Peru Travel Guide: Overview
From the Amazon jungle to the east to the Pacific Ocean to the west, Peru is extraordinarily diverse. In fact, few places on this planet can claim the geographical variety of this South American nation. Peru contains the Andes Mountains, towering 20,000 feet above the sea, and some of the oldest and most preserved mountain cultures, histories and people living among those peaks. It contains the Amazon jungle, teeming with life of all kinds and inviting travelers to brave the heat and humidity to experience some of the most unique nature and wildlife in existence. It even contains one of the driest deserts in the world, as well as Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in the continent and the purported birthplace of the Incas and many of their gods.
The people also reflect this diversity as many are direct descendants of the ancient indigenous cultures. The Spanish and European influence is apparent, and there’s a small yet significant population of immigrants from Japan and China, who continue to bring their unique, vibrant cuisines to the nation. This combination creates one of the most fascinating, rewarding and culturally interesting societies in Latin America. Welcome!
Just about any Peru travel guide will discuss the Incas, one of the native Peruvian peoples, but the Incas were actually the last of many pre-Colombian civilizations that called Peru and the Andes Mountains home. In fact, traces of human habitation in Peru go all the way back to approximately 9,000 BC. The many archeological remains (ruins, villages, farming terraces, temples and mysterious sites, such as Machu Picchu) are evidence of the rich history of these complex civilizations. Most of these sites are located in the Sacred Valley and areas where Backroads offers its Peruvian trips.
After the rise of the Incas in the 13th century and their prominence for the next 400 years, they ultimately met their fate as victims of conquest and colonization by the Spanish conquistadors, who invaded in the mid-16th century. The land remained in Spanish control until the formal declaration of independence in 1821. It took a few more years and a number of battles with their neighbors, as well as the Spanish, but Peru eventually gained true independence.
More recently, the second half of the 20th century marked a number of coup d’états in Peru. These resulted in decades of economic turbulence and the formation of antigovernment insurgent movements, such as the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a group that resorted to violence to achieve their objectives and, ultimately, caused tremendous upheaval and disruption to the country in the 1980s and 90s. Stronger central leadership in the 1990s helped stabilize Peru's economic troubles, reduce its massive inflation, quell the insurgent movements and pave the path for increased economic development. With the added stability came an age of increased tourism, which Peru enjoys to this day.
Peru's culture is a fascinating mixture of elements from its storied past. It’s a combination of indigenous customs and more recent Spanish and European influences. Much of its artistic traditions date back to the textiles, pottery, sculptures and jewelry of pre-Incan cultures. These traditions are reflected in the selection and quality of crafts, artwork and handmade items you can find, especially when visiting markets and authentic shops. Andean cultures integrated many animals into their spiritual practices and, in turn, their artwork. Look for hummingbirds, condors, llamas, serpents and pumas—just to name a few—in the textiles and artwork you come across. Architectural achievements, such as Machu Picchu, Saqsaywaman (outside Cusco), Pisac and the Nazca Lines (variously shaped geoglyphs found in the southern deserts), constitute some of the most interesting sites for travelers and tourists.
Although the country is predominantly Catholic, many Peruvians integrate traditions of their Andean ancestors into the Christian faith. You’re particularly likely to see this unique mixture of religious and cultural customs in areas with stronger indigenous influence, such as Cusco, Puno and Lake Titicaca. It's not uncommon for a Peruvian to say a prayer to an animal deity in Quecha (one of its three official languages, which is still widely spoken in indigenous areas) while on the way to a Catholic Mass on Sunday. These qualities make Peru one of the continent’s more culturally rich countries.
Backroads Pro Tip
There's a significant difference between the leaves of the coca plant (which have been a spiritual part of Peruvian culture for hundreds of years) and what is turned into cocaine. Chewing coca, drinking its tea or eating coca candies is common and accepted in Peru, particularly in Cuzco and the Andes. In fact, locals claim coca is the best treatment for altitude sickness. Feel free to try it while you're there (it's not psychoactive), just don't bring it home with you as US Customs still considers it illegal.
Good to Know
When traveling in Peru, keep some of the following in mind:
The official currency is the nuevo sol, or sol, as it's more simply known. You’ll often see it written as "S/" before or after a price. ATMs are available at most airports and in nearly all major tourist cities, sites and towns. Even very small towns in touristy areas will likely have functioning ATMs. Currency exchange is widely available in Cusco, Lima and most major cities and tourist sites. US dollars are generally not accepted, however, so it's best to have local currency with you at all times. Always try to break your bills into small denominations since many locals, stores and vendors often cannot make change for larger bills.
