Top 10 Tips for Traveling Peru
A friend of mine is leaving for Peru tomorrow, and he called me up last week to get some advice for his trip.
Here are the top tips I gave him for traveling to Peru. They will work well for those traveling alone or in a group. But pay special attention if you’re traveling solo, particularly regarding the tips on money, as they will give you more confidence while traveling. These tips are especially meant for those traveling to Cusco and Machu Picchu, as most visits to Peru will include these popular sites.
So, let’s head to Peru, armed with these tips to make your stay even more fantastic!
- Bring two debit cards. Get a second debit card. Why? Peru is a high-risk country, and certain banks won’t let you take cash out there. Also, credit cards aren’t accepted many places in Peru – you need cash. When I called Chase Bank, they couldn’t guarantee that my card would be usable in Peru. Say whhaaatttt?! How could a major bank not let me pull out my own money? Answer: because they’ve had so many problems in that country. But don’t let this frighten you. We’re still going to Peru, and everything will be fine – because we’re prepared! At least a month before your trip, sign up for another debit card. I prefer Charles Schwab for traveling: you can open the account online, and they’ll refund all of your ATM fees. I had zero problems using my Charles Schwab account all over South America. After opening, deposit enough money in your new account to cover expenses for the start of your trip. Always keep your back-up debit card separate from the debit card you’re using, i.e. do not keep them both in your wallet or money belt, because if that gets stolen – you’re still screwed. My back-up card was hidden in my main luggage, and this served me well during my travels.
- Get change frequently in Peru.
What do I mean? Let’s say you take out $200 US dollars. You’re going to get most of your bills in 100 soles denominations (the Peruvian sol is their currency; soles is plural). 100 soles = roughly $30 US. That may not seem like a lot of money – but it is in Peru. Thus, most vendors won’t have change for 100 soles – especially taxi drivers! Taxi drivers in Peru are notorious for this. So, how can you be prepared? Get change frequently! Best places to get change: banks, busy restaurants, your hotel, or your tour guide.
3. Bring hydrochloric acid supplements. This is a tip from my naturopath – and I’m glad I took it. First off, what is hydrochloric acid? It’s an acid your stomach naturally produces in order to break down food. Why would you need this in Peru? Let’s say a piece of fruit you’re eating hasn’t been properly washed – hydrochloric acid will help your stomach break down and digest whatever parasites and organisms may be on that fruit. Gross? Yes. But frankly, having diarrhea is worse. Check with your doctor if you’re concerned about this supplement. But here’s the deal: I used hydrochloric acid before any “questionable” meal; my travel companion did not. She brought home a two-week stomach bug. I did not. Happy stomach = happy travels.
4. Bring Smooth Move Tea, probiotics, or a natural laxative. If you want a happy stomach, this is important. In Cusco, you’ll be at an elevation of 11,000 feet. At Machu Picchu, you’ll be at about 8,000 feet. Why is this important? At that altitude, your body is struggling to get oxygen to your brain and heart, meaning your digestive system will take a back seat. You will be less regular. I heard this from nearly every traveler I encountered in Cusco. So, if regularity is important to you: bring your preferred remedy. I use Triphala (an Ayurvedic herb, highly effective). But you could also bring fiber pills, Smooth Move tea, probiotics, etc. Once you come down in altitude, or your body adjusts, your digestive system should get back on track.
5. Bring sunscreen – even in winter. My friend and I made a huge mistake here: we were at Sacsayhuaman (historical site above Cusco) on a tour, wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants. It was a chilly day, with no sun. What was the problem? Our necks and ears got a blistering sunburn. Put sunscreen everywhere, even weird places like your head, neck, ears, hands, and feet. The high altitude will absolutely affect how much sun you get. Be prepared.
6. Be prepared for altitude sickness. I didn’t meet anyone in Cusco who wasn’t affected by altitude. You’ll probably feel funny your first few days here, if not longer. You might have a headache, feel tired, or get winded climbing the stairs. Be prepared to rest your first few days, and don’t trek until you’ve adjusted to the altitude (minimum 2-3 days). Your best bet for adjusting to the altitude? Drink coca tea. You’ll find it everywhere in Cusco. The coca plant provides stamina and endurance (it’s the base for cocaine, after all – minus all the chemicals), and will help alleviate some of your symptoms. But the main thing: you need time to acclimate – so prepare to rest, and stroll the streets of Cusco in order to get your bearings.
7. Bring comfortable shoes with good tread and a good sole. Shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy. If you’re trekking on the Inca Trail, or making your way to Rainbow Mountain: you’re going to need shoes with a good sole, that give you a good grip on the slippery mountain passes. You’ll even need good, non-skid shoes in Cusco, because the cobble-stoned streets in San Blas can be very slippery: I can’t tell you how many times I nearly fell because the bottoms of my shoes were too slick. Bottom line: you need good shoes in Peru, whether in the city or trekking. But don’t bring your best shoes: I threw out two pairs, as they simply got too muddy to salvage.
8. Bring layers. But don’t bring everything – leave room for souvenirs.
Weather in the Andes changes quickly, and frequently. On a single day in Cusco, it could go from chilly to sunny, to afternoon thunder showers, then back to blue skies and a clear sunset. The weather is highly unpredictable, in any season. So be prepared. Bring multiple layers, and listen to your tour guide’s suggestions. When I didn’t take my guide’s advice (one time), my ass was frozen for half a day. But don’t worry – and don’t bring everything. Cusco markets are wonderful, and filled with warm clothing, made from beautiful alpaca wool. Save some room in your bag for souvenirs, and fill in whatever items are missing for your trek.
9. Be prepared to tip the ladies with alpacas.
You’ll find these ladies all over Cusco: in the cobble-stoned streets of San Blas, up at Sacsayhuaman, and down in the main square. They’ll ask if you want to pose with their alpaca – but just in case you think it’s free, know that you’re expected to pay them at least a few soles for posing with them; this is how they make money. They’ll be wearing beautiful, brightly-colored outfits with full skirts, and fantastic hats. Going to Peru without taking at least one shot with them (or an alpaca) is almost like you didn’t go to Peru at all…
10. Be flexible. In Peru, you’ll most likely be taking a tour. Or several. Most people don’t go to Machu Picchu without a guide, so chances are, you’ll be taking a tour there. On these tours, you’re going to encounter: difficult conditions, rapidly changing weather, cool temperatures, hot temperatures, altitude sickness, and of course, you’ll need to deal with other travelers: some who’ve paid more than you, some who’ve paid less, some who can’t hike as fast as you can, and some you can’t keep up with. You get the picture. On the morning of your tour, your guide may be picking up ten other people, which could add extra hours to your day, and test your patience. If you’re a “let’s get on with it” kind of person – try booking a tour with fewer people; ask your guides beforehand. And even after talking to your guides, know that things in Peru are always subject to change. Very few tours went off exactly as planned. That seems to be the nature of Peru. If you know this in advance, and go in with a more flexible mindset, you’ll be a lot happier for it.
These are my “Top 10 Tips for Peru!” Have you been to Peru? Did I miss anything? What are your best tips for traveling in Peru? Let me know in the comments below!