States, save for one being almost ripped in half, “blemish bills” will always be accepted. In Peru this is not the case. On our first day there, we had finally arrived in Ollantaytambo after getting into Lima late at night the evening before, then enduring an early wake up for our flight to Cusco, and then being in a 90 minute car ride that was filled with hairpin turns and overwhelming smells of gasoline. I got ready to pay the driver and noticed that two of the bills I was planning on using had extremely small rips. Well, the driver immediately said along the lines “these won’t do” and that he wouldn’t be able to use them. As I just wanted to be out of the car, I mentally said “fine” to myself and swapped out one of the bills. For the second one though, I had no others to exchange (this was the tip) and I said that’s all I had. He grudgingly accepted it. The rest of the trip I tried to be extra aware of this.
Get a prescription for Acetazolamide aka Diamox
While I know there are plenty of travelers who go to Peru without any remedies for combating altitude sickness, I didn’t want to be one of them. Many people are fine, never really noticing any serious side effects, while others mainly in the form of horrific headaches and nausea/vomiting. Having only a week there, I didn’t want any of my trip being spent on the “sidelines,” and having to remain in bed because I physically couldn’t do anything else. Sure, I definitely felt tired and winded more easily but I shudder to think how I would have coped without taking diamox, the drug used to alleviate the symptoms. If you have no experience with high altitudes (we’re talking 9,000 feet and above), altitude sickness is no joke. Don’t travel to Peru’s Sacred Valley thinking, “oh, I’ll be fine.” Make some sort of preparation.
Pack accordingly…and then some
If you happen to travel to Peru’s Sacred Valley during the Southern Hemisphere winter, bring warm clothes. I cannot stress this enough. While nightly lows are nothing like what one would experience during an American winter, we’re still talking lows in the 40s, 30s and in a place where central heating is not the norm, it gets very cold. I became very familiar with this kind of weather when I lived in Costa Rica’s Central Valley-nice and pleasant during the day, even somewhat warm in the sun, but once said sun set, it got to be cold really fast. Our hotel room in Ollantaytambo did have a space heater. However, its cord was not very long, not to mention you want to have it stationed somewhere you won’t run into it and burn yourself if you get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. So in short, it heated a corner of the room (it was made further difficult since our lovely room had vaulted ceilings, get my point?). I packed us fleece pajama pants to sleep in and also brought sweatshirts to lounge in the room, but the first night I was so cold I actually went to bed wearing mine. Yes, it’s a pain to pack big, bulky articles of clothing when you won’t be using them the whole trip but there is nothing worse than being cold or being forced to spend money buying clothes just to stay warm. And pack gloves. I could have used them the morning of our 5 AM train ride to Machu Picchu, it was so cold.
If you’re flying on LAN Airlines out of Lima’s airport, check in ahead of time!
So, Lima’s airport is pretty bad from an infrastructure standpoint. Unlike international airports in major cities, ones where there are multiple terminals, Lima’s has a domestic terminal and an international terminal, with one section to check in for both international and domestic flights. Our flight to Cusco was on a Saturday so yes, more traffic than a standard weekday, but after arriving at the airport more than two hours in advance (the recommended time for domestic flights), I started to sweat when I saw the lines to check in. As we were traveling for the week, we were not doing carry on and had to check our bags; we had no other choice. The lines for LAN were so long I thought to myself we in no way would be making our flight even though we had hours to go. We got in line and basically, like Lima traffic, it just wouldn’t move. But then I started seeing different lines for those who had already checked in. I asked a worker for confirmation and this was indeed the case. Although these lines were no walk in the park, they were still eons shorter than if you had never checked in at all. Although I was still sweating a bit because the line moved interminably slow and, of course, some people were traveling with more luggage than those immigrants who had crossed the Atlantic, we made it. Thankfully security lines were a breeze in comparison. So the moral of the story is, LAN Airlines lets you check in 48 hours in advance (compared to 24 hours for American airlines). If you’re flying out of Lima on LAN (Peru’s biggest airline), do so. Trust me when I say you don’t want to risk the delays and stress.
Expect to be wowed…because you undoubtedly will be.
Excluding not being able to drink the water or flush the toilet paper, and the horrific Lima traffic, Peru truly is one of those destinations of a lifetime. Although it goes without saying to always go with an open mind (yes, service may be lax AND you might be pestered at every turn if you want to hire a taxi, take a picture with a sheep, or get a massage), you will be infinitely rewarded. The outdoor sights are amazing. The people are amazing. The food is varied AND amazing. I had always wanted to go to Peru to see Machu Picchu. And while making it to those incredible ruins is a memory I will always cherish, I had no idea just how much I would love about the rest of the country. In so many ways it was similar to other Latin American countries I’ve traveled to and lived in but in others, Peru was one hundred percent its own unique spot, which is why I loved it so.
P.S. Don’t rent a car…ever
No road signs…seat belts optional…switchbacks taken at 75 miles per hour…just don’t do it. Hiring a driver to squire you about is a much better and saner choice.