Tap water is not safe to drink in Peru, but bottled water is readily available and cheap. It’s even a wise practice to brush your teeth with bottled water.
Tipping is not expected or required. Leaving 10 percent for good service or rounding up your bill, however, is appreciated and common, especially in touristy areas.
Peruvians are generally friendly and welcoming, but learning a few basic Spanish phrases will go far in getting an extra-warm welcome from locals. Most of the country is Catholic, but especially in the countryside and mountain towns, pre-Christian religions are still common. Respect these traditions as you visit temples and ruins. The word “gringo” is not offensive and is widely used to refer to Americans and white people who don't speak Spanish. If you hear it, don't be surprised or offended.
Most Peruvian outlets have both type A (American) and type C (European) plugs, but the current is 220 volt and 60 hertz. It's uncommon to find grounded outlets (type B), but you might find them occasionally. If a US-made electronic item doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary.
Aside from higher-end hotels and restaurants in cities and towns, public bathrooms in Peru can be primitive and a bit dirty. Carrying hand sanitizer and toilet paper is always a good idea, especially when you’re out for the day. Feminine hygiene products are not as readily available as in the United States, so plan for this in advance.
When To Visit Peru
Because of its proximity to the equator, much of Peru sees relatively little difference in temperatures throughout the year. Instead, the climate depends more on geography. Since most visitors will spend a majority of their time in and around Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and sites along the way, it's good to know that the winter months of December – March are the wet season when there is a lot of rainfall, which can impact travel and outdoor activities. The best months to visit are the drier, yet slightly cooler and sunnier months of May - September. Because so much of the worthwhile sites are at high elevation (Cuzco sits at more than 11,000 feet), it does cool off at night, sometimes near freezing. But as soon as the morning sun rises, temperatures rise to more temperate levels. As expected, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall are a bit less reliable as the weather could be dry and sunny or rainy like winter.
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- In addition to Spanish, Peru has two other official languages, which come from its long history of Andean civilizations: Quecha and Aymara.
- There are over 4,000 different varieties of potatoes grown in Peru.
- Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world with an elevation of 11,436 feet.
Regions and Cities
Peru's geography is very diverse but the country (and its more visited areas) can very loosely be divided into three regions: the coast, the Andes and the Amazon jungle.
The country has a long coastline, which includes the capital of Lima, as well as two of its other largest cities: Trujillo and Chiclayo.
The capital city and where the majority of international flights arrive, Lima is situated on the coast and is home to approximately one-third of the country's 30 million people. It's a large city that’s well known for its unique and innovative cuisine.
The second largest mountain chain in the world runs north to south through the middle of the country with massive peaks, ancient ruins, countless historical sites and stunning scenery.
The historical hub of the Incan civilization, Cusco has a number of memorable and beautiful ruins, temples, museums and historical sites within the city and immediately surrounding it. It is also a thriving hub of tourism with countless hotels, restaurants and stores of all types that range from budget to luxury.
Another high-altitude (12,500 feet) city that’s historically and culturally rich, Puno offers many tourist facilities and access to Lake Titicaca and other historical sites.
This extremely high-altitude lake is gorgeous and has a rich history and spiritual significance. The Incas believed that the sun, moon, and life were all created from the lake and there are islands where visitors can take boats to see locals still carrying on centuries-old traditions.
Although this city, Peru's second-largest, doesn’t have much in the way of pre-Colombian history like Cusco and Puno, its colonial architecture and rich mix of indigenous and Spanish cultures make it a worthwhile and pleasant city to visit.
It's hard to believe that not far from the 20,000 foot peaks of the Andes lies the largest rainforest in the world. Explore this area to see vegetation and wildlife unlike any other.
The gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, Iquitos offers many activities in the surrounding area, such as riverboat tours, jungle excursions and wildlife viewing.
Worth a Visit
No first time trip to Peru would be complete without visiting this magical site high atop the mountains. There are still many mysteries about the origins and uses of various parts of the ruins, which is all the more reason to allow imagination to supplement the beauty and splendor of this wonder.
One of the planet’s more unique and mysterious sights, the Nazca Lines—giant geometrical figures drawn in the desert sand—are world famous.
If you're into surfing, Mancora is one of the continent’s better-known spots to catch waves and be on the beach.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Peru
To enter Peru, you must have a valid passport (with at least six months of validity), but no visa is necessary for a North American traveler, provided you aren’t staying for an extended period of time. Border officials will determine your length of approved stay at the time of entry, and this can range from 30 to 183 days.
Most international flights arrive at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport, where you can connect to domestic locations or other South American cities. Many international flights to Lima arrive in the evening, and there are no night flights to Cusco. You might, therefore, have to spend the night in Lima before catching your next flight to Cusco.
The best way to see Peru's main sites is by plane. Although distances between locations is not too far, the varied topography means bus and car travel can take a lot of time. That said, for shorter distances in similar geographic areas, such as Cusco to Puno, there are many bus options, a large number of which have first-class or, at least, comfortable seating.
While Peru has three official languages, Spanish is the primary language used at all levels of society. (Quecha and Aymara are the other two.) Tourism is a large component of Peru's economy, and in larger cities and touristy areas, you can expect to hear basic English. Still, it doesn't hurt to learn a few Spanish phrases as locals always appreciate this.
- Hello: Hola
- Good morning/day: Buenos dias
- Good afternoon/evening: Buenas tardes
- Please: Por favor
- Thank you: Gracias
- See you later: Hasta luego
- Good-bye: Adios
Food and Drink
In Peru, you'll find over 4,000 varieties of potatoes (they originated here), as well as 55 types of corn. It's the home of quinoa; a staggering number of tropical fruits; a range of seafood from the coasts, rivers and lakes and some of the best overall food you'll find on the continent. Lima is a hub of culinary creativity with some of the best chefs and restaurants in all of South America. It's also where the staggering variety of ingredients from all over the country are brought together and presented in a multitude of ways and preparations. Peru is also the birthplace of ceviche, which has exploded in popularity globally. Make sure to try the local version, which has local chili peppers (called aji) as well as sweet potatoes and/or corn to help soak up the tasty liquid.
If you're a fan of coffee or chocolate, you're in luck. Peru is a leading producer of both. Recently, locals are recognizing the abundance of globally loved foods and catering to this demand with new establishments and products that allow visitors to taste the best that the country has to offer. As if that weren't enough, the sizeable populations of Chinese and Japanese immigrants have provided a unique influence to the food in Peru. This is most apparent in one of the country's national dishes: lomo saltado. This favorite can be found all over and is made with tender chunks of beef, onions and bell peppers stir-fried in soy sauce and served over steamed rice and French fries. Delicious!
Food in Peru: What to Know and to Eat
Despite Peru’s large (and growing) tourism industry, it's still important to maintain caution and safety at all times. The poverty level is quite high here, and when it comes to Peru travel, it's not unusual to see children and adults with obvious medical problems and poor hygiene asking for money or food. Please maintain respect when encountering this, and don’t react aggressively. While it might sound callous, avoid giving money to any begging children. Adults often force these kids to beg on the street and then take the resulting money at the end of each day. Giving money only perpetuates this cycle.
It's a good idea to only take with you what you need for the day and keep everything hidden or in a money belt. Some cash, one or two credit/ATM cards and a copy of your passport is generally all you need when you're out. Leave your actual passport, larger sums of cash, backup credit cards and other valuables in your hotel safe. Be aware of common scams and offers from strangers. For example, someone might offer a photo with a llama or a deal of some kind, but most likely the person will ask for money for this interaction.
Taxis differ from place to place. (Sometimes they use meters; other times, it's a set price, depending on the destination.) Just make sure you’re clear with your driver in advance about the payment logistics. It's best to let your hotel or other official places arrange your taxis for you. Don't ever take an unmarked or unofficial taxi.
It's helpful to know that Peru has extremely strict punishments for those caught committing crimes against tourists. In main areas of Cusco, Lima and other tourist centers, clearly uniformed tourism police are generally present. They’re there solely to maintain tourists' safety, so if something does happen to you, report it to the police immediately. If you can't find police, let your hotel, driver or guides know. While it's important to be careful and cautious, this doesn't mean you shouldn’t talk to anyone! Greet people, practice a few Spanish words, and feel free to chat with locals.
For medical emergencies, dial 106 for assistance. For police emergencies, the emergency phone number is 105.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Peru adventure!